Monday, March 30, 2015

An Easter Transformation from Grief to Glory in one Morning or Less

We can survey human history and document countless events that changed the world and the individuals that populate it. However, no event is as transformative as the one we are going to look at today. In John 20:11-18, a description of one woman’s confrontation with the greatest event in all of history is given. Her interaction with what happened in this passage leads to her personal transformation and provides a symbol for the potential change everyone can experience in their own lives regardless of their socio-historical localization or demographic when confronted with the risen Christ! 

ACTION #1: Mary Weeps as a Grieving Loner-20:11-13

A lot happened on Easter morning. Here is a brief look at what took place up to 20:11 in John’s narrative.

 “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene *came early to the tomb, while it *was still dark, and *saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. So she *ran and *came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and *said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he *saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also *came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he *saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.”

We join the chaos following the revelation of the empty tomb late and see Mary Magdalene “standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb” (20:11). The action of her weeping is described as a continuous stream of loud sobs.  No doubt, Mary was driven to this because (as we will soon learn) her worst fears seemed to be confirmed in the absence of Jesus’ body. Abusing or tampering with the dead was considered an abhorrent offense and this is what Mary believes has happened to Jesus. By this point, the other disciples, following their brief investigation of the empty tomb, have already left. They had already lost their Savior and now His body was missing.
Left to sob outside the tomb by herself, Mary decides to do some investigating of her own. Some speculate that her sense of grief and loss may have driven her back to the tomb after some time passed in order to find someone or something that could provide answers in the midst of her denial. Therefore, “she stooped and looked into the tomb”(20:11).

It is soon revealed that “…she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying” (20:12). Upon her investigation, the tomb is no longer empty. Instead, two heavenly messengers clad in white populate the burial plot. These two angelic beings stand alongside Jesus’ resting place as evidence to Mary that God has been at work in some way (as in every situation in which angels are presented in Scripture).

All these heavenly messengers do is ask Mary a simple question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (20:13a). Though the reason for Mary’s grief might seem obvious, this question is asked to give Mary an opportunity to reflect and put aside her grief for a moment with the hopes of putting two and two together (missing body + angelic beings + Jesus’ teaching = ?).

However, unfortunately, Mary is unable to wipe away her tears and add up what she sees to get the sum of what has happened. Instead, she is so disturbed by the missing body that she replies to these two, “because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him” (20:13b). Instead of realizing the greatest joy that Jesus has made possible through what He said He would do (rise), Mary along with the disciples assumes the very worst. Blinded by grief, she is unable to remember what Jesus said of Himself and believes His body to be the victim of thievery.

Action #2: Mary Begs as a Concerned Investigator-20:14-15

As she speaks to the angels, someone emerges onto the scene. Suddenly aware of this third presence, Mary “…turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus” (20:14).  If we were to associate her stage of grief at this point, she is at the point of denial—not denying that Jesus was dead (as she was one of the few witnesses of Calvary), but denying that He was now alive. As is common in resurrection narratives, Jesus is not recognized immediately (see 21;4; Luke 24:16; Matt. 28:17). Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus continues this pattern. Neither the stone that had been rolled away, nor the empty tomb, nor the angels inside, nor even the risen Jesus Himself are able to enlighten Mary past her grief. Confronted with so much negative, she fails to bear witness to the glory of the Lord as is our tendency today when faced with horror and difficulty.

The failure of Mary to recognize Jesus becomes even more dramatic when she hears His familiar voice question her about her actions, “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’”(20:15a). Perhaps Jesus’ first question is a mild rebuke, “why should you weep?” or is Jesus’ way of caring for this woman’s deep concern. Either way, Jesus’ second question (“whom are you seeking?”) is asked to direct Mary’s attention away from herself and to Jesus. Knowing the answer to His own question, Jesus wants Mary to articulate her thoughts in order to set up the revelation of Himself to her.

Mary’s response is predicated on her misunderstanding of who this man is, “…Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away’…” (20:15b). Aside from grave robbers or other mourners, neither of which would have been likely visitors at this hour, gardeners attending to the grounds where the tomb was located would have been the only people around” (Kostenberger, 568). Her guess of this man’s identity could not have been more wrong, for in this moment she is asking the body she is seeking for the answer to the mystery of the empty tomb!

In Mary’s mind she sees an empty tomb and assumes that Jesus has been stolen. She observes Jesus Himself and assumes that he is a gardener. However, once things are revealed, all that Mary has observed will prove far greater than she could have ever imagined.

Action #3: Mary Clings like a Beloved Child-20:16-17
In verse 16, Mary is given the clue that answers the riddle, the secret word used to decode the mysterious happenings of the previous hours, and the final piece to the puzzle that pulls the whole picture together. “Jesus says to her, ‘Mary!’…”(20:16a). Though this seems simple enough, when Mary hears her name spoken from Jesus’ lips, she is launched out of grief and into pure ecstasy, travels from despair to delight, and trades her tears of grief for tears of triumph.

This is evidenced by her response to Jesus, “she turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher)…”(20:16b). Though this word is not wrought with theological significance nor is it a weighty Christological proclamation, it is a familiar term that Mary probably used throughout Jesus’ ministry when she spoke to Him. This specific episode is more about the remaking of her personal relationship with Jesus than it is about doctrine (at least at this point). With that said, this verse does confirm what Jesus communicated in John 10:3-4, “To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

It is obvious by what Jesus says next that Mary probably rushed toward Him in a tight embrace. Not wanting to lose her Savior again, this response resembles what a small child might do when his or her parents come home after a long trip. Here, Mary’s teacher had been gone three days and upon His return she did not want to let Him loose!

