Monday, April 16, 2018

This is Not the Day You Expected

What was a day in your past that you anticipated for weeks or even months? I remember several years growing up when I would wait for my grandmother, Nana, to come on my birthday and pick me up in her convertible Morris Minor. She would take me to a favorite restaurant to eat, and sometimes to a movie. It was a day I looked forward to. What if, instead of stopping to pick me up, she just drove by my house and threw a moldy McDonald’s hamburger out the window at my feet, while singing, “Sad Birthday to you…”? That’s a happy day turned sour.

Let’s raise the stakes much higher. When is the day of the Lord darkness and not light? When is the day of the Lord gloom, and not joy? Answer: It is when the day of the Lord comes for the unbeliever. As I work through the book of Amos in the Old Testament, I have thought about Haman several times. He was the wicked right hand man to the King in the book of Esther. The second feast day for Haman was not festive but disastrous. He came expecting to be honored, but instead he was hanged. Haman’s presumption led to his demise.

That is what was going on in Israel in the 8th century B.C., and we could all learn from it. The people presumed that God would look the other way as they lived any way they chose to live. Instead, God said to Israel that they were like a man who was able to escape from a lion, only to meet a bear, and then a deadly snake. This is a scene from a movie, isn’t it? It’s an Indiana Jones stunt, where he is chased by a lion, and somehow escapes. Only to turn around when he thinks he is in the clear, and a grizzly bear is standing there ready to devour him. Somehow he escapes from the clutches of the bear. Hey, this is Indiana Jones we’re talking about. He barely makes it into his house as the bear crashes into the front door behind him. He breathes a sigh of relief while leaning his hand against the wall to catch his breath, and then a serpent bites him and he dies. End of movie. Credits roll. Rest in peace, Indiana!

Except it’s not a movie. It’s real. God is making it plain to those who do not know him that there is nowhere to hide on the day of the Lord. Even your own home is no longer safe. God is coming to where you live, and there’s nothing that can stand in his way.

You see, the people of Israel thought of God then like many people think of God today. That God is always good. Don’t get me wrong, God is good. But to many people today, an “always good” God never brings judgment on his people. And the day of the Lord for them is when their “always good” God vindicates his people while punishing their enemies. But what God thunders to them through his prophet Isaiah, and Jesus repeats 700 years later to the Pharisees and the scribes is this: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” The people in Amos’s day, and Isaiah’s day, and the people in Jesus’ day thought the same thing then that billions of people think today: “If I say good things about ‘God’ every now and then, and check some of the ‘religious rituals’ off my list now and then, I can live any way I want to. I am home free!”

That presumption results in disaster, and that’s bad news. That track ends with the day of the Lord being the very opposite of what we expected, where a moldy hamburger would be the least of your worries. Here’s the good news. God made a way for us to come to him by grace because he loves us. Start on a different track today, by acknowledging that your presumptions about him have been wrong.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

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Monday, April 9, 2018

He Emerged Triumphant On the Other Side

I know Easter was last week, but let’s face it. The stunning news that Jesus died on Friday and was raised from the dead on Sunday is still fresh, still powerful, and still relevant to every human being on the planet. He beat death, so that we could as well.

I remember as a little boy taking a dare from a friend. He dared me to crawl through a culvert under the road near our house. You couldn’t see from one end to the other because it took a slight turn. The pipe had a little bit of water running through it, and lots of spider webs I would have to fight through. I summoned my courage, took the dare, made the journey, exited triumphantly on the other side and yelled at my friend, “Come on! You can do it, too!”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the linchpin of Christianity, the absolute cornerstone of our faith, and all of our hopes are built squarely on our belief that Jesus “emerged on the other side,” that he rose from the dead on the third day, just as he said he would. But our belief is not blind faith, my friends. Oh, no.

There is the evidence of the empty tomb. The bones of Caiaphas, Jesus’ accuser, were discovered in 1990, but Jesus’ body was never found. Had the disciples stolen the body, as the Jewish authorities claimed, then the followers of Christ died for a lie. All but one of the disciples of Jesus was martyred. Peter was even crucified upside down, according to Jewish historians, because he said, “I am not worthy to die as my Lord.” The disciples did not steal the body because they didn’t have to. How about the Romans and the Jews? Did they steal the body? No, because if they had, they would have ended Christianity in its infancy by producing the beaten, bloodied, broken body of the Christ. That would have been the end of it. But they could not produce the body because they did not have it. The tomb was empty because Jesus was resurrected.

