The Gift of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-47)

Book of Acts logoAre you a Democrat? Are you a Republican? You pro-life? Or are you pro-choice? You support traditional marriage? Or do you think it is time for marriage to be re-defined? If we get nothing else out of this election cycle, it is clear we like our labels. Regardless if the issues are truly as clear-cut as we like to make them out to be, we like to know where we stand. We also like to know where our neighbor comes down on these issues. Labels give us confidence. They help us identify ourselves and others.

One of the most important question we can ask is “Who are my people?” The answer to this question give us our social identity and sense of belonging. As much as we want to think we are creators of our own destiny, how we come to answer this question shapes what we think of ourselves and our world. The answer to “Who am I” is found in asking “Who are my people?”

I am African-American. I am Asian. I am Latino. I am non-religious. I am Christian. These are our social identities. They are important to us. It is at the boundaries of these social identities that some of our most heated and complex conversations happen. These identity markers become our ticket at the ballot box. They become the reason we use words like “us” and “them” or “those other people” or “not my kind.” These identity markers help us create community. They can also be damaging and hurtful when used to exclude others from community.

In Luke 9:49-50 John, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, says, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” Do you hear what he is saying? Here is someone ministering in the name of Jesus but because he is not a part of the right community, John thinks he should be stopped. It doesn’t matter that he is doing the right thing. He is not part of the right group. Jesus responds, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.” Jesus is saying that he may not be a part of the right group but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do the right thing. This is a great reminder for all of us who are tempted to demonize fellow Christians who happen to be voting for a candidate that you don’t represent.

Just after this episode, Jesus sends some of his followers to prepare for his arrival in a village of Samaritans. The Samaritans refuse to accept Jesus. As a response, James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, say, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” (Luke 9:54)? Followers of the one whose message is love are asking, “Do you want us to kill them?”

The disciples were shocked that Jesus would talk to a Samaritan woman. They complained that mother’s brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. And here, they wanted to call fire down from heaven and turn the town into a pile of ash. Of course, the first disciples were good Jews. And the first century Jewish faith had clear markers on what distinguished someone as clean and unclean, pure and impure, godly and ungodly. You were Jew or Gentile. If you were Gentile, you had no place at God’s banquet table.

But something changes. Something happens that disrupts the disciples understanding of social identity. In a few weeks we will be looking at the first church council meeting in Acts 15. It was a called meeting by church officials to determine if Gentiles could be a part of the church without going through the Jewish conversion process or if they needed to first go through the ritual of becoming Jew. Can Gentiles stay Gentile and worship the covenant God of Israel? The council determined that they could remain Gentile and worship God as it was made possible through Jesus. They send a letter to the non-Jewish Christian communities explaining their decision. The letter begins, “The brothers both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings” (Acts 15:23).  This simple greeting is hugely revolutionary. For the first time the word “brother” is used by Jewish men to refer to non-Jewish men. Some scholars suggest this is one of the few places in first and second century Judaism that Gentiles are referred to as belonging to a Jewish social identity without becoming a convert to Judaism. By referring to the Gentile believers as “brothers” the Jewish-background church leaders are saying they belong equally to the same social group. The Jewish believers see the Gentile believers as having identical standing in Christ while allowing them to hold on to their Gentile identity.

Something happened. Something allowed the early followers of Jesus to see the world in a different way. A few years before they were ready to call fire down from heaven for those who were different and felt it was their place to remind Jesus of his Jewish identity. But now they are ready to redefine the question, “Who are my people.”

What happened?

Pentecost. Pentecost happened.

Post-resurrection band of believers have regrouped after the violent death of their leader, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven. With a head count of 120 including the original eleven, with the replacement of Judas chosen, they wait in Jerusalem. Whatever the band of followers were thinking when Jesus told them to wait for the Spirit’s coming, you can bet they were not expecting what they got. What they got was a fear-induced, adrenaline-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-seized, smoke-filled experience. A gale force wind and tongues of fire sends chaos through the streets. A Pentecostal tent revival gets confused with a college frat party.

The streets of Jerusalem were lined with people celebrating the Festival of Weeks. From the Greek word for fifty, the festival eventually became called Pentecost. It occurred fifty days after Passover. The festival celebrated the gift of the harvest. It later came to be recognized as the celebration of the anniversary of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. People came from all over. The city filled with different nationalities of Jews living in Diaspora. A cacophony of languages rang through the streets.