However, Jesus suggests that this is not the time for clinging nor for sentimentalities, “’Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’” (20:17a).  Jesus assures Mary that He is not going anywhere (at least for now) and can let go of Him. 

Rather than remain and cling, Jesus calls Mary to use her newfound joy to proclaim the news of His resurrection to others, “but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God’…” (20:17b). Mary’s appointment is incredibly significant as she is not a trained messenger nor a man. That a woman with a shady past was one of the first to send word of Jesus’ resurrection is compelling evidence of the legitimacy and historicity of this event. Had this story been fabricated, no one would have given the part of first responder to a women given the gender roles and stereotypes of the first century.

The content of the message is simple. In so many words, Jesus wants Mary to tell the other disciples that He had risen and was now in the process of ascending into heaven (something that would take place a few weeks later). He also wants her to tell them that His Father and God is also their Father and God. This statement would have brought incredible hope to the disciples for in it Jesus subtly reveals that the same Father and God who raised Him from the dead is the Father of God of the disciples who follow Him.

ACTION #4: Mary Shares as a Faithful Messenger-20:18

Mary faithfully answers her commissioning and immediately sets out to complete her assignment, “Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples…”(20:18a). The way this is written almost seems to suggest that Mary was in a continuous state of proclamation as she carried this message to her friends. As the first sent one beyond the empty tomb, Mary is the first missionary. The first to receive this “good news” are Jesus’ close confidants.

After making it to the disciples, Mary shares, “’I have seen the Lord,’ and that He had said these things to her…” (20:18b). Answering the call to be sent, Mary the shared the message she was given to proclaim without fail.  

So What?

In this passage Mary transforms from a grieving loner to a faithful messenger. What is to blame for this dramatic transition in her life? –the change demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Once He was dead and now He is alive. Because of this, grieving loners everywhere can know hope, obtain a mission, find purpose, and joyfully live in this world full of all kinds of life-changing events. However, in order to experience this change, one must take the steps that Mary demonstrates in her odyssey here. First, people must recognize they are grieving loners. Grieving what? The loss of answers, the loss of meaning, the loss of understanding one’s place in the grand scheme of things, and ultimately the loss of a right relationship with God. Once achieved, they must pursue answers to these questions and satisfaction for these needs by becoming concerned investigators of Jesus Christ who claims to provide for these things and more. Thoroughly and honestly vetted, Jesus will inevitably be found alive and well and be understood as God made flesh. When people trust in this, they become children of God who want as much of Jesus as possible. This will ultimately bring individuals face-to-face with Jesus’ commands, specifically, the commission to go and share the greatest news ever! What is this news? That Jesus was once dead but is now alive! His change gives all the opportunity to transform from grieving loners to faithful messengers. What stage of the journey are you in today? 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rage, Reason, and Redemption

Faced with certain death, what would you say to God? Interestingly enough, all of the answers to this question can be divided into two distinct categories that are represented by the two thieves on the crosses on either side of Christ. Their voices heard in the midst of their suffering are emblematic of the choices people make concerning God in light of their pain. However, in order to learn from the dichotomy represented in their statements, one must listen carefully to what he hears in between the gasps for air and vociferous cries of the spectators in Luke 23:39-43 on top of the skull rock. As gross and dark as this scene proves to be, journeying through this text is fruitful for those who follow the man who hung in the middle as they learn the invaluable role of brokenness before God.


Crucifixion was viewed by ancient writers as the cruelest and most barbaric of punishments. Recent historical and archaeological studies have helped bring a more realistic sense of crucifixion’s horrors. Bone fragments of a crucified individual were discovered in 1968 and revealed that his feet were each nailed laterally to the beam. In many cases, both the feet and wrists were nailed to the crossbeam the victims carried. This would have taken place after the victim was stripped of his clothes to increase the humiliation. After being nailed to the crossbeam, the apparatus would be raised high enough for the victim’s feet to clear the ground and then placed on a stake. Most guess that Jesus’ cross stood about 7 feet high. This method of execution was designed for one thing-- a slow and tortuous death.  Death by crucifixion was a result of a loss of blood, exposure, exhaustion, and ultimately, suffocation. Sometimes, victims would linger for days in agony! This horrific spectacle even inspired words like “excruciating,” which derives from the Latin excruciatus, “out of the cross.”

Though many tend to focus their attention on Jesus in the center of the Golgotha scene, it is important to remember that Jesus was one of three facing this unthinkable horror in this passage. Given the nature of the current predicament, it is little wonder that one of the thieves speaks up and in his rage says hurls abuse in the midst of his ever-shallow breaths (Lk. 23:39).

Though ill-advised in retrospect, one might understand how such a voice could be heard in the midst of agony. This is not a voice coming from a heart of brokenness, but a voice offered from a hardened heart bent against God.The first thief’s voice illustrates one of choices everyone has in difficult/painful situations—rage.  

In many ways this first thief represents a large sector of humanity. Those who in the face of suffering shake an angry fist at the God they  do not even believe in sympathize with this man and might even be caught saying what he says next, “Are you no the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”

In the last moments of life and in the midst of incredible pain, people will reach for anything to provide relief, even that which they blaspheme. However, instead of looking to Jesus in real hope of real salvation, this thief questions who Jesus claims to be and is sarcastic in his plea.

This hellacious cry echoes throughout the generations among those who fail to believe in Jesus. Seeing no way of escaping their death or agony, instead of reaching out to Jesus in Faith for salvation, they question Him, His love, His sovereignty, and in their unbelief grasp only at straws.  Calvin says of this raging blasphemer, “this objection is directed against God Himself; just as wicked men, when they do not obtain what they wish, would willingly tear God from heaven. They ought indeed, to be tamed to humility by strokes; but this shows that the wicked heart, which no punishments can bend, is hard like iron.” The voice of rage says, “There is no God, look how much I’m hurting! If there was a God, why would he allow me this pain?”


