Welcome to Good Friday

Good Friday is the mourning before celebration. Today is a funeral. Someone died. Jesus the Christ was brought before Pilate to be judged based on crimes against the empire. That is the tone of good Friday. It was long and full of sorrow. Before we proceed, let us meditate on the dark narrative of this good day. Do not rush. Think of Christ and his dedication to you that lead him to the cross.

Take a few moments to still your heart before walking through this devotional. 

I silence my voice that you might speak;

I quiet my thoughts that you might think within;

I set the gaze of my heart upon you; 

Help me do this, by your Spirit.

Why are we here? In Gods dark providence, he thought it good to crush the messiah. We are here because we are like Peter. Jesus tells Peter that he will disown him three times. Peter rebukes God and says, “even if I have to die with you I will never disown you”. Peter was humbled in his denial. We to must be emptied of pride. Ask God to do so.

 

Search me, O God, and know my heart!

Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting!

 

From Genesis to the cross, the church denied the Lordship of God. We have asked for kings, worshiped idols, and have built Babylons. We want to be God of our own lives. For this reason, Christ died. He made a covenant to His family in Genesis and he submitted Himself for his family. He suffered false accusations from the very people he came to save.

 

Pilate said to them, “then what I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”

 

There is suffering when plans and positions are given priority over people. We are dehumanized by those who use and discard us to suit their needs. Jesus did not wash his hands of us and leave is with our own problems. He took them wholly upon himself. Use a pen to trace your own hand over the text. Think and pray about the Scripture passages and reflection questions. Write your prayer, or just a word or two, inside the hand of the outline. Attach your paper to the wall with other people’s tracings .

Power is an interesting thing. We crave but at the same time we are scared of it. Those who have power can do anything they please. That truth attracts us to people who use it for our good. Christ, from his abduction in the garden to the cross still held all of the power. He was in control of the situation. But Christ submitted himself and denied himself the privilege of escape. For the joy set before him He endured. Christ submitted himself to destruction for you and for me.

 27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. [1]

Jesus is the faithful one. Think about it. The plan from the beginning of time was for you to be sent to die for your people. All the while you are watching your people rebel and run from you. Wrath is being stacked up against them and you know that at the perfect time that very wrath will stacked on you. You stand an unfair trial, you are mocked, beaten, and sentenced to tortuous death. All of this without flinching. Christ was faithful unto death for you.

44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” j When he had said this, he breathed his last.[2]

Take some time to confess to Jesus the ways that sin has separated you from him or has taken hold in your life. Know that Jesus meets you in that darkness and guides you out. Remember he knows you completely and is faithful to forgive.

My trespasses are multiplied before You,

And my spirit testifies against me.

For my transgressions are with me,

And I know my iniquities:

Transgressing and lying against the Lord

And departing from my God,

Speaking oppression and revolt,

Uttering Lies my heart has conceived.

Our God is in the ground. His followers have fled in a state of mourning. But one man, Joseph of Arimathea, went to claim the body of Christ. Gods sovereign hand was finishing his plan. Jesus time and time again proclaimed that “on the third day, I will rise”. Even though our God is in the ground we wait with expectation for Sunday. 

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb? Were you there when God raised him from the tomb? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

For a moment, grieve that it was our sin that put him there. 

57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.[3] 

Before Christ went to the cross, he prayed. He prayed for us. He prayed that the love of the Father would be in us and that he would be in us. He gave us his peace. He gave us His assurance. That even though the darkness seemed to win, it did not. He reminded us that for a moment all will seem lost. But he encourages us to look through the veil into the calm face of God and not be troubled for soon all will be well. 

25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” [4] 

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. [5] 

As we finish, enter into a time of praise and worship. Listen to the words and reflect on the faithfulness of Christ.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 27:27–31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The New International Version. (2011). (Lk 23:44–46). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 27:57–60). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 17:25–26). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 14:27). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Joining with Jesus in Embracing the Dark

From the very beginning of our existence, we all have been keenly aware of our neediness and dependence. Our cries for nourishment, comfort, protection, and so much more set us on the path of intuitively knowing that we are both venerable and susceptible to things outside of ourselves. In short, we are aware that death and decay are never far away. Thus begins our journey of seeking to avoid all things painful, decaying, or dying so that we can stay amongst the living. Unfortunately, our human attempts to save ourselves from these dark experiences has only added fuel to the fire of decay and death. In many respects, our attempts have only exacerbated a sense of our impending doom. The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 perfectly illustrates this dynamic.