The Spirit’s arrival marks the turning point in the mission of Jesus. It fulfills the promises he made to his disciples that they would “receive power” and be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Spirit of God visits and says, “You think resurrection was something? Wait until you see what’s next.”

The book of Acts is not a story of a cluster of creative individuals who set out to start a new religion. It is not a story of a group of men who should be working in the branding and marketing department of Apple. It is not even a story of people who were sitting around trying to decide how they were going to keep the story of Jesus going. They didn’t know what they were going to do. They didn’t have a plan. They didn’t have an agenda. Gathered in that room we have a group of people who loved Jesus and knew him to be something special. But beyond that they just wanted to survive another day.

This was God’s miracle. It was a miracle the disciples could have never comprehended. Now, suddenly, they are speaking in many languages and people from every corner of the world are hearing the good news of Jesus. Nobody in their right minds would infuse this band of confused and fearful men and women with power. Nobody except God.

Peter, the one who denied Jesus, is now filled with the Holy Spirit and is ready to speak. He interprets this event as fulfilling the book of Joel’s prophecy of the coming salvation on the day of the Lord. He recites the prophet, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your old men shall dream dreams, Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

Power, boldness, and an injection of supernatural determination was given to the church at Pentecost. But the real miracle was that at Pentecost the church was given a word to say to the brokenness of the world.  A word unlike any other word. Sons and daughters were given a word to speak that is stronger than death. Old men given dreams to share of hope deeper than despair. A word given to all God’s people, men and women, old and young, that in the power of Christ’s resurrection there is life.

The miracle of Pentecost is a word spoken to the world. A word that the world is desperate to hear. It is what unifies and brings together the church. Jesus told those early disciples you will be my witness – you will have a word to speak. It is the word that God is reconciling himself to the world. God is rescuing the broken. God is setting the captive free. God is releasing the prisoners. And God is doing it all through the power of the Spirit of Jesus. The Church is the Church when it gives witness to the presence of God in the world.

A rushing, mighty wind roars through a crowded room, and tongues of fire are placed on each one. A Pentecost of tongues explodes in witnessing to the name of Jesus. Three thousand souls that day were stirred and added to the church as they believed the Word.

The Holy Spirit gives us a new way of being human in community. Through the Holy Spirit the question “Who are my people,” is answered by a community centered on Jesus. The community functions as God’s witness to the world. The Church is at its best when it is united in giving witness to Jesus through the power of the Spirit.

Get Your Head Out of the Clouds (Acts 1:1-11)

Book of Acts logoEaster has come and gone. The shouts of “Alleluia” left us with hearts overflowing. On resurrection morning we heard “He is risen” and we walked out with renewed energy. Easter was a great day.

The resurrection is behind us. New life is before us. What do we do now? For some, they want to hit the rewind button and do it again. The passion, the energy, it all felt good. We encountered the resurrected presence and we want another taste. It is for those that the angels say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Other words, “Hello! Quit relishing in the past. Look ahead. He is about to do something new. Get your head out of the clouds!”

The book of Acts is the story of a Spirit-filled movement of what can happen when people get their head out of the clouds. It is the story of God’s people on the move. It is the story of Jesus’ followers who took serious his prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”

When the greatest authority in your life is a God who won’t stay dead, then your life is going to be interesting. The book of Acts is filled with adventure, suspense, and a God-size mission that turns the world upside down. Today we start our journey through the book of Acts with the hopes of discovering how we can be a church fully alive.

The author begins by saying, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1). Acts is part of a two-volume collection. The author of Luke’s gospel begins by saying, “I decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:3, 4). Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke belong together.

The writings were dedicated to a person called “Theophilus.” The name means “lover of God.” In Luke, he is given the title “Most Excellent,” which would be reserved for a high-ranking government official or someone of public stature. He is already familiar with the Jesus movement. Christianity was seen by many with widespread suspicion. As we will see through Acts, it causes a lot of disruption when it is preached on the streets. The movement disrupted a lot of the social order. Jesus followers were beginning to face regular persecution. At the end of the book, when Paul is in Rome, the Jewish leaders said, “We would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22).

In dedicating this two-volume collection to Theophilus, I believe that Luke is trying to give a true account of the Jesus movement up against the one that may have been spoken on the streets. Luke wants Theophilus to have the truth before he makes a decision of what to do with Jesus and the movement. Luke sets to layout an accurate account of the story of Jesus and His movement.