As we continue to watch the spectacle unfold, there is a second voice screaming 7 ft. above the ground. The second thief cannot put up with the insistent blaspheming of Jesus offered by the first thief while on the cross and instead of holding his tongue or saving his breaths for himself as he too reals in pain on a cross of his own, he openly rebukes the statements being made on the other side of the skull rock. 

In what this second criminal says, the reader is made aware of another way to view one’s own predicament before Christ. Though in the first man’s response to pain and agony one can hear the voice of a raging blasphemer, here the surprising and yet unmistakable voice of reason is distinguished.  

The first thing offered by this second voice is a statement of rebuke. “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” In this question, the second robber is hoping that the first recognizes that death is coming soon and it is probably not the best time to be blaspheming an innocent man. Though their present predicament was desperate and difficult, it would not compare to what they would feel before God in the judgment seat. Though they were now feeling the results of being condemned by the Roman government, they would soon discover what it would feel like to be condemned by God Himself!

While this rebuke was designed to put the fear of God into this man, there is no evidence to suggest it was successful. Instead, the first thief’s hard heart hardened and unfortunately this is no different than many in our world today who instead of fearing God distance themselves from Him and fall into condemnation.  Any reasonable person would understand that he/she should fear the God who can kill body and spirit. However, these are blinded by rage in response to pain and suffering.

The second thief understands that what they are experiencing is exactly what they “deserve.” He acknowledges here that the punishment which was common to all the three was “justly” inflicted on him and his companion. However,  Christ had been dragged to the punishment of death, not by his own crime, but by the cruelty of enemies, -“…And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’…” (Lk. 23:41). This second thief reasonably concludes, in light of his crime, that the punishment he is suffering at present is natural and expected-- not surprising or unjust. In fact, to not be punished in the manner he was currently experiencing would have been a gross injustice. Unlike his companion thief, who believed God was unjust and/or unreal, this man recognizes that the real injustice is being exercised on the man in the middle.

This man might represent all who reasonably conclude that their present sufferings, agonies, and even anticipated death are a natural result of their own sinful choices, mankind’s depravity, and extant wickedness that infects the entire fallen world. The difficulty they face in life and the hardships around them are understood by these as the product of sin in their lives, the lives of others, and in creation itself.  Therefore, what they are experiencing and will experience after death without Christ is not understood as unjust, but the proper penalty assigned to each of them. The only thing they can do in light of this is call upon the Lord because of their brokenness and desperation.

Calling upon the Lord is exactly what the second thief does next, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”  (Lk. 23:42).

 In this phrase readers everywhere are given one of the most remarkable and striking examples of faith ever recorded! This thief not only had not been educated in the ways of Christ, he instead had given himself up to a life of sin and endeavored to rid himself of any sense of right and wrong (by living a life of thievery). However, here he suddenly rises higher than all the apostles and other disciples whom the Lord Himself had taken time and effort to instruct and adores Christ as King and asks to be invited to His kingdom! This he does while bleeding out and gasping for air on a cross! All credit for such a display of faith must go to the Holy Spirit, who, upon this man’s understanding of his sin and necessary implications thereof, supplied the grace necessary to make this quantum leap from sin to saving faith.

Those who understand their sin and the effects thereof are those who are broken enough to understand their dependency on the Lord for their salvation. Like this second thief, those who place their faith in Jesus Christ are reaching a reasonable conclusion. Jesus is the only means of escaping the sting of death and enjoying eternal life. The voice of reason says, “I am responsible for my actions, expect the consequences, and desperately need Jesus to save me.” 


Do not forget that Jesus is suffering under the same excruciating pain these two thieves are experiencing. He too is hanging seven feet above Golgotha and His voice is the third participant in the unique conversation taking place overhead. In His response to what has been said, it is significant to note that Jesus only addresses the second thief and ignores the first. Jesus responds to brokenness and ignores blaspheming rage. In his response to the former, Jesus provides His voice of redemption.

To the reasonable thief Jesus says, “truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This promise reveals that Jesus, though presently humiliated before the onlookers, was still the same powerful Savior of the world who was capable of bringing life out of death and fulfilling every facet of His office. The second thief could expect life after death that very day with Jesus in Paradise.

As “paradise” is synonymous with heaven, Jesus makes it clear here that death is not defeat for those who belong to Jesus Christ—it is the beginning of life with God in a more profound way. This is what the second thief could expect following his last breath. In fact, anyone who turns to Jesus, even in the last moments of his/her life, is granted fellowship with Christ for eternity thereafter.

Romans 10:13-“Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 Jesus has always been about awarding faith with grace. Here, He awards the faith of a thief at his execution with the grace of eternal life in heaven. This same grace is available today to all who call upon Him, expecting to hear the voice of redemption which says, “This world and its sufferings is not all that there is. Call upon me and know eternal life.”

Interestingly, Jesus is able to offer grace for the thief and the remainder of the world because of His own brokenness. Jesus’ heart broke so much for this dying world destined for hell that He decided to enter into its situation as a man, live a perfect life in an imperfect world, and die a horrific death. Motivated by this brokenness and love, Jesus provided my salvation and gave me life and he offers it to you as well.

So What?

