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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ALL IN THE PLAN

“Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.” So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days. Finally, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” [John 11:4-7 (NLT)]

gardeniaJesus was in Perea on the east side of the Jordan, about 18 miles away from Bethany, when he learned that Lazarus lay on his sickbed. Why didn’t He immediately return when told that his dear friend had taken ill? Although the timeline is unclear, it was a day’s journey for the messengers and Lazarus was probably dead by the time they reached Jesus with their news. Nevertheless, even though Jesus knew that He’d miraculously resurrect the dead man, He seemed strangely unconcerned. Why didn’t Jesus return immediately to comfort Martha and Mary and cut short their time of mourning by performing His miracle? Instead, He waited two more days before returning; by the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days and was in his tomb.

Jesus never seemed to do anything by accident and this delay was deliberate. In fact, he told the disciples “For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there, for now you will really believe.”[John 11:15] The Midrash, an ancient commentary on Hebrew Scriptures, helps explain why Jesus waited before returning to Bethany. There was a Jewish belief that the soul remained in close proximity to its dead body, trying to reenter it, for three days. It was not until the fourth day, when the body started to decompose that the soul finally departed. 2nd century Rabbi Shimon Bar Kappara explained that, “Until three days [after death] the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back [into the body]; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons it [the body].” [Genesis Rabbah 100:7]

Jesus had already raised two people from the dead. Both miracles, however, had been within that three day window when it was believed that the soul was still present and unbelievers had discredited His power. The resurrection of Jairus’s daughter was done privately and immediately after her death. The widow’s son was resurrected during his funeral procession which was probably within a day of his death. The raising of Lazarus, however, was going to be an in-your-face all-out undeniable miracle. A respected member of the community, Lazarus had been dead four days and, without a doubt, the man was dead and not coming back! His remains had started to decompose and the lingering soul would have departed. Not only would Jesus raise him from the dead, but Lazarus would be able to walk out of his tomb unassisted. All of this would occur in full view of the many people who’d come to mourn with the sisters when, according to Jewish belief, resurrection was no longer possible. By waiting four days, there could be no denying this miracle. Jesus wasn’t being cold or unresponsive when He didn’t come immediately. He had a far bigger and greater plan and deliberately staged this scene for “the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.” Indeed, Jesus was the resurrection and the life!

John’s gospel tells us that after the raising of Lazarus, the Jewish leaders plotted the death of Jesus. How ironic that, by giving life to Lazarus, Jesus set in motion the very circumstances that would lead to His own death.

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.” [John 11:25-26 (NIV)]

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A MATTER OF CHOICE

Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. [Luke 1:38 (NLT)]

great blue heronYesterday, when writing about the angel’s visit to Mary, I came upon some articles by women who take offense at the story of Jesus’s conception. Interpreting Mary’s response as involuntary, they picture the Annunciation of our Lord as some weird sort of a supernatural rape. This is inconsistent both with Scripture and God as we know Him. The angel didn’t say, “Surprise, you’re pregnant!” and leave. Read the words as reported by Luke; Gabriel told Mary what would happen, not what had already occurred. It was only after Mary asked how the angel’s words would be fulfilled and she accepted God’s invitation to motherhood that the angel departed.

The God we know from Scripture is one of choice: it was He who gave us free will. Although God pursues, seeks and invites us, it remains our choice to accept or reject Him. Jesus called the people to follow Him but not everyone who heard His invitation did. When the people of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave, that’s exactly what He did. When Jesus told the parables about banquets to which the invited guests refused to come, the host accepted their refusals and simply invited others to the feast. God gave us free will and He will not violate this gift. No one, not even the virgin Mary, is ever forced to partake of God’s grace.

Although some would have us think that Mary was powerless in Gabriel’s presence, she was the one with the power. It was Mary who would decide whether or not to accept God’s call. Writer Mark Ballenger refers to God as a “sovereign gentleman,” and, like a true gentleman, He waited for Mary’s verbal consent before the Holy Spirit came upon her!

When feminists object to Mary saying she was the Lord’s servant, they are confusing being servile (mindlessly doing what is ordered) with consciously choosing to serve. There is nothing demeaning or weak about being a servant. Jesus was God and yet he called himself a servant and laid aside his majesty to selflessly serve mankind and die on the cross.

