End of an Era

My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me. Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love. (Psalm 31:15-16)

My dad died about two months ago. God graciously gave us a little time with him at the end. Dad was ready for death. When the big day arrived, it marked the end of an era for me. Now I’m part of the “elder” generation. We certainly are not orphans, for God is our loving and present heavenly Father. But we are next in line to walk by sight rather than faith.

With dad’s passing, Carol and I have experienced eight significant deaths in less than five years: Carol’s parents, my parents, my brother Darrell, Carol’s sister Ann, my Uncle Bob and my closest childhood friend Tom. (I blogged about most of them, if anyone cares to look back.) Two losses which have impacted me the hardest are Tom’s death and Dad’s death. Tom’s death hits hard because we were the same age. Dad’s death hits home, I think, because it’s the end of an era. We talked often by phone. I asked his advice as recently as this year. Dad even helped us with the down payment when we bought our house last year. It is indeed the end of an era. My childhood home is being sold. It will no longer be there for us as a holiday destination, a resting place, or even for a simple family visit.

This summer marks the end of an era for me in two other ways, too. First, our nation is bouncing back from COVID-19. The pandemic shaped and dominated my private world and my personal ministry for over a year. It was in the forefront of my planning as a pastor. That season is fading. What comes next will be different. The church will never be the same, even though the immediate risk for our congregation has passed. It’s the end of an era. (Unfortunately, the pandemic is still a threat in many other places, especially in the impoverished third world. So let’s distribute the vaccine as widely as possible!)

Second, I’m recovering from a fall on the ice in the driveway last fall. It has taken a long time for the full injury to manifest, but the effects have impacted my exercise routine. Physical therapy, not the stationery bicycle, has become my priority. I’m trying a balancing act to accomplish as much as possible, but the “easy” season of exercise and weight management has ended. It’s the end of an era for me. As my shoulder improves, perhaps with surgery ahead, I hope it will not turn into the end of my life-style diet and exercise. But these disciplines have struggled recently, especially with two road trips to Ohio.

The triple punch – Dad’s death, the fading pandemic and my stubborn shoulder injury – add up to a special challenge for me. Generally, I can state my personal mission statement and picture personal goals for the church in an instant (although only one person actually asks). Right now, however, I’m not sure about what’s next for the church. Since I’m the pastor, that’s unsettling. I’m in a bit of a leadership fog.

That makes today a really good moment to remember that my times are in God’s hands. His love is unfailing. I hope you can say the same.

Blogging by Trial and Trouble

Recently WordPress updated its publishing software. They have removed (or hidden) the classic editor and forced basic bloggers like me into using a new “block” editor. They claim it’s better and easier to use, but it’s not. For a while I was able to revert to the old editor when I wrote. But in my last post on June 4, 2021, I was forced to use the new editor. The experience was unsatisfactory. I couldn’t find a way to add a title to the post, so it remains “untitled.” This post will be untitled as well. There’s a heading on the page, but not a title in the link. I spent a few hours trying to figure it out. So far, the new and improved block editor still doesn’t make sense. A plugin is available for the classic editor, but I’d have to spend $300 a year to get it. No thanks! My site traffic isn’t high enough to justify the expense. Until I can figure this out, my blog posts may be few or even nonexistent. Why would I keep posting “untitled”? Perhaps WordPress is trying to drive away free bloggers like me. They just might succeed. Maybe “free” has become “freeloading” to them. I understand the company needs to make a profit. That’s only fair. On my site their profit would come through ads, although I don’t notice them. Maybe WordPress can’t find advertisers for small sites like mine. In any case, this may bring my blogging experience to a close. Or maybe I’ll be able to start over with a new host.

Does anyone have thoughts to share?

Mercy vs. Grace

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5:7)

Grace and mercy are sisters, but they’re not twins. The contemporary church tends to talk more about grace than about mercy. The historical church addressed mercy more than we do today. Why? I think it was because they were more conscious of divine judgment than we are. So what’s the difference between mercy and grace?

Mercy is withholding due punishment for a wrong. It’s not giving someone the just penalty they deserve. When Derek Chauvin stands before the judge this month for his sentencing in the George Floyd murder conviction, he’ll hope for mercy. The prosecution is asking for 30 years. The defense is seeking time served. One sentence would be considerably more merciful than the other one!