The sights and sounds surrounding Golgotha draw attention to the multiplicity of horrors and pain experienced by all in this world. Like these three, we are on our way to death and so is humanity. Like these three, we are living in the midst of sin and injustice, feeling the very real wickedness at every turn. This predicament affords us two choices. The first is represented by the first thief. To those who speak of God in rage, who do not believe in God or can’t for the life of them believe that anyone would believe in a good God while there is so much pain and suffering, I say this: consider that Jesus’ own heart breaks for the world’s situation. His heart breaks so much that He was willing to travel to the cross and experience the most horrific death imaginable to redeem you and me out of this mess and into eternal life. He died in the worst possible way and did not deserve any bit of it! We suffer because we are sinful. He suffered though He sinned not!

The second choice is represented by the second thief. To those who have been broken before Christ and in response have reached the reasonable conclusion that only He can give hope in the darkness, I hope and pray that your heart might again break for the world around you as  does Christ’s. If our hearts do not break for the world in which we live, we will not reach the people that need to know Jesus Christ. If we fail to, like Christ, incarnate ourselves in the mess, our land will not receive the revival it desperately needs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gethsemane Guidance

In my own life as a pastor and a student, I have always valued preparation. Knowing full well what I was called to in the ministry, I saw university and seminary as a necessity as it prepared me to stand before you as your pastor, preacher, and leader. At least for me, without having taken time to prepare myself, I know I would have struggled to do what God has asked of me week after week in this unique role. Preparation has not only given me confidence, but it has helped me deal with unforeseen difficulties, changes, and distress. How I handle the difficult moments in my ministry is a direct reflection of how well I have been prepared to face certain challenges. Thankfully, I was blessed with excellent mentors and teachers who had been in the trenches of ministry before and demonstrated how to prepare adequately for the pastorate.

However, today I do not want to talk careers, but our unique role as disciples of Jesus Christ. The best way to learn how to prepare ourselves for this unique role is to learn from the best, Jesus Christ Himself, by observing what He did and how He handled difficulty. Thankfully, Mark 14:32-42 gives us such a lesson as Jesus heads into what would be the most challenging episode of His ministry. A few short days after the parade we looked at last week, Jesus finds Himself in Gethsemane. While there, He gives five statements that work together to teach the invaluable role of prayer in the life of every disciple as he or she prepares to do what God has called upon him or her to accomplish for 


Though many envision this scene as having taken place in a garden full of olive trees, many scholars believe that this scene took place in an oil press that was located on the Mount of Olives in a spacious cave. In fact, the word Gethsemane means “oil press” in Aramaic. Such a location close to the city would have been a perfect spot to spend a chilly night (later in Mark 14:54, others are shown to be kindling themselves by fires). This press provided privacy, protection from the elements, and plenty of space for Jesus and His disciples to spread out and do what He would ask them to do in this first statement.

Having enjoyed a very busy week, Jesus, after celebrating the Passover in the Upper room, moves into Gethsemane and finally has His disciples “sit.” This change from movement to being stationary signals a shift in the greater story. This was the beginning of the events that would unfold leading to Jesus’ death. However, before things get underway, His requests that His disciples “sit…until I have prayed” (14:32b).

Don’t believe prayer is worth much? Feel like there are better things to do with your time? Consider that Jesus Himself stopped to pray before big events in His own life. In His final ministry moments, Jesus begins an important lesson on prayer that begins with committing oneself to stop and take time out to give oneself over to this important practice. Prayer is priority number one.


Moving out of the cave and into the garden itself, Jesus decides to bring along with Him some of His closer associates, “and He took with Him Peter and James and John” (14:33a). These were the same disciples who had been allowed to watch Jesus heal Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5 and witnessed Christ’s transfiguration in Mark 9. These were Jesus’ confidants, compatriots, and those closest to Him whom He hand-picked to rely on in times like this.

In this particular moment, Jesus was “very distressed and troubled” (14:33b). His death was around the corner. That death was even present in the world at all, and that God’s judgment rested on mankind contributed to Jesus’ emotion as the climax of His ministry was now in view.

Jesus communicates as much to His close associates saying, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death” (14:34). In so many words, Jesus tells the three that His soul was overwhelmed with such sorrow that it threatened to kill Him! “The full impact of His death and its spiritual consequence struck Jesus and He staggered under its weight. The prospect of alienation from His Father [also no doubt] horrified Him” (BKC).

In light of this growing pressure and pending series of difficult events, Jesus simply asks that His disciples would remain nearby and “keep watch” (14:34).

But what could His disciples possibly learn at this point? By singling out these three and bringing them with Him to this solitary place on this night, Jesus alludes to the importance of fellowship in times of great grief. Jesus Himself looked to others for support in the dark points of His ministry, teaching all who read this that no matter how bad things get, none should proceed through the fires of life alone.


With the larger group presumably praying in the warmth  of the cave, and His close associates supposedly giving their own support nearby, Jesus then proceeds “a little beyond them,” falls to the ground, and begins “to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by” (14:35). The typical Jewish prayer posture was to lift one’s hands toward heaven and to pray aloud while standing. When one was in particular distress, he or she would prostrate his or herself on the ground. Here, Jesus assumes this position, which, in many ways, resembled the posture many took before Him for healing throughout His ministry. Jesus approached God on that night in the same manner as those who came before Him for healing—desperate, broken, and humble.

If Jesus approached the Lord God in this way, why don’t we? Entitlement, pride, and self-sufficiency have no place in prayer.   

After assuming this posture of humility, Jesus voices His prayer before the Lord and begins with adoration, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You” (14:36a). Knowing what lied ahead and the suffering, pain, and betrayal that waited for Him outside of the garden, Jesus actually takes time to praise the Lord! This commitment to praise satisfies Psalm 34:1 (“I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth”) and Paul’s later encouragement in Thess.  5:18 to “Rejoice always;  pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Here, Jesus praises God because He has a close relationship with Him (“Abba”) is in total control and possesses all authority (“Father”) and is all powerful (“all things are possible for You”). 

