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Archive for Words to Live By

I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t make much of physical death. On two occasions where he raised people from the dead he called it “sleep.” For Jesus, (and the apostolic writers) the death that matters is the death that takes place at conversion.

God’s perspective on death is unique from ours.

What we call perilous, God calls precious.
What we strive to avoid, God designs.
What we view as a curse, God calls a gift.
What we think as bitter, God thinks to be blessing.
What we label as the end, God labels a new beginning.

Death is a transitional step, like moving. No one likes to move. But you have to move to get to the new house. The move is a big deal, but it’s never a bigger deal than the new house. Here’s my point. The move cannot be avoided, but it can be prepared for. You can get out in front of the move, and the more you prepare, the easier it is to face. The worst moves are the moves you don’t prepare for.

Jesus was prepared. He knew from his entire life experience that God could be completely trusted.
Above all, Jesus kept the end game in mind. I don’t know what my cause of death will be, but I hope to be strong enough in faith to die like Jesus died.

Last week I was honored to speak at a memorial service. The room was full and many offered meaningful words and shared memorable stories. As people processed by the casket, I stood at the door and greeted people as they departed the room. One of those toward the end of the line gripped my hand and whispered, “I don’t know how you do that. That’s got to be the hardest thing anyone could ever do.” While I didn’t take time to respond to those words, I thought about them. My conclusion was that it really depends on the person. You see, I am becoming convinced that you die like you live.

Much of Jesus teaching was devoted to faith. He talked about saving faith with Nicodemus in John chapter three. Many of his conversations with the disciples centered on the subject of faith. And of course, he also talked about dying faith.

I believe that life is God’s gift to us, and its purpose is to take the gift of life and use it to know God, love God, and trust God. It is through our living that we learn day by day that God can be completely trusted. Every day is a fresh opportunity to entrust our lives into the hands of God. If we can’t learn to trust God now, how will we ever face death? Maybe we shouldn’t begrudge our adversities, seeing that they serve a greater purpose. As we learn to trust God in our relationships, finances, employment and physical health we are learning that God can be completely trusted. We die like we live. That’s how Jesus died.


A Word to Those Who Lack Faith

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A study released last week revealed that cancer will likely overtake heart disease as the number one cause of death in the world in 2010. The most complete statistical data on leading causes of death I could find were located at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention web site. According to the CDC, the most recent (2006) final statistics listed heart disease as the leading cause of death, followed by cancer, stroke, chronic respiratory disease, and accidents (or unintentional death).

When people ask “How do you think you will you die?,” we usually take that question to mean, “What will be the cause of your death?” Maybe we should ask a better question, that being, “How will you face death when it comes?” The seventh and final phrase Jesus said on the cross is found in Luke 23:46. For me, this is as good as an explanation I can find in the Bible to shed light on how Jesus himself faced death.

“Then Jesus shouted, ‘Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!’ And with those words, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46, NLT)

We know the cause of Jesus’ death was crucifixion, and medical doctors have gone to great lengths to explain how crucifixion worked in the first century. These insights from the halls of medicine include detailed analysis of how pain was inflicted and how crucifixion was lethal. None of that should be minimized, for Jesus’ did suffer greatly in his physical body. But I do think that we miss a dimension of the story if we neglect to see the resilience of spirit and declaration of faith from Jesus as he faced physical death. The seventh word was and remains a source of encouragement to those who need a faith lift.


How Will You Die?

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This weekend I’m beginning my talk with a very important question: How will you die?

I assume you will take that question to mean, “What will be the cause of my death?”…as in an accident, disease, or natural causes. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, “How will you face death when (not if) it comes?”

Jesus taught us so much about how to live life with fullness and joy. He showed us through his words and his works that we are to be people of passionate worship and uncommon love. He valued compassion and justice, truth and witness, service and devotion. All this and more were part and parcel of his daily comings and goings. Sometimes I think we focus so much on Jesus’ cause of death that we forget how he actually died.

“Then Jesus shouted, ‘Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!’ And with those words, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46, NLT)

This weekend I’m concluding the last of the series on Words to Live by from a Dying Man. The final word is a word about faith. Jesus taught about saving faith, living faith, and dying faith. I don’t know what my cause of death will be, but I hope to be strong enough in faith to die like Jesus died.

Last weekend I spoke on Jesus’ sixth statement from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). After presenting a bit of word study, I spent the rest of the message focusing on the implications of the finished work of Christ on the cross according to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossian church. For those who are interested, here are the seven implications from Colossians that I laid out.

