The River

8348378_web1_endangered-river-apr12-17_031817jk_005“The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise…”- Mark Twain

There is fewer things on this planet that has the force of rushing water.  A fall overboard on a white-water rafting trip will make this point abundantly clear.  Water carries weight, force, and power.  I remember watching my township redoing flood control on a creek.  They spent all summer, day-after-day, adding in earth-works, bends in the creek bed, and low-level dams.  Then we had 3 inches of rain in 2 hours.  The next day, the creek looked as it had in May.  All their work was for not.  The power of rushing water is incredible.

Ezekiel is a prophet of God.  Things in his life have not been going swimmingly.  He is writing during a period of Israel’s history known as the exile.  In short, it was a period of time after the King of Babylon had taken control of Jerusalem.  He took the nation of Israel, back to Babylon and kept them there.  It was in Babylon that they would live for the next 70 years.  Ezekiel is prophesying to his people from Babylon.  While Jeremiah is in Israel and Daniel is in the city of Babylon, Ezekiel is in the nation of Babylon prophesying.

“I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God…” (Ezekiel 1.1)

He is standing on the banks of the Kebar River when the visions of God come to him.  The picture is easy to formulate.  A morning devotion, a sunset quiet time, or just a random pause to take in the greatness of the river.  The Kebar isn’t the Amazon, the Nile, or even the Mississippi, but with desert on every side, it holds an intrinsic beauty that draws in an audience.  There is a reason the 4 major ancient civilizations all grew up on the banks of a respective river.  Ezekiel is taken to a place of worship.  In a foreign land and with little hope, Ezekiel is refreshed on the banks of the river.

He is refreshed by the word.  God has always been speaking and acting, but present circumstances have called God’s activity into question.  Ezekiel is looking around at his current conditions and has to be wondering how this can be God’s plan.  Forty times in his book this phrase occurs: “The word of the Lord came to me…” and the first time is right here on the river bank.  God meets with his prophet and gives his Words.   Sometimes, all that is needed is a word.  Where presence is desired, where physical contact is needed, it cant always be provided.  This is where a phone call, a note, a text, or a message is all that is needed to right the ship.  Ezekiel needed a word and God provided.

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.  When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.  He said to me, ‘Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.’  As he spoke, the Spirit (hb. ruach) came into me and raised me to my feet…”(Ezekiel 1.28-2.2)

A word from God changed Ezekiel.  It refreshed him and restored him.  Staring across the banks (in my mind he is facing his homeland from the distant country that holds him captive), he meets with God and receives a word.  It has happened multiple times in my life, where a text message from an old friend can change the course of a week.  A verse of Scripture can have the same effect.

He is refreshed by his service.  God has a scroll in hand that had writing on both sides.

“And He [God] said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel…eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.”  So I ate it and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. (Ezekiel 3.1-3)

Ezekiel’s mission has begun.  His objective is to speak God’s message to the exiles and their response is irrelevant (Ezekiel 3.11).  That’s not the case with most preachers.  A positive response is usually desired.  That is his primary method of communication to the people.  He proclaims judgement and announces judgement.  He recounts the history of Israel, their sin and unfaithfulness, in graphic and R-rated terms (read Ezekiel 23).  But he didn’t stop there.  Ancient prophets were not only preachers, but case-studies and actors.  They acted/lived out their messages at times.  Ezekiel did just that:

  • 3.25 — Tied with Ropes/unable to speak (Israel’s response to Ezekiel)
  • 4.1 — He drew a picture of Jerusalem on a tablet and then acted out a siege of it.  He lay on one side next to it for 390 days for the sins of Israel and 40 for the sins of Judah…oh and he baked over human waste (Prophecy on Jerusalem)
  • 5.1 — shave head and beard.  Burn it/cut it/scatter it
  • 12.5 — dig through the wall and leave (a picture of the exile)
  • 21.20 — Road signs for Nebuchadnezzar
  • 24.15 — his wife dies
  • 37.16 — writes the names Judah on one stick and Ephriam [Israel] on one stick.  Then he joined them together (reunification of Judah and Israel; God’s people)

So he has an odd ministry, but its refreshing.  He is energized by it.  He exclaims:

“May the Lord be praised in his dwelling place!” (Ezekiel 3.12)

The man that comes to my mind is a friend from a previous ministry.  His walk with Jesus was spotty at times and he had gone through a rough patch.  I saw him mowing at the church one day.  After much prompting, some cajoling, and some strong arming, the Spirit finally forced me to call him and ask him to help out with middle school youth group.  The man came alive serving some of the most obnoxious and trying kids.  They love him.  He came alive and was refreshed from his service in God’s kingdom.