Jesus commends God in these specific areas because these attributes were sympathetic to the nature of His supplication, “remove this cup from Me” (14:36b). Jesus asks for this in light of His intimate relationship with Him, because only the Father’s authority would authorize such a request, and because only God in His power could turn the events in a different direction than where they were headed. This cup that Jesus’ asks to be removed is the cup of God’s incredible wrath against sin—the very cup that Jesus anticipates being spilled on Him while hanging on the cross. Jesus, who had enjoyed a perfect and intimate relationship with God from eternity past did not now want that to be broken with wrath and judgment. He had never experienced God’s wrath before and more than anyone else wanted to avoid it if possible.  

However, in spite of His own desires, Jesus concludes that ultimately it is not up to Him and submits Himself to the God’s will saying, “yet not what I will but what You will” (14:36c). This is true submission. Christ-like submission recognizes that while God can do anything, preference is given to His will over our desires. The same Jesus who said "All things are possible with You" and "Let this cup pass" also said "yet not what I will but what You will."

Here, Jesus demonstrates in the most grievous and desperate situation He has faced up to this point, that there is always room for prayer. Even further, He has shown that there is always time to praise God in distress, ask for whatever it is that you want, and ultimately submit yourself to God’s will over your own desires. To pray in this way is to pray like Christ.


Though we can benefit from what Jesus did by reading it here, the disciples who were supposed to be alert and learning these things for themselves firsthand were missing their opportunity, “and He came and found them sleeping” (14:37a). When all the world is about to change and the greatest challenges are about to be confronted, the disciples are sleeping on the job.

Jesus confronts this slumber head on and while incredibly frustrated, Jesus graciously asks Peter, the spokesperson and pseudo leader of the twelve, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?”(14:37b). In other words, Jesus says, “could you not even stay alert for a little while?!”
Jesus then requests, once again their alertness and involvement in prayer, saying, “keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation” (14:38a). In this request, Jesus spells out for his disciples exactly what it is that they should be doing at this time of great significance, praying. Specifically, they are supposed to be praying that they may not come into temptation. However, what “temptation” is Jesus referencing? The answer might most nearly be the very temptation that He now faced, the temptation to side with His own desires and back out of God’s will. Truly, this is at the heart of any and all sin. Sin, by definition is the rejection of God’s will for one’s own pursuits. Whether these pursuits include self-preservation, satisfying lusts, earthly success, etc., if they are contrary to the will of God, they are sin. Therefore, Jesus asks His disciples to, like Himself, pray that God would give them the strength to choose God’s will over their own, knowing full well that although the “spirit is willing” often times the “flesh is weak”(14:38b).

Immediately after waking His disciples to remind them of what they should have been doing, Jesus returns to prayer, demonstrating what He hoped to see in the lives of the twelve.

What Jesus encourages here is the very same thing He encourages of us as His disciples today—vigilant and persistent prayer that God’s will, not our personal preferences, would be realized on the earth.  Anything less opens us up, as it would His disciples, to falling prey to giving in to the flesh over the spirit. We too must recognize how weak our flesh is and remain alert in prayer so that when pressures rise we may not be found asleep. Jesus looks at His church today and says “Wake up! Give yourselves to prayer! The times are desperate and things are about to get really hard.”

Romans 12:12- "Rejoice in hope, persevere in tribulation, be devoted to prayer."

Ephesians 6:18- "Pray at all times in the Spirit . . . with all perseverance."


May we not be guilty of what the disciples were guilty of in verses 40-41, “and again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to answer Him.” It is obvious that the disciples did not understand how serious things were, what was about to happen, and the urgency that was required.

Jesus “came the third time, and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? It is enough; the hour has come; behold the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners” (14:41). Though Jesus had encouraged His disciples to be alert in prayer, knowing full well what they were about to face, they neglected this sacred and most precious privilege in order to catch some Z’s. There was no time to fix this and soon all of them no doubt would wish they had spent their time in Gethsemane Circle more wisely.

“Get up” Jesus says “Let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!”(14:42). “Start Out, it has begun” and by “it” Jesus was referring to the events that would inevitably lead down the road we will soon come upon in our series, the road to Golgotha. Having prostrated Himself before the Lord in fervent prayer, Jesus would be able to stand before His accusers, remain faithful, and proceed in the Spirit, never giving in to the desires of His flesh. However, because the disciples had neglected to do the same, one would betray Him, one would deny Him three times, and all would cower under the pressures they would soon face.

So What?

These five statements that were given in Gethsemane work together to teach the priority and primacy of prayer in the life of Christ. Prayer proceeded His most difficult episode, was encouraged in a group of like-minded individuals, was offered from a heart that was humble, broken, and desperate, included adoration, supplication, and submission to the Father’s will, and was persistent in its effort to see God’s will executed over fleshly desires. Jesus succeeded in praying this way; however, His disciples, when given the opportunity failed miserably and were therefore unprepared for what was in store. Truly, all of them would soon choose self-preservation and other pursuits over God’s will and demonstrate their inclination toward the flesh instead of the Spirit.

May this not be said of us! May we not be caught asleep or dreary-eyed when we should always be watchful, alert, and prayerful! May we, like Christ, adore God for who He is no matter how bad things may be, ask for Him to do incredible things on our behalf, and ultimately submit ourselves to His plan over our desires. May we always approach God out of desperation, humility and brokenness as we, like Christ, head into difficult situations in order to bring life to this dead and dying world. May we always spend time kneeling before the Lord so that we may have the strength to stand before any and all oppression, difficulty, and tribulation for the glory of God. Wake up Christian! Wake up Church! It is time to be like Christ in the way that we pray! 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hail to the King!

