AT THE CROSS

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:7-8 (NLT)]

Mt. Rigi crossWhen driving on I-70 near Effingham, Illinois, you can’t miss seeing the 198-feet tall, 180-ton cross erected near the highway. Once America’s largest cross, its builders call it “a beacon of hope” to the over 50,000 travelers who pass by it each day. In 2018, Effingham’s cross was outdone when a 218-feet high cross was erected in Walnut Shade, Missouri. Near Branson and visible from Highway 65, because of its height, the FAA requires beacons on it. These two crosses, however, are small when compared to the world’s largest cross—the 500-feet tall Holy Cross from the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos) in Spain or the 300-feet high Shrine of Valor in the Philippines.

Crucifixion was an extremely cruel form of execution that forced the condemned to suffer a prolonged agonizing death; it was such a horrible way to die that the Romans rarely used it on their own citizens. The disgrace and shame of crucifixion was used primarily for slaves and the worst kind of criminals and yet God allowed His only Son to endure the unbearable agony and horror of dying that way! Jesus’ torture began even before the cross when He was beaten with a flagrum (a short whip with pieces of bone and metal woven into its thongs), taunted by soldiers, had a crown of thorns driven into his head, beaten again and then dragged to his feet and made to carry the cross to the Golgotha. So battered, bloodied, and broken that He was unable to do so, Simon of Cyrene was called into duty. Once there, our Lord was stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross. Before long, Jesus would have been unable to support himself with his legs. As his body’s weight was transferred to his arms, his shoulders would have been pulled from their sockets and breathing would have become extremely difficult. Without a doubt, it was a horrific and brutal way to die.

You’d never expect to see an electric chair, guillotine, or gallows erected as a monument and I question why we identify ourselves with something as grotesque as this ancient instrument of torture. Nevertheless, we wear crosses around our necks, place them on our walls, hang them in churches, set them on steeples, etch them into headstones, put them up as roadside memorials, and erect giant crosses that can been seen for miles. How did a symbol of disgrace, defeat, and suffering become a beacon of hope, triumph, and salvation?

I suppose the facetious answer to “Why the cross?” is that it’s too difficult to depict the empty tomb, a symbol which certainly would better represent the resurrected Christ! Yet, when we focus only on the resurrection and empty tomb, it’s easy to forget the suffering that preceded it. The cross of Jesus Christ is as essential to our faith as the empty tomb. Throughout his ministry, Jesus knew exactly what He was doing and the pain He would endure but it never deterred Him from His mission. He willingly suffered for all of us and it was His suffering and death on the cross that frees us from the penalty of sin. The cross represents the pardon for which a condemned criminal awaits, the forgiveness that none of us deserve, and the sacrifice of a perfect man for an imperfect people.

Until the 4th century, Christianity was illegal. Because of its close association with Jesus, Christ’s followers were scared to use the cross as a symbol because it exposed them to contempt, danger, and persecution. Oddly, it was Emperor Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky that led to his conversion to Christianity in 312 AD. After seeing it, he vowed to worship no other god than the one the vision represented and he sought out church leaders to explain its meaning. The bishops explained that Jesus was the Son of God and the cross in Constantine’s vision symbolized Christ’s victory over death. In 313, Christianity was legalized and crucifixion was abolished. After that, rather than being a symbol of unspeakable horror, the cross became a symbol of victory.

I usually wear a small cross; when I place it around my neck, it reminds me that God sacrificed His only son for me and of the enormous price Jesus paid for my salvation. My life was purchased at a great cost to Him and the cross reminds me to whom it is I belong. It’s a daily reminder take up my cross and follow Him.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. [Matthew 16:24-25 (NLT)]

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FELIX

Sending for Paul, they listened as he told them about faith in Christ Jesus. As he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment, Felix became frightened. “Go away for now,” he replied. “When it is more convenient, I’ll call for you again.” [Acts 24:24b-25 (NLT)]

flame vineFelix was the governor of Judea from 52 to 58/59 AD. A Greek who became a freedman under the reign of Emperor Claudius, he’s described as a cruel, immoral, and corrupt governor by ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus. Tacitus called him “a master of cruelty and lust who exercised the powers of a king in the spirit of a slave.” As Judea’s governor (or Procurator), his job included procuring funds for Rome which Felix accomplished mercilessly while lining his pockets as well. That it took 470 soldiers to safely escort the Apostle Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea indicates the lawlessness of his time.