Mary was far more than an incubator for God. We honor her not because she had the womb in which Jesus grew; we honor her because she freely chose to be a faithful and obedient servant to God. God could not have carried out His plan of salvation without Mary’s consent and cooperation. Let us remember that God cannot continue to carry out the plans for His Kingdom without ours. Like Mary, we are called to be God’s servants. Whether or not we accept His invitation, is entirely up to us.

Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me. [John 12:25-26 (NLT)]

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MARCH 25 – HAPPY NEW YEAR

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

spiderwortIf we were living in England between 1155 and 1752, today would be New Year’s Day! Although the historical year would have begun January 1, March 25 was the day the civil or legal year began. Since England and its colonies used the Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar) they celebrated the spring equinox on March 25. Starting a new year in the dead of winter seemed counter-intuitive and the first day of spring, the season of new growth, seemed more logical and the perfect day to start a new year. The Julian calendar, however, had miscalculations (including the spring equinox) and was replaced in 1752 by the Gregorian one (named after Pope Gregory); that, however, is another story.

For those in liturgical churches, today is also known as the Annunciation of our Lord and commemorates the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary. This feast was celebrated as far back as the fourth or fifth century and its March date was set in the seventh century. For the English, celebrating Christ’s first presence as a human being on this day was another good reason for starting the year on March 25.

The story of Jesus didn’t begin in Bethlehem; it began in Nazareth nine months prior to that night. It was when Mary became pregnant that God became incarnate: a human being made of flesh and blood. Granted, He was but two cells fused together but that zygote had everything in it to become Jesus Christ. It divided again and again, the embryo grew, the cells began to differentiate, and the fetus developed everything needed to live outside His mother. Since sin-filled man was incapable of going to God, our perfect God came to us. That baby boy forming in Mary’s womb was the promised Messiah!

While Jesus’s incarnation is the core of our Christianity, it is difficult to understand and, for some people, impossible to believe. Nevertheless, the God who spoke the world into creation, created night and day, scattered the stars through the sky, filled the oceans with water, and populated the earth with living plants and animals could certainly manage to plant a fetus in a womb without going through the ordinary steps. When Mary assented to God’s will, Jesus was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit!

Of course, since we really don’t know when Jesus’s birth took place, we don’t know the date of His conception. Nevertheless, having grown up in a liturgical church, I find a richness and strength in remembering and celebrating events in the life of Christ (even if the dates are wrong). While Advent is a beautiful season of anticipation both of Christ’s birth and his second coming, Luke’s gospel account of Gabriel’s visit to Mary seems more appropriate in this spring season of new beginnings than in winter, a time of dormancy. On what I hope to be a beautiful spring day for you, please take the time to read the account of this blessed miracle found in Luke 1:28-36. Remember to thank God for entering the world as man to save humanity.

Without question, this is the great mystery of our faith: Christ was revealed in a human body and vindicated by the Spirit. He was seen by angels and announced to the nations. He was believed in throughout the world and taken to heaven in glory. [1 Timothy 3:16 (NLT)]

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COME LIKE A CHILD

mute swansHe said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14-16 (NLT)]

When reading Jesus’s words about children and the Kingdom of God, a common misconception is that becoming Christian means committing something like intellectual suicide. Since we also are told to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, I doubt that we’re being told not to use our God-given intellect. So, what does it mean to become like a child? For a start, those children didn’t come to Jesus for healing, relief from Roman occupation, food, hidden treasure, or even salvation. They came out of love and love is what should bring us to Him, as well.

Faith in God is the foundation of His Kingdom and that faith is expressed through submission to His will. Dependent on their parents, children have faith in their provision and decisions; they understand the necessity of submitting to their parents’ will (at least the children in Jesus’s day did). Adults, however, tend to skepticism rather than faith and self-will rather than God’s will. Unlike adults, children are eager to learn and humble enough to admit that there is much they don’t know or understand. Pure and innocent, they are free of cynicism, arrogance, prejudice, preconceived notions and inflexible minds.

