TAKE THE RISK

Be strong and courageous! … Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you. [Deuteronomy 31:6a,8 (NLT)]

Let all who fear the Lord repeat: “His faithful love endures forever.” … The Lord is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me? [Psalm 118:4,6 (NLT)]

great egret
Judge Guido Calabresi regularly asks his Yale law students to imagine receiving an offer of an amazing invention that could improve people’s lives in every imaginable way. In exchange for this invention, however, the lives of at least 1,000 randomly selected young people would be taken every year. When asked if they’d accept the deal, his students inevitably conclude they wouldn’t. Calabresi then asks them the difference between that offer and the automobile. The very thing that allows us to travel, see loved ones, easily move products across the country, and do things that couldn’t be done otherwise, kills even more than that! Over 2,600 teens (16-20) accounted for auto accident fatalities in 2019 and, with over 46,000 car fatalities last year, more than 150 people of every age die each day because of a car. Be that as it may, we’re not about to give up driving!

Calebresi uses his example to illustrate how selective we are in our fears. We underestimate and accept chronic risks like riding in a car while overestimating prominent ones like a terrorist attack or plane crash. In actuality, rather than dying from either of those things, we’re more likely to die by choking on food or slipping in the shower or tub but, preferring bathing, eating, and even driving to the alternatives, we decide they’re worth the risk. On the other hand, after assessing the perils involved in things like free solo climbing, running with the bulls, or base jumping, most of us probably decide they’re not worth the risk.

In contrast, any risk we take in obedience to God always is worth it. Regardless of the danger, we must obediently accept the risks in the challenges and tasks He gives us. Think of what Abraham risked by packing up his family and leaving Haran for an unknown destination. Think of the risks taken by the midwives Shiphrah and Puah when they defied Pharaoh by letting boy babies live or the risk Moses took when he returned to Egypt and confronted Pharaoh. It was a huge risk when Gideon and his 300 men took on an army 400 times their size and when David faced Goliath with just a sling and stones. In spite of the risk, Esther approached the king, Daniel defied the law by praying, and the bleeding woman touched Jesus’ robe. Joseph of Arimathea took a risk when he asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and Peter and John risked imprisonment and worse when they defied the Council by continuing to share the gospel. When we search Scripture, we don’t find people who assessed the risks and played it safe. We find God’s version of bungee jumpers and wing-suit flyers—faith-filled and obedient risk takers.

Every God-sent risk comes with a God-sent promise. He will remain faithful to us and be present in the risk. He will protect and empower us and we’ll never need more than what He supplies. As followers of Jesus, we don’t walk by sight. In spite of the risks, we walk by faith because faith means we’re willing to risk anything for God!

Trust is faith that has become absolute, approved, and accomplished. When all is said and done, there is a sort of risk in faith and its exercise. But trust is firm belief; it is faith in full bloom. Trust is a conscious act, a fact of which we are aware. [E.M. Bounds]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:20 (NLT)]

…For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

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LETTING GO

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, 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. … Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. [Matthew 16:24-25,19:21-22 (NLT)]

Like any mother, I remember my children’s first steps. After hesitantly pulling themselves up and taking a few tentative steps, they soon realized they could cruise along while holding onto something or someone. Eventually, the tots became bold enough to let go of one piece of furniture and reach toward another to continue their adventures. A fair amount of parental urging, however, was usually needed to get them to finally let go of furniture, walls, or people and walk completely on their own. But, after taking those first solo steps, there was no stopping them. Off they went exploring a new, wonderful, and limitless world while I ended up chasing them and wondering why I’d been in such a rush have them walk.

Like a toddler learning to walk or the rich man in today’s verse, are we reluctant to let go of something that is keeping us from a new, wonderful, and limitless world in Christ? The rich man was unwilling to let go of his wealth—are we afraid to release our grip on possessions that encumber us? Could we value things more than a relationship with God? Is there an unhealthy relationship holding us from a relationship with Jesus or have we become too comfortable in old patterns of behavior or attitudes to face new ones? Are we hanging on to anger or loath to let go of resentment and forgive?

Are we simply afraid of the unknown—of trusting? Are we unwilling to cede control and give charge of our lives to Him? Are we more interested in our own version of happiness than God’s or more interested in following our plan than His? Are we afraid of what He might ask of us? Could we think we’re simply not worthy of His love? Once we release all that is holding us back, the Kingdom of God is waiting for us. It’s there for the asking! We just need to let go and take that first step to experience His unconditional love, forgiveness, hope, joy, and eternal life!

