Hebrews 2:5-9 – For Everyone

Holy Hill Jesus
Jesus carrying his cross, from the Stations of the Cross at Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wisconsin.

It is not to angels that he [God] has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
 You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
     and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (NIV)

By Christmas eve of 1914, World War I had come to the point of trench warfare. On one point along the miles of trenches, there were the allied troops of French and Scots, and on the other side, the Germans. That night one Frenchman began singing Nuit Silencieuse (Silent Night). Eventually his comrades joined in. Much to their surprise, the Germans on the other side of the trench, recognizing the familiar tune, began singing in their native tongue, Stille Nacht, along with them. The Scots then joined in with their bagpipes. After the song, heads began to stick out from the trenches as both sides realized they had a common celebration in song.  This led to the white flags going up on both sides, and then the unthinkable happened. Both trenches, allied and axis powers, enemies of one another, left their holes in the ground and met in the middle, exchanging pictures, and communicating with each other.  The evening was capped off with the Scottish chaplain leading all the men together in a celebration of communion. The 2006 movie, Joyeux Noel, recounts the actual events.

Whenever we come together, expressed most highly for the Christian through the sacrament of communion, it puts our differences in their proper perspective – we all come together as one, not seeing each other as rich or poor, black or white, American or Asian, or anything else. The events of that Christmas eve in 1914, however, did not have a happy ending. The two sides found that, once the holiday had passed, they did not have the will to fight their new brothers. The top brass on each side were very upset and sent the Germans to the Russian front (and certain death); and, the Scottish chaplain was defrocked for his actions and sent home never to pastor again, letting us see in dramatic fashion that unity has a price.

Joyeux Noel
Scene from Joyeux Noel, 2006. A Scot, German, and Frenchman together on Christmas Eve on the western front of World War I.

The book of Hebrews was originally written (or preached) to encourage and exhort struggling Jewish Christians. The way the author of Hebrews did that was to point them squarely at Jesus. They were in danger of forgetting what the pioneer and champion of their salvation had done for them, and, what is more, they were in danger of reneging on their commitment to Christ. So, the entire book is dedicated to demonstrating and reminding discouraged believers that Jesus Christ is superior to everything, both in heaven and on earth.  Because of that truth, Jesus is worthy of our eternal devotion and remembrance.

Jesus is qualified to be our Savior and Lord. Every day and each minute of our lives are an opportunity for a fresh commitment to Jesus. The regular practice of Christian communion and consistent spiritual practices are meant to lead us into celebrating our Savior’s work. The worldwide communion of saints is celebrating with us in remembering and committing ourselves afresh to the lordship of Jesus Christ. A great victory has been won, not just in the trenches of human wars, but on the cross of Christ. This singular death on our behalf qualified Jesus to be our Savior from sin, once and for all.

Christ’s suffering qualified him to be our Savior.

Jesus suffered an inglorious and ignominious death. Yet, paradoxically, glory came through suffering. Jesus did not only suffer at his crucifixion; he experienced the full range of human suffering throughout his life.  He knew what it was like to face adversity and hardship. It is Christ’s suffering that helps us make sense of our own suffering. We can only truly be free from all that binds us by embracing that which makes us suffer. And because we live in a fallen world, we all personally suffer in some way. In addition, entire groups of people suffer – whether it is religious persecution, racial profiling, class warfare, or government oppression. This suffering is very much real, damaging, and dehumanizing which results in terrible living conditions and even death.

Maybe because of this reality, some tend to minimize their own suffering. After all, what is a harshly worded e-mail, trying to lose a few extra pounds, or an unexpected car repair compared to families devastated by COVID-19 and entire black neighborhoods in deathly peril?  It is all suffering none-the-less. It is good to keep our life situations in proper perspective; and, we must be careful to not tell God what he should and shouldn’t care about in this world.  If the only things that matter and qualify as hardship and difficulty is human trafficking, the terrors of war, or grinding poverty, then you will soon find yourself plastering a smile on your face and nodding over-enthusiastically whenever someone asks you how you are doing. Happy with-it Christians are insufferable, (pun intended).

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ Carrying the Cross by Elijah Pierce, 1892-1984.

It is our task to find commonality and solidarity with Jesus in our own personal and corporate suffering. An admission of weakness, trouble, hardship, or suffering is neither a lack of faith nor the unpardonable sin. We know there must be a Good Friday before there is an Easter. Identifying with the adversity of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout this nation and the world can be transformed into suffering that has meaning and significance. Our temporary sufferings now will someday result in the glory of being with Christ forever.