Having been excommunicated with their parents from God’s presence in the garden of Eden, these brothers are having to do the hard work of surviving apart from the presence of God and with the ever-present effects of the Fall. As such, when Cain felt slighted by God, though it was actually Cain who presented an inadequate sacrifice, he was willing to sacrifice the life of his brother Abel so that he might be left with Abel’s brother’s blessings. Though the text does not give us much insight into Cain’s motives, a reasonable explanation could be that Cain attempted to save himself by taking out his brother—it was ultimately an act to preserve his physical and spiritual life. How? Well, if God was not pleased with his offering, then it would mean that Cain is entirely on his own to stay alive. However, instead of Cain preserving his own life, the ‘blood of his brother was crying out’ from the soil, condemning Cain for his murder of Abel. But the effects reached even farther: his parents grieved beyond belief and Cain’s act continued to sow seeds of mistrust among the inhabitants of the earth. Despite Cain’s best efforts to save himself, his efforts to keep death and decay at bay has only caused it to grow ever-faster. So it is often with us as well.

By recognizing the futility of fighting death and darkness, both within and without ourselves, we are forced to grapple with what can bring life out of death. Who can conquer our fears of death and decay, including our passions to avoid them ? What would the path to victory over death even look like? How can we experience the blessing of having ‘the sting of death’ removed from our body and souls? These questions are paramount to our ability to live joyous, hopeful, peaceful, and loving lives, for without adequate answers the acts of Cain are not only inevitable but are the logical outworking of a life without hope and meaning as the result of death. Considering only One has ever adequately answered these questions in both Word and deed, it only makes sense that we enter into a season of reflection surrounding the passion of Our Lord Jesus—our only hope out of the darkness of death.

As you prepare to follow Christ to the Cross at our Good Friday services, take some time to meditate upon this triumphant journey that Christ took to give us the victory. (Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 18-19). As you reflect and pray through the various passages related to His passion, which he undertook on your behalf, realize that there is no death and no darkness that the Lord has not seen or experienced. He has conquered all so that He may be united to you! Relish in the grace and love of our God expressed through His Son Jesus! May this Good Friday serve to massage ever deeper into your soul the depth of God’s love for you.

Setting Up Ezra + Nehemiah

As we move further into the Book of Ezra, and several of our ladies are also in the Nehemiah Bible study, a few of you reached out for a better understanding of the historical context of these two closely related books. Therefore, I want to use this brief post to help orient you.

First, the people of Judah are in a state of political and geographical exile. Due to their unfaithfulness to God, and after various warnings from the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, the majority of the Kingdom of Judah was attacked and carried into captivity by the Babylonians under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar. The process of exile happened in various phases and is detailed in 2 Kings 24-25. As a result, spiritually speaking, the exiles from the Kingdom of Judah are a people under the control of foreign gods in Babylon; they are separated from the presence, rule, reign, and blessings of the God of Israel. Due to their exile, the land of Judah/Canaan will undergo a 70 year period of Sabbath Rest, which has symbolic significance as it relates to the concept of redemption.

Second, the Babylonians were conquered by the Medo-Persian empire, shifting Judah’s captors from Babylon to Persia. This reality is described in Daniel 5-6:5. Judah’s remaining time in the Persian empire is described in the remainder of the Book of Daniel and in the books of Esther and Nehemiah. ‘The events in Ezra-Nehemiah take place from the beginning of the Persian Empire with the conquest of Cyrus the Great over Babylonia through the reigns of the Persian emperors Darius and Artaxerxes.’1

Third, King Cyrus, the king of the Persian empire, ‘freed the peoples who had been taken into exile in Babylonia and allowed them to keep their customs and religious identities. As a political and military leader, he was concerned about the stability of his empire, loyalty from subject peoples, and economic resources.’2 This reality, and the sovereign plan of God, is what informed his decision to encourage the people of Judah to return to Judah to rebuild the House of God and to give them all the resources needed to accomplish that task. In fact, as Isaiah prophesied in chapter 44, verse 28, the Persian King Cyrus had sent exiles led by Zerubbabel back to Jerusalem in 538 b.c. (Persia had defeated Babylon in 539.)