He is refreshed by the message.  A simple word from God can change Ezekiel, but a good message changed a nation.  Ezekiel is full of pretty graphic, doom and gloom messages.  He doesn’t mince words when it comes to the sin and judgement on Judah.  But he doesn’t stop there.  He finishes the story.  In chapter 37, he is carried to a valley where a great battle had taken place; white washed bones lay covering the floor of the valley. A question is posed to Ezekiel:

“Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37.3)

Ezekiel claims ignorance.  Then the Lord gives him instruction.  The word comes; then the service, “prophesy…”.  God gives te message to Ezekiel.  The command is for the bones to re-articulate, tendons and muscles to reattach, and flesh, reappear.  At his command, the bones followed.  Yet there was no “breath” in them.  Again God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy and “they came to life and stood on their feet–a vast army.” (Ezekiel 37.10)

The key verse in this section is verse 11, where it reads:

 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. (Ezekiel 37.11-12)

The hopeless and homeless people of Israel will rise again.  They can have hope in the promise of God that they will someday return home.

It is fitting that there is one Hebrew word that stands in the midst of all three of these main passages.   The word is ruah.  It can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit.  In Ezekiel 2.2, “the Spirit” raised him to his feet.  In Ezekiel 3.12, “the Spirit” lifted him.  Finally, in chapter 37.1-14, the word is used 10 times beginning in verse 1, where Ezekiel is brought out to the valley “by the Spirit”.  The Spirit is providing the refreshment.  Ezekiel just has to drink it in.

What the Spirit is doing for Ezekiel, Jesus has done for us as well.  In John 4, a woman comes to draw water from a well and Jesus has a conversation with her.  He asked for a drink and she was taken aback.  Jesus answered her response:

If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. (John 4.10)

Water and the Word.  Jesus, the Source of Life, is speaking with a Samaritan woman.  She is standing by the river needing a word from God.  Jesus goes on:

Everyone who drinks this water (the well water) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.  Indeed the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4.13-14)

Stagnant water is dead water.  River water is flowing, refreshing, and restoring.  This woman came to get dead well water and left with a “spring of water welling up to eternal life”, Jesus.

Finally, in John 7.37, Jesus is at the festival.  On the last day he is teaching the people.  He says:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.  By this he meant the Spirit…(John 7.37-39)

Ezekiel was not only refreshed with the word of God, but by his service and his message.  Jesus gives hope because of his message.  He promised victory over death.  He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6)  If this message is believed, there is no greater source of hope in the history of this world.

But this message must go somewhere.  Rivers flow.  “Rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  For those that believe his message, rivers will pour out of them.  It is service, the mission, to take this message to others.  And just like in Ezekiel’s case, this service can be a refresher.

Ezekiel’s book begins in despair, but ends in worship.  Late in his prophecy, in the next-to-last chapter of his book, he writes speaking of the river flowing from the Temple:

Then he led me back to the bank of the river.  When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river…Swarms of living creatures will live where the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live…Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river.  Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail.  Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them.  Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47.6-7, 9, 12)

Come to the River for healing.

The Cave

Gollum-Smeagol-smeagol-gollum-14076878-960-403“It came to me. My own. My love. My own. My precious.” –Gollum

Deep below the Misty Mountains lay a cave.  In the cave lived Gollum, one of the River people.  Many, many years back, he obtained a Ring.  It was one of the Rings of Power that was dolled out amongst the races of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.  Gollum now held the most powerful ring in his hand.  Immediately, the power consumed him.  Quickly, he began to both love it and hate it.  It warped his mind, body, and spirit.  It drove him to seek shelter in the cave below the Misty Mountains where he lived in the darkness for many years.

Caves are not destination places.  They are not places that people want to end up.  They are dark places.  They are wet places.  They are cold places.  When people ask: “why don’t you duck hunt?”  I simply tell them this: “I can be wet.  I can be cold.  I refuse to be both.”  Life has cave moments.  In 1 Samuel 22.1, David is in a cave.  He escaped (hb. malat) Saul’s pursuit at Gath and fled to the cave of Adullam.  At least in Gath, he was living in a city (albeit a foreign city under guise as an insane person).  I assume it was a non-extradition city.  Saul had a long reach and David ran.  The land of Israel is littered with caves and hide outs.  Like an outlaw, David finds one and is on the lam.  While there, just like he did to pass the long nights out in the field shepherding and just like he did in the Palace of Saul, he journaled.  He composed songs, poems, acrostics, and worshiped.  Scripture contains a few of these moments that reveal some truths about caves.

David enters alone (1 Samuel 22.1).  David went into the cave by himself.  There are very few exceptions in Scripture where people enter caves with others and some of those are questionable.  Obadiah hid 100 prophets in two caves, but with a nation and a king who is trying to exterminate them, there was probably some loneliness.  Just because there are people there, doesn’t mean isolation can’t set in.