Christ’s suffering qualified him to be our compassionate helper.

Through the death of Jesus on the cross we have victory over Satan and all his wicked spirits. I have heard more than one motivational speaker say: “If you could do one thing in your life and not be able to fail, what would it be?” The truth is, because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we have victory and can live our lives in confidence and commitment to Jesus. What is more, we know that temporary failures and failings are not the end of the story. We possess a union with Christ because of the cross. Jesus is our champion. He stands with us in our suffering and temptations.

Christian speaker, author, and professor emeritus, Tony Campolo, told a story about observing communion when he was a child: “Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, ‘Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, ‘Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?’ She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment a heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind. Since then, I have always known that a church that could offer communion to hurting people was a special gift from God.”

In solidarity with all who suffer, along with your brothers and sisters who agonize throughout the world, we have the blessed opportunity of bringing our troubles to a gracious God – thus finding forgiveness and hope.  May your burdens be lifted, and may you know Christ, and him crucified, died, buried, risen, ascended, and coming again. For, precious one, he knows you because he tasted death for you – for everyone.

Merciful Lord help me to remember in these troubled times the cross you carried for my sake so that I may better carry mine and help others do the same. Since you tasted death that I might taste life, I forever belong to you and offer up all that I am and all I hope to be to the glory of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – Good Friday

CrossChrist
Depiction of Christ on the Cross at Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wisconsin

The Lord says, “See, my servant will act wisely.
People will greatly honor and respect him.
Many people were shocked when they saw him.
His appearance was so damaged he did not look like a man;
his form was so changed they could barely tell he was human.
But now he will surprise many nations.
Kings will be amazed and shut their mouths.
They will see things they had not been told about him,
and they will understand things they had not heard.”

Who would have believed what we heard?
Who saw the Lord’s power in this?
He grew up like a small plant before the Lord,
like a root growing in a dry land.
He had no special beauty or form to make us notice him;
there was nothing in his appearance to make us desire him.
He was hated and rejected by people.
He had much pain and suffering.
People would not even look at him.
He was hated, and we didn’t even notice him.

But he took our suffering on him
and felt our pain for us.
We saw his suffering
and thought God was punishing him.
But he was wounded for the wrong we did;
he was crushed for the evil we did.
The punishment, which made us well, was given to him,
and we are healed because of his wounds.
We all have wandered away like sheep;
each of us has gone his own way.
But the Lord has put on him the punishment
for all the evil we have done.

He was beaten down and punished,
but he didn’t say a word.
He was like a lamb being led to be killed.
He was quiet, as a sheep is quiet while its wool is being cut;
he never opened his mouth.
Men took him away roughly and unfairly.
He died without children to continue his family.
He was put to death;
he was punished for the sins of my people.
He was buried with wicked men,
and he died with the rich.
He had done nothing wrong,
and he had never lied.

But it was the Lord who decided
to crush him and make him suffer.
The Lord made his life a penalty offering,
but he will still see his descendants and live a long life.
He will complete the things the Lord wants him to do.
“After his soul suffers many things,
he will see life and be satisfied.
My good servant will make many people right with God;
he will carry away their sins.
For this reason I will make him a great man among people,
and he will share in all things with those who are strong.
He willingly gave his life
and was treated like a criminal.
But he carried away the sins of many people
and asked forgiveness for those who sinned.” (NCV)

We all suffer.  In some way, whether a chronic physical condition, emotional or moral distress, mental illness, or spiritual oppression, everyone faces living in a fallen world with its pain and heartache.  Presently, the entire world is suffering the scourge of the COVID-19 virus.  Every person in my neighborhood, city, state, and nation is impacted and affected.  Not only do many suffer because of disease and death itself, all are enduring either lost wages, limitations, loneliness or more.  Suffering that seems to have no reason, the senseless kind, the type where nothing good appears to be going on at all can be very troubling to our souls.

Perhaps it seems ironic, maybe even cruel, that Christians would observe a day called “Good” Friday.  Considering the hard circumstances of so many people, to call today “good” appears awkward, as if Christ’s followers have their heads in the sand.  Even for Christians, at first glance, “Good Friday” might seem a oxymoronic for a day observing the torture and death of an innocent man.  Some would argue that Christ is no longer on the cross and we need to give all our focus on the resurrected Jesus and the victory he achieved.  No need for all this suffering stuff.  Yet, the Resurrection only has meaning because of this very day, Good Friday.  Without the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, there is no King Jesus.  For Christians everywhere, this day is very good in the sense that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ means the redemption of the world.  On this day we remember and commemorate the events that led up to the cross; unpack those events and interpret them with profound meaning and significance; and, worship Jesus with heartfelt gratitude because of his redeeming work of the cross.