Fourth, ‘the people of Judah who returned from exile in Babylonia went to the westernmost outpost of the Persian Empire, an area bordering Egypt, Phoenicia, and Cyprus, to establish a community with limited autonomy but loyal to Persia. Accordingly, the people of Judah were subject to the Persian authorities and were heavily taxed. Judah was part of the province called Beyond the River, the Persian satrapy to the west of the Euphrates River that included Samaria and Judah.’ 3 This event showed forth the faithfulness of God to discipline, humble, and ultimately restore His people in light of His everlasting covenant that He made with their father Abraham. (Gen.12:1-3; chapters 15-17 & Leviticus 26:27-39) In particular, considering the Leviticus 26 passage, this restoration of Judah is symbolic of a ‘second planting’ of God’s seed, following a period of allowing His field to lay fallow for 70 years. (Some scholars refer to this as a ‘second exodus’, a starting over from the previous generation of God’s people who came out of captivity from Egypt.)4

Fifth, and finally, the period of Ezra-Nehemiah & the ‘Egyptian Captivity’ serves to demonstrate a primary point:

That God Graciously & Sovereignly works in impossible scenarios to return His people to His Place (Temple/Land), under His rule and blessing.

There can be periods when it seems like the kingdoms of the world are winning, whether personally, corporately, or geo-politically. But as we consider Ezra-Nehemiah, God shows us that He is sovereign over both the nations and our salvation.

1. Noss, P.A., & Thomas, K. J. (2005). A Handbook on Ezra and Nehemiah. (P. Clarke, S. Brown, L. Dorn, & D. Slager, Eds.) (p. 10). New York: United Bible Societies.
2. Ibid., p. 11
3. Ibid., p. 11
4. Breneman, M. (1993). Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (electronic ed., Vol. 10, pp. 50–51). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

#ULTIMATE: Sacraments, Signs for our Search

Sacraments? What is a sacrament? And most importantly, why do the sacraments matter? The Westminster shorter catechism says a sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, the promises of the new covenant are represented, sealed and applied to all believers.

Let me put it in an illustration that may help. When I was in 9th grade I played basketball for my school. Lots of guys wanted access to the coaches and an all-access pass to the basketball equipment. Lots of guys wanted to be able to get into the gym during the school lunch hour to shoot and practice. Here’s the deal, you needed a sign to represent that you were one of the 12 guys on the team; that sign was the jersey. The jersey was the symbol we used to discern between who was not on the team and who had all the privileges on being on that team.

The sacraments are the jerseys for the believers. Galatians 3:27 says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The sign of water, bread, and wine are the signs Christ has instituted for us. In Matthew 4 and 26, Jesus institutes these sacraments.

Think about it? What do we all need? We all need a bath and we all need to eat and drink! It doesn’t matter what your ethnic, economic, political, or gender identity is, we all need these things. Jesus, when he institutes, only two, baptism and the Lord’s supper, he is intentionally discipling us by giving these sacraments as a reminder of the promise of Him and the privileges we have as believers.

Why do the sacraments matter? The sacraments matter because they are only effective by our faith in the person and work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in them. When we have a baptism, or when we come to the table and believe we can receive these things by our performance or work, then, we miss out on the sacraments and believe a false gospel. The true, Christ-centered gospel, should point us away from ourselves and more and more towards God’s graciousness, steadfast love and provision for His children. The sacraments matter because they point us to grace! May the grace of God point us to Jesus and the privileges we have as co-heirs with Him, as we have the privilege to participate in the sacraments on a weekly basis.

The sacraments also matter because they are not instituted individually. Jesus wasn’t alone when he instituted these sacraments; he was with the family of God. The sacraments matter too because it takes us to our need for community. You were created for community and the sacraments bring us into a communal call for the children of God. We worship God together and the sacraments are an element in worship that we do together to draw us to Christ and the grace of God.

The sacraments matter missionally too. When we participate in these sacraments it moves us towards those who have not submitted to God and trust in the work of Christ. Missionally-focused-sacrament-partakers makes us love and welcome those who don’t know God. I don’t want my neighbor to go hungry, thirsty, or without a bath, right? In Matthew 25 Jesus says when we feed and give the needy a drink, we feed and drink our Savior. We are truly understanding the sacraments, when we have a heart for our neighbors and living missionally for our community and city. The sacraments give us a reminder too that it’s not on us to save our non-believing friends and neighbors; it is only through the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ, and faith in Him alone that saves!

May we be a church that looks up to the love of God and the power of the Spirit and look across to our neighbors because we are a sacramental community! #ULTIMATE

Worship and the Word

Scripture teaches us many things about how to worship, where to worship, when to worship and why to worship. However, I would argue that the most important thing it teaches us is Who we worship. Psalm 29:2 says “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.” Revelation 4:11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” What are some ways we can practically use the Word to worship the Hero of the Bible?

Read. In order to know God, you have to know what He says. Psalm 119:7 “I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.” Setting aside time to hear what God is saying to us is key to our worship. The more we learn what He says, who He is and what He desires, the better we can worship.