1. Jesus death on the cross rescues us from danger. (Colossians 1:13-14)
2. Jesus death on the cross enables us to stand in the presence of God. (Colossians 1:22)
3. Jesus death on the cross provides explanation of our purpose. (Colossians 1:28)
4. Jesus death on the cross establishes the foundation of our belief. (Colossians 2:6-9)
5. Jesus death on the cross eliminates our guilt. (Colossians 2:13-15)
6. Jesus death on the cross frees us from religious regulations that we use to impress God and one another. (Colossians 2:16-27)
7. Jesus death on the cross defines our lives. (Colossians 3:1-4)

I want to encourage you to check out these passages from Colossians. Paul provides a wonderful explanation of the importance of the cross.

At the conclusion of six grueling hours of suffering on the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). At first glance it would appear that the Son of Man had failed to accomplish his mission. Jesus came to establish his kingdom on earth where God’s will is done as it is in heaven. But as the leader of this movement, he wound up captured, tried, convicted, and executed. Those on the outside looking in could have easily assumed that Jesus wasn’t who they thought he was. Perhaps many felt what the two on the road to Emmaus felt when they said, “We were hoping he was the one who would deliver Israel” (Luke 24:21).

But the cross must be understood as the victory of God, not the defeat of Jesus. Jesus declaration, “It is finished,” was a pronouncement of victory, not an admission of failure. After all, he didn’t say, “I am finished.” The word “finished” is tetelestai, a word that comes from accounting that means “paid in full.”

What looked like failure was in reality victory. The cross was not a defeat reversed by the resurrection. The cross was the victory of God revealed by the resurrection!


A Word to those Who are Empty

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Have you ever been thirsty? When I was in high school I spent many a summer day working for farmers in the hay fields putting up hay. My fellow workers and I would trudge up and down the pastures with our hay hooks, throwing as many bales of hay as possible onto the wagon. When the wagon was finally loaded we’d climb on top and ride to the barn. After all of the hay was unloaded and stacked in the hay loft, we’d pause for a drink before heading back to the pasture to repeat the process. I remember drinking long and deep from those plastic milk jugs, listening to the farmer’s warning to not over do it. The promise of water somehow made the journey bearable.

At the conclusion of the longest six hours any person has ever endured, Jesus said, “I thirst.” Christ has been on the cross nearly 6 hours. The work has been completed. The end is near. Jesus had, in every possible way, given everything he had to give. He is exhausted and physically depleted. One can only imagine the sense of thirst. As he exclaims that he’s thirsty, a solder takes a hysso, a javelin, and extends a sponge filled with “sour wine.” Sour wine was a Roman forerunner to our modern day Gatorade. It’s not to be confused with the drink offered in Mark 15:23, a wine drugged with myrrh, which was sometimes offered to those crucified. Jesus refused that drink, opting to experience the depths of suffering to its fullest.

Jesus was parched. Famished. Empty.

As I thought about Jesus total and complete gift, I thought of another Bible character that extended himself in ministry to the point of emptiness and depletion: Elijah.

Elijah, who was Israel’s most celebrated prophet, reached a point during his career that left him totally exhausted. You can read his story in the Old Testament beginning in 1 Kings 17:1. After his famous “Mt. Carmel Showdown,” (1 Kings 18:1-46) Elijah experienced the “Mt. Carmel Meltdown” (1 Kings 19:1-4). Racked with fear and paranoia, he runs and hides from the threats of Queen Jezebel.

What does God prescribe when we are empty? What does God provide when we’ve given until there’s no more left to give? What do we do when we teeter on the brink of burnout?

1. God prescribed rest and food (1 Kings 19:5-8)
2. He led Elijah back to his spiritual roots (1 Kings 19:8b)
3. God allowed Elijah to express his feelings. (1 Kings 19:9-10)
4. God revealed himself to Elijah in a new way (1 Kings 19:11-13)
5. God told Elijah to get back to work. (1 Kings 19:15-18)
6. God provided a partner to minister to Elijah. (1 Kings 19:19-21)

Why do we run ourselves to the point of exhaustion? Perhaps we need to refocus on Jesus words in Matthew 11:28-30. Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (NLT).

Sometimes we’re exhausted because we carry the right things. But more often than not, we’re exhausted because we carry the right things the wrong way. Or we carry too many things. Sometimes we pick up things to carry that are not for us to carry. Or we try to carry them alone. Before you pick up that next burden, pray and ask God if its yours to carry. If it is, ask God to help you, and look for a partner to handle the other end of the load.