“No man is an island, entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent.” — John Donne

Caves are a reminder, that the inhabitant is in it alone.  His journal reads:

“Look and see, there is no one at my right hand;

no one is concerned for me.

I have no refuge;

no one cares for my life.” (Psalm 142.4)

David is isolated.  Loneliness is an epidemic in America.  As of 1 January 2018, Facebook had 214 million US users.  Those that are 18-24 years old numbered 39.4 million.  Those that were over the age of 65 numbered 21.1 million.  Yet a 2016 article on independent.com stated: “a study in 2014 found 18-24-year-olds were four times as likely to feel lonely all the time as those aged 70 and above.”  Double the number are connected to the world and yet they are 4 times as likely to feel alone.  In the same article, Heather Saul observed, “humans were built for companionship, not to be alone, at least according to the growing body of research on the effect of social isolation has on health.”  I think I’ve read something like that before…Genesis 2 perhaps?  “It is not good for man to be alone.”  The “research” is affirming what God had said all along.  David’s family would eventually arrive, but for a time, he was isolated.

David is on the run.  Saul has been after David for some time now.  Twice he’s thrown spears.  He’s chased him into foreign territory.  Saul will not rest until David is dead.  Saul has tried to trap him: “When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way.  In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.” (Psalm 142.3)  This is directly from David’s prayer journal.  But he escaped the traps, the nets and the pits (Psalm 57.6).  Then there was the chase.  David prays later on: “Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.” (Psalm 142.6)  I’ve harvested coyotes two ways: 1) trapping; 2) shooting from the back of an ATV at 45 mph.  It couldn’t have been a more different experience.  David was the coyote.  He’s seen it all.  He says in his song, in Psalm 57, that it has been a “hot pursuit” (57.3) and that he is now amongst men like “lions” and “ravenous beasts” (57.4).

The main word in both of these passages is refuge (hb. machseh/chaseh).  Four times in the two Psalms (57 and 142) refuge is mentioned.  They are related words with the same base.  Machseh is used in Psalm 142.5: “I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge…”  Of the 20 times its used in Scripture, 12 of them are in Psalms.  The reason is the desperation that comes through the pens of the song writers.  These are desperate men in desperate situations.  Refuge is not requested, it is required.

Along the same lines, chasah, another Hebrew word for refuge, is used 37 times, with 25 of them in Psalms.  Again, desperation begs refuge.  Psalm 57 uses this word twice.  “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge.  I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” (Psalm 57.1)  David employs the image of a mother bird hovering over her nest.  Its not the first time.  He quoted his great-grandfather, Boaz, in speaking to Ruth: “May the Lord repay you for what you have done.  May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2.12)

The refuge of God takes many forms.  It was wings, as was mentioned before (also in Psalm 61.4; 91.4).  It was a “shield and horn”, a symbol of God’s power (1 Samuel 22.3; Psalm 18.30; Proverbs 30.5).  It was a rock that a man could tether to (Psalm 18.2;62.7; 94.22).  Refuge is the strong tower and fortress that fortifies the soul (Psalm 61.3; 91.2; 94.22).  A place of refuge is a reoccurring theme in David’s journal.  He is distressed and exhausted; on the run and growing weary.  He needs refuge.  It is fitting that “Adullam”, the cave where he is hiding (1 Samuel 22.1), means “refuge” in Hebrew. (Brown, Driver, Briggs 726)

David is worn out.  No one enters the cave at a high point in life.  The cave lies at the end of a long and arduous journey.  David’s been on the run.  He’s acted insane.  He’s been among enemies.  He has dodged spears.  He is physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted.  “When my spirit grows faint within me…I have no refuge.” (Psalm 142.3-4)  The Hebrew verb “faint” (‘atap) is in an unusual conjugation.  It is in the hitpael stem, meaning it is to be understood reflexively.  David is “growing faint” because of himself.  Elsewhere this verb is translated “ebb away” (Jonah 2.7).  The picture is made clear.  David is wasting away because of the chase, the stress, and the isolation.  He is left in the cave to think and “grow faint”.

But there is another side to this prayer and this song.  For all the things going wrong, David trusts in this: God does his best work from caves.

“Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;

let your glory be over all the earth…

My heart, O God, is steadfast, my heart is steadfast;

I will sing and make music…

I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;

I will sing of you among the peoples.