Ruminate. This word means literally to “chew the cud.” Scripture teaches us we need to think over and meditate on the Word. Psalm 119:48 says “I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees.” After reading through passages, we can meditate on them as we go throughout our day.

Respond. How can we respond to what we have read and mediated? First, we can pray it back to Him. The Psalms are filled with examples of psalmists reminding God of His words and past faithfulness. Next, we can share it with others. Psalm 105:1-2 says, “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts.” Finally, we can sing it back to him. We will spend eternity singing our praise back to Jesus for who He is and what He’s done. Revelation tells us that Heaven will be about worshipping the One scripture points us to.

“8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “ ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’who was, and is, and is to come.” 9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
It’s all about Him.

I will close with an excerpt of something I wrote in college. An eye-opening moment where I realized that I was created to worship. And who it was I worshiped.

“Have you ever noticed that when a large group of people sing, suddenly it becomes beautiful. It’s one voice in a wonderful tone that doesn’t require perfect pitch or even a well-trained voice…it simply blends to make something fantastic. As I listened to this song I wondered, “is that how God hears it?”   Sometimes I imagine He only hears one massive, collective, and beautiful voice of all His saints that, though they are all around the globe singing in hundreds of different languages and thousands of different songs, they come together in perfect harmony of His praise.Now all I want to do is listen and sing to the Lord. I feel as though tonight I caught a glimpse of Heaven. The true Heaven where one day, with one voice we will live in constant praise of our Lord. He is who we worship. He is everything.

The Role of God and Spiritual Disciplines in Transformation

Megachurch pastor, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Church, shares a beautiful metaphor for the nature of how change happens in the life of the church and individuals.  In the opening chapter, he shares the process that a good surfer goes through to be able to have a good day on the waves; needless to say, there is a lot of preparation that goes into such a quick and short ride.  Factors such as right board size, waxing of the board, weather reports, shark reports, knowing one’s skill level and much more need to be factored into the day.  Even so, there is one dynamic that not even the best surfers in the world cannot control:  ‘WHEN’ OR ‘IF’ THE WAVES COME! The only thing they CAN do is prepare for its arrival; and when it does, surf.  In much the same, Foster, and others like him (Dallas Willard, Kent Hughes, the Desert Fathers, etc.), are encouraging the body of Christ to put themselves in a place where they can catch the wave of the Spirit’s movement in their lives and churches.  

As we at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church begin our journey of reading Richard F. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline together, I am reminded of one of the key principles of my reformed faith; namely, that all change that occurs in the human psyche, soul, and will for the glory of God is a result of what God is doing by His Spirit.  God is sovereign over all things, including my transformation.  While stating that truth, I realize that it smacks up against our western or human confidence to be able to be in control of ourselves and destiny.  A proclamation of ‘God’s sovereignty’ begs the question, ‘what about man’s role or responsibility?’ Are there things that we can do to be prepared or in a position where the Spirit’s movement will be greeted by receptive hearts?  

Chapter 1 of CoD lays out perfectly, in my humble opinion, not only a reformed view of the mechanical components of this sanctification process, but much of historical Christianity throughout the centuries.  

This basic position states that God moves within time to affect the hearts and minds of people to turn from their rebellion and to depend upon the redemptive work of Jesus Christ via His life, death, and resurrection. 

As a result, coming into this relationship with Christ one quickly learns that it is a connection initiated by God the Father, secured by Jesus His Son, and sealed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Upon the completion of this relational transaction, the nature of this connection continues in the same vain; the believer continues to be in a state of dependence upon the Triune God to bring about our spiritual growth.  This is a truth that both Jesus and Paul state repeatedly in the bible:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.                                             John 15:5

and then in Paul:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.                         I Corinthians 3:5-7

And yet, despite these clear descriptions, we also read of the role of individual responsibility to pursue ongoing dependence and obedience:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.                             Philippians 2:12-13  

So as we begin this journey of learning about and implementing the means of grace given to the church throughout the centuries, let us keep a few of these principles in mind.  

  1. We need to do so with measured expectations.  Making use of these spiritual disciplines are not a magic pill or a rabbit’s foot; they merely put us in a place where we can wait on the lord to do whatever it is He chooses to do both in and through us.  
  2. Two, and of paramount importance, is that we all keep in mind that the Word of God is the ultimate authority for the Christian life.  Whatever the Lord impresses upon us through these practices needs to be siphoned through His Word.  As our confession states, ‘the Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice.’  With these few caveats in mind, by God’s grace, may we all catch some ‘killer waves’ of the Spirit this summer.