Grace goes further than mercy. If mercy withholds what we deserve, grace bestows what we do not deserve. Mercy is the first mile; grace is the second mile. If the family of George Floyd offers forgiveness to Derek Chauvin (as at least one family member is reported to have done), they will be giving him what he is not due. Grace goes further than mercy. It brings reconciliation.

If anyone is looking for a theological exercise, look up expiation and propitiation. They’re similar terms, but at an irreducible minimum, expiation provides a foundation for God’s mercy and propitiation secures God’s grace.

Mercy can be given without grace, but true grace can­not be given without mercy. That’s why it’s dangerous to overlook mercy. If we skip over mercy, grace becomes cheap. Let’s not slide toward cheap grace. Instead, Jesus taught that we should be full of mercy toward others.

Defeating Death in the Game of Life: Overtime Victory!

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12)

At the end of regulation, the sun sank toward the horizon late on Good Friday. Three mangled bodies hung limply on a trio of crosses outside Jerusalem. Shattered bones protruded from crushed legs of the first and third victims. The second man suffered no broken bones in his sufferings, though a waterish liquid dripped from a fresh spear wound in his side. All three men were dead. There was no longer any doubt about that. Their cooling bodies were removed from the crosses and carried out of sight.

Because local religious leaders filed a protest, game officials decided the Tournament of Life would have to extend into overtime. They posted a guard at the tomb of the second man to ensure that Death would remain victor.

But they were working with an incomplete rule-book. Here are three rules they didn’t understand. To be fair, we struggle to understand the rules of the game of life, too.

1) The game officials on Good Friday understood how life preceded death, but they didn’t understand how death preceded life. They thought death was the end of the game. To the contrary, their own Scriptures taught death as separation of the spirit/soul from the body, not annihilation. When a personal dies, their spirit/soul continues to live. Furthermore, life could could be restored to a dead body. Historical figures as far back as Abraham understood God could raise the dead. The Apostle Paul later wrote to the Ephesian believers that they had been dead in their transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1). But they were no longer dead. They had been made alive in spirit. Scriptures demonstrate both a resurrection of the body and a resurrection of the soul/spirit.

2) The game officials on Good Friday understood that everyone is mortal, but they didn’t understand what happens after death. If death is not the end, something else must come next. “Sheol” is a Hebrew word used to describe the grave in the Old Testament.  “Paradise” is a word with roots in both Hebrew and Greek. It occurs three times in the Old Testament and three times in the New Testament. When I was in graduate school, a professor taught us that paradise was a subset of Sheol (the grave), a place set aside for the righteous who are awaiting resurrection. Modern scholarship isn’t so sure. Some scholars believe it refers to the abode of God, that is, heaven. “Paradise” also appears to refer to a garden. The Septuagint used it to describe the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 & 3. “Paradise” appears in Revelation 2:7, which also is a garden scene.

“Paradise” describes the idyllic world before sin entered (Genesis 2). It describes the redeemed world after sin is eradicated (Revelation 2). It describes the abode of the righteous dead (heaven or the grave). It describes the destiny of the man on the third cross because of the man on the second cross (Luke 23:43). Their bodies were both in the grave, so paradise in this context is a temporary environment, either a cold grave awaiting resurrection or a bright heaven in the presence of God.

3) The game officials on Good Friday understood how the wages of sin is death, illustrated by the sacrificial system, but they didn’t understand how atonement could satisfy God’s righteous judgment of sin (Isaiah 53:11). God’s just satisfaction was demonstrated when he raised Jesus from the dead on Easter morning. God the Father not only raised Jesus to bodily life, he promises eternal life to those who belong to Jesus. Followers of Jesus die to sin on the third cross, a death which leads to eternal life. Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).

Because of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, the Apostle Paul declared him the winner of the Tournament of Life: When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54).

He is risen! Death is defeated! Hallelujah!

Happy Easter!