16th St Baptist Church Crucifixion Stained Glass Window
This stained-glass window was donated to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama by the people of Wales after the church was bombed in 1963.

The bulk of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are given over to the final week of Christ’s life, especially leading to the cross.  Good Friday observances often take a somber form due to the brevity of Christ’s experience on the cross.  Christians remember the last words of Christ, and recognize the significant impact his death had on the immediate persons around him.  Believers also contemplate the lasting results of that singular death as an atoning sacrifice; perfect love; reconciliation between God and humanity; victory over evil; and, redeeming all creation.

Sadness, then, is far from the only emotive expression on this day.  It is appropriate to feel wonder, gratitude, and deep satisfaction for the accomplishment of deliverance from the power of sin.  There is the recognition that something profound and meaningful has truly happened in the egregious suffering of Jesus.  Thus, we not only remember the anguish of Christ, but what that horrible torment accomplished.  In fact, the cross of Jesus is so significant that an eternity of considering its import and impact could never plumb the depths of its far-reaching effects.

With all that has been said, one would think that Good Friday is a hugely observed day on the Christian Calendar.  Yet, for a chunk of churches and Christians, it’s not.  The bottom line is that the cross is not popular.  Maybe it’s because neither Christian nor non-Christian wants to ponder something that appears so icky and bloody.

Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has adroitly put her finger on the issue: “Religious people want visionary experiences and spiritual uplift; secular people want proofs, arguments, demonstrations, philosophy, and science.  The striking fact is that neither one of these groups wants to hear about the cross.”  Indeed, as the Apostle Paul has said, the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

A personalized religion which leaves the cross out of the picture (too much blood and violence) might seem appealing yet will only leave us bereft of the communion of the saints both past and present.  Consider the ancient witness of the Church:

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.” –Apostles’ Creed

“For our sake he [Christ] was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” –Nicene Creed

Christ suffered “in both body and soul – in such a way that when he sensed the horrible punishment required by our sins ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’  He cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  And he endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins.  Therefore, we rightly say with the Apostle Paul that we know nothing ‘except Jesus Christ, and him crucified;’ we ‘regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We find all comforts in his wounds and have no need to seek or invent any other means than this one and only sacrifice, once made, which renders believers perfect forever.” –Belgic Confession, Article 21

And let us consider further the New Testament witness:

“Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.” (Hebrews 13:12-13, NIV)

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NRSV)

6a7f0-thecross

The extent of Good Friday goes far beyond just a day on the calendar; it is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges.  Because Christ suffered, our suffering has meaning.  Each situation of trauma; every case of disease; all adversity and wholesale hard circumstances make sense, in the Christian tradition, when they are viewed in solidarity with Jesus Christ crucified. So, today, let Christians everywhere contemplate the cross, observe the salvation accomplished through Christ’s death, and offer prayers and petitions for those who need deliverance from the power of evil.  In short, let us worship God in Jesus Christ because of the suffering on the cross.

Along with all believers everywhere we pray:

Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Redeemer of the world, grant us your peace.  Amen.

Click Were You There performed by The Vigil Project as we station ourselves near the cross.

Hebrews 12:1-3 – Wednesday of Holy Week

“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.” –Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

842b0-crucifixion

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (NIV)

We are moving inexorably to the cross of Christ.  Along the way we face opposition, ridicule, misunderstanding, and betrayal.  And, yet, today’s New Testament reading informs us that this is initiated, motivated, and animated because of joy.  The path leading to the cross and the cross of Christ itself was painful in every sense of the word.  This doesn’t sound joyful at all.  There’s no definition in any dictionary which includes  suffering and shame with the word joy.

Jesus did not relish in being hurt by others because pain with no purpose is nothing but tragic despair.  Rather, Jesus clearly understood what the end of his suffering would accomplish: the saving of many lives.

Trying to make sense of this great sacrifice on our behalf can be mind-blowing.  No earthly illustration or word-picture can begin to adequately capture the idea.  Yet, maybe we can understand focusing the necessary discipline, effort, endurance, and pain in order to accomplish a goal.  In other words, the most significant and important goals of our lives require a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears to realize.  In a former life I was a cross country runner (back far enough for Sherman to set the way-back machine).  When I was running on a road or a golf course, I would sometimes get that very nasty and sharp pain in my side while running.  It is called a side cramp, or side stitch.  If you have never experienced it, the pain feels like an intense stabbing, as if someone were taking a knife and twisting it inside you.  Runners know there’s only one thing to do when this occurs: Keep running through the pain and it will subside in a few minutes.  To stop running only exacerbates and prolongs the hurt, not to mention losing a race.