Jesus’ word of desolation from Psalm 22:1 is not without hope. Scholars believe that Rabbi’s and Rabbinical students would not have memorized or meditated on isolated verses of Scripture. They would quote aloud the first verse of a passage and then meditate on the content that followed. If this is true of Jesus, he quoted Psalm 22:1 and then meditated on the entire Psalm. Psalm 22 is a song of desolation and pain. But it is not without hope. Consider how it moves toward a climactic end:

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sister. I will praise you among your assembled people. Praise the Lord, all you who fear him! Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob! Show him reverence, all you descendents of Jacob! For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy. He has not turned his back on them, but has listened to their cries for help. I will praise you in the great assembly. I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you. The poor will eat and be satisfied. All who seek the Lord will praise him. Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy. The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him. All the families of the nations will bow down before him. For royal power belongs to the Lord. He rules all the nations. Let the rich of the earth feast and worship. Bow before him, all who are motal, all whose lives will end as dust. Our children will also serve him. Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord. His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born. They will hear about everything he has done.” (Psalm 22:22-31, NLT)

Though Jesus cries out, he cries out in hope. And though he may not have been able to sense it, in that very moment of great desolation, God was doing his greatest work.

Henri Nouwen writes, “When God’s absence was most loudly expressed, God’s presence was most clearly revealed.”

Perhaps you’ve experienced a time in your life when you felt that you were forsaken by God. Maybe in this moment you feel forsaken by God. You’re not. Not like that. Jesus experienced desolation so that you and I would never have to. He experienced separation so we would never experience separation.

As darkness covered the land, Jesus calls out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a strange thing for the Son of God to utter. Jesus’ relationship with God the Father had been a hallmark of his existence. Consider the following:

“In the beginning the Word (Jesus) already existed. The Word was with God and the word was God. He existed in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2)

“And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” (Matthew 3:17)

“Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” (John 16:32)

“I pray that they will all be one, just as you (the Father) and I are one.” (John 17:21)

Jesus always referred to the Heavenly Father as “Abba.” It’s an intimate, familial word that would be similar to our own English word “papa” or “daddy.” But on the cross Jesus uses the generic term for God: Eloi. Even in the Garden of Gethsemene as Jesus poured out his heart as he faced the cross Jesus referred to God as Abba.

For the first time in eternity, Jesus experienced separation from the Father. That thought raises a lot of theological questions that the Scriptures simply don’t answer. Nonetheless, Jesus felt forsaken because he was forsaken. 2 Corinthians 5:21 affirms, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” Martin Luther wrote, “at that moment Jesus became the greatest sinner there ever was.”

Hell, whatever it is, it is ultimately separation from God. Hell is no more about fire and brimstone than heaven is about gates of pearl and streets of gold. Heaven is about the perfect, eternal presence of God. Hell is about complete and utter separation from God. Like Jesus experienced on the cross as he was made sin on our behalf.


A Word for those who feel Forsaken

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Jesus’ fourth saying spoken from the cross is perhaps the most intriguing of the seven. The scene suddenly changes as the noon time sun turns to darkness. At this pivotal moment, Jesus cries with a loud voice, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

Scripture discloses that Jesus was crucified around 9:00 a.m. and that he remained on the cross for six hours. At noon, when the sun would have been shining down at full strength, the land was covered by darkness for three hours. The secular historian Thallus chronicled the episode in AD 52, helping the modern reader to realize that the darkness written of was not symbolic or metaphorical.

The darkness at the crucifixion should have pricked the conscious of those who were in Jerusalem that day. It was under the cover of darkness that the first Passover was observed the night prior to the departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. As they observed the Passover, the angel of death stormed the land taking the life of every first born living creature who was not under the protective shield of the blood of the Passover lamb.

The prophet Amos foreshadowed the event as well in the following verses:

“And in that day—this is the declaration of the Lord God—
I will make the sun go down at noon;
I will darken the land in the daytime.
I will turn your feasts into mourning
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will cause everyone to wear sackcloth
and every head to be shaved.
I will make that grief like the mourning for an only son
and its outcome like a bitter day.”
(Amos 8:9-10, HCSB)

While I belive that the reader should take the referenced darkness in Matthew’s gospel to be literal, this darkness certainly carries symbolic meaning. It speaks of the feeling one experiences when feeling abandoned, forsaken, and alone.

I attended college in Hannibal, Missouri. Hannibal is best known for the writings of Mark Twain. Most of my peers, I suspect, at some point bumped up against Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as a part of required reading for Language Arts. If you go to Hannibal, Missouri, you can tour the Mark Twain Cave. As a part of that tour the guide highlights points of interest such as Tom and Becky’s post office and Injun Joe’s hideout. As a bonus, the tour guide turns out the light which allows tourists to experience absolute darkness. Absolute darkness can be felt…a darkness so thick that a person can quickly become disoriented and lose perspective.

Darkness is an appropriate way to describe the feeling of being forsaken by God. It was St. John of the Cross, who after battling depression and discouragement who coined the phrase, “the dark night of the soul.” At noon it did become dark, but in more ways than one. Maybe you sense that today as well.