Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.






Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Enemy

1 Chronicles 21:1a  "Satan rose up against Israel..."

The 21st chapter of the First Book of Chronicles contains, to say the least, a lesser-known Bible story. King David orders that a census be taken to determine the number of eligible and able fighting men in his kingdom. Doing this was unprecedented, and though it may sound completely normal to us from our modern and secular viewpoint, to David's officers this idea was blasphemy. "My lord the king," interrupted Joab, David's trusted counselor, "are they not all my lord's subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?"

The guilt to which Joab referred was the implication that God could not win a battle for Israel without the existence of a large and powerful army. In counting his available men, David was acting like any other king, not a king who had the King of the Universe on his side; not a king who had seen great victories through providence, regardless of strength in numbers.

God, also, was unhappy with David's actions, and sent a prophet named Gad to him with a message. To atone for his sin David would have to choose among three punishments: three years of famine, three months of defeats at the hands of Israel's enemies, or three days of plague brought by the angel of the Lord. David chooses the plague, and 70,000 died by it. David was left despondent, with the guilt of this destruction upon his own head.

This story in First Chronicles, however, begins with a very important sentence: "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel." One action, seemingly insignificant, seemingly innocuous, by Satan, and a chain of events fall into place causing destruction and despair.

No doubt, Satan has risen up against us, too. It is not the first time, and it will not be the last, but in recent weeks, months, years, Satan has risen up against America and against the world, and almost no one has noticed. The havoc he has brought about is noticed, but his hand in it all is invisible to our jaded and blinded world. We pin blame on any number of things, from guns to racism, from psychoses to socioeconomics, but the evil plaguing our world has a much more specific source: a fallen angel named again and again in holy scriptures.  Satan.

Satan is not brought up in polite society, I've noticed.  In our rational world, even those who believe in God prefer not to think about Satan and all he represents.  We concentrate on the bright side of the supernatural, conveniently forgetting that an evil lurks in the spirit world, meddling day-by-day with our existence. Yet any student of scripture encounters his obvious reality:

  • Satan mocked God by questioning the goodness of Job
  • Satan accused the high priest in Zechariah's vision
  • Satan tempted Christ in the wilderness
  • Jesus saw "Satan fall like lightening from heaven"
  • Satan bound a woman with an issue of blood for 18 years
  • Satan asked to sift Simon Peter like wheat
  • Satan entered into Judas, causing his betrayal
  • Satan caused Ananias to sin by convincing him to hide the sale of his property
  • The thorn in Paul's side was a messenger from Satan
  • Paul notes that Satan blocked his way during his travels
  • Satan is hurled down to the earth in a vision in Revelation

Few characters in the Bible, quite frankly, are documented as thoroughly as Satan. yet even among many believers he is ignored or seen as a myth. Let's not be deceived -- Satan is real. He continues to be our enemy, and his anonymity is his greatest weapon.

Without Satan there would have been no Dallas sniper, no Minnesota shooting; there would have been no Orlando, no Sandy Hook, no Boston Marathon bombing, no September 11th, no Columbine. These and endless other acts of violence stem back, eventually, to Satan himself. We are in the midst of a horrid spiritual war, yet we do not even acknowledge the enemy. How then can we ever win?

It is high time that we as believers wake up to the existence of our common enemy, and recognize his role in the pain enveloping our world. We need to see the battle as one beyond our ability to fight or win.  We need to call upon God not merely to mend us, but to defeat the enemy who uses us against each other. We need to take heart in the words of the great hymn, which reminds us:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Naked Young Man

Mark 14:51-52  "A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind."

The Gospel of Mark is by far the shortest of the four gospels.  In my Bible it covers a mere 16 pages.  Mark's style is uniquely matter-of-fact and succinct; he is not a writer prone to wavering into side stories or providing extra details for the sake of interest.  His gospel starts with action, and continues rapidly on through to its conclusion.

And yet, with all of the stories of Christ which Mark needs to convey (and indeed, there are many he doesn't convey in this short work), he still takes two of his precious verses to tell this intriguing vignette about a young man who escaped the arrest scene only by losing his clothing in the process.  Surely, this is a detail worth considering, if Mark deigned it worth recording.