In Acts 24, we meet Felix as he conducts an inquiry into the Jews’ charges against Paul. After hearing the accusations of the Roman advocate Tertullus, Paul launched a strong defense against the false allegations. Perhaps uncomfortable with Paul’s reference to the righteous and unrighteous, Felix adjourned the case until the arrival of Lysias, the garrison commander who saved Paul’s life in Jerusalem.

A few days later, Paul again appeared before Felix. Joining the governor was Drusilla, his third wife and the granddaughter of Herod the Great. She’d left her husband, King Aziz of Emesa, for Felix and, like her uncle Herod Antipas (the one who beheaded John the Baptist), her marriage was illegal since she was neither divorced nor widowed. I imagine the shameless couple didn’t take kindly to the Apostle’s words as he spoke of righteousness, self-control, and the coming day of judgment. Frightened by Paul’s message, Felix sent him away, saying he’d call for him again when it was more convenient.

Although the governor frequently called for Paul to talk with him over the next two years, Felix never decided Paul’s guilt or innocence. Scripture tells us the corrupt man was looking for a bribe, but surely it didn’t take Felix two years to realize a payoff was not forthcoming. I suspect the governor was drawn to Paul’s message but, unwilling to repent, he couldn’t commit to the Way. The corrupt and powerful man was caught between two incompatible worlds—if he chose Christ, he would end up relinquishing his position, influence, ill-gotten wealth, and even his wife. Unwilling to do so, Felix thought himself a freedman, when, in fact, he was in bondage to his sinful way of life. Eventually recalled to Rome, Felix never decided about Paul or Jesus simply because it was inconvenient. Let us not make the same mistake!

The two sworn enemies of the soul are “Yesterday” and “Tomorrow.” Yesterday slays its thousands. Past sins plunge many into darkness and despair. … Tomorrow slays its tens of thousands. Vows, promises, resolutions are never fulfilled. “Some other time,” many say, when urged to repent and believe. They fail to realize that now is the acceptable time. [Herbert Lockyer]

Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. [Romans 6:16-18 (NLT)]

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PRIORITIES

And don’t be concerned about what to eat and what to drink. Don’t worry about such things. These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers all over the world, but your Father already knows your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need. [Luke 12:29-31 (NLT)]

bee on cloverIn writing about keeping the main thing the main thing, I mentioned the sisters Martha and Mary. Hospitality was highly valued in Jewish life and, as the host, Martha’s character and reputation depended on how well she managed her household and served her guests. Offering hospitality to a famous teacher was a great honor and, to show her devotion to Jesus, Martha seemed determined to make the most of it by preparing a lavish feast for Him. Unlike her sister, the contemplative Mary defied the customs of her day; rather than helping in the kitchen, she took the place of a disciple and sat at Jesus’ feet

Instead of keeping her eye on the main thing—which was Jesus—Martha was distracted by all that she was doing. The word usually translated as distracted is periespato. Meaning to be drawn away, troubled, or over-burdened, this is the only time it was used in the New Testament. The King James translation of this word as “cumbered” probably is a better picture of her state of mind. It wasn’t that a distracted Martha forgot to put out cups for the wine. She was weighed down and encumbered because she’d saddled herself with things of secondary importance and lost sight of the main thing.

Not needing an elaborate banquet or a perfectly set table, Jesus told Martha not to be concerned over the details. Explaining that there only was one thing about which to be concerned, He said Mary had found it. The exact identity of that one thing, however, is unstated. We understand Jesus’ words to mean that the Kingdom of God takes precedence over anything in the house, that sitting at the master’s feet and listening to Him is more important than chores, and that the Lord has first claim on our time.

Martha often is criticized for her concern with earthly matters while Mary is praised for her concern with spiritual ones. Let’s remember, however, that Jesus never said Martha had chosen something bad—just that Mary had chosen something better. In a way, these two sisters illustrate the two approaches to the Christian life mentioned by the Apostle James: faith and works. Rather than being mutually exclusive, they are complementary. Worship should lead to service, not replace it, just as service should lead to worship. Just as Martha lost sight of being with Jesus while serving Him, we must never allow our work for Him to eclipse our relationship with Him.

Our love for and service to the Lord must be intertwined and we shouldn’t neglect the one for the other. Nevertheless, when our work for Him takes away from spending time with Him, we must choose the better thing—being with Him is more important than serving Him. Let’s keep the main thing—our relationship with Jesus—the main thing.

