THE LAMB OF GOD – ASH WEDNESDAY

New mexicoThe next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! [John 1:29 (NLT)]

Today is the first day of Lent, a season in which we remember the time Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights. Because Lent occurs in the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter, we tend to associate this period of Jesus’s life with the end of his ministry. It actually occurred early in His ministry, shortly after his baptism by John and his empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

During Jesus’s time in the wilderness, Satan visited and tempted Him. Jesus first was tempted to serve Himself—to alleviate his hunger by turning stones into bread. In the second temptation, Satan urged Jesus to jump off the Temple and reveal Himself in a spectacular display. This action would also test God’s love by coercing Him into saving Jesus. In the third test, Satan tempted Jesus to skip the cross altogether; all the kingdoms of the world would be His if only He’d worship the evil one.

Just because Jesus was divine doesn’t mean He couldn’t have fallen; He also was human and, like us all, susceptible to Satan’s wiles. He could have sinned as easily as Adam and Eve, but He didn’t! Resisting temptation was as essential to His mission as was suffering on the cross. Just as sin came into the world through one man, God would redeem the world through one man, but Jesus had to remain sinless for that to happen. If He hadn’t, there would have been no point to the cross; only a perfect sinless sacrifice could atone for mankind’s sins.

Because Jesus countered all of Satan’s temptations with Scripture, we tend to think of the temptation of Christ as sort of a “how to” manual on overpowering temptation. While it is that, it is so much more. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to teach us a lesson—He went into the wilderness to save us. He wasn’t just battling for His soul—He was fighting Satan for ours! He was defeating Satan by deliberating choosing to suffer for us as a man when He was God! He endured hunger when he could have spoken food into existence. He humbly chose to remain an obscure rabbi from Nazareth rather than use His power to win a following. Refusing to compromise with Satan, He chose obedience to God: to live, suffer and die as a man. Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, chose to endure the cross for sinful selfish mankind: the very people who would put Him there!

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. [2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)]

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 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 4:15-16 (NLT)]

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MINUTES PER DAY

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)]

sunset - vanderbilt beach - naplesFitbit recently notified me that I’ve logged 4,132 miles and awarded me a badge for having walked the length of the Nile River. And to think—I managed to do it all without ever leaving the country. With the aim of averaging 10,000 steps a day, I was curious to see how close to that goal I’ve gotten since getting the Fitbit. Some complicated math told me that, by now, I should have logged enough steps to be three-quarters of the way from the North to the South Pole. Granted, I haven’t always worn my pedometer and both foot and knee injuries temporarily benched me. Nevertheless, surprised to see how short I was of my goal, I realized how easy it is to think we’ve done far more than we actually have.

We don’t have prayometers to log our prayer time nor does God award badges for time spent talking with Him. If He did, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I should be. By my next birthday, I will have lived 26,280 days (not counting leap days) which is 37,843,200 minutes. If I spent even five minutes a day in prayer, that would be 131,400 minutes or 91 days of my life. While I would have received the Kim Kardashian badge for praying longer than her 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, I wouldn’t have prayed as long as the 98 days the Macarena was the number one hit song.  Even if I’d faithfully prayed ten minutes every day, I’d be short of the badge honoring James Garfield (who died 6 months and 15 days into his term). It would take twenty minutes of prayer every day to qualify me for the 365-day one year badge. One year out of 72 spent in prayer didn’t sound deficient until I realized that is a little less than 1.4% of my life. Although some of that time was spent in infancy when I was too young to pray, most of it wasn’t. Other than sleeping, what was I doing with the other 98.6% of my time? Then reality set in; days I spent twenty minutes in prayer were few and far between; on the average, five minutes is more like it.

Unfortunately, just as I over-estimated my steps, I’ve probably over-estimated even five minutes of daily prayer. We’re told to pray without ceasing but how? We don’t live in monasteries or convents, have servants to do our chores, or families we can ignore. Needing to eat, sleep, work, and serve family, church and community, how is it possible to pray continually? I suppose the answer is that our entire life should be a prayer—having our hearts open to the Lord’s leading, dedicating ourselves to being a blessing to others, and glorifying God in all we say and do. Nevertheless, in spite of saying grace or shooting out quick “please and thank you” prayers during the day, time needs to be set aside daily for daily chats with our Father in heaven.

God allots us twenty-four hours in a day; taking eight off for sleep, that leaves us sixteen hours (960 minutes) for eating, working, reading, Facebook, bathroom, television, talking, exercise, prayer and so on. If we gave God our undivided attention in prayer for only ten minutes each day, that would be a mere 1% of our waking time. I would venture a guess that we probably spend more than that on social media and email. As we move into this Lenten season of reflection, it might be a good time for us to consider our prayer life. Jesus withdrew into the wilderness for forty days; it would seem that we should be able to withdraw from the world and commune with God for ten minutes a day.

