Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Dark Day Had to Come First

When Jesus was crucified, there was darkness over the whole land for three hours. We know what it’s like when the power goes out, don’t we? But even when we had no power a few weeks ago because of the ice storm, we could see during the day. The “light” was still on. But at noon as Jesus hung on the cross, God turned off the lights. The darkness of the cross was magnified when God turned the sky black. Can I remind you for a moment of what Jesus was going through?

The punishment of crucifixion was meted out for such crimes as treason, desertion in the face of the enemy, robbery, piracy, assassination, and sedition. Among the Romans, scourging, undoubtedly to hasten impending death, preceded crucifixion. The victim then bore his own cross, or at least the upright beam, to the place of execution. A tablet, on which the feet rested or on which the body was partly supported, seems to have been a part of the cross to keep the wounds from tearing through the transfixed members. The suffering of death by crucifixion was intense, especially in hot climates. The swelling about the rough nails and the torn lacerated tendons and nerves caused excruciating agony. The arteries of the head and stomach were surcharged with blood and a terrific throbbing headache ensued. The mind was confused and filled with anxiety and dread foreboding. The victim of crucifixion literally died a thousand deaths. The length of this agony was wholly determined by the constitution of the victim, but death rarely occurred before thirty-six hours had elapsed. The end was sometimes hastened by breaking the legs of the victims and by a hard blow delivered under the armpit before crucifixion. The sudden death of Christ evidently was a matter of astonishment. (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

Jesus suffered more than any man ever has, not just because of the brutal killing instrument that he hung upon and the unspeakable pain he bore. He suffered the greatest pain because of the punishment he bore. Could this be another reason why God turned off the lights? The darkness over the earth magnified the separation between God and his Son.

Alistair Begg says that the basic meaning of sin is to forsake God. Before you say, “Oh, I would never do that,” stop and consider. To forsake God can mean to go through your days as if God is not important. It is to live life on your own terms and only fit God into the picture when it is convenient, to have him as a sub-category in terms of what is really important to us. You are fine having him in the backseat. But you certainly don’t want him driving the car. The idea that he would take over and you would be under his authority in everything is offensive to you. If then, the essence of sin is to forsake God, the consequence of sin is to be God-forsaken. That’s why Jesus cried out as he did from the cross in His darkest hour, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

Why was the perfect Savior God-forsaken? Because he was bearing your sin and my sin in his body on the tree. Peter wrote, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit.”

This is the mystery of Easter. The dark day had to come first, for the new day to dawn once and for all.



Sunday, March 29, 2020

Pressure Cookers of Resentment

The coronavirus has forced many of us to stay home more than we are used to, and that can lead to wonderful or not-so-terrific outcomes. People can tend to get a little touchy, slightly more irritable than normal. Reminds me of a peculiar habit camels seem to have. Read on…

William Barclay said, “There may be greater sins than touchiness, but there is none that does greater damage to the Christian church.” I found that quote as I was reading what Paul wrote 2 Timothy, instructing the young pastor that leadership requires thick skin, someone who is not easily offended. In fact, a leader is one who “patiently endures evil.” It could also be translated, “Bearing evil from others without resentment.” This is a rare quality, isn’t it? Let’s face it. There are lots of people who cannot bear anything without resentment, much less evil. They get resentful at the stoplight for staying red longer than they think is just. Look at them the wrong way and you are off their party-invitation list forever. Others will allow you a wrong look or a cross word or two, but they are adding your missteps to an invisible scale that they keep in their memory. Whoa to you when you finally tip the scale in the wrong direction. This is illustrated in nature, I discovered, with camels. Who knew? In his book, Zoo Vet, David Taylor writes, “Camels may build up a pressure cooker of resentment toward human beings until the lid suddenly blows off and they go berserk. In Asia, when a camel driver senses trouble, he gives his coat to the animal. Rather like Japanese workers who are reported to work off frustrations by beating up models of their executives, the camel gives the garment (a fit)—jumping on it, biting it, tearing it to pieces. When the camel feels it has blown its top enough, man and animal can live together in harmony again.”

