IT’S TERMINAL

Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies—so the living should take this to heart. … A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. [Ecclesiastes 7:2,4 (NLT)]

ghost bikeIt’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes. This maxim traces its beginnings back to 1914 and World War 1 when an English newspaper quoted a chaplain at a memorial service for a fallen soldier: “Tell the Territorials and soldiers at home that they must know God before they come to the front if they would face what lies before them. We have no atheists in the trenches. Men are not ashamed to say that, though they never prayed before, they pray now with all their hearts.” When we joined our northern church, it was during the Viet Nam War. I remember a young man in our new member class who’d drawn a low number in the draft lottery. Expecting to be in combat within the year, he confessed wanting to “get right” with God before that time came. Apparently, even the threat of a foxhole is enough to cause some people to rethink their relationship with the Almighty.

Whenever we pass a roadside memorial or ghost bike like the one in today’s picture, I’m reminded of the precariousness of life. There’s a memorial at a corner near us for a young man who died there several years ago. Decorated seasonally by family and friends, it’s a poignant reminder of how unexpectedly a life can be extinguished and how much he is missed. Unlike the fellow in our church class, that young man, the victim of a drunk driver who ran a red light, didn’t have a low lottery number to warn him how near to death he was.

“A funeral provides an indispensable perspective on the universally terminal condition,” said the Reformation Study Bible notes for today’s verses from Ecclesiastes 7. Indeed, everyone is born with the incurable disease of death. I’m of an age where the many notes of condolence I’ve written these last few months make me think I should buy sympathy cards in bulk. These are dark thoughts for an early spring day, yet far too many of us choose to ignore our inevitable fate. Death is the one appointment that none of us will miss. While we have little control over the when of that day, we do have control over how we choose to prepare for the inevitable.

In both this world and the next, what happens after we die depends entirely on what we do now. Once laid out in the mortuary, it’s too late to write a will or accept Jesus. When we’re placed in a casket, we won’t be able to mend fences or make amends and we’ll have missed the opportunity to get right with God. By the time we’re on the other side of the sod or turned to ash in a crematorium, we can’t express our love and forgiveness or decide to accept God’s saving grace.

The problem with foxhole conversions, of course, is that once out of the trenches, they rarely last. Moreover, if we don’t make it out alive, by waiting until the very end to accept Jesus, we’ve missed out on the abundant Kingdom life He offers that begins while we’re here. Getting right with God long before we enter either foxhole or hospice care seems to be the wiser choice. The good news for the saved is that dying doesn’t mean departing from the land of the living. For those who know Jesus, death means departing from the land of the dying for the land of the living.

Depend upon it, your dying hour will be the best hour you have ever known! Your last moment will be your richest moment, better than the day of your birth will be the day of your death. It shall be the beginning of heaven, the rising of a sun that shall go no more down forever! [Charles Spurgeon]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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THE HOLY TEMPLE (Cornerstone – part 3)

Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem, a firm and tested stone. It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never be shaken. [Isaiah 28:16 (NLT)]

Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit. [Ephesians 2:20-22 (NLT)]

church of st. columba The cornerstone metaphor continues into the New Testament with both Paul and Peter referring to Jesus as the cornerstone of our faith. Nowadays, cornerstones are structurally unneeded and a growing number of commercial buildings no longer have them. Symbolic rather than functional, many serve as time capsules holding material relevant to the building and the year it was built. Because commercial buildings so frequently change hands, even the custom of inscribing the building’s name on a cornerstone is disappearing. The latest practice is a freestanding cornerstone/time capsule resting on a pedestal placed in a prominent part of the building. That way, a new stone can replace the old one every time the building’s owner changes.

While cornerstones may be superfluous to a modern structure, there is nothing superfluous about Jesus as our cornerstone. Moreover, He can’t be exchanged for a newer version or sold to the highest bidder. While buildings may change owners, our owner remains God and we are both His children and His servants. Our cornerstone does not serve as a time capsule of 1st century Judah; Jesus is our living stone and as relevant today as He was 2,000 years ago.