It’s a mistake to consider children unthinking; they just think a different way than do adults. For example, take Richard Scarry’s Lowly Worm character about whom I wrote yesterday. Kids have no problem understanding how a worm with one foot and no arms can dress himself, open a door, tie shoelaces, or eat with a fork. Adults, however, tend to overthink things. They wonder how Lowly, having only one foot, can possibly walk or kick a ball. In the same way, adults want a scientific explanation for how (in the days before in vitro) a virgin could give birth or why Lazarus wasn’t bloated, stinky, and covered with maggots after being dead four days.

Scarry’s imaginary worm makes sense to children, not because they’re mindless but because children accept things in their simplicity. Unlike adults, they’re not looking for hidden meanings or ulterior motives. They’re not fools; they know real worms don’t wear clothes, go to school, or live with a cat family but they also understand that Lowly isn’t like other worms. Jesus was clothed in a man’s body but He was no more like other men than Lowly is like other worms. Jesus was God with skin and, for the One who spoke the universe into existence, the tasks of raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, changing water into wine, or stilling storms were a breeze. The fixed minds of adults, however, often are unwilling to accept that God (the author of the universe) and Richard Scarry (the author of children’s books) work by a totally different set of rules in the worlds they’ve created: rules that often defy explanation.

God isn’t asking us to commit intellectual suicide or leave our brains at the church door. He’s asking us to love, believe, trust, accept, and submit to Him the way a child would. Although Jesus told us to come as a child, please remember that He never said He wanted us to stay that way!

Their [the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers] 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. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. [Ephesians 4:12-15 (NLT)]

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A MOUNTAINTOP EXPERIENCE – THE TRANFIGURATION

Chapel of the Transfiguration - Grand Teton National Park

Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. [Matthew 5:17 (NLT)]

In the middle of Grand Teton Nation Park is a small log church, the Chapel of the Transfiguration. Built in 1925, it offers a beautiful view of the majestic Teton Mountain Range through a window behind the altar. When people gaze out that window, I wonder how many think of the amazing event—the transfiguration—that took place on another mountaintop more than 2,000 years ago.

About a week after Peter called Jesus “the Messiah sent from God!” and Jesus explained that He’d suffer, die, and be raised, Peter, John and James accompanied Him up a mountain to pray. While tradition says it was Mt. Tabor, both its height (only 1,800 feet) and location make that unlikely. While not as high as the 13,000 ft. Grand Teton, Mt. Hermon’s height (9,000 feet) and location make it the more likely location of this glorious event.

While praying, Jesus made a dramatic change: his face transformed and his clothes turned white and gleaming. Having only seen Jesus in his human form, His now glorious presence gave the disciples a greater understanding of his deity. Two men then appeared and spoke with Jesus about his exodus (or departure) from this world. They were Moses and Elijah—representing, at least symbolically, the Law and the Prophets. Jesus, as we know, was their fulfillment.

Amazed at what was the ultimate mountaintop experience, Peter foolishly suggested building three shelters for Jesus and his visitors. That, of course, was a mistake; neither the lawgiver not the prophet were Jesus’s equal. Furthermore, that Peter wanted this glorious event to continue would have kept Jesus from the mission He’d already explained to His disciples. A cloud then enveloped them all and a voice, unmistakably that of God, said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.” [Matthew 17:5] The “Listen to him,” made it clear that the One who was new would be replacing the old way. After this powerfully dramatic event, the four men found themselves alone on the mountaintop.

Jesus commanded the disciples to keep silent as to what had taken place until after his resurrection. Looking for a Messiah who’d be a political deliverer rather than one who was a suffering servant, the world wouldn’t understand what had transpired. Even the disciples, the men who’d walked with Him for three years, didn’t fully understand the meaning of their mountaintop experience. It was not until Jesus joined them in that locked room on Easter that they finally understood that He’d come to conquer death rather than Romans.

The transfiguration was a foretaste of things yet to come and, someday, we all will see the fullness of Christ’s glory as did Peter, James, and John. Although Jesus told His disciples to keep his identity a secret, let us not forget that was only a temporary request. He later told them to “make disciples of all the nations.”

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)]

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