The difference between the toddler and the Christian, however, is that while the toddler learns to walk completely on his own, once a Christian releases all that is holding him back, he is never alone. God’s hand will hold and sustain him and he need never stumble or fall.

19th century evangelist (and publisher) D. L Moody called profit, pleasure, and preferment “the wicked man’s trinity.” What are we willing to release for the Holy Trinity?

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. [Philippians 3:7-9a (NLT)]

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JOHN THE BAPTIST – Part 2

On the following day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, there is the lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world! This is the man I meant when I said, ‘A man comes after me who is always in front of me, for he existed before I was born!’ It is true I have not known him, yet it was to make him known to the people of Israel that I came and baptised people with water.” [John 1:29-31 (PHILLIPS)]

mourning doveWe don’t know if John the Baptist recognized Jesus as his distant cousin when the two men met on the banks of the Jordan. Although they were the same age and their mothers were related in some way, with John in the desert and Jesus in Nazareth, it’s not likely they knew one another. If they did, Jesus probably seemed nothing more than an ordinary person to John at the time.

When Jesus walked toward him that day, however, John knew he was seeing someone who was more than a carpenter from Nazareth. In the same way that Elizabeth knew Mary was “the mother of my Lord” when the unborn John leapt in her womb, John recognized Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God. John seemed to have no doubt about Jesus when he testified to seeing the Spirit descend on Him like a dove and, throughout John’s ministry, he continued to point out Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”

After Jesus’ baptism, the gospel of John tells us that both John and Jesus carried on baptizing ministries. Perhaps out of jealousy, some of John’s disciples complained that more people were going to Jesus than coming to John. Again, John made it clear that he knew their different roles when he compared himself to the best man and Jesus to the bridegroom. “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” [3:30]

More than a year later, what happened to John’s confidence in Jesus’ identity? The man who once had been so sure about Jesus sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” [Mt 11:3] Languishing in Herod’s dungeon, John probably wondered why the conquering king from David’s line hadn’t released him. Why hadn’t Jesus taken the throne from Herod and Rome? Where was the end-time outpouring of the Spirit, the winnowing fork that would separate the chaff from the wheat, and the one who would burn the chaff with “never-ending fire”?

In truth, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that John and his disciples were expecting; nevertheless, He was the Messiah! John, however, didn’t understand that Jesus had to teach, heal, suffer, die, resurrect, and ascend before returning a second time and executing final judgment. At first, it seems that Jesus ducks John’s question with a summary of his miracles but John understood. The miracles Jesus listed fulfilled the messianic promises in Isaiah; they were proof that He was the Messiah. Jesus’ final message for John is a beatitude that encouraged the Baptizer (and the rest of us) not to stumble in our faith just because Jesus doesn’t fit our expectations.

While we may not be languishing in a dungeon as was John, we may be in languishing in grief, infertility, depression, illness, addiction, chronic pain, money issues, infidelity, or family problems. Just as Jesus didn’t meet John’s expectations, He doesn’t always meet ours. He didn’t free John from Herod’s prison and He may not free us from ours and, like John, we may have doubts. Faith and doubt, however, are not antonyms and doubt and unbelief are not synonyms! We can be people of faith and still have questions; like John, we never should be afraid to ask those questions. John went to Jesus for the answers and, like him, we should look to the words and works of Jesus Christ for our ours. We’ll discover, as did John, that the Lord’s credentials will hold up to the toughest of questions!

Jesus gave them this reply, “Go and tell John what you see and hear—that blind men are recovering their sight, cripples are walking, lepers being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being brought to life and the good news is being given to those in need. And happy is the man who never loses faith in me.” [Matthew 11:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM?

He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.” They didn’t understand what he was saying, however, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant. [Mark 9:31-32 (NLT)]

Although crucifixion probably began with the Assyrians and Babylonians, the first historical record is of Persia’s King Darius I crucifying 3,000 political opponents in 519 BC. Alexander the Great adopted the practice when he crucified 2,000 survivors of the siege of Tyre in 332 BC. In 88 BC, the Hasmonean king of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, crucified 800 Jewish rebels after killing the rebels’ wives and children in front of them. Following a massive slave revolt against Rome in 71 BC, 6,000 rebels were crucified along the Appian Way. The crosses stretched for miles and the bodies were left there as a clear message that any rebellion would end in a violent death. After the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C., a failed rebellion in Judea led to the crucifixion of 2,000 rebellious Jews.