Talk about getting your hump in a wad. And, just wondering, how many coats does a camel driver have to keep on hand? The problem with that whole scenario is obvious. If Carlos the camel owner is off his game by just a little, and doesn’t correctly read the signs that Carl the Camel is subtly sending him, it may be that Carlos, not his coat, is torn to pieces. Same way with you, as you face the wrath of Ken or Kara the church members. You may never know when you say the very thing that sends them into orbit. Or out the door. They won’t even give you a chance to offer them your coat or your hat to jump up and down and spit on. They just bolt. You may hear some reasons why they exploded later, as a friend of a friend of theirs tells you what they said about you on Facebook. Or, you may never know.

Paul’s instruction to young Timothy is clear: don’t be a pressure cooker of resentment yourself. When the camels are spitting and stomping all around, you are to remain calm. You are to be quick to forgive and slow to take offense, not the other way around. That doesn’t mean a leader is as silent as a post. No, he is to be skilled in “correcting his opponents with gentleness.” This is part of the problem: leaders who are unable or unwilling to gently correct evil behavior.

There is power in the life that refuses to drink in bitterness when others attack. It is the power that Christ Himself displayed as He was mocked and beaten and spat upon and finally crucified. There is no more beautiful picture of Christ than that of suffering servant. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers is silent, so he opens not his mouth.”

Two things, then. When pressure at home builds up, go outside. Exercise! And, be very careful around your camel.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Looking for a Less Busy Heart

I wrote this column in a different season, but it has applications for where we are now as a nation and as a people, tempted to give in the fear in the face of a virus. I hope this will be an encouragement to you!

Let’s say you are looking at the checkbook and there is more month left than money. Been there? You have two weeks to go until your next paycheck, no money, and three bills that have to be paid. What do you do? If you are like most, you start to panic. You immediately go from “heart at rest” to heart palpitations. You start to panic. Then you complain to yourself. “Why is this happening? What am I going to do?” That doesn’t satisfy you at all, so you take the typical next step: you complain to someone else. You get on the phone and ask someone to commiserate with you. Let’s be honest. What you are really doing is asking your friend to enter into unrest with you. Let’s shuck it down even further. You are asking your friend (whom you love?) to enter into unbelief with you.

Everybody who has been there, say “Amen.” In fact, if you have been in this place, stuck between a rock and a hard place without a pickaxe, that’s good. Recognize that God puts us there to teach us that He alone is sufficient to meet our needs. That doesn’t mean we can throw money away or live the life of a king on a pauper’s salary. That’s just foolishness that brings its own punishment. But let’s say you are living within your means and the unexpected happens. Suddenly your means are not enough. As the saying goes, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” This is a great place to trust the Lord.

That’s what the psalmist decided to do as he spoke this word to himself: “Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you!” What a wonderful verse to memorize, to speak to yourself during difficult days, and most of all, to believe. Instead of the panicked phone call to a friend, speak to your soul and to God. Charles Spurgeon said, “Whenever a child of God even for a moment loses his peace of mind, he should be concerned to find it again, not by seeking it in the world or in his own experience, but in the Lord alone. When the believer prays, and the Lord inclines His ear, the road to the old rest is before him; let him not be slow to follow it.”

Has the Lord dealt bountifully with you? Oh, yes. No matter your circumstances at the moment, the fact that there is breath in your lungs is a gift from God. The fact that you can see to read this column is a gift from God. And if God has brought you to knowledge of the faith and you have trusted Christ alone for your salvation, you are indeed blessed. We can all pray without hypocrisy, “Lord, let my soul return to its rest,” no matter the trouble we may be facing.

One final point. Don’t confuse this request with a desire for life to be easy, or stress-free. Let me ask you something. Was Jesus busy? Oh, yes, from before sunup to after sundown, the Lord was working. Was Jesus’ soul always at rest? It was. In his book, “A Praying Life,” Paul Miller writes, “The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed focus on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart.”

