Hebrews 12:1-3 – Wednesday of Holy Week

As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends, from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God’s throne.

Think of what he went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners! So do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up. (Good News Translation)

“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.”

Viktor E. Frankl

We are moving, step by step, inexorably to the cross of Christ. Along the way we will face opposition, ridicule, misunderstanding, and betrayal. We will be befuddled and feel confused. The path of discipleship is not easy.

And yet, on this Holy Wednesday, today’s New Testament lesson informs us that all the suffering of Christ was motivated and animated because of joy. 

The road to the cross, along with the cross itself, is painful, in every sense of the word. None of this tortuous suffering seems joyful, at all! There’s no definition, in any dictionary, of joy including severe spiritual anguish, bodily harm, and emotional shame. Joy isn’t remotely mentioned when talking about betrayal from someone close to you.

Jesus did not relish the pain. He was no masochist. 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.

It is most necessary that we do not try to sanitize Christ’s death.

Although many beautiful crosses can be found in stores, the cross of Jesus was anything but lovely to look at. It was bloody. The cross was a harsh implement of torture and execution, meant to expose the condemned to public shame.

Trying to make sense of this great sacrifice on our behalf can be difficult. No earthly illustration or word-picture can begin to adequately capture the idea of vicarious suffering. Perhaps, then, we may understand the necessity of discipline, effort, endurance, and yes, pain, in order to accomplish a goal. We know from agonizing experience that the realization of our most important goals requires a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. 

In a former life I was a cross country runner (back far enough for Sherman to set the way-back machine). Whenever 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 such a cramp, 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 then it will subside in a few minutes. To stop running only exacerbates and prolongs getting over 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 avoiding the shame and 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. All of the wretched 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 guilt and shame, death and hell. 

The end game of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross was joy over deposing the ruler of this dark world and obliterating the obstacles to people’s faith.

Suffering often does not fit into our equation of the Christian life. However, it needs to. No suffering, no salvation. Since Jesus bled and died for us, it is our privilege to follow him and walk with him along the Via Dolorosa, 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. On this Wednesday, allow yourself to feel the bittersweet experience of simultaneous pain and joy – the very real bitterness of seeing the Lord crucified, along with the exultation of joy over being washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.

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.

2 Chronicles 34:1-7 – Getting Rid of Idolatry

Russian Orthodox icon of Judah’s King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.)

Josiah was eight years old when he became king of Judah, and he ruled thirty-one years from Jerusalem. He followed the example of his ancestor David and always obeyed the Lord.

When Josiah was only sixteen years old he began worshiping God, just as his ancestor David had done. Then, four years later, he decided to destroy the local shrines in Judah and Jerusalem, as well as the sacred poles for worshiping the goddess Asherah and the idols of foreign gods.He watched as the altars for the worship of the god Baal were torn down, and as the nearby incense altars were smashed. The Asherah poles, the idols, and the stone images were also smashed, and the pieces were scattered over the graves of their worshipers. Josiah then had the bones of the pagan priests burned on the altars.

And so, Josiah got rid of the worship of foreign gods in Judah and Jerusalem. He did the same things in the towns and ruined villages in the territories of West Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, as far as the border of Naphtali. Everywhere in the northern kingdom of Israel, Josiah tore down pagan altars and Asherah poles; he crushed idols to dust and smashed incense altars.

Then Josiah went back to Jerusalem. (Contemporary English Version)

Josiah started out as a boy king. Evidently, he had some good training because by the time he became a teenager, Josiah was raring and ready to exercise his kingship in the best sense of leadership. 

After generations of kings before him who followed other gods and gave the stiff-arm to the Lord, as well as to justice and righteousness, Josiah committed himself fully to Israel’s one true God.  And, as a twenty-year old king, he showed the real muster of his reign.

Josiah took responsibility and initiative to do what was right in the eyes of God – no matter the consequences. 

King Josiah continually performed the dual action of worshiping God and aggressively taking active steps to rid the kingdom of all the ubiquitous false gods. 

The king did much more than simply stick his toe in the water to test what the response might be to removing a high place of Baal worship or an Asherah pole. Instead, Josiah jumped right in and put his entire kingship on the line. 

All of the power brokers who were dealing in false gods could not have been happy about this turn of events in Judah. But any kind of pushback did nothing to prevent Josiah from doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord by thoroughly eradicating idol worship.

“Let us all be the leaders we wish we had.”

Simon Sinek

Josiah had a clear sense of purpose. That sense of vocational direction ordered his kingly steps. It led him to do the things he did. Josiah was determined and devoted to leading the people back to God. 

This desire and determination for spiritual revival directed toward the worship of the Lord is not limited to the ancient world. God is still in the kingdom business of bringing all creation under a divine and benevolent rule. 

Therefore, there still remains an abiding purpose to lead others, caught in a web of unhealthy routines and habits of living through idolatrous practices, back to the one true God. 

Like the ancients before us, there is still a need to exercise courage and confidence in following the Lord by making disciples who will worship God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

So, reconnecting with our overarching purpose in life is imperative for taking bold steps of faith in this idolatrous world which worships at the altar of exorbitant eating, shopping, and drinking.

