FEARING

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. [Romans 3:23-25 (NLT)]

I thought of Mr. Fearing in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress when a friend told me about her mother who was nearing the end of her life. Although a Christian, she believed there was something in her distant past for which she couldn’t be forgiven. Even though her family reassured her that Jesus died for her sins and God is faithful to His promises, she still seemed fearful of taking that final journey home.

In Bunyan’s tale, Mr. Fearing’s story is told by his guide to the Celestial City, Mr. Great Heart. Even though Fearing escaped the Swamp of Despondence, he seemed to carry that despondence in his mind everywhere he went. When Fearing came to the gate where it said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” he was afraid to knock. Sure that he was unworthy of entrance, he stood back and allowed others to take his place whenever the door opened. When he eventually had the gumption to timidly knock, Fearing fainted in unbelief when the door was opened for him.

Accompanied by Mr. Great Heart, Mr. Fearing continued on his journey. He effortlessly hiked straight up the Hill of Difficulty, showed no fear when he encountered lions, and easily walked down into the Valley of Humiliation. When the travelers had to pass through Vanity Fair (a place ruled by Beelzebub and filled with evil temptations), Mr. Fearing had no difficulty staying on the Way and, while others fell asleep in the Enchanted Ground (the land of spiritual lethargy), Fearing stayed alert. But, believing himself unworthy of God’s grace, his shame kept him from enjoying the blessings God provided on the journey and caused him to be afraid of death and the journey’s end.

Mr. Fearing wasn’t afraid of difficulties, danger, or challenges to his faith but, because he had doubts about his welcome in the Celestial City, he was terrified of death and Hell. His fear was that of his final acceptance—that God would reject him! Sure that he’d drown and never see the face of the King he’d traveled so far to meet, he was afraid to cross the River of Death: the only way to the Celestial City. Both Fearing and my friend’s mother eventually crossed that river and were welcomed because all of their sins had been forgiven.

As Good Heart related the story of Mr. Fearing to Christiana and her fellow pilgrims, they shared their fears about their own salvation—fears that many of us may share. Bunyan experienced this same fear; in his autobiography, he said that early in his conversion Satan tempted him to unbelief by declaring his sins unpardonable. Bunyan’s reply to the enemy simply was, “Well, I will pray.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to believe in God’s extravagant grace: that, as soiled and unworthy as we are, we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Let us remember—the burden of our sins fell off at the foot of the cross! God didn’t sacrifice His son for us because we deserved it; He did out of love for us! Jesus Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not saints! When we fear our welcome in God’s heavenly realm, let us do as did John Bunyan: let us pray!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (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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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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HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST! – Palm Sunday

So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” [John 12:13 (ESV)]

royal palmIt was the week before the Passover and Jerusalem was already filled with pilgrims who’d come for the celebration. News of the rabbi who’d brought Lazarus back to life was spreading through the crowd. As they prepared to celebrate their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, they hoped for the promised Messiah who would deliver them from the tyranny of Rome. Could Jesus be the one?

Jesus rode into the city on a donkey as the people waved palm branches, a traditional symbol of victory for the Israelites. As they had done years earlier when Jehu was declared king, the people laid their cloaks on the ground in front of Him. Sort of like laying out the red carpet, this wasn’t the way a rabbi was greeted; it was the way a conqueror or king was welcomed. Indeed, Jesus was both conqueror and king, but the people didn’t understand what He’d conquer or that His kingdom extended far beyond Judea.

There were shouts of “Hosanna” from the crowd.  A Hebrew word, “Hosanna” combines yasha, meaning “save” or “deliver,” and anna, meaning “beg” or “beseech.” It was an appeal for deliverance much like, “Help me!” or, “I beg you to save me!” We might shout “Hosanna!” if we’d fallen out of a boat into the raging sea but, because “Hosanna!” was also an expression of joy and praise for deliverance, we also might shout it when someone pulled us back to safety. Those shouts of “Hosanna” tell us the people wanted to be saved and saw the promise of deliverance in Jesus.