While the Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, they had perfected it by the time of Jesus and the torture began long before the cross. The condemned were stripped naked, tied to a post, and flogged across the back, legs, and buttocks by Roman soldiers using whips called flagrums consisting of small pieces of bone and metal attached to a number of leather strands. The scourging left the victims’ skin ripped to the bone. If they survived the scourging, they were taunted and forced to carry the crossbar of their death instrument to the place of execution. According to Josephus, sometimes Roman soldiers further tortured the condemned by blinding them or cutting off a body part (like the tongue). Arms were nailed or strapped to the cross beam and feet to the upright. Once upright, a massive strain was put on the wrists, arms and shoulders often resulting in dislocated shoulder and elbow joints. The rib cage was constrained in a fixed position making it extremely difficult to exhale and impossible to take a full breath. While death came from suffocation, loss of body fluids, and multiple organ failure, it did not come quickly.

According to Josephus, crucifixion in Palestine was a common sight so Jesus’ disciples knew all too well what carrying a cross meant. They heard stories of Roman cruelty, saw the bloodied and battered condemned carrying their crosses, and passed by the dead bodies left decaying on crosses as a warning to those who dared challenge Rome. But, for all of their lives, these same men had been waiting for the promised Messiah to come and deliver them from Roman oppression.

Perhaps, when Jesus spoke of the cross, they thought He was referring to the many Jewish rebels who had carried their crosses for defying Rome. But, unlike those times, this time they had Jesus—the promised Messiah who finally would bring victory to the Jewish nation. Even though they believed Jesus was the Messiah, they didn’t fully understand what that meant. They thought He came to defeat Rome, rather than death, and to save a nation, not the world. Even after Jesus spoke of His death on the way to Jerusalem, we have James and John ignoring that prediction and asking Jesus for positions in His kingdom. They still pictured a political victory!

The disciples abandoned Him at His arrest and, in spite of His repeated warnings, were not prepared for His death. Surely, the man who raised Lazarus from the dead wasn’t going to die a criminal’s death, but He did and there was no doubt that He was dead. When the Sabbath was over, two disappointed followers returned to Emmaus, the women went to the tomb to anoint a dead body, and the frightened disciples were gathered in a locked room. They weren’t proclaiming Jesus that morning and didn’t even believe the women when told the tomb was empty. They were a defeated, disappointed, and frightened group of men.

So, what happened to change this group of disheartened disciples? What turned them into enthusiastic evangelists? What turned them into men who willingly followed Jesus to their own equally horrific deaths? It was seeing the risen Christ! May we always remember the truth of this message: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this. Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us, just as you see and hear today. [Acts 2:32-33 (NLT)]

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FLYING AWAY

Oh, that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest! I would fly far away to the quiet of the wilderness. [Psalm 55:6-7 (NLT)]

mourning doveEaster is over and “season” here in southwest Florida is winding down. More people are departing than arriving as our seasonal visitors return north, transport trucks laden with cars are moving up the interstate, and we finally can get a table at our favorite restaurant! It’s been said that there is no escape from death or taxes but we usually try to flee from just about every other unpleasant thing. Thinking their lives would be better here, our snowbirds came south to escape sub-zero temps, heating bills, and shoveling snow. While the climate here is nicer, our tropical paradise doesn’t come with a guarantee and none of us can flee from life’s uncertainties and problems.

Rather than escaping from winter weather, Naomi and Elimelech fled from Bethlehem to escape a famine. Instead of trusting God, they ran away to Moab, a pagan nation hostile to Israel. They intended staying briefly but remained for ten years during which time their sons broke Jewish law by marrying Moabite women. Moab, however, didn’t turn out to be the sort of get-away for which they hoped; sadly, Elimelech and both sons died. A widow with no sons in a hostile and pagan land was in worse straits than a family in their homeland during a famine. Having literally fallen out of the frying pan into the fire, Naomi decided to flee from Moab. At least this time, she went in the right direction—back to Bethlehem and the God of Israel!

We’re not much different from Naomi and some of our snowbirds; we want to escape to a place where life will be better, simpler, happier, easier, less costly, or more fun. Like Naomi, however, we’re likely to be disappointed because the baggage we’ve packed contains more than our clothes. Tucked in with the sunglasses and beach attire are things like problems at work, disappointments, worries, responsibilities, lack of faith, ill health, guilt, unmet deadlines, family strife, or financial problems. If we can’t physically flee from our troubles, some people try escaping through things like procrastination, alcohol, shopping, drugs, busyness, codependency, or denial. Disregarding the bills doesn’t get them paid, ignoring the lump won’t make it disappear, and taking a vacation, moving to a new house, or having another baby won’t fix a broken marriage. There is no way to escape from life’s problems, obligations, or consequences. We carry that baggage with us wherever we go.