During this time when the busy-ness of our lives has been slowed down and we have no choice but to be quiet, to connect more closely with our families, to read more, to pray more, and to think more, may God teach us how to have a less busy heart.

Yes, Lord. That’s what I need.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Grace of God Is a Gift

When I was 15, I finally understood the grace of God for the first time. I wanted to drive more than I wanted to breathe, so I asked my grandmother if I could take her 1969 Mercury Comet convertible, cherry red, out of the garage and drive it into the backyard where I would wash it. She said yes, so I backed it out slowly, and maneuvered it down a gentle slope into the yard. The sky was blue, the birds were singing, the radio was playing, I was driving a convertible: life was good. Then I pulled a 15 and hit the gas pedal instead of the brake. The car exploded forward, slamming into a fine upstanding specimen of our North Carolina state tree. The tree didn’t move. The front end of that beautiful Mercury folded up like an accordion, everything on the seats slid violently into the floor, I went into shock, and my grandmother, who stood close by and watched the whole thing, nearly wet herself from laughing so hard. I looked at her with my mouth open and finally stammered, “What are you laughing at? I just wrecked your car!” She said, still laughing, “Oh, Mark, if you could have seen your face when you hit that tree, you’d be laughing, too.” Then after I told her, my head in my hands, that I didn’t know how I would ever pay for the damages, she said the most shocking thing of all. “You will not pay for this. I will, and the only way anybody besides you and I will ever know about this is if you tell them.” Then she gave me a hug, we started cleaning up the mess together, and I understood the grace of God. My grandmother never spoke of it again, loved me just as much as before, and gave me much more than I deserved every day.

When I wrecked my life, slamming it into sin in more ways than I want to tell you about in this column, Jesus was right there, and he saw the whole thing. When I told him I didn’t know how I could ever pay for my sins against him, he said he had already taken care of it. He gave me grace, not just for salvation, but for every moment of every day that I will live and breathe this side of heaven. That grace was not free, just like that car repair in 1972 was not free. It cost Jesus his life to pay for my sins and to pay for the grace he would freely give me every day of my life. That is why I love him, and that is why I follow him. It is not ‘greasy grace’ or ‘sloppy agape,’ as we used to call it in the 1970’s. No, his grace does not give me license to live any way I want to live. Instead it gives me power to live in a way that is pleasing to God.

When I shared this story in Moldova in January in 8 different places, the people all laughed when my grandmother laughed. Then they got quiet as they understood that the grace that comes from Jesus Christ is not something they could ever earn. One man handed me a letter written in Romanian at the end of one of my seminars. After having it translated by someone there, I could read it for myself:

Dear Mark – thank you for taking the time and coming to teach about what is written in Scripture. I wanted to say that I understand grace better today. I knew that grace is a gift from the God most High, but never realized that it is not a reward. Today my eyes were opened to the truth even more. Thank you! Sergiu

I am so thankful for my grandmother who taught me about grace, and to the Lord for his costly gift freely given every day. But I do remain very cautious when driving anywhere around pine trees.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Go Ahead and Make Their Day

In her book, Twelve Baskets of Crumbs, Elisabeth Elliot writes, “‘Tell it like it is’ is the watchword today. But suppose …it’s actually beautiful? Suppose the boy who does your lawn does is fast, trims it perfectly, and takes care of the tools? Suppose the clerk who waits on you happens to be the most gracious one you’ve ever encountered?

Tell them.

Tell them now.”

Did you know that one of the most powerful medicines in the world is praise? It can heal a broken marriage if applied carefully and consistently. It can make a child’s sense of self-worth grow right before your eyes. It can encourage an employee to be creative and diligent. Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” It’s a miracle drug, but it can only be administered from one to another. Self-praise is empty and vain, a shallow substitute for the real thing. That’s why Solomon said, “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth.”

Praise is a rare gift. Solomon described it this way: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” The gifted ‘praiser’ celebrates Christmas every day as he gives precious gifts that cost him only attentiveness and courage.