They shouted “Hosanna!” but for the wrong reasons. Seeking deliverance from the tyranny of the Roman Empire rather than the tyranny of sin, they saw a champion who would free them from Rome’s rule, not Satan’s. They wanted a mighty warrior who would conquer Rome, not one who would conquer death! Preferring to kill their enemies than love them, they sought revenge for their oppression, not a Prince of Peace who preached forgiveness. They wanted a king who would establish a new kingdom on earth, not the Kingdom of God. They wanted a Messiah on their terms, not God’s.

They didn’t understand, but we do! Let us continue to sing our “Hosannas” in praise and thanksgiving for our deliverance!

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. [Zechariah 9:9 (ESV)]

Save us, we pray, O Lord!  O Lord, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  We bless you from the house of the Lord. [Psalm 118:25-26 (ESV)]

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FACING THE MUSIC (Philemon)

Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. [Romans 6:18 (NLT)]

swamp milkweedPhilemon was a wealthy member and leader of the church in Colossae and Onesimus was his slave. Apparently after stealing from his master, Onesimus ran away and ended up in Rome. After finding his way to the Apostle Paul, who was under house arrest at the time, Onesimus became a Christian. The one page book of Philemon is simply a personal letter to the runaway slave’s owner pleading the man’s case.

Although Onesimus had become a new man in Christ, both he and Paul knew that, before the runaway slave could begin his new life as a Christian, he had to finish his old one with Philemon. As a fugitive slave, he’d always be looking over his shoulder wondering if and when he might be caught. He wouldn’t even be at liberty to openly share his new faith or be active in the church for fear that Philemon would learn of his whereabouts. Paul sent the remorseful slave back to Philemon with a letter asking his forgiveness and offering to make any financial restitution necessary.

I can’t help but think of steps eight and nine in many twelve step programs. Step eight is to make a list of the people who have been harmed and be willing to make amends and step nine is to make direct amends wherever possible, except when doing so would harm them or others. Making amends is a delicate process; sometimes it can be done directly, such as repaying a debt or making a repair. Sometimes, however, direct amends are impossible; neither lost lives nor stolen innocence can ever be returned. Moreover, there are times direct amends are unwise—some secrets are meant to be kept and one’s conscience should never be cleared at the expense of others. When direct amends can’t be made, then indirect amends are. Nevertheless, in all cases, part of making amends is facing the consequences for our behavior. The consequences facing Onesimus were serious: a thieving runaway slave could have been killed. Nevertheless, trusting in God (and Paul’s letter), Onesimus returned to Philemon to “face the music” and make amends. It certainly couldn’t have been an easy choice for him.

Onesimus’ story reminds me of news stories I’ve seen over the years of individuals who failed to resolve their past before starting new lives. Perhaps they arrived here illegally, evaded arrest, jumped bail, escaped jail, or remarried without benefit of divorce and managed to go undiscovered for many years. In some cases, they became productive citizens and may have married and had families. Then, through a routine traffic stop, a picture posted on line, or a chance meeting, their lives come tumbling down around them. Their past is discovered and they end up deported, in legal difficulties, or even in prison.

Unfinished business can plague us all; not living in the past doesn’t mean ignoring it. When we don’t deal with yesterday’s unresolved issues, the past can end up defining us. Without returning to Philemon, in spite of his new found faith, Onesimus would always be a runaway slave. We’re not runaway slaves but could we be slaves to the past? Are there problems we have escaped but not really resolved? Are there any loose ends that need tying up or amends to be made? Are there people we need to face or issues that need to be sorted out before we can truly be free of yesterday? We will continue to be troubled by the past until we face it; only then will we be able to live our new lives as free men and women.

Make peace with your past so it doesn’t screw up the present. [From “God Never Blinks” by Regina Brett]

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

Fools make fun of guilt, but the godly acknowledge it and seek reconciliation. [Proverbs 14:9 (NLT)]

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