Jesus endured the cross knowing he was going to experience terrible excruciating pain.  He also knew that not facing the shame of it and avoiding the agony would only make things worse; it wouldn’t take care of the problem of sin.  Jesus persevered through the foulness and degradation of the cross for you and me.  The pain was worth it to him.  Christ did not circumvent the cross; he embraced it so that the result would be people’s deliverance from death and hell.  The end game of his redemptive work was joy over deposing the ruler of this dark world and obliterating obstacles to people’s faith.

Suffering often does not fit into our equation of the Christian life; and, yet, it needs to.  Since Jesus bled and died for us, it is our privilege to follow him along the way of suffering.  Holy Week is a time to reflect and remember on such a great sacrifice, and to consider our Christian lives in the face of such great love.

Gracious Lord Jesus, I give you eternal thanks for your mercy toward me through the cross.  It is a small thing for me to follow you even it means great suffering on my part.  My life is yours.  Use it as you will, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Click There Is A Redeemer by Crossings Worship to continue the contemplation on the redemptive events of Jesus.

Hebrews 9:11-15 – Monday of Holy Week

Wood Cross

When the Messiah arrived, high priest of the superior things of this new covenant, he bypassed the old tent and its trappings in this created world and went straight into heaven’s “tent”—the true Holy Place—once and for all. He also bypassed the sacrifices consisting of goat and calf blood, instead using his own blood as the price to set us free once and for all. If that animal blood and the other rituals of purification were effective in cleaning up certain matters of our religion and behavior, think how much more the blood of Christ cleans up our whole lives, inside and out. Through the Spirit, Christ offered himself as an unblemished sacrifice, freeing us from all those dead-end efforts to make ourselves respectable, so that we can live all out for God. (The Message)

The Christian Holy Week is an opportunity to embrace the value and practice of journeying with Jesus.  Just as birthday and anniversary celebrations allows us a different rhythm of life for a time, or as holidays provide us with certain family traditions, so Holy Week can be a special and unique time of contemplation and reflection on the last week of Christ’s earthly life.  As we journey with Jesus, consider the days of this week:

Palm Sunday is a focus on the entry of Christ into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Monday of Holy Week looks ahead to Christ’s sacrifice with Mary’s anticipatory grief through a heartfelt and beautiful anointing of Jesus’ feet with her hair and her tears.

Tuesday of Holy Week depicts the difficulty of the disciples in wrapping their hearts and minds around what Jesus is telling them about his impending death.

Wednesday of Holy Week is known in some Christian traditions as “Spy Wednesday” because we remember that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, a clandestine spy among the disciples.

Maundy Thursday marks three significant events in Christ’s last week:  his washing of the disciples’ feet; his institution of the Lord’s Supper; and, his new commandment to love one another.

Good Friday marks the death of Jesus Christ.  It is “good” because his death means redemption for the world.  We especially remember why the cross is so very important, that it is the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  There is now eternal forgiveness.

Holy Saturday remembers the death of Jesus and his body in the grave with the Romans securing and keeping guard over it.

Easter Sunday is the culmination of all the expectations of God’s people, and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to them in Christ.  We rejoice, celebrate, and renew our love and commitment to God for raising Jesus from death.  His resurrection means new life for us.  He is risen, indeed!

Observing Holy Week is rather different this year.  Whereas this week typically takes the form of attending special church services, we are presently reliant on virtual community and spiritual presence.  It seems to me that, more than ever, we are reminded of our wonderful privilege in a worldwide community of redeemed persons who together are focusing on the life and death of Jesus.  If ever there was a time to realize our incredible connection with believers across the earth in contemplation and celebration together as Christ’s own Church, now is such a time.

Together with Christ’s Church throughout the globe we have opportunity to read treasured Christian Scriptures over the course of the week and to focus on the passion narratives in the Gospels.  For the follower of Jesus Christ, these are the fundamentals of our faith, the base upon which our eternal lives are constructed.  We return to the redemptive events of Jesus again and again so that for the entirety of the year we can live in careful devotion to the Savior who has brought us salvation from sin and offers new life.

Holy Week is here.  So, we choose to remember and give thanks with both quiet gratitude and loud shouts of praise, with solemn reflection and expressive response.  There is no time like it in the year.

Grant to us, Almighty God, that in our weakness we might be revived and renewed through the Passion of your one and only Son Jesus, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.