In marching band in high school, one of the duties we always had to take part in each year was the Fourth of July parade. The joy of the spectators on either side of the parade route was at a high cost. Searing heat, blinding sun reflections off the brass instruments, grueling 2 mile route of synchronized marching, and painful lip abuse as each song was repeated upwards of 25 times made this event the most physical of any in the entire marching season.  The parade was a big deal and in particular, this parade celebrated the independence of our country. Just as thousands gathered to watch the elements of our parade and the 100s of floats, there exists a parade of one in the Bible that celebrates the entrance of a king complete with songs, a procession and plenty of spectators. Instead of waving flags, Palm branches were used. Instead of confetti lining the streets, cloaks and garments paved the way for the one float, a man on a colt. Instead of celebrating a nation’s beginning, the spectators welcomed a king and the salvation. Let us listen to their chants as Jesus makes His entrance into Jerusalem and ultimately learn that faith in not measured in the noise we make but in the perseverance we demonstrate in Christ.

So much has already happened in preparation for this procession. Immediately before this passage begins, Jesus, upon instructing the disciples to retrieve a donkey, has just received His mode of transportation, a mode that has been prophesized for hundreds of years.

Zec. 9:9-Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Having heard this prophecy spoken of in the synagogue, those obtaining the donkey no doubt made the connection that their long-awaited Messiah had come and His entrance was ready to be made. Naturally, word of this procession spread and curious spectators and knowledgeable Jews decided to join in on the activity. Excitement over the long-awaited Messiah quickly drew an enormous crowd that sandwiched Jesus in from both sides as He made his way into Jerusalem.

In the same way people enjoy singing songs together while on the road, there is strong evidence that suggests the Jews entering Jerusalem were doing the very same thing. This first line of the verse that was sung comes from one of the many pilgrim songs found in Psalms (cf. Ps. 118:25). This pilgrim Song is a Psalm of thanksgiving for the Lord’s saving goodness.

Psalm 118:25-26-O Lord, do save, we beseech You; O Lord, we beseech You, do send prosperity!”

God’s goodness, everlasting love, and mighty faithfulness are all themes found within this psalm. The psalmist is bold and fearless in the midst of trial, trusting in the Lord’s salvation. This particular line shouted by the chorus is full of expectation and kingly implications. For starters, “Hosanna” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “Save us now, we pray.” Therefore, this line of the song, while praising the Lord, is also petitioning the Lord for the salvation that they had waited so long for. Secondly, the reference to a song of David, especially in Matthew, communicates that for the moment the crowd was confident enough to acknowledge Jesus as the promised Seed of David who had come to grant them salvation. 

Taking cues from yet another line of the same pilgrim song while on the journey to Jerusalem, the crowd quotes, from Psalm 118:26 saying, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” To invoke the name of the Lord, Yahweh, was to ascribe the highest level of authority to Jesus’ actions at this point. It would appear as though the crowd has finally made the connection that Jesus is none other than the ultimate King of the Jews. To “come in the Name of the Lord” means to come on behalf of the Lord. Indeed, Jesus had come on behalf of God for the benefit of those not only in the Jewish community, but for the entire world.

“Hosanna” is repeated again, much as it is in the original psalm, at the end of this song-verse. Interestingly, the original meaning of the word “Hosanna” (Save me now!) is a cry for help. In the original psalm, this cry for help was immediately followed by the exclamation “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Therefore the cry for help was answered almost before it came out of the song-writer’s mouth. Therefore, the term came to be an expression of hope and exultation. Instead of “Save please!” it came to mean “Salvation has come!”

In this context, the second expression of Hosanna is not requesting salvation, but acknowledging that it is already arriving. “Hosanna in the highest” means “Let all the angels in heaven join in the song of praise. Salvation! Salvation! Let the highest heaven sing the song!” While the crowd did not fully understand the significance of this event, they seemed to be acknowledging that this One is the promised Son of David who had come to grant them salvation. Both their actions and words bestowed honor on this One coming into the city, at last presenting Himself publicly as their King.

The action moves from outside the city to inside its walls. The procession had reached its destination and in the mind of many of those present, the King had come to establish His reign! It is at this point in time when the city itself would welcome its king and respond on their own to the grand procession entering the city gates.

Unable to ignore the cheering crowds, the city reacts with compulsive jeering.  Metaphorically, the city is shaken up by the spectacle of so great a crowd surrounding so humble a man (an average Jewish male riding a young donkey). 

Since Jesus had usually avoided the city, its inhabitant did not know him. Those accompanying Jesus made up the singing chorus around Him. Naturally, so great a spectacle would spark curiosity among the citizens of Jerusalem, instigating this curious investigation.

The chorus of singers wastes no time in answering the many questions permeating the city. 
However, though the crowds welcome Jesus as a king; their answer to the question ‘Who is this?’ (v. 10) is ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’ Because Jesus had been absent from Jerusalem for most of His ministry career, this answer may simply be given to identify who this individual on the colt was. However, perhaps they are saying more than they realize. Jesus had been commissioned by God both to declare the kingdom of heaven (as a prophet) and to inaugurate it (as a king). By riding into the city in this way, Jesus is performing a prophetic, dramatic act, much like those of some of the Old Testament prophets. Method and message combine as the procession conveys the purposeful approach of Jesus to Jerusalem. While the crowds may expect that Jesus’ aim is to overthrow Roman domination of Palestine, Matthew wants the reader to realize that there is a spiritual, rather than a political, significance to all of this. As the Prophet, Jesus was the One promised by Moses in Deut. 18:15-The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to Him. In many ways, Jesus is the greatest prophet, even superior to Moses, the hero of the Jewish faith. To refer to Him as “prophet” insinuated that He was the long-awaited prophet that Moses spoke of who had finally come.