Both Paul and Peter carry the building metaphor further by calling us the stones in God’s temple. Unlike the temple in Jerusalem, this isn’t an earthly building with walls and a roof. Nevertheless, it has a cornerstone in Jesus. Since a cornerstone connects two different walls, the metaphor illustrates how Jesus connected both Gentiles and Jews into one cohesive church.

Peter likens us to living stones and Paul says we are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Let that image sink in for a moment and consider those foundation stones: people like John the Baptist, Paul, Peter, and John. Others in that foundation are less famous but no less essential: people like Lydia, the cloth merchant who housed Paul; Tabitha (Dorcas), the generous seamstress who came back from the dead; the eloquent Apollos, one of the first Christian apologists; the devoted Mary Magdalene; Aquila and Priscilla, the tentmakers who opened their home to Paul; the generous Phoebe, a deacon at the church in Cenchreae; Silas, who sang with Paul when they were prisoners; and Paul’s fellow missionary, Barnabas. Through the centuries, others were added to the structure: defender of the Trinity, Athanasius; Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation; theologian and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo; the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett; Bible translators John Wycliffe and Martin Tyndale; Pilgrim’s Progress author John Bunyan; reformer John Calvin; founder of Methodism, John Wesley; and the “Saint of Auschwitz,” Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe. Set beside these well-known Christians are people whose names we wouldn’t recognize; nevertheless, they too are the stones of the church. Think about it—people just like us are being set into this same edifice with the likes of apologist C.S. Lewis, humanitarian Mother Teresa, Olympian Eric Liddell, evangelist Billy Graham, and the “Prince of Preachers” Charles Spurgeon! We are living stones being mortared into place, shoulder to shoulder, with the apostles and prophets who went before us! We are the temple of God and its cornerstone is Jesus Christ!

You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God. As the Scriptures say, “I am placing a cornerstone in Jerusalem, chosen for great honor, and anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” [1 Peter 2:4-6 (NLT)]

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SECOND CHANCES

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.” [Matthew 21:31b-32 (NLT)]

“It’s all about getting a second chance!” said the back of the man’s T-shirt. I then saw the dog paws printed on both sides of the message and realized his shirt was advertising a dog rescue organization. Nevertheless, the shirt’s words made me think of the parable Jesus told the Pharisees about two sons. The vineyard owner told his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son rudely refused but the second son respectfully promised he’d do the work. As it turned out, the defiant son had a change of heart and went to work in the vineyard while the second seemingly dutiful son never did. Jesus then asked the Pharisees which of the two sons had done his father’s will. Of course, they had to say that the first son, in spite of his initial rebellion, was the obedient one.

The purpose of the parable was to convict the religious leaders of their phoniness. Claiming obedience and righteousness, they’d refused God’s invitation to repent delivered by John the Baptist. While saying they wanted to do God’s will, the Pharisees hadn’t. The scum of society, however, had believed and repented. When Jesus claimed that repentant sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes would get into the Kingdom of Heaven long before the Pharisees, they were shocked. You see, in God’s world, performance takes precedence over promise!

While immediate obedience is preferable, delayed obedience always beats phony obedience. Like the first son, some people prove to be far better than initially expected. Before we accepted Jesus, most of us didn’t show much potential. Truth be told, we probably were willful, selfish, mean, hypocritical and possibly immoral. Like the first son, however, we repented, mended our ways, and now work for our Father in Heaven. Unfortunately, like the second son, others prove false to their initial promise. There is, however, good news for those people whose intentions and promises haven’t materialized. Like the first brother, they too can repent, change their ways, and start working for their Father. Jesus’ words to the Pharisees tell them that the door to His Kingdom is closed to religious pretenders but open to even the vilest of repentant sinners.