After his resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with his disciples teaching about the kingdom of God.  Like us, the disciples had a hard time grasping the kingdom of God. They were thinking that Jesus was about to restore Israel’s independence. For the disciples, the kingdom of God meant Israel’s freedom from the suppressive power of Rome. For us, we have made the kingdom of God about where we go when we die. We have made it a teaching about keeping our heads in the clouds. But the kingdom of God is about God’s reign invading our age in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The kingdom of God is God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). This is the message of the kingdom of God. The reign of God is over all the earth. This is the message that Jesus sends his disciples out with. This is what they are being called to give witness. And what we are called to tell the world – Jesus reigns!

The witness is done in the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, the same Spirit that breathed life into creation, the same Spirit that spoke through the prophets is the same Spirit that will empower the disciples to carry the message of God’s reign to the ends of the earth. The disciples wanted political power. They had earlier asked about who would reign with him. Now they wanted to know about restoring the political strength of Israel. But Jesus tells them they will have a power that that is far greater than any political power. When the Holy Spirit comes upon them they will be given heavenly power.

“You will be my witness” is sort of the theme of the book. “In Jerusalem” covers the first seven chapters, “in all Judea and Samaria” covers 8:1 to 11:18, and the remainder of the book traces the gospel to the ends of the earth as it extends to Rome.

The Christian faith is a faith on the move. The Gospel of Luke records Jesus as he heads to Jerusalem. The book of Acts tells the story of Jesus’ Spirit descending in Jerusalem and sending his followers out from Jerusalem. The Christian faith is a missionary movement. What is it going to take to reach the 1.6 billion people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ? It is going to take a Spirit-filled presence.

What is it going to take to keep sharing, giving, and living so that every person in Cherokee County is given an opportunity to respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

It is going to take a church that does not settle for comfort and safety. It is going to take a church that is possessed by the Spirit of God. It is going to take people of faith who go out in boldness filled by the Spirit of Jesus. What is it going to take to take the gospel to the ends of the earth? A church that has its feet on the ground and its head out of the clouds.

It is hard to see the Spirit of God at work among us when our head is in the clouds. All kinds of impossible things are being made possible because the Spirit of God is at work among us. Things like families being restored, marriages being renewed, and prodigal children coming home. Things like drug addicts being delivered. Alcoholics being set free. Chains broken. Freedom given. New life.

This gospel is the hope of the world. What sin has destroyed, Jesus’ blood has restored. Now by the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to be bold witnesses to this truth. Easter was amazing. But what is to come is truly remarkable. God is calling forth our church to new beginnings. God is calling us to be witnesses of His Good News. This week I want to ask you to be bold. Take an opportunity to invite three people to worship with you next Sunday. Invite them to be your guest. We will be talking about the birth of the church. Be bold. Invite someone.

I read recently of a Mexican priest who decided to take communion to the people of a town whose church was overrun by the drug cartel. They shot anyone who came near, but the priest came forward to enter the church. They shot the ground around his feet, and overcome with fear, he started to leave, but then he stopped, came back again, and moved forward while the town came out to watch. His courage inspired others to fall in step beside him until there was a collection of unarmed people moving toward the church. The startled soldiers no longer had the will to do them harm. They stepped back helpless of the power that was evident among them. The people shared communion. Something moments earlier had been impossible was made possible by the power of God’s presence.

We are called to be a witness. We are called to give witness to the one who calls himself the Bread of Life, who tells the woman at the well that he can provide her with water that will quench her thirst. We are called to give witness to the one that feeds five thousand with one basket of bread and fish. We are called to give witness to the one who says the kingdom of God is like a giant banquet table to which everyone is invited.

You are being invited by a living God to be present with him at His table. We are not worthy. It is an invitation. All are welcome. At this table you will find strength for the journey. At this table you will find the source of strength to go out and be bold witnesses in the name of Christ. Come and feast at the table. Leave empowered. Be a witness of God’s reign to your world. Amen.

Because He Called My Name (Easter Sermon)

11 x 8.5_Flyer.indd“Did God say,” the serpent asked Eve in the garden. “Did he really?” And that’s how it starts. A simple question. Is this really true? Can this really happen? Does this really make sense? In a garden at the beginning of time, the doubt was real.