For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;

your faithfulness reaches to the skies.” (Psalm 57.5, 7, 9-10)

empty-tomb-yellowFast forward 1000 years or so.  Joseph of Arimathea brought Jesus to a tomb.  They were caves back then.  Where they sealed the entrance with a stone and they left him alone.  His chase was over.  The people, the Romans, the mob, had been after him for a year.  Finally, the situation proved fruitful and they crucified him.  He had been chased down.  Jesus was exhausted from all night trials and physically spent.  He had endured the cross and the suffering.  He was worn-out.  And he finds himself in the cave.  But his road to the cave was understood in the same way that David understood his: God does his best work from caves.  Three days later, Jesus would emerge from the cave, overcoming all that it stood for.  Like David writes in Psalm 57.8:

“Awake, my soul!

Awake, harp and lyre!

I will awaken the dawn!”

That dawn, Sunday morning, was welcomed with an empty cave!

 

Two Parades

Peanut-Thanksgiving-Macys-Parade-November-MACYSPARADE1117I’m not a parade person.  I don’t like crowds.  Kansas parade season is October-March which is usually cold.  Finally, watching a bunch of children run toward a bunch of moving vehicles chasing candy seems like a recipe for disaster.  Many others love parades.  North Topekan’s love parades.  By my last count, North Topeka has at least 5 parades between October and December and my friends love them all.  One thing is for certain, parades attract a crowd.  When a parade wanders by, heads pop out of windows, people stop and stare, and people crowd to the doors.  The same is true regardless of what century you lived in.  Every parade draws a crowd but every parade is essentially the same.  Animals, tiny cars, marching bands, clowns, floats, and candy.  But the two parades at the end of Luke couldn’t be more different.

The first one took place on Sunday; the other on Friday.  The first, came down the country road from Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19.28); the other began in the city and wound its way through the crowded streets to just outside the city.

They juxtapose each other.  The first being the idea of carried.  Jesus sent 2 disciples ahead of him to get a donkey colt for him to ride on.  Near as I can tell, this was the only time that Jesus rode.  But it was to fulfill prophecy:

See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9.9)

Zechariah is talking about how the King will ride in on a donkey, carried into the city on a colt.  That was the significance of the palm leaves that we often wave in church on Palm Sunday.  It was a sign of victory and this Parade is a celebration of the King.  In the second parade, Jesus is carrying his cross.  The soldiers pull a man from the crowd and make him carry the cross.  The greek word “made carry” [pheroo] is the same word that Mark uses in chapter 11 when they “brought” the colt to Jesus to ride.  In the first, the colt is bearing Jesus; the second, Jesus is bearing the cross.

The second parade is full of mourning and wailing (23.27); the first, “the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God…” (19.37)  The second parade chanted: “Crucify him!  Crucify him!; the first, “Hosanna!” (Matthew 21.9)  The irony is palpable.  The second cried out: “Kill him” while the first shouted “he saves!”  These crowds are as opposite as you could come up with.   They are as opposite as the direction they are heading and the purpose they serve.  The first parade was a victory parade with palm leaves, worthy of a King’s inauguration, the second was a death march with the condemned leading the way.

They each have a scripture, but they are at odds with one another. The first parade, the one of victory, quotes Psalm 118.26: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”  The verse that follows in Psalms reads: “The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine on us.  With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.”  The crowd is relishing their connection with Scripture, interacting with and taking part in God’s word.  This day the Lord has saved those one thought to be rejected…and its worth a celebration.  The second crowd wasn’t shouting their scripture but heard Jesus quote it.  The weeping, wailing, and shouting of the second parade was met with this quote from Hosea: “they will say to the mountains, ‘fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘cover us!'” (Hosea 10.8)  It’s taken from a section of scripture where Hosea is laying out the sins of Israel and the punishment that is coming.  Jesus sees this future as well.  One is a celebration of the future, the other is a dreading of the future.

So many differences in the two parades that happened just under a week apart.

But one thing was the same.  This was festival time for the nation of Israel.  It was a week long festival where people would come to the city and stay.  What was the same?  The same voices who shouted “victory” on Sunday would be the one shouting “crucify” on Friday.  The same ones waving palm leaves the first day of the week would be holding hammers and nails by the 6th.  The same ones embracing Jesus as King on Sunday would be crucifying Jesus as criminal by Friday.

We want to judge those in the easily influenced and simple minded crowd until we realize the transition in my life doesn’t always take 5 days…it can happen in seconds.

Almond Joy

9D494A70-DAF4-4DAC-B0AE-5395FD5D2AAB.pngI have a routine and it really goes in month long cycles.

September is Football and Franks.  I love to tailgate and grill.  I also love brats and hotdogs.  So I are mostly hot dogs and brats throughout the month.

November is turkey/poultry and Thanksgiving.  I will alter my crock pot taco soup recipe by substituting shredded chicken for beef, load up on the tobasco, Fritos, and shredded cheddar cheese and eat a crock pot full every week.