There is also the evidence of eyewitness accounts. The resurrected Jesus appeared to friends and enemies, skeptics and believers. He “was seen by over five hundred brethren at once,” Paul wrote. In “The Case for Christ,” Lee Strobel explains that if we were to give each of the 500 witnesses 15 minutes in a courtroom to tell his story, we would be there around the clock Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and all day Friday until 11 p.m., hearing one after another say, “He’s alive! I saw the Lord.” Is it possible that any of you dear readers, after 125 straight hours of eyewitness testimony, would leave the courtroom unconvinced?

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most successful trial lawyer of modern times was Sir Lionel Luckhoo, “who succeeded in getting his 245th consecutive murder acquittal by January 1, 1985.” The Sydney Morning Herald called Luckhoo the “Perry Mason of the Caribbean.” He was an expert on what constitutes reliable, admissible, persuasive evidence. And his life changed at the age of 63 when he heard about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He analyzed the evidence and came to this conclusion:

“I have spent more than forty-two years as a defense trial lawyer in many parts of the world. I say unequivocally the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus crawled through the culvert of death and emerged triumphant on the other side, conquering death, sin, and the grave. He stands and says to all of us, “Come to me and you will be given life everlasting, too.” The evidence for believing his story is true is overwhelming. The rewards for trusting him with your life are eternal.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Don’t Stop Thinking About the Reason

As the story goes, a man was watching TV with his wife when the doorbell rang. He went to see who it was and found his friend on the doorstep. “What are you doing?” the friend asked. He said, “Watching a movie.” The friend said, “Oh, which one?” The man knit his brow and worked on that thought for a moment, then said, “What’s that flower called that smells good but has thorns?” His friend replied, “Rose?” “Yeah, that’s it.” The man then turned and called back into the house, “Hey Rose, what’s the name of that movie we’re watching?” Now there’s a man with a memory problem. His forgetter is working overtime.

It’s important to remember the names of our loved ones, and diseases that strip that ability away are cruel and unrelenting in their torture. But what about those who forget the very reason for their existence simply because they are consumed with lesser things? Why would Paul write to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead”? Surely that is the last thing this young pastor would forget. Not so fast. You might argue that the banner over Israel in the Old Testament was, “They forgot God.” Moses said it this way near the end of his life: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” It is one of the reasons why I believe Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper. “Do this,” he said, “in remembrance of me.” It is a regular reminder for the body of Christ that employs all of our five senses as we taste, smell, touch and see the elements, and as we hear the Words that he spoke, “This is my body, broken for you…this is my blood, poured out for you.”

The Taj Mahal is perhaps the most beautiful structure in the world. It was built in the 1600s by an Emperor for his favorite wife after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. It took twenty thousand men more than twenty years to build this magnificent shrine. The sad irony is that by the time the building was completed, the favorite wife had been gone so long that most in the empire did not know her memory and had no idea why the Taj Mahal had been built. They marveled at the edifice, ignorant of the life it celebrated.

It can be true of a church, can’t it? We build magnificent structures and cathedrals that dazzle the eye. We spare no expense to have the finest architecture, the tallest steeple, the largest sanctuary, or the most “cutting-edge” programs. Then we drift away from center. We forget the reason we started the church in the first place. The stained glass windows tell the story of the Gospel that we long since quit preaching. “The Gospel? It is just too exclusive,” some say. “We need a more tolerant message.” The church bells still play the old hymns through the week, songs that many would be embarrassed to sing on Sunday. Songs like, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right.” Or songs like, “Jesus shall reign wherever the sun does his successive journeys run; his kingdom spread from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.” You want to get hissed at, or worse, just stand up on a college campus today and speak the words to either of those two hymns.

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. We may forget who is enshrined in the Taj Mahal, because she is long gone. Jesus is not. He is risen from the dead. The living Savior is the very reason for our existence.

Monday, March 26, 2018

A Grain of Wheat Must Die

Joseph Damien was a nineteenth-century missionary who ministered to lepers on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. The people in this colony grew to love him, revering the sacrificial life he lived out before them. But even he did not know the price he would eventually pay.

One morning before he was to lead their daily worship, he was pouring some boiling water into a cup when some splashed out and fell on his bare foot. It took him a moment to realize that he had not felt any pain. Gripped by the sudden fear of what this could mean, he let more boiling water spill onto his foot. No feeling whatsoever. Damien immediately knew what had happened. He walked tearfully to deliver his sermon, and no one at first noticed the difference in his opening line. You see, he normally greeted them, “My fellow believers.” But this morning he began with, “My fellow lepers.”