With darkness caving in upon him, Jesus cries out from the cross, My God, my God why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27: 45)? There are moments in life so terrible, so painful, and so difficult that God’s silence, or apparent absence, leads us to question his very existence. Moments thick with pain that seems too much for a good God to be conceivable.

From the foot of the blood drenched cross, Mary Magdalene heard the cry. She also saw his body go limp and lifeless after he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). She saw his body removed from the cross. She saw him wrapped it in burial cloths. She heard the large thump made by the stone as it closed the entrance of the tomb. Her rescuer. Her rabbi. Her friend. He was dead.

We are told, “While it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene came to the garden and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. It was dark. The sun had yet to shine. When she saw the stone rolled away she didn’t shout, “Christ is risen!” Resurrection was the furthest thing from her mind. The first visitor on the first Easter morning was bringing her questions, her doubts, and her suspicions to the garden. Before the exuberant shouts of “He is risen!” there were quiet doubts.

Some of us carry it like a rock in a shoe. It is there. It is annoying. It bothers off and on. For others, it is a splinter underneath the skin. A constant reminder. For some, it is a rip tide that pulls further out to a sea of confusion. Doubt. Is this really true? Can I believe? Can I trust?

Pollsters tell us less and less people are believing. Less of us are attending church. And most of us are attending less often. The reasons are many. The church is irrelevant. The church has caused a lot of damage. The church is boring. Life is busy. Priorities have shifted. Or, is it something else. Is it that we are just being honest with ourselves? We find a lot of the church’s message hard to believe?

Some of you today are fumbling through songs that you don’t believe. “Because he lives I can face tomorrow . . . Because he lives all fear is gone,” you are just not sure. Not wanting to upset the family you allow your parents to drag you here today. All while not believing a word that is spoken.

You wish you believed. You wish you could sing, “Chains have been broken, eyes have been opened” with as much passion as the person sitting next to you. You wish that the belief was strong that you could say with confidence, “death is defeated.” But you can’t. There are too many questions. The doubt is too strong.

I know folks that wake up many mornings “while it is still dark,” and they are not sure they can out run the shadows of doubt and uncertainty. You are not alone. This morning if you are one of those persons who heard, “We haven’t seen you here in a while. It is great to have you back,” don’t take it as a criticism of your lack of participation. Instead recognize it as genuine care and an invitation to join us even in your doubt. At least in this place, we welcome your questions. We think it is okay to bring your doubt to church.

Faith cannot be forced. But unfaith can be challenged. Sometimes just showing up is all it takes.

From the perspective of the Gospel of John, we don’t know why Mary is showing up at the tomb. Jesus’ body had already been prepared for burial. The stone had already been put in place. For some reason, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. She sees the stone that closed off the tomb from the outside has been taken away, and she comes to the only conclusion that seems reasonable. Running to the disciples, she says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”

Peter and the unnamed disciple rush to the tomb. The unnamed disciple runs faster than Peter. He gets there first. But doesn’t go inside. Peter enters the tomb first, sees the burial garments of Jesus. He walks out. The unnamed disciple, goes in, he sees, and he believes. They return to their homes. Mary is still standing outside the tomb weeping.

One sees and believes. Peter sees the same thing and there is no indication that he is convinced. Remember Peter is the one who walked on water. He is the one who first called Jesus Lord. But he was also the one who betrayed Jesus. He denied being a follower. He walked away. It wasn’t that his rational mind kept him from believing. For Peter, it was that his heart kept him from believing.

When you sit with your questions and doubts, it helps to be honest with what is it that keeps you from believing. Is it that you don’t find it rational believable? Or is it that your heart is cold and refuses to let yourself believe? Maybe you have been hurt by the church. And you are not going to let yourself be that vulnerable again. It is easier to say, “I don’t believe” than it is to let yourself be loved.

Maybe, you are ashamed. You are carrying around this guilt for past mistakes. Instead of being open to the possibility that you can be forgiven, you find it easier to not simply believe. It is not that your mind is keeping you from believing, it is that your heart doesn’t have the capacity to believe.

Mary stands weeping. Through the tears, she looks into the tomb. She sees two angels. Treating the angels as if it is two men having a picnic inside an open tomb, she cries, “They have taken away my lord and I don’t know where they have laid him” (John 20: 13). She turns to walk away. She sees what she believes to be a gardener, a body stealing gardener. “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15).