December is all about the three C’s: Christmas, cinnamon rolls, and chilie.  Chilie is served seven nights a week, cleaning out the crock pot only to repeat the process.  Fun fact: apparently this is a Kansas thing because if you mention it anywhere else people look at you like you are crazy.

But that leaves out October.  Taco Soup (with beef) will get me through the month, but it really is all about candy.  Walmart keeps dentists employed in November.  I  saw a sign the other day where a store is offering to buy back Halloween Candy to keep kids healthy.  Meanwhile, I spoke with a Dad who refused to buy candy this years so he is taking his kids Trick-or-Treating an hour early so they can circle back by their house to refill their own candy bowl.  That is #NextLevelParenting.

I have recently been studying the life of Jesus.  I have also been trying to organize some thoughts on leadership and methodology.  Here I bring the two together.  One of my favorite get-to-know-you/team building games is what I call “synthesis”.  Each group gets one note card.  They have to write down 5 topics or thoughts on the left hand side.  Then the team trades with another team.  The new team has one minute to write down a word that corresponds with the first teams thoughts.  The catch is that there is a theme.  It might have to be an animal, or a celebrity, or a song, or anything else.  They have one minute.  Then each group has to explain to the whole group why they chose that thing to describe the first teams topic.

Since October really is all about the candy, how would Jesus ministry be communicated through candy bars?

One of the first things that draws me to Jesus ministry is how contagious it was.  People were drawn to him.  They brought the sick, they brought friends, they traveled miles, and they fought through crowds.  They climbed trees, dug through roofs, watched from gates, crawled between legs, and snuck into dinners, just to be near him.  But what drw them?  Certainly it was his ability, some of it was probably his teaching, but I want to focus on something that not many other’s have touched: his Joy!  Mostly because I struggle with it.

Joy is really a Paul word.  First, I want to introduce you to three greek words.  This will be painless.

  • Chara is the greek word for “joy”
  • Charidzomai is the greek word for “forgiveness”
  • Charis is the greek word for “grace”

Notice that all three of theses words have the same root.  From that the connection is easily made.  When we understand that we are forgiven and have been shown grace, the only appropriate response is joy.  Paul was joyful because he understood the great lengths to which he was shown grace and the the great depths that he had been forgiven.  The reason I say this is a Paul word is quite simple.  Half the uses of these words in Scripture come from Paul’s pen.  He loved to talk about “joy” and “grace” and “forgiveness”.

Fir James and Peter, the source of joy is found elsewhere.  James begins his book like this:

”Consider it pure joy my brothers when you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1.2)

James knew that the growth received through the testing of faith would bring about joy. Peter echos this sentiment in his letter:

“These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1.7-9)

Peter and James found their source of joy in the trials they suffered.  These two knew about suffering.  Both would die a martyrs death.  Both would face beatings and persecutions.  Both would counsel people through the same things.  They knew that if you wanted the prize you were going to bear the scars.  This was joy.  Dostoyevsky once said: “One thing I fear is not to be worthy of my sufferings.”  Their joy came in the suffering in the same manner as Jesus.

But what about Jesus?  He didn’t need the grace that Paul was given and his sufferings were unlike any other.  It was his pattern that the other’s followed.  So where was Jesus’ joy found?  The Gospels don’t reveal it.  None of the epistles of Paul reveal it.  The only verse that touches upon it is found in Hebrews 12:2, in context it reads:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12.1-3)

The author of Hebrews encourages the Church to continue its run, not only because of those that have gone on before us and are cheering us on, but because that’s what Jesus did.  Still the question remains, what gave Jesus his joy?  Verse 2 tells us it was his death, resurrection, and ascension.  The process is called redemption.  Paul was joyful for the grace showed him, James for the sharing of suffering patterned for him, but Jesus was brought joy in the redemption he brought others.  Despite the coconut!

Leverage

Leverage (vb.) to use something for its maximum force

I have had the pleasure of coaching middle school football for a few seasons and involved for many more.  Last season we won the city championship.  Frankly, we were more talented than the other teams by far.  When asked “what team are you most proud of?, that team doesn’t warrant the #1 spot.  Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of that team and what they accomplished, but I am more proud of the team 2 years ago and here’s why: leverage!

Two years ago, the team was less talented and less experienced.  We finished 3rd in the city.  Not as great of finish as this years team, but respectable.  Still, they leveraged their talent.