But be careful. Praise and flattery are mortal enemies. Praise is medicine that gives life, flattery works like poison. Praise is given to benefit the receiver, but flattery is thinly veiled manipulation to benefit the flatterer. Also, be sure to praise character qualities or accomplishments. The need for approval will motivate our children to focus on what we praise. When my children were growing up, I knew that if I constantly told them how handsome or pretty they were, I would be setting a snare for their feet. Either they would become proud, or be deflated if their looks didn’t match up to the world’s standards. Our culture sets the highest premium on physical attractiveness, to the point that 98% of Miss America contestants said when surveyed they would change something about their looks if they could. Physical attractiveness is a false god that we must not erect in our children’s hearts.

Instead, praise godly character qualities. When Jesus met Nathanael, He said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” He recognized the quality of truthfulness in Nathanael.

Jesus said about His cousin, John the Baptist, “among those born of women there is none greater than John; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Jesus praised John’s humility.

He blessed the unnamed woman in Simon’s house who washed His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, praising her act of selflessness and compassion.

After healing ten lepers, Jesus praised the one who returned to show his gratitude.

Jesus never praised anyone for his appearance, pedigree, education, material possessions or status in society. Aren’t those the very things we tend to elevate?

Why not set our hearts to become experts at praising others? Why not watch to catch our children in the act of doing something right, and then praise them for it? Why not take a moment and make a list of the qualities in your children, spouse, and close friends that are praiseworthy­­­, and then­­ follow through by telling them about those qualities? Be creative in your praise: you can say it with a card, a phone call, an invitation to lunch, a gift, or a word face to face.

Go ahead, make their day. Give them the gift of sincere praise.

Monday, March 2, 2020

God Creates Something where there Is Nothing

“For He commanded and they were created.” That’s what the Bible plainly teaches. When God spoke, He made something out of nothing. It is an astounding thought that we cannot understand, and in an attempt to “unscrew the inscrutable,” men have resorted to myths and fables and lies. The truth is, God spoke to nothing and that nothing became something. John said in his Gospel, speaking of Jesus Christ who is the agent of creation, “All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made.” That means that everything that was not God was made; in fact, if there was anything co-existent in the universe with God, then it, too, would by its very nature be God. The primordial slime out of which evolving man supposedly crawled would have to be considered a god if it is eternal, if it existed by its own will. Worship the slime if it is your progenitor. Sadly, many do. The truth remains: God alone is God because He created all things and all things therefore belong to Him.

“He commanded and they were created” should be an encouragement to all of us as creations of God, because He still does that. He still speaks into existence that which He desires. That’s how we came to Christ in the first place. There was no faith, no life, and no hope, we were dead in our trespasses and sins, rebels against God. Then God spoke. Something came from nothing. That’s what surprised Jonah so much and made him mad. The Ninevites were the absolute last people on the planet anyone expected to repent. There was nothing in their hearts for God and man except for hatred. They were brutal and feared by all and had no regard for human life. Perhaps Jonah did not want to preach to them because he did not think there was any way these brutes could ever be converted. God spoke through Jonah and something came out of nothing. He commanded and they were created. Or re-created. The whole city repented, more than 120,000 people, perhaps the greatest revival in one city the world has ever seen.

“He commanded and they were created.” It is the same after we come to Christ as well. That’s what gives me hope to pray for situations where there seems to be no hope. God can call into being something that is not there. Paul said, “God gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.” I have spoken to many Dads in the last couple of years who have told me that God spoke to them about their responsibility to disciple their children when there was absolutely no vision for that at all. When I was in Moldova in January, I heard from men who said God had led them to start teaching their family the Word and praying with and for their wives. God spoke something into existence in their hearts that was not there before. He does it in the hearts of teenagers who are out of control. He does it in failing marriages. He even does it in dying churches. He spoke the worlds into existence. He can certainly change us with a word as well.

God speaks to nothing and nothing becomes something. That’s worth rejoicing over.