Through the experience of this young man, we find an insight into understanding the situation Jesus was cast into that night.  We were not there as eyewitnesses, but we can imagine the scene and the experience through this young man's eyes.  The naked young man, surely, experienced  three things with which Jesus also contended that night: fear, shame, and loss.  

Put yourself into his situation. Though not an apostle this young man was a follower of Jesus, a dangerous role at any point, but never as much as now.  We are told that, “A crowd armed with swords and clubs” had come to arrest Jesus (v. 43).  Nothing good was going to come of this.  It was clear to all involved that this was a life or death situation. The execution of Jesus was probably a foregone conclusion, and anyone caught with him may very well suffer the same fate.

"The Betrayal of Christ," by Antonio Correggio, c. 1522
As he watches older and wiser men run away in fear, what choice does the young man have but to also flee? However, he is almost caught. Wearing only one garment, he gets away simply because he tears free of the cloth the mob members grabbed hold of.

Imagine running off into the night without a bit of clothing on you, and as a fugitive, no less.  Surely his first reaction was fear.  Where is he going to go?  What is he going to do?  You can hide a lot of things in this world; but you can’t hide being stark naked.  How will he get back to the other disciples? Where would they even have gone? Imagine the baffling situation of being on the run and also being naked.  It had to be a terrifying experience.

Yet, as he is dealing with this, Jesus is dealing with fear as well.  He knows what is coming – the beatings, the nails, the crucifixion.   Divine plan or not, Jesus still must feel it all, as a mortal man. He will die, and die a gruesome death.  What intense fear he must have felt?

Secondly,  the young man surely dealt with shame.  Ever since the Garden of Eden, nakedness has represented shame.  His primary shame would have come from his nakedness; but shame also came from abandoning Jesus in his worst hour. None of us would have done any better.

Similarly, Jesus endured shame as he was beaten and mocked. He is divine, and yet he was subjected to complete humiliation.

As the young man grappled with fear and shame, he also faced loss. He had lost his teacher, his leader, and in fact his overall purpose in life. He ran away naked, not only physically, but spiritually.  Jesus Christ, however, was losing so much more. He had lost his physical freedom, he had lost his followers, and of course it was rather clear he would soon lose his life.

We can learn from the naked young man because he acts as a bridge between us, living in comfort and safety, and the Messiah entering into that dark and fated day.  The King James Version quotes the prophet Amos as saying, “And he that is courageous among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day, saith the Lord.” (2:16)  Like all the disciples, and also like us, the naked young man was painfully human.  And yet so was Jesus Christ; painfully human, even if, indeed, divine. Nevertheless, he subjected himself to the fear, the shame, and the loss, if for no other reason than that we might avoid all three, in a better life that is to come.





Friday, February 26, 2016

A Stark Choice



Luke 23:42  "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

In 2010 I gave a guest sermon for Good Friday.  I took as my inspiration a feature of the church we were attending – three crosses made of steel beams and holding up a bell.  I related this to a set of three crosses standing on a farm near where I grew up, and to such trios of crosses I had seen elsewhere across America over the years.

My question was this:  What would a non-Christian think of this symbol?  What do three crosses standing together signify to someone whose understanding of our faith is limited to what they hear in popular culture?  Moreover, how many people in the pews on any given Easter morning really understand what is meant by three crosses clustered together?

I like to think that most people relate the cross as a Christian symbol.  Would three crosses confuse them?  Would they think we worship three gods?  If someone had heard of the idea of “Trinity,” might they think there was a tie-in here?  Or maybe they might think that three crosses are simply better than one.
 
Greencastle Church of the Nazarene - photo by Becca Sampson
Of course, three crosses represent the story of Christ’s crucifixion, whereby two criminals were executed on either side of him.  (Luke 23:32-43)  One the criminals mocked Jesus, while the other defended him.  The two criminals, in many ways, represent all of the human race in our relationship with God.