 

 

The Third Cross: The Cross of Reception

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)

Today is Good Friday, the traditional day to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus. But Jesus wasn’t crucified alone. He hung alongside two thieves. Death has never been displayed in all its horror as it was the day three crosses were raised outside Jerusalem almost twenty centuries ago. Three different men died three unique deaths. The darkness of death was so awful that even the sun wouldn’t look upon it. The blood-soaked soil beneath the crosses shook in a violent earthquake.

Today we’ll consider the third cross, where hung a man who could illustrate the kind of death each believer in Christ must die. The third cross is just like the first cross, except that the man hanging on it was changed by the man hanging on the second cross. We’ll refer to it as the cross of reception.

Here are five observations about the third cross:

1) The man on the third cross was identified as a criminal. He was identical to the man on the first cross. He was a thief. He was a vile, cruel man. This criminal deserved his punishment. He had earned his condemnation justly. But his depravity didn’t end there. The man on the third cross joined the man on the first cross in hurling insults at Jesus as they all hung dying together. It was a pitiful sight of hypocrisy, but Jesus did not respond in kind. He didn’t taunt them back. He refused to curse. Jesus even prayed for God to forgive their executioners in the hearing of the angry victims on the other two crosses.

2) The man on the third cross recognized the ugly truth about himself. We’re not told in Scripture what jolted his conscience, but at some point he stopped taunting Jesus. Maybe it was because he knew Jesus was not a criminal. Maybe it was because Jesus didn’t return evil for evil. In the presence of pure goodness, he saw his own evil. It frightened him. The man on the third cross even called out the man on the first cross for continuing to insult Jesus. They both were guilty and deserved their punishments.

3) The man on the third cross changed his mind about Jesus. Not only did he see the ugly truth about himself, he saw the beautiful truth about Jesus. Jesus was innocent. Maybe he had already known that and it didn’t matter. But now it mattered. The man on the third cross also saw how Jesus was dying willingly. Unlike the men on the first and third crosses, his life blood wasn’t being taken from him. The man on the second cross was giving his life freely. This moment was unique in all history because it turned out Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. It created an unexpected opportunity for the man dying on the third cross.

4) The man on the third cross received the gift of eternal life. He said to the man on the second cross, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” On its face, this is an absurd request. What kingdom awaits a dying, crucified victim with no future? The mockers who looked on as witnesses could only wonder. They watched the helpless, vile man on the third cross transform into a new person before their very eyes. Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” On its face, this was an absurd response. How could Jesus promise paradise to a condemned criminal? The mockers who looked on as witnesses could only worry. This was a statement only God himself could make.

5) The man on the third cross died when he could no longer stand on his own. Physically, he died when the soldiers broke his legs. But I submit that he actually died before that moment. When the man on the third cross looked with faith to the man on the second cross, he died to sin. That’s the death that ultimately mattered. He came to an end of himself and was made a new creation, even while he was bleeding on the cross.

The little pamphlet I found so many years ago puts it this way:

One man died in sin.
He died with sin in him.
He was a dying sinner.

One man died for sin.
He died with sin upon him.
He was a dying savior.

One man died to sin.
He died with sin taken from him.
He was a dying saint.

The New Testament is full of references to crucifixion for believers, a third cross experience:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

The hard teaching of Scripture is that everyone must die in order to live. But it’s a hard concept to grasp, much less embrace.

Which is harder to grasp? 1) Life precedes death, or 2) Death precedes life.

Which is better to embrace? 1) A life which precedes death, or 2) A death which precedes life?

The Tournament of Life will soon draw to a conclusion. We haven’t yet declared a winner. As of Good Friday, it looks like the winner may be Death. But we’ll have to go into overtime to find out. The winner of the game of life will be crowned on Sunday.

Tony Campolo (and many others) have put it this way:

“It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”

The Second Cross: The Cross of Redemption

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

The cross was not the first icon of Christianity, but it has become the most enduring and universal symbol of faith. Almost anywhere in the world a symbolic cross is raised in public, it commemorates a man who died on a Roman cross almost 2,000 years ago.

It has always fascinated me that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. Three crosses were raised outside Jerusalem that day. As a child, it troubled me that Jesus died between two criminals. I didn’t understand how three crosses, rather than one cross, fulfilled Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy that the Suffering Servant would be “numbered with the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12) The two thieves who died beside Jesus were transgressors in every sense of the word.