It’s not enough to splash a little prayer on in the morning or to run through a sprinkler of God’s mercy now and then. It’s not enough to double our spirits in an hour of worship on Sunday or to dash into a drizzle of teaching every month or so. Our souls need to soak in God’s presence. It’s no luxury, this time we spend in the healing waters of God’s grace. It’s neither excess nor indulgence to immerse ourselves in communion with our creator. It’s a spiritual necessity if we want to become the people God has created us to be. [Penelope J. Stokes]

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. [Romans 12:12 (NIV)]

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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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AGE IS ONLY A NUMBER

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live. I will praise my God to my last breath! [Psalm 104:33 (NLT)]

wood storkWhile I enjoy being told I look good, I don’t welcome hearing “for your age!” when it’s added to the sentence. If I’m honest, however, I must admit it’s true. I might look good for someone in her seventies but, next to a thirty-year-old, I don’t stand a chance! Nevertheless, it’s little things like that or being called “Hon” or “Sweetie” by a waitperson or nurse less than half my age that remind me of the subtle ageism in today’s society.

When I first learned about Daniel in the lion’s den, my Sunday school teacher used a flannel board to tell the story and flannel Daniel had a full head of brown hair. The coloring page that accompanied Daniel’s story when my children attended Sunday school was of a strapping muscular youth. Even the illustrated Bible I gave my grand showed a powerfully built young man sitting amidst the lions. All of these portrayals were wrong! Because Nebuchadnezzar took only the strongest, healthiest and best looking young men for palace training, we know Daniel was a handsome youth. But, by the time he was thrown into the lions’ den, he had served as a Babylonian officer for seventy years and was well into his eighties. As healthful as his vegetarian diet was, I’m sure Daniel looked good—good, that is, for a man his age! Nevertheless, he was an old man and probably had white hair, wrinkles, and a touch of arthritis. But, as soon as this old man knew a law prohibiting prayer to anyone other than the king had been signed, he went home, opened the windows, knelt down and prayed to God. Knowing he faced mutilation by lions because of his prayers, Daniel was not deterred. Perhaps, he remembered the bravery of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and, like them, knew that God could save him. But, like his friends, he also knew there was no guarantee God would save him. Daniel’s faith was rewarded and, like the furnace threesome, he was saved by an angel.

Daniel was an old man. Then again, so was Abraham; he was 75 when God called him to leave his home, 86 when Ishmael was born, 99 when circumcised, and 100 when Isaac was born. Moses was 80 and Aaron 83 when they led the Israelites out of Egypt. Joshua was between 68 and 80 when he led them into the Promised Land and Caleb was 85 when he drove the Anakites from Hebron. Jeremiah ministered under five kings and was still prophesying until he was killed in his 70s. The Apostle John was in his 70s when he wrote his Gospel and in his late 80s when he wrote Revelation. Sarah was 90 when pregnant with Isaac and the prophet Anna was over 100 when she recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Although we certainly find ageism in today’s world, there is no such thing as ageism or retirement in God’s Kingdom. The men who conspired against Daniel shouldn’t have underestimated the power of an old man who trusts in God; they were the ones eaten by the lions that day!

While ageism probably won’t put us in a lions’ den, we must never make the mistake of misjudging, underestimating or undervaluing the seniors in our midst. On the other hand, those of us in our golden but somewhat rusty years must stop discounting our value, as well. That we’re facing some limitations or challenges due to age simply means it’s time to reevaluate, not to stop! As seniors, we provide strength, stability, and wisdom to our younger brothers and sisters. No matter how old we are, we can always share God’s love and our prayers. God wasn’t finished with Daniel and He’s not finished with us!

Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t. [Richard Bach]

Now that I am old and gray, do not abandon me, O God. Let me proclaim your power to this new generation, your mighty miracles to all who come after me. [Psalm 71:18 (NLT)]

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THE SERVANT SAVIOR

They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” … When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. [Mark 10:37, 41-42 (NLT)]

great blue heron - great egretThe day’s gospel was from Mark 10 and, as the sermon began, the pastor shared having spent three hours earlier that week in a tiresome meeting on evangelism. The speakers had been lauded for the high number of “first public professions of faith” in their parishes. As the meeting went on, the pastor furtively checked his phone to see if memory had served him right. Indeed, his church far exceeded the numbers of the keynote speakers. Part of him (the bad part), like James and John, wanted to boast and be honored but the other part reminded him that ministry is about people and not numbers. He ate a little humble pie and said nothing. As often happens in long meetings, his mind wandered and he thought back to an encounter some twenty-eight years ago when he first came to the parish.