First of all, each of us has sinned.  We all have rebelled against the laws of God.  We are all, therefore, in need of forgiveness, as judgement awaits us otherwise.

From there, however, the similarities end.  In the face of God’s existence a certain portion of the human race sneers and mocks.  To these people, even the certainty of death cannot overcome their flawed human selfishness and arrogance.  One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’”

Yet others realize their frailty and their fault, and seek humility from within themselves and mercy from God.  “‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’  Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’”

It is a stark and simple choice.  One leads to death, the other to life.  One comes from our human brokenness, the other stems from our yearning for grace.  One is a dead end, the other an open door.  This Lenten season, let’s remember the words of the penitent thief, that we might be assured of mercy, just as Jesus answered on that fateful day: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Monday, November 16, 2015

Take Up Your Cross

Matthew 16:24-25   Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Every time I've heard this passage discussed, Jesus' words are taken to mean giving one's life to Christ, dying to self, accepting the burdens of discipleship and self-denial, etc.  Because of this, I was jarred to read the thoughts of the eminent Oxford scholar R.T. France on these words:
Christian use of the language of "self-denial" (and even of "cross-bearing") has blunted the force of Jesus' words.  They are about literal death, following the condemned man on his way to execution.  Discipleship is a life of at least potential martyrdom.  It may be legitimate to extrapolate from this principle to a more general demand for disciples to put loyalty to Jesus before their own interests and comfort, but that can be only a secondary application of the passage.  Jesus' words are not to be taken as merely metaphorical.  The "cross" and "losing life" which he speaks of are literal, and it seems clear from v. 28 that he did expect at least some of his disciples to be killed because of their loyalty to his cause (as indeed they were)."  [NICNT: Matthew, 2007, Eerdmans, page 636]
Read this way, Jesus' statement is even harder to accept.  Taking up one's cross sounds tough enough as metaphor.  Taken literally, it becomes a completely different challenge.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."  Every American Christian who comes across this quote prefers to read it metaphorically - we "die to Christ," leaving our old life behind in favor of following Jesus.  And that is true, but it ignores the fact that Bonhoeffer, in stark contrast to American Christians, was dragged out into the early morning April air, stripped nude, and hanged to death in the Flossenburg concentration camp at age 39.

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

We can indeed extrapolate many lessons from these words, but I think Dr. France was right. The cross was very real in this sentence.  To first century Jews such as were following Jesus, the cross was not a piece of jewelry, or a symbol on the top of buildings, or a design for art - it was and had always only been an oppressor's device for brutally murdering the oppressed.  Jesus is talking about death.  Real death.  He knows he will die by means of a cross, as will some of his followers, and many more will die by some means or another at the hands of his enemies.  Jesus the Christ does not sugarcoat.

He does, however, go on to explain why following him, even to the death, is important.  "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."  It is worth noting that the Greek word translated "life" here is not unfamiliar to us.  It is psychē (ψυχὴ), a word which English has since appropriated to mean the self or the soul.  It is, indeed, our all, and if we try to save our life, our psychē, for our own self, we will in fact lose it.  Only if we give up our life for the sake of Christ, whatever that might mean in our own circumstances, will be truly find life eternal.  The martyrs of the church are richer, in real terms, than any human who has ever lived.  Even every person who has ever died as a follower of Jesus enjoys a reward that makes all we could have on earth seem very small indeed.

A few days ago the world was rocked to hear news of terrorist attacks in Paris, France.  Soon after, some people began to point out, rightly, that recent attacks in Lebanon had received virtually no coverage, let alone popular attention.  No doubt one reason for this is the fact that an attack on Paris (like an attack on New York) is a signal to Western Christians that "Christendom" is no longer exempt from religious violence.  The lock that Christianity has had over the Western Hemisphere is slowly slipping away.  The dozens killed in Paris were not killed because they were Christian (indeed, their killings were random and anonymous), but they represented the Christian West  to the Islamic terrorists responsible.  

We in the West are only now beginning to recognize what our brothers and sisters outside of classical Christendom have known for centuries.  In Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, in the former Soviet Union...Christians there have long understood the reality of persecution, and they have long understood the reality behind this passage in Matthew.