Our fourth game of the season, against our arch rival, Jardine, we lost by 30.  It wasn’t even close.  Three weeks later, on a chilly night on the turf at Hummer Sports Park, we faced Jardine again in the 3rd-4th place game.  The coaches were hyped; the kids were hyped; our fans were hyped.  Man for man, they out talented us nearly across the board.  We may have had the edge at running back but that was all. That night we took it to them and avenged our 30 or beating with our own 14 pt victory.  That group of players leveraged their talents to the max.  They wrung out every bit of ability they had and achieved all they could. That is what makes coaches proud!  John Wooden once said: “Success is the piece of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

That team achieved success because they leveraged all they had to do everything they could.

We are given only so much time on this earth.  God asks that we leverage this life for His glory.  he desired that we make the maximum impact on the world around us.  That is what leverage is after all, using something for its maximum force.

James reminds us that our life here on this earth is a “mist”.  So the question is, “what will we do with our mist?”

Jesus makes it quite clear that our life is leveraged in pouring it out for others.  The maximum impact of our 80+ years on this earth is found in laying our lives down for others.  Set in his example (Mark 10.45), the lives that we have are leveraged in service to others.

James, Jesus half-brother, reminds his readers: “Religion that is pure and faultless is too look after orphans and widows.”

Looking out for others, serving others, laying our lives down, is the very best way to leverage the time we have on this earth.  It is completely contrary to what the world tells us this life is for.

“What can I gain?” “How much stuff can I accumulate?”  “How much wealth can I attain?”  “What is in it for me?”  The purity has been lost on this world.  Selflessness has been replaced with a me-first mentality.  Amazon’s catered for you, recommended-for-you, shopping experience has left us bereft of an others first mentality.  Facebook’s friends you may also know and stories-you-may-like, had led us to believe that we are the center of our relationships.  I fear that someday the shopping experience may spill over into the church, where we try to cater to the individual believer, at the expense of the community, in a gross misapplication of Paul’s famous verse: “When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.” (1 Corinthians 9.22)

Certainly, Paul did bring the gospel to different people in different ways, however, the message never changed form. (1 Cor. 9.22)

I am reminded of a story told to me by my friend Scott Brooks.  A man named George Steinberger, who was quite renowned in the rodeo world, especially around these parts, was moving from his home in Olathe to Richmond.  On his ranch in Richmond, atop a hill, stood a massive steel cross.  George had no qualms about letting you know what he believed.  But this Cross had be built at his home in Olathe and followed him down to Richmond.  The problem was that his gates were bigger in Olathe than they were in Richmond.  The cross wouldn’t fit through.  So they cut the cross down to a manageable size to get it  on the ranch.  Immediately, after getting it on the ranch, they went to welding it back together, to its full size.  It sets on his property, full and robust, as a sign to everyone who George served throughout his life.

Want know what I think of every time I see it: “God, let me make the cross as accessible to everyone, but never let me cut it down to size to fit anyone!”  George understood to get it in he had to work at it, but once it was in someone’s life, it couldn’t be changed, cut down, or transformed.

The words: “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” are not words that are to be altered, changed, or softened.  It is a call to pour out this life in service to another. In other words: leverage this life to the fullest.

The problem is that this life isn’t all peppermints and unicorns.  There are every day obstacles that challenge and oppress us.  “Look on the bright side” is how the world has chosen to advise us.  But  scripture says, in the same advice of our life, we should leverage these things in the same way.

Doubt, suffering, and injustice are the products of living in a fallen world.  Still, they are arrows that point us to God.

Over the next few weeks, I want to discuss how to leverage these topics to their fullest in our walk with Christ.

A Look at the Cross: John

Sometimes colors run together.  Like a damp water color, John paints the crucifixion with many colors that converge to make one.  His point is “life” and how to gain it, but his colors are numerous.

…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’s side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19.34-35)

Thirty six times in his book, will John use the word zoe, or “life”.  For John, life wasn’t just a few more sunsets and it wasn’t just eternal, but a manner of life that can be lived today.  In John’s many years and many experiences, he found that life was to be lived all out on this earth.  The point of his gospel was to communicate that with his readers.  It is fitting that life for us can only come through the death of him (Jesus).  So how do we attain “life”?

The formula for John is fairly simple and can be summed up in one word “believe”.  Belief and life are inextricably linked.  You can’t have one without the other.  Within John’s gospel, it is easy to see that with simple glance at the places where “life” and “believe” occur in tandem.

  • “…everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (3.15-16)
  • “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (5.24)
  • “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (6.40)
  • “he who believes has eternal life” (6.47)
  • “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (11.25-26)
  • “…by believing you might have life in his name.” (20.31)

The end result of belief, as attested to by John, is life.  Only through belief in Jesus does one find life.  What is fascinating about John’s book is how he lays out the case for belief.  At every major encounter, through all the 7 signs, and the 7 “I am statements” found in the words of Jesus, John is laying out a case for belief.  In the purpose statement of the book, found in John 20.30-31, John writes: “I have written these things so that you might believe…”  That is not the first time John used that phrase though.