This event marked the official presentation of Jesus Christ to the nation of Israel as the rightful Son of David. Complete with a grand entrance accompanied with singing, the awe and wonder of the spectators, and the proclamation of His identity, this event was nothing short of a kingly procession. However, what many fail to realize at this point is that Jesus’ immediate purpose for coming into Jerusalem is to die on a cross. Though this is the case, at least in this parade, Jesus makes it clear that one day He would reign as a King—not merely over Jerusalem, but over the entire world. His followers who would eventually trust in the victory of His coming  resurrection will live with Him forever in His most perfect Kingdom.

So What?

With the parade complete and pomp and circumstance at a close, it is tragic when one considers how short-lived such proclamations and sentiments lasted. The magnitude and power behind this presentation is nothing short of a grand celebration and yet what transpires throughout the remainder of the week is nothing short of a horrific spectacle. The following day Jesus curses a fig tree. On Tuesday, he turns the tables in the temple. By Thursday, the entire nation of Israel rejects Him as Messiah. As a result, many of the same ones chanting Hosanna would reject the salvation He had come to bring. Those who had laid down their garments for Him to trod upon would cast stones and saliva upon the Lord on His way to Golgotha. Ultimately, the excitement surrounding the King’s entrance in this passage suggests a weak and shallow faith. A faith that follows the crowd, jumps on the bandwagon and cheers at a parade. Faith like this inevitably leads wherever the crowds gather, wagon travels, and can replace a parade with a mocking and hateful bunch of violent onlookers. Is your faith Palm Sunday faith? Is your faith in Jesus contingent on the group, your family, your friends, this country? Is your faith just a bunch of noise? If so, today is a call to resurrection faith! 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Adding to the Noise- Nehemiah 4:1-6

One of the most powerful senses available to us is our hearing. Hearing can warn us of danger even before we see it approaching, tell us what is going on in another room ,and allows humans the ability to speak through the miracle of spoken language. Hearing is what allows a new mother to stay alert at night as she listens for the cries of an infant baby. Hearing is what lets my daughter know that someone is entering our home through the side door around the corner even when she cannot see them. What we hear can encourage us, warn us, scare us, bring us joy, and cause us pain. Perhaps this is why the Bible is so concerned about what we hear.

         Matthew 11:15-“He who has an ear let him hear.”

James 1:19-“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.”

Proverbs 2:2-“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.”

John 8:47-“Whoever is of God hears the words of God…”

Though these verses are heard when read, in the spirit of our God-given ability to hear, I invite each of us to hear Nehemiah 4:1-6 in a totally different way—by actually imagining the sounds that were created when was going on in the action actually took place. Though what will be heard would have caused concern among those who originally experienced this episode, inevitably, the sounds that resonate from this passage will teach us how to respond appropriately to discouragement.  Ready to listen carefully?

a) Trash Talk-4:1-3

In Nehemiah chapter 3, a compendium of all of the subcontractors is given that details exactly who did what as the wall was being rebuilt. This long list serves several purposes. First, its level of detail reminds the reader that these were real people who collectively were capable of accomplishing a huge project. Second, the list reveals that a great deal of preparation and organization went into this project. Obviously, Nehemiah proves himself to be a gifted leader and manager/superintendent over the project that God has given him. In fact, chapter 3 might give the impression that once Nehemiah had carefully assigned everyone to a particular section of the wall, from that time on everything progressed smoothly…Not so!

It doesn’t take long for the busy-body up-to-no-good home-owners association of rural Persia to begin voicing their objection to the new construction project going on in their neighborhood. Nehemiah recalls, “…when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became furious and very angry and mocked the Jews” (4:1). Let the trash-talking begin! First, Sanballat, (“sin gives life”) spouts off an angry deluge of mockery in the Jews direction.

“He spoke in the presence of his brothers and the wealthy men of Samaria and said, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Can they finish in a day? Can they revive the stone from the dusty rubble even the burned one?’” (4:2). Surrounded by the other elitists in the area, Sandballat first questions what the Jews are setting out to do, “what are these feeble Jews doing?” suggesting that this oppressed group is incapable of nearly anything. Having watched the inactivity of the Jewish people up to this point and having seen the wall that continued to lay in ruin, Sanballat questions whether or not restoration is possible for those in Jerusalem. This sentiment is made even more acute when Sanballat continues and says, “Are they going to restore it for themselves?” Next, Sanballat questions whether or not the Jews will ever be able to finish and in response offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, “Can they offer sacrifices?” After wondering whether the Jews will ever finish, he mocks their intelligence saying, “Can they finish in a day?” (i.e. do you even know how long a project like this takes to complete?). Finally, Sanballat questions their methods, “Can they revive the stone from the dusty rubble, even the burned ones?” (i.e. “Are they really going to use that to make a wall?”).

Ultimately, this is not the most encouraging thing to hear when you are hard at work on an endeavor that is really too big for you to accomplish as it is. However, this is just one voice. One voice is easy to ignore. But what happens when others join in?

Now Tobiah the Ammonite was near him and he said, ‘Even what they are building—if a fox should jump on it, he would break their stone wall down!’…” (4:3). One of the other card-carrying members of the board of the home-owners association, Tobiah, joins in the wretched refrain by building on what Sanballat already said and suggests that even if a wall was built, it would be so weak that a solitary fox’s delicate trot would collapse it entirely.