I still remember my struggle as I learned Jesus’ death isn’t unique in world history. Millions of people have suffered cruel, agonizing deaths; and many thousands of people have been cru­cified. Awful as it was, Jesus died a very com­mon death in the ancient world. My childish bubble of misinformation is officially popped.

Last week we addressed the first cross, the cross of rejection. Today we’ll consider the second cross, the cross of redemption. The man who died on this cross is the most unique Person who ever lived. Jesus’ death, though common in scope, is unique in its purpose and result. This is the Big One. This cross changed the world.

Crucifixion is like a tournament in which Death is the star player. In the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this past weekend, all three remaining #1 seeds advanced to the Elite Eight. Last week I revealed my personal Elite Eight bracket. The #1 seed is winning so far, but the tournament isn’t over. The second cross will determine an ultimate winner in the Game of Life.

I have five observations about the second cross, each of which contrasts the first cross. We will see how the men on the first two crosses were polar opposites. More than that, Jesus lived – and died – in a stark contrast to every other person in history. Jesus is a  polar opposite to you and me, too.

1) The man on the second cross planned to be crucified. Jesus’ death wasn’t a result of circumstances spinning out of his control. Rather, hanging on a Roman cross was his intended destination, that he might “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The cross was in Jesus’ mission statement. In this sense Jesus is unique in all of history. Every other human being is born to live, but Jesus was born to die. He repeatedly warned his followers that he was going to Jerusalem in order to hang on a cross. The idea of intentionally dying on a cross was so absurd to Jesus’ friends that they summarily dismissed his prophetic words.

2) The man on the second cross was innocent. Unlike the man on the first cross, Jesus was not a criminal in any sense of the word. He had been framed at his trial. Jesus’ accusers could not levy a legitimate charge against him. The testimony against him was skewed and contradictory. Every other human being is flawed by nature and behavior, but Jesus was born without sin and lived without sin. He’s the only innocent man who has ever lived. We can’t even imagine such purity in our fallen world. But Jesus demonstrated perfection before a watching world. He did nothing worthy of death on the second cross.

3) The man on the second cross claimed to be God. The man on the first cross cursed God; he certainly didn’t claim to be God. Through the centuries, many psychotics and charlatans have claimed to be God. Jesus clearly claimed to be God, but he proved his divinity by his miraculous deeds and words. Jesus was fully God and fully man. God took on human flesh in Jesus. His accusers charged him with blasphemy, not because they misunderstood his claim, but because his claim was indisputable.

4) The man on the second cross was a king (Messiah). In contrast, the man on the first cross needed a Messiah/Savior, but he wasn’t a Messiah. Jesus was the long-promised Messiah who would deliver Israel and the entire world from the tyranny of sin. Jesus’ friends and enemies alike misunderstood his messianic role. Jesus’ friends tried and failed to crown him king in Jerusalem. A political rule was not his purpose. Jesus explained to Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world. There have been many kings throughout history, but there was only one Messiah.

5) The man on the second cross died as a substitute. An innocent man died for a guilty man. The guilty man on the first cross had no substitute. A murderer by the name of Barabbas should have been crucified that day, but Jesus took his place. Jesus was condemned to the cross and Barabbas was set free. The Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter both describe Jesus’ death as a substitution for the whole world. The wages of sin is death. Jesus paid that wage for us on the cross.

Several key New Testament concepts come into play at the second cross:

Strategy – Jesus died purposefully for our redemption.

Sacrifice – Jesus blood covered our sin as an atonement.

Substitution – Jesus took our sin to give us righteousness (justification).

Satisfaction – Jesus resurrection is the proof that God was satisfied (propitiation).

They all add up to say, “I love you!”

Love is a declaration that demands a response. Every day my wife Carol tells me she loves me. She says it so often that I’ve adopted a comic routine. When she says, “I love you,” I respond, “I love me, too. We agree!” Carol will roll her eyes or tell me I’m being silly. But I can hold the joke for only a few seconds. I have to respond genuinely.

The second cross is God saying to us, “I love you.” Such divine love demands a human response, which will bring us to the third cross…. Next time.