Three at the tomb on that first Easter morning. One sees and believes. One has a heart that won’t let him believe. And for the other, none of it makes sense. I am grateful on this Easter morning God has room for each of us. For the one who sees and believes and sings “Alleluia, He is risen!” with a gusto and passion, God welcomes you. For the one who comes with a mind that wants to believe but a heart that holds back, God welcomes you. For the one who comes with questions and doubt, God welcomes you.

This is why this is Good News: somewhere in the shadows of your life and my life, a truly risen Savior is lurking, bursting in new life. Belief in the resurrection moves us beyond the realm of a normal experience. Resurrection belief moves us beyond the realm in which we can understand and manage. It moves us into the sphere of the impossible. Believing in the resurrection requires the same type of belief that is needed to believe in love and hope. Love cannot be explained rationally. Hope doesn’t seem realistic. And yet, we know we can’t live without a sustained hope or an enduring love.

With her doubts, her questions, her fear, her tears, Mary stands staring down an empty tomb. Easter is more than an empty tomb. The power of the resurrection is not ultimately in the empty tomb. Instead, the power of the resurrection comes from a personal encounter of the risen Christ. When Jesus calls her by name, her eyes are opened, and she begins living into the impossible possibility of a new life. She brought her darkness of doubt to the empty tomb and she was met by a risen Jesus who called her by name.

And he knows your name, just as surely as he knew Mary Magdalene’s name. No matter the reasons you doubt, listen for the voice calling your name. Because he is calling. Easter happens as Jesus appears to those who have given up hope. He appears to people who have been swallowed up by doubt and uncertainty.

Believing in the resurrection moves us beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a new way of living. It means we see possibilities of new life in every death, sees light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair. I agree it is a leap of faith. But so is most things worth believing.

This morning you have an option. You can approach the resurrection and life as a problem to be solved. A problem can be held at arm’s lengths. It can remain distant. It doesn’t have to be personal. Or you can approach it as a mystery to be explored. A mystery is inexhaustible. We are embraced by mystery. A mystery refuses to be kept at a safe distance.

For Mary the moment the empty tomb turned from being a problem to a mystery was when she heard her name spoken by Jesus. All her questions about the empty tomb were not answered. But her encounter with the risen Savior gave her back hope. Only her name. Then we remember what Jesus said before, “The sheep here his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). A problem becomes a mystery when she hears her name. The impossible becomes possible when she hears her name. Unfaith becomes faith when she hears her name. Hopeless becomes hope when she hears her name.

Some years ago retired professor from Candler School of Theology, Tom Long told the story of Mary Ann Bird. Mary Ann had it rough growing up. Born with a cleft palate and a disfigured face, Mary Ann also had lopsided feet and so an ungainly way of walking. Naturally, she was the target of all school-age cruelty the other children could muster. “Did ya cut your lip?” they’d sneer. “How come you walk like a duck?” Mary Ann lived in a dark world.

One year her teacher was Miss Leonard. Miss Leonard was short and round and a little doughty but she shined with kindness. Back in those days teachers were required to administer a kind of homespun hearing test. The teacher would call each student up to her desk, have the student cover first one ear and then the other, and the teacher would whisper something to see if the child could hear. Usually the teacher would say simple things like “They sky is blue” or “You have on new shoes today.” Well, Mary Ann dreaded this test because she was also deaf in one ear and so this test would be yet another chance for her to be singled out for her deficiencies in life.

On the day of the test when it came time for her turn, Mary Ann waddled and shuffled forward. She covered up here bad ear first and then, as Miss Leonard leaned in close, Mary Ann heard words that would change her life. Because for Mary Ann’s hearing test, Miss Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl, Mary Ann.” And through those words and in the midst of her personal darkness, Mary Ann heard the voice of Jesus the voice of love, the voice of grace. And it changed her. Mary Ann grew up to become a teacher herself, and now she shines with kindness and grace for her students. And it started when Mary Ann heard Jesus call her name through the voice of a middle-aged teacher.

Mary Ann heard it through a teacher. Mary Magdalene heard it through a gardener. Jesus is speaking your name as well. It may come through an unexpected place or person. It may be coming from here today. Maybe you mustered up enough courage to bring all your doubt and questions to this place, and in doing so resurrection faith is about to burst through your heart. He is calling your name.

I been asked, “How can I really believe all this stuff?” And my answer is always the same, “Because I have heard him call my name.” Because he lives I can face uncertain days. Because he lives I can face tomorrow. Because he lives I don’t have to fear. Because he lives life is worth the living. Because he lives. And I know, because he called me by name.