In 1991, both the church and our nation had much less liberal views about alternative lifestyles and homosexuality. An era of homophobia, there often were economic, social, and even physical repercussions to coming out. AIDS was the leading cause of death among men 25 to 44 and, in an attempt to raise AIDS awareness, the Red Ribbon Project had just launched.

That year, Wayne, an elderly retired minister in the parish approached the pastor. “This homosexual thing,” he said, “I just don’t comprehend it and I can’t condone it. But,” he added, “all people are God’s children and are of sacred worth.” Wayne then spoke of the many gay men dying in the area. In those early years, most families abandoned their gay AIDS infected sons and brothers. Fearing contagion, AIDS patients were touched only by hands in rubber gloves and, because of surgical masks, they saw only the eyes of those who attended them. Facing death and without a support system, they felt alone, unloved, and worthless. Reiterating that he neither understood nor approved of homosexuality, Wayne added that he couldn’t stand by and do nothing. He asked permission to serve AIDS patients in the local hospitals. “I don’t want them to die without feeling the touch of a warm hand, seeing a smile, or knowing that they have value. I can’t let them die alone or without telling them that Jesus loves them.” The pastor immediately agreed to Wayne’s ministry of love because being a servant is what Jesus was and what He told us to be.

As the pastor thought back to Wayne’s selfless and loving service, he understood why his church’s growth numbers are exemplary. It wasn’t evangelism techniques, community events, baseball team sponsorship, or advertising; it was that the church and its members serve as Christ’s hands and feet. Through service, they both tell and show people that Jesus loves them.

When the pastor wanted to brag about his numbers, he realized he was being like James and John when they wanted their place of honor in God’s kingdom or the other disciples who were indignant at the thought they might not be honored as well. When he thought back to Wayne, however, he thought of Jesus’ words: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others…” As Christ followers, we don’t need to understand or condone, we just need to serve our brothers and sisters (and all are our brothers and sisters).

One of the principal rules of religion is to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbour; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us. [John Wesley]

But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:43-45 (NLT)]

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BLESS YOU

May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace. [Numbers 6:24-26 (NLT)]

crabappleThe Lord instructed Moses that this prayer was to be used by Aaron and his descendants (Israel’s priests) as a blessing for the people of Israel. Since then, this familiar benediction, often said at the end of a worship service, has been used by synagogues and Christian churches throughout the world.

There’s another blessing that’s been around for centuries: saying “God bless you!” after a sneeze. The source of this tradition is murkier than the source of that beautiful benediction. It may have been because of an ancient superstition that the soul left the body during a sneeze; the blessing was a way to keep evil spirits from invading the sneezer while his soul was out wandering. Another notion was that a sneeze expelled evil spirits and the blessing kept those spirits from invading a new person. Some people thought that one’s heart stopped beating during a sneeze so the blessing welcomed the sneezer back from the dead.

Some scholars credit Pope Gregory I with starting this pleasant tradition. During an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the late 6th century, the Pope commanded unceasing prayer to stop the epidemic. Since sneezing and coughing were plague symptoms, he asked that a sneezer be immediately blessed so he wouldn’t develop the disease. How ever it came to be, “God bless” following a sneeze is considered common courtesy. What does is actually mean when we ask God to bless someone?

A blessing is a divine gift (whether spiritual, physical, or material) that either directly or indirectly affects the life, health, or well-being of an individual or community. As with any true gift, a blessing is offered unconditionally. When we ask God’s blessings on someone, we are asking for God’s divine favor to rest upon him or her. It’s a prayer that God will care for someone and keep that person from harm. It’s a request for God’s kindness and mercy to someone. A blessing asks God to shower someone with His approval and to bring him or her harmony and peace.

We’re not Levitical priests, bubonic plague is not a concern, and we know our spirits don’t run off nor do our hearts stop beating when we sneeze, so we don’t need to ask God’s blessing on someone for any of those reasons. What does God’s command to Moses mean to us? As Christians, we are members of a royal priesthood. As Christ’s priests, we are called to bring His love into this dark and troubled world. Asking God’s blessing upon someone is more than good manners; it’s our job. We shouldn’t save the words “God bless you!” to be said unthinkingly only when people sneeze. As His priests, we should sincerely, thoughtfully, and regularly be asking for God’s blessings upon all of His people. May God richly bless you!

And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. … You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. [1 Peter 2:5,9 (NLT)]

May the Lord richly bless both you and your children. May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 115:14-15 (NLT)]

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