The First Cross: The Cross of Rejection

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)

This month marks the one year point since the World Health Organization designated COVID-19 as a pandemic. One year ago the world changed. Our nation shut down to fight the virus. Minnesota was under a “stay-at-home” order. We’ve been fighting a battle against death. Almost every day for a year now, I’ve been checking key websites for updates. I always look for the number of new cases and the number of deaths. I hate death. And I hate seeing the numbers rise.

After a year of pandemic, over 2.6 million people have died of COVID-19 worldwide. In the United States, over half a million people have died of COVID. More than 6,000 of them have been in Minnesota. More than a dozen have died in our sparsely populated rural county. I’ve lost friends and members of my spiritual family to death because of COVID-19. The loss is real. Unfortunately, numbers in Minnesota are beginning to rise again after large decreases earlier this month.

But the world is fighting back. I encourage everyone to get a vaccination when it’s your turn. Things are beginning to return to normal, but we need everyone to do their part in March so we can celebrate victory in May.

Last year the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled because of the pandemic. This year the tournament has returned, although sites and fans are limited. After two rounds, everyone’s bracket has been busted because of the upsets. Cinderellas rule!

Except in my bracket. I revealed it in the previous blog post. My bracket hasn’t been busted. When you see it, I’ll have to admit I switched tournaments. My bracket is an elite eight in the Tournament of Life, but if I had a complete bracket, your name would be on it and my name would be on it. Can you picture that? We’re playing against death.

Life is like the NCAA tournament. It’s single elimination. Death is the #1 seed and has a devil of a coach. Death has only ever lost two games—and Jesus isn’t one of them. Everyone on my bracket will die. But that doesn’t mean death will win the tournament in the end. That’s going to take some explaining. Are you in the game?

The winner of the game of life will be determined by three crosses which were raised outside Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago. Each man suffered a different kind of death. Today we’ll study the first cross, where hung a man who could represent millions of people today. The man on this cross has become a mere footnote in history, but he can teach us about beating death in the game of life. Unfortunately, he lost. We was death’s victim. We’ll refer to his experience as the cross of rejection.

Before I offer five observations about the man on the first cross, I want to give credit where credit is due. Thirty-plus years ago I attended an education meeting at a church in Akron, Ohio. As always in new settings, I gravitated toward the literature rack where several tracts were on display. I’m not a tract person, but I picked up a few tracts that looked interesting. One of them was called “3 Crosses.” As I explained in my last post, the three crosses were troubling to me, so I read that particular tract with interest. It contained the big picture of what later became this study of the three crosses.

Here are my five observations about the cross of rejection:

1) The man on the first cross was identified as a criminal. He was a robber and a rebel. Luke used the same word used to describe the thugs who assaulted the unsuspecting traveler in the story of the Good Samaritan. This was a bad man. He was genuinely evil. Society was much safer when he was not in circulation to perpetuate his crimes.

2) The man on the first cross deserved to die. He may – or may not – have been given a fair trial, but he was punished justly. His deeds were worthy of death. Nobody that day protested his crucifixion as unjust. This man reaped in death exactly what he sowed in life. He lived by personal violence and he died by professional violence.

3) The man on the first cross wanted to live. Like most condemned men, this criminal didn’t want to die. He actually called on Jesus to get him off his cross! He wanted to escape his punishment, if for no other reason than to get back to his life of crime. Death was not his desire, but he couldn’t escape. This man may not have been sorry for his crimes, but he was very sorry for his punishment.

4) The man on the first cross rejected his only hope to live. While hanging on the cross and facing imminent death, this man joined the chorus of spectators mocking Jesus on the second cross. He hurled insults at Jesus. This condemned man challenged Jesus to save all three of them from their crosses of death, not realizing his only hope in Jesus was through the cross, not from the cross.

5) The man on the first cross died when his last means of self-preservation was taken away from him. Part of the agony of crucifixion was that the victim couldn’t exhale properly unless he pushed up with his legs. Breathing was a torturous ritual. Victims prolonged life as long as possible through grinding pain. On this day at the hypocritical request of some Jewish leaders, Roman soldiers hastened the death of the man on the first cross by smashing his legs with large hammers.