One thing is for sure, both Tobiah and Sanballat knew how to talk trash! These behaved similar to the bullies from the schoolyard who were quick with a quip about someone’s mother or how badly their dad could beat up your dad. Although children are taught to ignore bullies like this, even on the school yard, it is near impossible to drown out their voices and not be razed by a comment here or there. This is especially true when people degrade the work that you are passionate about later in life. Imagine, your people has finally been galvanized into action after years of laziness and things are actually taking shape in a positive direction. The wall that laid desolate is finally being mended and with every brick laid you get more and more excited. Now imagine that off in the distance, you hear the insults of those who wish to do you harm. In many ways, this project would be like rebuilding a wall while that same wall was under siege (only in this case, the arrows and rocks are the words that we are taught are supposed to never hurt).

How would Nehemiah, the leader who had roped all of this together, respond to this onslaught of negativity that pervaded the construction zone? Passionate prayer.

b) Passionate Prayer-4:4-5

Passionate prayer is the second thing we hear in the construction zone. As Nehemiah begins his petition, he provides an honest assessment of how the people feel, “Hear, O our God, how we are despised!...” (4:4a). As the construction is taking place and the negativity continues to build, Nehemiah does not pretend his people are stronger than they are—nor does he act as though the situation is not all that bad. He honestly assesses the situation and tells God how he feels. At this point, he and his people feel despised. Not one of their neighbors wants them to succeed. Everyone is out to discourage the much-needed work.

After coming clean about how his people feel and calling upon the one true God, Nehemiah asks that his enemies would get what is coming to them, “Return their reproach on their heads and given them up for plunder in a land of captivity. Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You…” (4:4b-5a). This is one glowing example of an Old Testament imprecatory prayer in which a child of God calls out for the condemnation of his enemy. In this case, Nehemiah prays that Sanballat and his cohorts would be taken captive and that they would be judged for their sins. First, Nehemiah asks that his enemies experience what the Jews had just experienced, captivity. Perhaps, Nehemiah wants to see how his enemies would handle 150 years of exile and how well they would fair when allowed back into their homeland. Second, Nehemiah wants his enemies to feel the full weight of their sin and its consequences. This takes trash-talking to a whole other level!

But why was Nehemiah so upset? Why was his prayer so passionate? Because as verse 5 reveals, “they have demoralized the builders” (4:5b). The problem they are facing is a real problem—the workers are becoming discouraged in the work that God had called upon them to accomplish. Ultimately, Nehemiah’s prayer, although harsh, is appropriate for several reasons. First, in their opposition to the Jews, Sanballat and the others were actually opposing the work of God. Though it might have seemed like a dispute over a new fence, the issue is far greater. God was about restoring the nation that would bring about His Son who would come to bring salvation. Second, God has already pronounced judgment on Israel’s enemies. Therefore, Nehemiah was praying according to God’s will. Those who oppose God (as Sanballat and the others were ultimately doing) will be judged according to their sin. Third, Nehemiah was praying that God would make good on a promise He gave to Abraham concerning those who curse His people (Gen. 12:3-“I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you”). And fourth, vengeance belonged to God, not to Nehemiah. Therefore, it is appropriate to bring this kind of request to the Lord and not try and take care of things himself.

Prayer trumps the opposition Nehemiah and his construction crew face. Nehemiah’s invocation drowns out the voices of negativity and despair being hurled in his direction. Once God is placed center stage again, having temporarily been upstaged by the nay-sayers, a proper focus is gained and a new sound could be heard.

Busy Builders-4:6

The third and final noise heard on the construction site that day was the glorious sound of busy builders pressing on in spite of the opposition, “so we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its height…” (4:6a). As in all his efforts recorded for us, Nehemiah blends divine perspective with the human and joins prayer to action. Though it is always appropriate to wait on the Lord, Nehemiah waits only so long as to finish praying before he continues the work that he knows God has called him to do. Once he committed the problem to the Lord, he trusted God to help the Jews achieve this mammoth task and while praying and trusting, they rebuilt the wall to half its height.

Why were they so successful in the face of so great an opposition? God had called a leader to fulfill a unique mission and a Nehemiah had pursued the Lord’s blessing and protection through prayer. However, a third element was involved, “the people had a mind to work” (4:6). Notice what kind of a mind the people did not have: a mind of laziness, a mind of apathy, a mind of entitlement, a mind of inactivity, a mind that says, “someone else will take care of that” or “that is not my job.” These people had mind to work and work they did! In about 4 weeks, the entire perimeter was restored to half its height! Amazing things happen when the people of God have a mind to work.

So What?

These three sounds have taught us several important lessons—first: trash-talk is a reality. For Nehemiah and his crew, trash talk came in the form of mockery. For us, trash talk may come in a variety of ways: discouragement, lies, personal attacks, emotional/verbal abuse, etc. I immediately think about the scene in American Sniper when the drill sergeants are training new seal recruits. As the training takes place, the sergeants are doing everything they can to distract and demoralize the men in an effort to test their resolve. The weak who cannot handle the barrage of petty insults and scare tactics are allowed at any time to surrender by ringing a bell. Its ring lets everyone know they have surrendered and can no longer press on. Similarly, God allows discouragements in Nehemiah’s situation and in our lives in an effort to test our resolve to complete our mission. If not dealt with properly, the barrage of discouragement will have us looking for the surrender bell so that we can quit whatever God has called upon us to do. However, we have another option. Passionate prayer is capable of drowning out the cacophonous medley of discouragement. Prayers offered to the Lord that center on the continuation of His will are as noise-cancelling headphones that silence skeptics and fill us with encouragement. When passionate prayer is applied, actions inevitably follow that allow us to move on with the mission at hand. What is our mission? To know Christ, grow in Christ, and to show Christ to this neighborhood and to the world. Sure the skeptics are there and we will always face discouragement as we seek to fulfill this individually and corporately. Therefore, let them hear us pray and busily build the kingdom of God with His help! Our father can beat up their father!