The parables of the Two Sons and the Prodigal Son tell us that our God is a God of Second Chances! If there had been a cross on that man’s T-shirt instead of dog paws, the same words would have promoted Christianity! Indeed, “It’s all about getting a second chance!” in Jesus’ rescue organization! Best of all, He doesn’t stop at second chances. Our God is the God of Endless Second Chances, which is good news since it’s pretty much a guarantee that most of us will mess up our second chance and need several more!

So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. … If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:6,8-9 (NLT)]

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SWEET JESUS

Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! [Psalm 34:8 (NLT)]

The religion of Jesus Christ is not ascetic, nor sour, nor gloomy, nor circumscribing. It is full of sweetness in the present and in promise. [Henry Ward Beecher]

tri-colored heronThe Synsepalum dulcificum is a West African fruit better known as the “taste berry” or “miracle fruit.” This almost tasteless red berry can make lemons, Dijon mustard, Brussels sprouts, pickles and even vinegar taste sweet. A protein in the berry temporarily binds to the tongue’s taste buds and causes sour or acidic foods to taste sweet. Miracle fruit tablets, powder, freeze-dried berries and plants can be purchased from several websites. Along with suggesting using the berry as a way to get fussy eaters to eat their fruits and vegetables, sellers suggest hosting “flavor-tripping parties” where guests get a berry and a strange buffet of foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, radishes, grapefruit, cheap tequila, goat cheese, vinegar, and Tabasco sauce. Why anyone would want to alter the delicious flavors of kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, Granny Smith apples, grapes, or tomatoes is beyond me and I certainly have no desire to drink pickle juice or Sriracha chili sauce.

Miracle berries really aren’t miraculous because they don’t change anything; they merely change the user’s perception of a food. Although the berry neutralizes the flavor in the mouth, the food is still acidic as it goes down and the after-effects of indulging in hot sauce as if it were frosting or drinking straight lemon juice often include stomach upsets and mouth ulcers.

Rather than changing the taste of food, it would be nice to have something that miraculously could transform the bitterness, disappointment, and distress of life into something palatable and sweet. When I remember the words of Psalm 34 to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” I realize we already have it! When we taste of the Lord, we see His goodness, receive the power of His Holy Spirit, and experience the true sweetness of life. Jesus truly does perform a miracle—the miracle of changed lives. He transforms shame, sorrow, bitterness, resentment, meanness, hate, and rage into acceptance, joy, contentment, forgiveness, generosity, love and peace. The miracle berry’s effect lasts for only a few hours but the miracle of Jesus lasts into eternity. Taste and see.

Souls are made sweet not by taking the acid fluids out, but by putting something in—a great love, a new spirit, the Spirit of Christ. Christ, the spirit of Christ interpenetrating ours, sweetens, purifies, transforms all. [Henry Drummond]

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness. [1 Peter 2:2-3 (NLT)]

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WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR THE NEXT SIX WEEKS? (Ash Wednesday)

That is why the Lord says, “Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. [Joel 2:12-13 (NLT)]

monarch butterflyAlthough its customs and rituals have changed over time, Lent has been observed in some way by believers for centuries. In the early years of the church, the days leading up to Easter were a time of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter baptisms and as penance for those who’d been excluded from communion. Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-200) wrote of such a season that lasted only a few days (or forty hours) and commemorated what was believed to be the duration of Christ’s time in the tomb. By the mid-third century, Bishop Dionysius spoke of a six-day fast practiced by the devout in Alexandria and, according to the Byzantine historian Socrates, the Roman Christians kept a pre-Easter fast of three weeks.

It wasn’t until the Council at Nicaea in 325 that the observance of Lent formally began. Starting six Sundays (42 days) before Easter, it ended on Holy Thursday eve. Even though people fasted on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, those days were not considered part of Lent. Whether this Lenten observance was initially intended just for those preparing for baptism or for everyone is unclear but the whole church adopted the practice in some way or another.