Jesus spoke often about the kind of death experienced by the man on the first cross. Here’s one thing he said:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 16:25-26)

The man on the first cross forfeited his soul. He didn’t gain the whole world first, though perhaps he tried through his life of crime. The first cross is a very sad story, but it’s the story of millions of people. We’ll come back to that thought later in our study of the third cross.

Next time, we’ll consider the man dying on the second cross.

Three Crosses: Beating Death in the Game of Life

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Luke 23:32-33

When I was eight or ten years old, I was troubled by the fact that Jesus was crucified with two criminals. I thought nobody else should have shared the stage with Jesus as he climbed the hill they called Calvary. All the attention should have been on Jesus, not those other guys. Their mothers may have been there watching their sons die in agony, but that wasn’t fair because it distracted attention from Jesus. In my childish mind, Jesus’ crucifixion should have been the cruelest, slowest, most painful death anyone has ever experienced in order to justify his unique suffering for the whole world.

You may laugh that I was distracted by such a mundane detail in the Bible story. But it was very real to me when I was a child. The more I read the Bible as an adult, the more convinced I am that the Bible is inspired of God and is unlike any other book in the world. But it raises questions. It seems like the older I get, the more questions I have. Maybe you have questions, too. I hope you do. For me, this question about three crosses goes back more than five decades.

Maybe asking questions is a good definition of maturity. Maturity is questioning answers rather than merely answering questions. If that’s the case, I must be getting very mature! I’m not satisfied with answers that don’t lead to more questions. The faith of a Jesus follower may be simple, but it’s never simplistic.

Jesus was the most unique person who ever lived. His execution on a Roman cross is the most famous death in history. JFK’s assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald isn’t even a close second for intrigue and drama. My childish frustration with the three crosses eventually led me to ask a question as an adult: Do the two extra crosses add perspective or insight to the cross of Christ?

It’s not a news flash, but the cross is central in Christianity. The crucifixion of Jesus is a major theme of the New Testament. It’s the premise for our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. The cross has become the most recognized universal Christian symbol.

Christianity is about THE cross – singular, as in THE Ohio State University. You’ve heard football players say that with the accent on the appropriate word, especially when they’re national champs. Christianity is about THE cross. One cross. Jesus’ cross. THE Ohio State University. THE cross of Jesus Christ. There’s a ring to it, a kind of pride. THE cross of Jesus. Many of our worship songs are about the cross. We sing about the cross all the time.

But it turns out Jesus didn’t die alone. Three crosses were raised on a hill near Jerusalem that day. Two other men died with him. Jesus died between two thieves. When my youngest son explained the Easter story when he was a child, he said Jesus died between two “spies.” Spies, thieves, what’s the difference? Jesus died in a group execution.

When I was a child, I didn’t think it should have been that way. Jesus was the unique Son of God. He should have died alone. A generation later, my son positioned Jesus between two spies with impunity.

I still remember my struggle as I learned Jesus’ death isn’t even close to being unique. Millions of people have suffered slow, agonizing deaths. Thousands upon thousands of people have been crucified. The Persians practiced crucifixion in the 6th Century B.C. The Romans experimented with crucifixion and perfected it as a means of torture. The ancients crucified people in all kinds of ways: They nailed the condemned man to a single stake or to a tree. Crosses could like a T, an X, or a Y. Sometimes they tied victims to a cross and left them to languish for days in the hot sun or the cold rain before they died.

Josephus wrote about mass crucifixions when Jerusalem fell in 70 A.D. He said the Roman soldiers amused themselves by crucifying people in various positions, including upside down. They even nailed victims through the groin. Two thousand years ago, crucifixion was a common sight in the Roman world. There’s little wonder the gospel writers felt no need to include the gruesome details of Jesus’ crucifixion. Everybody then knew what crucifixion looked like.

My little bubble has been popped. Awful as it was, Jesus died a very common death. On that climactic day, two men were crucified beside him. Two plus one equals three. Three crosses in an ugly row.

March is a heavenly month for college basketball junkies. It’s time once again for March Madness. After a lost year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA basketball tournament is back. Thousands of people filled out brackets predicting winners, but most of the brackets have been busted in the first two rounds because of a rash of Cinderella upsets.