In Naomi and Elimelech’s day (the time of the judges), famine was a test of faith but the couple missed what God planned for them by fleeing from their challenge. If we simply suffer through our troubles and allow them to be our master, we lose hope and become bitter, as did Naomi. Having resigned herself to being an embittered penniless widow with no grandchildren, upon her return to Bethlehem the woman whose name meant pleasant called herself Mara, meaning bitter. Rather than running from or resigning ourselves to our troubles, we can endeavor to change them by trusting God—exactly what Naomi and Elimelech failed to do. Instead, it was the Moabite woman Ruth who showed more faith in Israel’s God than did her in-laws. Trusting in Him, she bravely faced the challenges of widowhood by gleaning in the fields of Boaz. Ruth, however, wasn’t alone in those fields; God was at her side! No matter how bleak the situation may seem, there’s no need to flee when we remember that God is with us in our troubles.

Good people must never expect to escape troubles; if they do, they will be disappointed, for none of their predecessors have been without them. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time. [Psalm 34:17-19 (ESV)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

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SONGS OF VICTORY – MAUNDY THURSDAY 2022

Praise the Lord! Yes, give praise, O servants of the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever. Everywhere—from east to west—praise the name of the Lord. For the Lord is high above the nations; his glory is higher than the heavens. [Psalm 113:1-4 (NLT)]

The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. … Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 118:22-24,29 (NLT)

crucifixion - cathedral st. francis - santa feJesus knew that one would betray Him, another deny Him, and all desert Him. He knew the people He’d fed, healed, taught, and loved—the people who just a few days earlier had greeted him like a king with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna”—soon would prefer a thief over Him. Because of His anguished prayers later that evening in Gethsemane, we know that He knew the suffering and torment that lay ahead for him. Nevertheless, he sang with the disciples during their Passover meal that last night and it wasn’t a sorrow-filled psalm of lament.

Because it was a Passover feast, at least twice during the evening they would have paused to sing the traditional Passover hymns commemorating Israel’s escape from slavery. Known as the “Egyptian Hallel” and consisting of Psalms 113 through 118, they are joyful hymns of praise and thanksgiving. Hallel literally means praise and the Hebrew phrase Hallelu Yah, meaning “praise the Lord,” is found frequently in these beautiful psalms. The sages understood that Psalm 118, the climax of the Hallel, was about the Messiah and that night in Jerusalem, nearly 2,000 years ago, the Messiah Himself sang those very words. As the disciples gathered in that upper room celebrating Israel’s release from bondage in Egypt, did they realize they really were celebrating man’s release from bondage to sin?

The following day, after three hours on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” After the praise and thanks of the previous night, did He now doubt God? The question was rhetorical because Jesus knew exactly why He was suffering—He was bearing the weight of the sins of the world. What the gospels don’t include is the rest of Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus probably was reciting. Although the psalm begins with the complaint of unanswered prayers and abandonment by God, it is followed by a statement of confidence in Him. A complaint of being forsaken by men comes next but it also is followed by an expression of trust in the Lord.

Although the psalm was written by David, rather than reflecting his experiences, it prophetically presented the future suffering of the Messiah and the next several stanzas clearly depict the crucifixion of Jesus: people mocked and scorned Him, He was in pain, His strength ebbed, His mouth was dry, His hands and feet were pierced, He was dying, and His clothing was divided and lots cast for it. These lines are followed by a cry for deliverance.

By the psalm’s 22nd verse, however, its tone changes and the plaintive cries turn to praise and words of faithful confidence: “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people. Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!” The praise and promises continue throughout the rest of the psalm. These are not the words of a defeated man but the words of the promised Messiah, the Anointed One, the one who fulfilled the promise made to Abraham in Genesis that, “through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Out of what seemed to be defeat came triumph.

The One who’d sung “Hallelu Yah,” the previous night with his disciples again praised the Lord with His last words as He hung on the cross. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

The cross was two pieces of dead wood; and a helpless, unresisting Man was nailed to it; yet it was mightier than the world, and triumphed, and will ever triumph over it. [Augustus William Hare]

I will praise you in the great assembly. I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you. The poor will eat and be satisfied. All who seek the Lord will praise him. Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy. The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him. All the families of the nations will bow down before him. For royal power belongs to the Lord. He rules all the nations. Let the rich of the earth feast and worship. Bow before him, all who are mortal, all whose lives will end as dust. Our children will also serve him. Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord. His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born. They will hear about everything he has done. [Psalm 22:25-31 (NLT)]

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