Even in the early church, Sunday (as a sort of mini-Easter celebrating the victory of the resurrection) was considered a feast day. In the 6th century, finding it inappropriate to fast on a feast day, Pope Gregory the Great declared that there should be no fasting on the six Sundays of Lent. This, however, cut the Lenten observance back to 34 days and the people wanted to reenact the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Eventually, to make up for the missing Sundays, four more days were added to the beginning of Lent (now starting on Ash Wednesday) and the two fasting days of Good Friday and Holy Saturday were added to the end of the season, making Lent forty days long. Although fasting from food was the emphasis in the beginning, new practices evolved over time and the concept of personal sacrifice eventually became Lent’s focus. In preparation for Easter and crossing denominational lines, Lent has now become a season of self-examination, penitence, self-denial, and spiritual growth.

Lent, like Christmas and Easter, is without scriptural basis. Man-made, not God-ordained, it is a matter of choice as to if and how we keep this season. If we choose to observe Lent, we shouldn’t think of Lent’s self-denial or fasting as a second chance to keep our failed New Year’s diet resolutions. Moreover, no Lenten practice should be thought of as a way to earn salvation or score brownie points with God. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, not works! Pastor Eric Ferris reminds us that, “You could observe 1,000 Lents and it won’t ever accomplish in your life what the cross of Jesus has.”

The purpose of Lent is self-reflection, self-denial, repentance, and seeking to live more for Christ and less for self. Rather than asking what we’re going to give up for Lent, the better questions would be ones like, “What can I do to draw nearer to God?” and “How can I grow more like Christ?” Asking the questions, of course, is not enough; the next step is doing those things! In preparation for Easter, what will you do for the next six weeks?

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious Spirit lead me forward on a firm footing. [Psalm 143:10 (NLT)]

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HE FORGAVE (Part 2)

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” [Matthew 26:27-28 (ESV)]

roseWhen Jesus forgave the unnamed woman’s sins, he caused quite a stir among the Pharisees and religious leaders who were His fellow dinner guests. People can forgive an offense against them, but they can’t forgive an offense against someone else or God! While I can forgive your $10 debt to me, I have neither the right nor the power to say you don’t have to pay the $150,000 you also owe the Bank of America, Sallie Mae, Capital One and Chase for your mortgage, college loan, car financing, and credit card purchases. A person can’t do that but God can! Because only God has the authority to forgive people’s sins, implied in Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman’s sins, is a claim that He is God.

This wasn’t the only time Jesus shocked the Pharisees by forgiving sins. On another occasion, a paralyzed man’s friends brought him to Jesus for healing. When Jesus told the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” the religious leaders accused Him of blasphemy. The Hebrew Scripture made it clear that only God has the prerogative to pronounce forgiveness. The book of Leviticus laid out an elaborate temple system of offerings for intentional and unintentional sins, with different animals offered for different kinds of sins. Every year, there was a special Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, with its elaborate forgiveness ritual in which the nation’s sins were paid for with the sacrifice of a goat and the people’s forgiven sins were laid on another goat (the scapegoat) and sent into the wilderness. To the Pharisees, Jesus daring to pronounce forgiveness without being a high priest or making a sacrifice was a blasphemous claim to divinity. His actions would have been blasphemous had He not been God. As both the Great High Priest and the final sin sacrifice, however, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law.

Knowing their concerns, Jesus addressed the religious leaders and asked whether it was easier to pronounce forgiveness or heal. He then told the man to pick up his mat and go home! As the man arose and started walking, the crowd was astonished. By healing the man, Jesus confirmed His authority to forgive. The physical healing was as much for the religious leaders as for the paralytic. Although the man’s forgiveness couldn’t be proven or disproven, his healing was obvious to all and there was only one being who could both forgive sins and heal broken bodies—God!

Jesus’ healings were observable acts that identified Him as the Messiah and yet the very people who should have recognized Him seemed to deliberately turn a blind eye and deaf ear. When Jesus healed the paralyzed man, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, or a voice to the mute, He was fulfilling Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy of salvation made some 700 years earlier.

Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. [Isaiah 35:4-6 (ESV)]

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