Everything begins with the right priorities, and right priorities begin with God. [Woodrow Kroll]

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:4-5 (NLT)]

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NEVER ASKED

monarch butterflyAnd if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. [1 Peter 3:15b-16 (NLT)]

In the epistle we know as 1 Peter (written between 60 and 64 AD), the Apostle offered encouragement to early Christians who were encountering persecution for their unorthodox beliefs. Rather than being intimidated by people or afraid of their hostility, Peter counseled them to acknowledge Jesus as the Lord of their lives and ruler of their hearts. Although that acknowledgement was in their hearts, he warned these believers to be ready with their answer should they could be called upon to explain the source of their hope and faith. The Greek word used was apologia which meant a speech in defense and was the term for making a legal defense in court. As if they were in a court of law, Christ’s followers were to be ready with a well-reasoned reply that adequately addressed the issue at hand while doing it in a humble and respectful way. Throughout his letter, the Apostle also addressed the conduct of Christians regarding their relationship with God, government, business, society, family, and the church. He advised his readers to live their lives in a way that would prove their opponents’ accusations unfounded.

I used to wonder how I would answer someone if they wanted to know the reason for my faith or the source of my hope. Should I keep religious tracts in my purse or a couple of pertinent Bible verses handy? I then remembered an old joke about the little boy who asked his father where he came from. The dad hemmed and hawed as he struggled with a rather long-winded and confusing explanation of the birds and bees. When done, the little boy looked at his father quizzically and said, “I was just wondering since Billy says he’s from Baltimore.” As the father learned, sometimes the simplest answer is the best one. If ever asked, the only explanation I’d need is that my hope comes from Jesus, from trusting in God’s promises, and from my conviction that God’s plans for me are for good and not disaster. Moreover, if and when such a question arises, I’m sure the Holy Spirit will be there to put His words in my mouth.

Thinking about Peter’s words, I realize that nobody has ever asked about the source of my hope or reason for my faith. While I’ve had people compliment the little diamond cross I usually wear, no one has ever asked why I wear it. I’ve had people ask where I purchased an outfit, who cuts my hair, what make of shoes I’m wearing, the kind of camera I use, and even the brand perfume I wear. Although I’ve been a walking advertisement for Tommy Bahama, Mimi’s Salon, Naot Shoes, Canon, and Prada’s Infusion d’Iris, I doubt that my devotion to Jesus is as discernable.

Perhaps, instead of worrying about how I would answer a question about the source of my faith, hope or love, I should be more concerned with why I’ve never been asked such a question. I wonder if it’s because, while my appearance (and even my scent) are evident, my faith in Jesus, my hope in God’s promises of forgiveness and salvation, and my love for God and my neighbor aren’t nearly so obvious in the way I conduct my life. They should be!

Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:35 (NLT)]

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.[Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

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A GOOD SERMON

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke and encourage your people with good teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. … Work at telling the Good News and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. [2 Timothy 4:2-4,5b (NLT)]

fish vreek falls - COIn a Dennis the Menace comic strip (drawn by Marcus Hamilton), Dennis is sitting next to his father at church. As their offering envelope is dropped in the plate, he asks his father, “Can we get a refund if the sermon isn’t that good?” For Dennis and many church-goers, a good sermon is one that is pleasant and entertaining. Unlike movies and concerts, however, sermons aren’t meant to be entertainment. The Christian church is neither the “church of what’s happening now” nor the church of “anything goes.” While many messages can make us feel good, feeling good is not the purpose of the Good News.

As much as the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and others looked forward to hearing from the Apostle Paul, I doubt any of the early churches were entertained by his letters while they were read to the congregation. While he always had words of encouragement for the church, the intense Apostle appears to have had no sense of humor and his words were often ones of conviction and correction. False ideologies were corrected, sins of immorality were confronted, and proper behavior was addressed. Corinthian church members probably squirmed in their seats when Paul’s letters took them to task for infighting, abusing the Lord’s Supper, and their wanton behavior. When Paul told the Galatians they’d perverted the gospel of grace, surely not everyone welcomed his words. He unreservedly admonished the new churches for such things as false beliefs, divisiveness, lax morals, and questionable motives in preaching.