We don't know what is to come, but our world is changing.  As it changes, it is more important than ever for us to remember that following Christ means putting him first, above all, even if that decision means the loss of life itself.  Because a better life awaits.  Take up your cross, and follow me.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

No Ghost

"Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."   Luke 24:39

I simply have to admit, I don't understand our culture's fascination with the macabre and the paranormal.  Take the fixation this past decade on vampires and zombies. What's the point?  Where is the attraction?  And I wonder how many young people grow up these days thinking these characters of fiction are in fact real?

Still, when you stop and think about it, there is nothing new about this fascination and it is certainly something we see in the folklore of most cultures.  Jewish culture is no exception.  Take for instance the dybbuk, described in one source as "an evil spirit which enters into a living person, cleaves to his soul, causes mental illness, talks through his mouth, and represents a separate and alien personality." Jewish folklore is replete with stories of dybbuks.  The same applies to the golem, a creature made by someone expert in the mystical Jewish art of kabbalah.

If we turn to the Old Testament, we even find the story of a seance.  In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul asks a medium to bring the spirit of the Prophet Samuel back to give him advice.  Samuel's spirit appears -- unhappily -- and give Saul bad news ("...tomorrow you and your sons will be with me").  The story of Saul's downward spiral takes precedence, so we rarely notice this surprising foray into spiritualism, but there it is, in vivid detail.

So we should not be surprised if the disciples, upon seeing the risen Jesus, might first and foremost assume he is, indeed, a ghost.  If Jesus had been born in the 1980s and crucified this year, the main impediment to belief in his resurrection would have been the cult of science and of reason that dominates our culture.  But in the First Century, quite a different impediment existed.  People were so immersed in belief in the spiritual world that they would have sooner believed the risen Christ to be a specter than a real, risen body.

Realizing this, Jesus Christ does what he so often does: he accommodates the weakness of our understanding.

Imagine the scene: Jesus has appeared to his followers in a locked room.  To say this must have caused a
disturbance is quite an understatement.  If someone you knew to have been brutally murdered were to suddenly appear in your midst, just imagine your reaction.  As tame as Luke's description is, I would guess there were a few genuine screams!

So Jesus immediately tries to calm his followers by sharing the words of greeting still common today in Judaism: Shalom aleikhem, "Peace be upon you."  He then asks them, somewhat rhetorically, why they have fears and why they have doubts.  His point is that he has tried all along to make them understand what would happen, how he would conquer death and return, but only now can they begin to understand.  For proof, he offers up his own body as evidence that he is, indeed, real and material.  "A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."  Going further, he shares a meal with them.  He wants there to be no mistake; he is no ghost.

The act of resurrection on its own does not prove the divinity of Christ, as other people in the Bible are resurrected.  What it does do is prove that Jesus' claim about himself is true.  God the Father, to show that this is indeed His son, raises him from the dead, proving that he is indeed who he has claimed to be all along.

We serve a risen savior.  He is not a ghost, and he is not merely an idea, either.  Modern secular society would have us believe that Jesus was a man, and Christ a myth.  But no, the Bible is not a fairy tale; it is a book of truth.  And among its truths is this: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Wise Choice

2 Chronicles 1:7  That night God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

The story of Solomon is a familiar one. After ascending to David's throne over the nation of Israel, God speaks directly to him, with a seemingly unprecedented offer: "Ask for whatever you want me to give you."

We know his answer.  Solomon famously requests for wisdom so as to be able to properly lead his people.  And we know God's response.  Not only does he grant Solomon this wisdom, he makes him the wisest of all men.  Not stopping there, God gives him all the things he might have asked for instead:
God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, possessions and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.
We have, most likely, heard the story before.  But ask yourself, what would you say if God appeared in your dreams and said, "Ask for whatever you want me to give you?"  How would you respond?  I doubt many of us would answer with a materialistic desire, as we would realize the gravity of the moment and of the one asking the question.  We might avoid a foolish answer, but we may still not give the best answer.
Dream of Solomon by Luca Giordano, c. 1693

Solomon's response, however, was exactly what God was wanting to hear.  His answer was so perfect, in fact, that it opened the floodgates of God's blessings.  Normally, as we read this passage, it is easy to view Solomon as a pious young ruler whose request, made in holiness, impresses God.  I would argue, however, that Solomon made his request for wisdom not out of piety, but out of practicality.  I imagine him as a young ruler genuinely filled with trepidation at the responsibility placed upon him, and at the tasks ahead of him.