Back one chapter, in John 19, John’s case for belief is solidified.  Sure the resurrection was the final argument for Jesus being the Son of God, but what he did for us was proved on that Friday.  A resurrection is only a resurrection if he was really dead so John writes:

…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’s side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19.34-35)

Believe in the testimony.  Over half the times this word [martureo] is used in the New Testament it is from the pen of John (47 times out of 76 total).  Thirty three times it is used in his gospel.  Jesus is doing what God sent him today and that work testifies his identity (John 5.36).  The miracles he performed (10.25) and the Scriptures (5.39) testify or give witness to who Jesus really is.  Do you believe?

Believe in the Truth.  At the end of their meeting, Jesus told Pilate: “I testify to the truth.” (18.37).  Pilate responded by asking: “what is truth?”  Truth is a big word for John.  Just over half of the time in the New Testament, when “truth” [alethia] or one of its cognates occur, it is in one of John’s writings (92/183).  John is awful preoccupied with truth, what is real, and what is “solid”.  Truth, first and foremost, comes from God (John 8.40).  Secondly, Jesus is full of it (John 1.14,17; 14.6; 17.3, 17).  Truth is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, which is what John is trying to get through to his readers.  Twice in our text, John uses the word.  The first time it is of his words (“the testimony is true”) and the second is of the actions of Jesus (“he tells the truth”).  One is a nod to the account, the other a nod to the event.

Believe the water.  The spear thrust into Jesus side let forth a mixture of blood and water.  Nicodemus was told that he needed to be born of the water (3.5).  The woman at the well needed living water (4.7-14).  In both instances, Jesus was clear, through John’s words, that water was directly connected to life.  Belief, testimony, truth, and now water…all seem to connect back to the life John wants us to have.  Jesus says it in John 7.38: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”  But when Jesus says “water” he doesn’t just mean “water”…sure he means “water” but this is other “water”.  The Spirit, who is also connected to truth, will reside within them.  This life giving Spirit, also sent from God, and also testifying to Jesus, will well up inside.  O how we need more water.

Believe in the Blood.  In all of John’s word-smithing, with his deep view of truth, his detailed testimony, his dual-meaning water, and the sheer volume of belief, when he says “blood”, he means it, kind of.  John 6 recalls Jesus talking to the crowds beside the lake.  He connects himself with the bread that the Lord sent down from heaven.  He is the bread of life.  The Jews began to argue because they didn’t understand how they could eat his flesh.  Understandable.  But Jesus replies that the only way to life is by drinking his blood. (6.54)  His flesh is “real” [alethia] and his blood is [alethia].  This is the same word for “truth”.  Life and truth is found in the blood of Jesus Christ…John did some work on this.

The question remains: Do you believe?  Jesus has been talking about belief since the beginning, but here, for the first time, John steps back from the narrative, and interjects the question.  It is implied but present.

…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’s side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19.34-35)

 

A Look at the Cross: Mark

Mark’s cross illuminates the identity of Christ.

One of the major questions answered by Mark is: Who is Jesus?

It starts with the opening of the book.  “This is the beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1.1)  Mark, the author, knows who Jesus is.  With the end in mind, Mark takes the reader on a journey of discovery about the identity of Jesus.   Through the next 16 chapters, Mark gives an introduction to the person of Jesus Christ.  It is not comprehensive, he leaves that job to others, but it is enough to see who Jesus really is.

The Spiritual World knows who Jesus is.  Twice in the book of Mark, God will speak audibly about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God.  At his baptism (1.11) and at the transfiguration (9.7), God proclaimed him to be the Son of God.  Three times his identity was declared by evil spirits.  The first were the spirits inhabiting a man in the synagogue.  As Jesus was teaching they cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are–the Holy one of God!” (1.24)  The second sounds like a series of encounters.  Mark says that every time the spirits saw him during a period of his Galilean ministry, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” (3.11)  The final declaration by demons comes from the legion that took residence in the Gadarenes Demoniac.  He fell on his knees before Jesus and the demons spoke out: “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you wont torture me!” (5.7)  The Spiritual world knew without a doubt who Jesus was and the power he possessed because of his identity.

Humanity is discovering who Jesus is.  The verdict is still out on his identity.  Whereas Mark knew the ending, and both God and the demons knew the truth, Mark takes the reader, the disciples, and the people on a fast-paced journey of discovery about the real identity of Jesus.  Mark shows more of the humanity of Jesus than any other Gospel.  Mark also discloses more details about the stories he communicates than any other writer.  He is dead set on showing the real person of Jesus and letting us realize in pieces who he is and what he is doing.  The journey begins in chapter 4.