Although Paul’s words in his epistles are knowledgeable, articulate, and passionate, he admitted that he was a poor speaker [2 Cor. 11:6]. Some of the Corinthians even complained about his weak appearance and worthless speeches! [2 Cor. 10:10] Paul wasn’t an eloquent orator or an imposing figure and he probably wouldn’t have won a popularity with his messages. Nevertheless, apart from Jesus Himself, no one influenced the history of the Christian church more than Paul. Because of his words, the early church not only survived but thrived through persecution and troubled times. The 21st Century church faces many of those same problems—internal conflict, hypocrisy, questionable doctrine, arrogance, and a dumbing down instead of raising up. Without some tough love from our pulpits, can we survive and thrive?

Watered-down “feel good” messages that don’t condemn sin or challenge us to grow more like Christ are not the sort of epistles Paul would have written. They certainly aren’t the sort of messages Jesus gave. Yes, He spoke of peace, love and forgiveness, but Jesus also made people uneasy when He spoke of things like sacrifice, hypocrisy, obedience, repentance, taking up one’s cross, future persecution, and God’s judgment. With a sermon like that, Dennis might choose to demand a refund.

Let’s never forget that a good pastor is as zealous as was the Apostle Paul. His job is to shepherd his flock—to warn, correct, educate, rescue, convict, set goals, lead, and protect as well as to comfort, nurture and encourage. His job is not to make us happy; it is to guide us on the path to salvation. His job isn’t to preach only good news; it is to preach the gospel which is the Good News of Christ. It may not always be the news we want to hear; nevertheless, it is the news we need to hear.

It is far better to be plain in speech, yet walking openly and consistently with the gospel, than to be admired by thousands, and be lifted up in pride… [Matthew Henry]

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. [Philippians 4:11-13 (NLT)]

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FABACEAE

fabaceaeI appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. [1 Corinthians 1:10 (NLT)]

Controversy within the Church didn’t stop with the creeds and we continue to get bogged down with disagreements over things like purgatory, open or closed communion, the observance of Lent or saints’ days, the way communion should be received, and women in the clergy. Whether we sprinkle or do full immersion, worship on Saturday or Sunday, kneel or stand to pray, stand or sit to sing, or use wine, grape juice, thin wafers, matzo, or Wonder bread for Communion probably are of no real significance to God. Rather than division, He just wants our praise and thanksgiving, our love and obedience, our faith, our prayers, and our witness.

The Christian church, with its three distinct branches of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox that are separated into more subgroups reminds me of the Fabaceae plant family. Like the Church, it has three distinct branches: Faboideae, Caesalpinioideae, and Mimosoideae and each branch is divided into more subgroups. Typically having pea-like flowers, the largest branch, Faboideae, include plants like soybeans, peanuts, peas, and lentils. Usually having 5 distinct petals, the Caesalpinioideae branch has plants like the showy Royal Poinciana and Hong Kong orchid trees. With flowers that look like powder puffs, the Mimosoideae are the smallest branch and includes the acacia, mimosa, and sensitive plant.

While there are around 18,000 different species in the three branches of Fabaceae, it’s estimated that there are over 45,000 different Christian denominations within the three branches of the Church! Within the Protestant branch, for example, we find subgroups like Pentecostals, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans (who are divided into more subgroups like the ELCA, Wisconsin Evangelical, and Missouri Synod)!

While their distinct flower types are what distinguish the three branches of Fabaceae from one another, it is slight differences in doctrine, dogma, emphasis, or style of worship that distinguish the three branches and their various subgroups of Christianity. What unites the Fabaceae into one family is their pods and what unites all of these Christian denominations into one family is their agreement regarding the essentials of Christianity. They all are part of the Body of Christ.

Even though they don’t look much alike, all of the plants pictured in today’s message are Fabaceae and descendants of the same first pea seed God planted millions of years ago. Like the Fabaceae, Christians also trace their beginnings to the same seed: Jesus. While the Fabaceae take root in the soil, Christians are rooted in the Word of God. Instead of the sun’s light and photosynthesis, it’s the Son’s light and the power of the Holy Spirit that makes us grow. In spite of their differences, all Fabaceae bear similar fruit in their pods. In spite of Christianity’s diversity, like Fabaceae, Christians are to bear similar fruit, as well. Rather than peas or beans, however, it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Rather than focusing on our differences, let us focus on our unity in Christ. May we always remember Paul’s words to the Romans that, “We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.” [12:15]

We need not all agree, but if we disagree, let us not be disagreeable in our disagreements. [M.R. DeHaan]

Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all. [Ephesians 4:3-6 (NLT)]
fabaceae pods

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