If you hear your name being called today, it is time to respond. If you are here today and ready to respond to your name being called, will you join me in this prayer?

Jesus Christ, I put my trust in you. Forgive my sins. Wash me clean, and make me new. Take my doubt and my questions and bury them behind the stone of the empty tomb. Thank you for the hope I find in you and for helping me to see the love of God. I wish to live as your disciple. Help me to follow you. Thank you for the gift of faith. In Jesus name. Amen.

Because He Died (Good Friday Sermon)

Because He DiedHere we are between the Hosannas of Palm Sunday and the Hallelujahs of Easter confronted with another act of terror. At least 30 people killed and 230 more wounded in attacks on a subway and airport in Brussels, Belgium. Life hurts. People are violent. We are left choking on fear.

When the world gets drenched in pain I find it hard to hold my anger in check or to keep revenge restrained. I want to lash out. I want to enforce eye for an eye. When wrong is done, I want right to be imposed. Imposed at any cost.

Then I hear it. I hear the words from a blood drenched cross, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” What are we doing? Why do we keep hurting? Why do we keep stabbing friends in the back? Why do we continue to hate? We know. We know what we are doing. Father, forgive us.

Here we are between the Hosannas of Palm Sunday and the Hallelujahs of Easter confronted with an act of terror. The night before this night Jesus fed his disciples, washed their feet, and led them to a garden to pray. Tonight he hangs from a cross. “I am thirsty,” he says. And after a wine soaked sponge was held to his mouth, he says, “It is finished.”

There was no lethal injection in Jesus’ day. There was no attempt to make the killing less painful. The whole point was to make it hurt as much as possible. Jesus died with a crown of thorns on his head and a sign of mockery above. He probably died of suffocation, as his arms gave out and his lungs collapsed under the weight of his sinking body. Some say it was a broken body that killed him. I believe it to be a broken heart.

“No one has greater love than this,” he said on the last night of his life, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Having explained this to his friends, shown them in the washing of their feet, he leaves the room to go prove it. Less than twenty-four hours later, it was finished.

The cross of Calvary is the place where God, having become flesh in Jesus, took upon himself the brokenness of our fallen world. God did not create a fallen world. We made this mess. Instead of abandoning us to our own chaos, God chose to reach over an infinite chasm of justice and love and wrap us in mercy. The cross is God’s victory over darkness. From it, we see a love that can only come from God. On the cross we see dying love, and we recognize it as the undying love of God (NT Wright). Because He died.

God is not the kind of God that thinks you and me so awful and horrible that we should get what is coming to us, death and destruction. Instead, God thinks you and me are so beautiful, so precious that our redemption is worth dying for (Douglas John Hall). Seen from the light of Easter, the Crucifixion is the turning point in history. It is the moment when all the evil and pain of all the world is heaped into one place and there dealt with once and for all. “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son.” Because He died.

At the end his book, What Jesus Meant, Gary Wills comes to Good Friday. He writes, “Dark and mysterious as the whole matter of the Incarnation and the Passion, perhaps a single thing can help us think of them.” He then shares a personal account of a conversation that he had with his son. His young son woke up one night crying. He had a bad dream, a nightmare. When Wills asked what was troubling him, the little boy said that a nun in his Catholic school had told the children that they would end up in hell if they sinned. “Am I going to hell?” the little boy asked his father. Wills writes, “There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature, but I instantly announced what any father, any parent would: ‘All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.”

On this Good Friday, Jesus says, “There is no place – no hell, no suffering, no threat, and not even death that if you are going, I am going with you.” Only God can love like that. What is good about tonight is not what happens to Jesus, but what happens to us. Because He Died.

Out of the Depths, I Cry

cross (1 of 1)
(photo taken in a church in Tennessee)

Growing up, our house was surrounded by woods. My brothers and I would pretend to have an imaginary war among the trees. We built trenches on top of the hill to protect us from enemy fire. Weeks later, we would forget about the trench and running through the woods we would fall in the dugout places.