Oh, my friends! It is one thing to minister and pour your life into others at a distance or when the cost to you is minimal. It is quite another to give of yourself to others in a way that will require all. In the greatest sacrifice imaginable, Jesus came into this world knowing what obedience to the Father would cost him. He was fully aware, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, that it would be his Father’s will to crush him. Still, Jesus came. (adapted from Ravi Zacharias’ “The Price of Sacrifice”)

On what is now known as Palm Sunday, just five days before he was to be crucified, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. He explained his coming in this metaphor: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Do you know that grains of wheat have been found in Pharaoh’s tombs from ancient Egypt? They are thousands of years old, but the grains hold the same potential they held when put in the tomb. When those wheat berries have been planted, they have sprouted like they were just plucked off the stalk. An amazing seed, the grain of wheat! But it is absolutely and utterly useless unless it dies, unless it is buried in the cold, unforgiving earth. The sprout comes, then the blade, then the stalk, and finally the head. Then there is not just one tiny grain of wheat, but thousands. When you plant those thousands you can one day stand beside a shimmering field of wheat, rippling in the breeze, golden in the sunshine, and you can say you have seen a grain of wheat. You have seen all the possibilities of it; all of it has been unfolded and now is visible to the eye. That is what Jesus meant. The world would not see the full outcome of his work and his life until he went to the cross.

And so he came. Jesus came into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. He came through the thronging crowds of people who would sing his praises on Sunday, arrest him on Thursday, and curse him on Friday. He came to die, so that the grain of wheat would produce untold millions.

One of those grains of wheat stood before his congregation more than 1800 years later and said, “My fellow lepers, I am one of you now.” Joseph Damien lived four more years and died of leprosy. But his death was not in vain. There are thousands bearing fruit today because of him.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Is the Lord at Home in You?

When we lived in Graham, we had next-door neighbors who loved our children. Our son, Jesse, had learned that he could knock on their door, and walk away with a fistful of cookies. We told our son, after this happened several times, that we didn’t want him to ask the neighbors for cookies any more. So, our four-year old would go and stand in their carport, looking longingly at the door, until Diane saw him and came out. Jesse then asked, “What have you got in your house?” Hey, he wasn’t begging for cookies! My son knew that whatever she had was his for the asking, because Jim and Diane had made all our children feel at home there.

What happens when somebody feels at home in a place? Or, how does a person act when he does not feel at home? The way I felt at my Grandmother’s was way different than how I feel when I visit the Biltmore House. Whenever I go there, it drives me crazy because I like to experience something. They won’t even let me touch the furniture. They said, “No,” when I asked if I could crawl up into Mr. Vanderbilt’s bed to see how comfy it was. They said, “Forget it,” when I asked if I could swim in his indoor pool, or fix a sandwich in his kitchen, or even play one lousy game of billiards. You can look, they said, but you may not touch. As much as I tried to make suggestions at the Biltmore House about making the place a bit more inviting, they were not interested. When I pulled my grill out of the trunk and set it up on the front yard for a cookout, you should have seen the security guys come running. Whenever I’m there, even though I have to take out a loan to go inside the place, they make it clear that I am not welcome to make myself at home. That’s not the way it was at Nana’s house growing up. I could walk into the kitchen and get something to eat any time. I could use any of the furniture in her house; in fact, Cindy and I ended up with a house full of it when we got married. When I was at Nana’s, I didn’t have to worry about being loved or accepted. I felt it. I knew it. I was at home.

When Paul writes, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly,” it is the same the idea. It means, let the Word of Christ, even Christ himself, be at home in you. Let him have the run of the place and make it his own. Let him change the way you live, the way you think, even the way you feel. Sadly, for some who follow the Lord, that’s not the way it is. He is only welcome to be a guest, but never welcome to call the shots. Some say, “OK, Lord, you can come into this room, because this is where I pray, but don’t look in there. And no way will you look under my bed or in my closet!”

I heard one preacher say a woman bragged that she had been through the Bible 37 times. He smiled and said, “How many times has it been through you?” The question is not, how much Word do you know, but how much has the Word moved in and taken up residence? You have to watch that Jesus of Nazareth. He won’t just take up space; he will take over. That, my friends, is exactly what is supposed to happen. He is Lord.

We moved away from Graham many years ago, but we remember with gratitude the good neighbors we had there. We knew that with them, we were right at home.

Is the Lord at home in you?