Furthermore, I would argue that Solomon asks for wisdom precisely because he already has it.  It would be foolish to think that Solomon had no real wisdom before this moment, and the text makes it clear that he was indeed wise.  He survives, first of all, in tumultuous times, to become the unlikely heir of his father, and then begins his reign with public pronouncements and appearances which demonstrate a certain level of aptitude.  Further, his very answer to God is a wise answer -- he does not ask for something frivolous.  In short, Solomon seizes upon a gift God has already granted him and asks God to strengthen it and increase it, for the good of others.  That, I believe, is what makes Solomon's response so special.

God's outpouring of grace then shows us what Solomon surely knew: God has all things at his disposal, and blessing us is of no difficulty to him whatsoever.  God proves in this story what Jesus would someday preach: "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33)  In seeking first the wisdom to lead, God would prove to Solomon that he would never want for the material things of life either.

I would argue that God confronts us every day with the question, "Ask for whatever you want me to give you."  It is a life-changing question that we answer with a grunt every day, usually without a second thought.  And yet, we are invited to believe in the power of God to effect change in our lives day after day.

Imagine the power that could be unleashed if each of us thought of one gift God had already entrusted us with, and asked him to strengthen it even further, just as Solomon did.  For God, it is an easy task.  For us, it is an exercise in faith.

So how will you answer the ever-present question once put to King Solomon?  You may not ask for wisdom, but a wise choice can still be made.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Abandoned

Mark 15:34  And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

"Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  These powerful words open Psalm 22, a moving plea to God in which David says, "I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.  All who see me mock me."

The passage from Mark (nearly duplicated in Matthew) is familiar to most Christians; but have you ever wondered why, of all the statements of Jesus quoted in the Bible, this one is left in the original language? 

Any observant Jew is familiar with Hebrew, and we can only speculate at how proficient Jesus himself must have been in the language of his holy texts.  His mastery of Hebrew would have been complete, and he may very well have been required to memorize the psalms in their entirety.  That he responds at this moment - a moment of greatest despair, deepest fear, and highest pain - with scripture, is no surprise.  As a man steeped in the Hebrew Bible his response would have been instinctive; as the Messiah himself, the response would have been inevitable.

But there's one issue here: these words are not Hebrew.

Instead, they are Aramaic.  When Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross he does not do so using the Hebrew it was written in, but using the everyday language of Jews in first century Palestine.  This is why in most Bibles we read the words as a transliteration of Jesus' original statement: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?"

Why would Jesus cry these words out in Aramaic instead of in Hebrew, which was surely the language in which he learned the Psalms?  Perhaps it was because, at this worst of moments, he cried out not to "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" [though He was the same God], but instead, he cried out to his own father.  His cry is an intimate one, to "Abba," to the one who always heard him.  And so he cries out in his day-to-day language, though in the words of his ancestor, the Psalmist.

Shortly thereafter, Jesus would breathe his last, but only after experiencing this final, terrible moment of abandonment. 

The saddest thing is that our society is filled with people who have no idea whatsoever what was done for them, what was sacrificed for their sake.  Even our churches in this modern day are populated by many people who think they are too smart to believe in an atoning Christ, and want to see him instead as a teacher of ethics or a leader of societal change.  These people simply don't comprehend the profound truth of this moment on the cross.  Jesus died in a state of abandonment, so that we would never have to experience that same state of abandonment.  It is that simple.  He accepted the burden of guilt for our sake. All we have to do in return is accept that truth.  So easy, and yet, for the broken human race, so very hard.

"I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God."  Job 19:25-26