The first potential confession begins with the question Mark is getting at.  Jesus has been asleep in the boat while the disciples are trying to keep it afloat in a storm.  They wake him up as they are about to capsize and ask him to do something.  Jesus rouses himself and immediately quiets the storm and the waves with just the words: “Quite! Be still!” (4.39)  And from the lips of the disciples comes this question: “Who is this?” (4.41)  Is that not the most important question ever offered?  Is that not the greatest decision that we will ever have to make?  A determination of who Jesus is?  Their question comes from the curiosity that “even the wind and the waves obey him!” (4.41)  Who is Jesus? A man with power over nature.

The second potential confession comes from his hometown crowd.  He has been teaching in the synagogue and the people begin to notice that this isn’t the same Jesus who was running through the narrow streets and playing with the other kids.  He has grown up.  The problem is meshing the two images: of boy playing in the street with the man-teacher before them.  Their amazement leads them to question: “Where did this man get these things?   What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!  Isn’t this the carpenters son?…” (6.2-3)  Their confusion is rooted in their familiarity with him?  Could it be that we sometimes get so comfortable with the Jesus next door that we forget that he is the Jesus who Created the Universe?

Thirdly, Jesus had come to the region of the Decapolis, where people again met him with the physically handicapped.  He pulled a deaf and mute man away from the crowd and healed him.  The crowd was “overwhelmed with amazement” [ekplesso hyperperissos] at the healing that he performed.  Their amazement was put into words and the third potential confession as to the identity of Jesus: “He has done everything well…He even makes the eaf hear and the mute speak.” (7.36)  He is more than just a weather changer and more than just a miracle worker; now “he does all things well.”  The journey of discovery is continuing.

Peter provides the most intriguing of potential confessions in just the next chapter.  Jesus asks his disciples point blank: “Who do people say I am?” (8.27)  The disciples can handle this question.  They just go through a Who’s Who of leaders in response: Elijah, John the Baptist, some unnamed prophet.  But Jesus wants to know about them and their hearts.  “Who do you say that I am?” (8.29)  Peter, always the first with a response, replies: “You are the Christ.” (8.29)  That is God’s Anointed…the Messiah and the one sent by God.  A great confession.  But the thing is, Cyrus was the Messiah (Isaiah 45.1) but he wasn’t the Son of God.  There is a difference between being the Ambassador (the one sent) and the Prince (the Son of the King) and discovery still awaits.

Fifthly, as Jesus is walking towards to Jerusalem, as he enters Jericho, they come across a blind man.  Bartimaeus is his name.  His occupation was begging.  Many passed by him every day without a scene, but on this day, as Jesus approached, he confessed, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (10.48)  “Son of David” meaning King David of the Old Testament.  Jesus has gone from miracle worker to sent one to now King of Israel.  Jesus heals him and he begins to follow the kingly parade that would culminate with a title above Jesus head declaring him “King of the Jews.”

Still all these times they missed it.  Mark started his book to reaveal Jesus as the Son of God (1.1) and 10 chapters in they are still falling short.  That is until a Roman Soldier sees the death of Jesus.

The Centurion knows who Jesus is.  He is first mentioned in Mark 15.39 but he has been on the scene for some time.  He was in charge of the detail that would ensure the death of Jesus and the two criminals.  It was common place in those days, especially for a detachment of soldiers in a backwoods province like Palestine, to perform crucifixions.  This man was hardened to the process and had seen it all.  But something was different about this one.  Mark 15.39 says:

And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

When he saw “how” he died.  That word is puzzling.  What made Jesus death so different?  Could I posit one of probably many answers?  Could it be that Jesus death brought together seamlessly his identity and his purpose?  The “how” that the Centurion saw could be a man’s death meeting with a man’s identity and purpose.

Not only has Mark been peeling away at Jesus’ identity, but his purpose has been slowly being revealed through out the book.  Look at Jesus own statements:

  • “I have come to preach.” (1.38)
  • “I have come to call sinners.” (2.17)
  • “I have come to suffer.” (9.31)
  • “I have come to be betrayed and to suffer.” (10.33-34)
  • “I have come to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.” (10.45)

All of these things, Jesus accomplished on the cross.  This was not lost, without a doubt through God’s revelation, on the Centurion.  The confession that Mark has been searching for since 1.1, is found when Jesus identity, as the Son of God, and his purpose, “to give his life” are brought together in an instant.  That is what caused the centurion to confess, the same thing that we can confess today: “Surely, this was the Son of God.”  And that is why it took 15 chapters.