Crucifixion can be described as a tournament in which death is the star player. I’ve made out my bracket for the Elite Eight. Since North Carolina is such a strong basketball state, I stuck with a North Carolina bracket. Here it is:

This is an all-Mayberry bracket. I’m afraid it dates me, but it works. Probably every bracket has been busted in the NCAA tournament this year after just two rounds. But my bracket isn’t broken. Death is winning every game so far in Mayberry, hands down. In the Tournament of Life, Death has only ever lost two games. Death is the #1 seed and he’s got a devil of a coach. It looks like Death is going to win the Tournament of Life in Mayberry. But three crosses in the Gospel accounts teach me Death isn’t going to raise the championship trophy in the real world.

Like it or not, you and I are playing in this tournament. We’re playing against death. The question is, “Who’s going to win?” It’s not a game of chance; it’s a game of choice. Somebody is going to win, either you or Death. That’s what these three crosses are all about. Over the next few days leading up to Easter, we’ll examine each of the three crosses. Can Death be beaten in the game of life? I think so. But we’ll have to go into overtime to find out.

The Divine Romance

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” John 4:23

Proverbs 18:22 was one my primary memory verses when I was a college student. I often would kneel in a private place of prayer and recite: He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord. I often added, “I don’t want a harem, Lord. Just one wife.”

At the time, finding a wife seemed unlikely. I was extremely shy and physically small. I thought I was ugly. I rarely invited a girl out for any dates. But I wanted to get married and I kept praying. God eventually answered that prayer by drawing Carol into my life, which is a story well worth telling and worth telling well. But most of that story will have to wait, even though it’s Valentine’s Day. The bottom line is I was seeking a good thing and I obtained favor from the Lord. I can truthfully report I’ve experienced Proverbs 18:22 firsthand.

My seeking a wife was a dim, but authentic, reflection of God seeking worshipers. Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that God seeks worshipers like her. This broken woman recognized she was unworthy, but God wanted her anyway.

One of the great New Testament word pictures is the description of the church as the bride of Christ. God seeks those for whom he can demonstrate his sacrificial love. Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, recorded in John 4:1-42, is a genuine love story. The woman was seeking God, expecting him to remain far out of her reach, only to discover God actually was seeking her first. What romance!

Perhaps no one has expressed this imagery better than Gene Edwards in his classic treatise, The Divine Rom­ance. One book reviewer describes it like this:

Rarely has a piece of Christian literature combined the simplicity of storytelling art with the profound depths of the Christian faith. In this sweeping saga, spanning from eternity to eternity, you will discover some of the deepest riches afforded the believer. Like some mighty sym­phony, here is a majestic rendition of the love of God. Behold the story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as it has never before been presented…from the view of angels! Be there when, rising from the dead, the Lord brings forth his beautiful bride. The story concludes at the consum­ma­tion of the ages, when a victorious Lord takes his bride to himself. Truly the greatest love story ever told. Link here. 

Gene Edwards helps his reader anticipate the love story in his preface to the prologue:

It has been my fondest hope that we might meet again. When last we met it was a drama that we viewed together. On this occasion it is a love story. Of all love stories I find this one unequaled. I trust at story’s end you might share that view with me. The places reserved for us are box seats. We shall have what I hope will be the best possible view of this unfolding saga. Let us hasten in as I see the ushers are about to close the doors. This is not a thing we would want to miss. Link here.

Indeed, this is not a thing we would want to miss: God still seeks a bride!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

 

Capitol Assault

Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. (Psalm 45:6)

I was shocked and saddened by the mob assault yesterday on the capitol building in Washington, D.C. I join the myriad of Christian voices calling for an end to all violence and a restoration of law and order. Peaceful protests, yes. Mob violence, no. I’m greatly encouraged by the unified, bipartisan rebuke from Congress last night against this insurrection. Jesus calls his followers to different path.

Carey Nieuwhof has composed a thoughtful response for anyone who seeks influence in this situation. He first wondered what to say or do, if anything. Then he went for it. Here’s his post:

Why Your Words as a Leader Matter (Far More than You Think)