Most of life is lived on the surface. We keep the trenches for battles. We setup routines that keep life safe. We buy big bottles of hand sanitizer. We get regular medical check-ups. We pay for insurance premiums. We put money into a retirement account. Then something or someone comes along and knocks us into a deep place. Sometimes we trip and fall into the holes we have created through our bad habits or bad decisions. But other times we don’t even see the hole. It just showed up and the next thing we know we are down in the darkness attempting to claw our way out.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” the Psalmist voices in desperation (Psalm 130:1). The writer has found himself in a deep place. A place that he didn’t expect. A place that is fearful, dark, and that sends echoes with every scream. It is in this dark place that he cries out, “Lord, hear my voice.” The image that most of us get when we read this psalm is of a man or woman in a low place in their life and he/she is crying out to God. The movement seems upward, as if, God is up above the low place waiting to pull the person out. This is the way most of us have been taught to see God. God is up there in the heavens waiting to come to our rescue when we fall.

God is with us in the trenches. God is in the deep places. Through Jesus and the cross, God has come among us in our dark places. God is with us not above us.

The Psalmist words are our words. They are the words of a parent who has lost a child, a couple who has lost a house to a fire, a daughter who is losing her father to sickness, an employee who has been laid off, a parent waiting for the prodigal son to come home, the wife who feels betrayed, the husband who calls for divorce, the child who has been abandoned, the homeless family, the hungry. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” God hears our voice in the depths because God is with us in the depths.

Ash Wednesday: Giving Up More Than Chocolate

AshWednesdayChocolate. Social Media. Caffeinated drinks. Fatty foods. Television. If you have ever celebrated Lent, you probably have a catalog of items to select from when it comes to the discipline of fasting. For centuries, Christians have observed forty days of Lent prior to the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness fasting before the beginning of his public ministry. Followers of Jesus, spend the same amount of time in their own wilderness. It is a time for us to discover who we are, who we really are.

The wilderness is a threat to our self-made identity. It is the place where all the protected covering is folded back and we stand naked with God and with ourselves. We discover the habits that we use to block out the fear. We are forced to acknowledge the hang ups that keep us falling short. Left alone with our hurts in the wilderness, we are vulnerable to pain. It may not be the safest place. It may not be the most comfortable. But it is where we can get an honest answer to the question, “Who am I?”

Ash Wednesday is when we get marked for our journey. With this night, we arrive at Lent. We rub a little dirt on our foreheads as a reminder to ourselves “you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Tonight we brush up against death. Not because we like being there – we live in a world where we try to stretch, inject, and cut out any appearance of death that tries to show up on our body. Instead we dab ashes on our foreheads in the sign of a cross as a way of saying I refuse to be intimidated by death. We stare down death because we know there is light on the other side.

It is the same reason we go into the wilderness. We know we are not living our true selves. We are not our addictions. We are not the same as that which causes us pain. We are more than our hang ups. As followers of the one who confronted the sins of humanity on the cross, we are confident our time in the wilderness will give us an honest answer to the question, “Who am I?”

Our courage to step into the wilderness of Lent comes from the fact that we know we don’t go into it alone. The promise is real, “For He has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ (Hebrews 13:5-6).” Not for any reason, not our sin, not our selfishness, or stubbornness; will Christ leave us. If we have God’s assurance behind us, we have the strength to journey into the wilderness. With the confidence of God with us, we can turn to God and not our fears.

If the wilderness of Lent is as important as discovering our true selves, then maybe it requires something other than simply giving up chocolate, caffeinated drinks, and sugar. It could be that those are necessary habits to lay down. But if we want to get at the transformation of our inner most self, then we need to go deeper.

The people of Israel had been practicing their religion. They had been faithful in their sacrifices. They had given their praise. They celebrated their seasons of Fasting. But there was still oppression. The hungry still filled the streets. The naked needed clothed. Injustice kept away the light. The cry of the needy could be heard in the dark. God says, “Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall beak forth like the dawn (Isaiah 58:6-7).”

This year I invite you to join me in a fast from hate, a fast from indifference to the suffering, a fast from causing pain to others. Let’s fast from racism and prejudice. Let’s take up the cause of the poor, remove the chains of injustice, and set free the oppressed.

During this Lenten journey consider getting involved in bring peace to God’s world. Think about where would you like to see love overcome hate. Get involved. Studied the issue. Reflect on your role in making the world right. Be faithful and “your light shall break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8).

On this Ash Wednesday you have been marked with the sign of the cross. It is the sign of redemption for our world. Wear the cross boldly and let the people know that death does not have the last word. There is a light on the horizon coming out of an empty tomb.