It is no wonder the current zeitgeist of so many of our communities is full of anxiety, discouragement, and anger. There is no justice in the public square. Competing voices, other than the merciful words and ways of Jesus, drown the divine regulations for living a good life of integrity, wholeness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

It is almost as if the collective efforts of idolatrous people have surgically removed the spiritual spine of society. We are now bereft of genuine support, spineless and unable to move toward a life of truth, justice, and a courageous concern for the common good of all persons.

King Josiah shows us a better way. We must radically remove all that is toxic and damaging to our souls. We need a clear purpose in life, to go hard after God and rediscover how the Divine fits into all of life and gives us meaning.

Any old fool can complain about how bad things are in the world. But the one determined to make a difference amidst all the surrounding crud and helps to make things better – that is the wise person who is in touch with their own spirit, who is able to see the spiritual within others.

So, how then will you live?

May your living be in a healthy spiritual groove of loving God and loving neighbor so that worshiping the banal becomes a thing of the past.

Holy God, you are the Sovereign of the universe. Expose the things in my life that I might be trusting in, other than you. Wean me away from evil and bend my heart and mind to truth, justice, and goodness. Help me to be aggressive in my Christian walk so that I steadfastly follow Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, leading others to faith along the way. Amen.

Philippians 1:18-26 – Do What’s Most Important

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century C.E.

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (New International Version)

So, what do you think leads to disunity in any group, whether in a church or elsewhere?….

Yes, unfortunately, there are many things which can divide a group of people. Chances are that discord comes from a lack of listening and love. And behind that lack is a spirit that desires attention and accolades. In other words, there cannot be unity whenever everyone wants to take credit for what’s good and blame others for what’s bad.

The Apostle Paul, writer of the letter to the Philippian Church, had a humble self-effacing approach to ministry. Paul knew exactly what was important to him and the advancement of the Church, namely, that Jesus Christ is proclaimed, that the good news of grace and forgiveness in Christ is given to people.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Mark Twain

And so, for Paul, his purpose was crystal clear. Although he really didn’t like bad attitudes and impure motives, if the message of Christ was preached, that was of upmost significance. It didn’t matter to him if people took credit for his work, or not. Not a lot of people can say that.

The Apostle focused on himself. Ultimately, we cannot control anyone; we can only practice self-control. And that is exactly what Paul did. Notice that in today’s New Testament lesson, Paul expressed his own desire to live a life of hope, courage, and selfless ministry. He understood that all the troubles he had experienced up to this point, would likely keep happening in this earthly life.

Paul could have started a new apostles’ retirement community, stepped out of the fray, and simply studied Torah all day. It’s probably what he really wanted to do. But Paul knew better. He knew it was better for all the churches he planted that he keep laboring on their behalf.

Even though Paul was ready to die and be with his Savior forever, he wasn’t going to grab control that wasn’t his. Someday he would die, or Christ will return before that time. Until then, he was going to do his darndest to ensure the gospel of Jesus is spread far and wide.

A spiritually healthy believer in Jesus both longs for heaven and Christ, and also puts their head down and faithfully plugs away with listening to others and loving them to Jesus with gracious words of forgiveness and merciful acts of kindness.

I imagine when Paul wrote this letter, he was downright tired. I can relate. Laboring day after day as a hospital chaplain and a church pastor often leaves me with little rest and carrying the emotional burdens of both places. There are so many people who need basic human kindness, common decency, and focused encouragement. And they don’t get it because there are far too many people far too absorbed in maintaining mastery of their very small worlds.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates

There are days I’d like nothing more than retreat to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, read and write in a small cabin, and catch fresh walleye for my supper. Maybe that will happen someday, but not today. Today is all we have. Today is the day of salvation. There will not always be Today. Christ is coming. Then it will be tomorrow. And tomorrow is too late for too many people.

So, I continue, working with all the energy (or lack thereof) which the good Lord gives me. After all, we are not God. Everyone on this planet has only a finite amount of energy and life. The question then becomes, How will you spend your energy and your finite resources?

I suggest we take our cues from good old Apostle Paul and not bad old Jacob Marley, who didn’t get the picture until it was too late. I’d rather live right, die well, and enjoy eternity – instead of living like a peacock, dying kicking and screaming, and having a miserable eternity.

In this Advent season, we have the opportunity to focus on what’s most important, then live with those priorities in the next year.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Hebrews 10:32-39 – Believe, Be Patient, and Remember

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (New International Version)

Sometimes we get stuck in our troubles. We might get lost in adversity and cannot see either how we got here or a way out. This is hopelessness. Without a confident expectation of better days ahead, while in the throes of difficulty, a failure of faith can too easily happen.

To realize better days, it’s important to remember the earlier days. I’m not talking about living in the past and wishing it were the 1950s again with Beaver Cleaver across the street. This is not about believing that the past was the good old days, and the present is no good. Rather, I’m referring to remembering the ways we endured and persevered with joy in past experiences.

The original Christian recipients of the message of Hebrews needed to recall the various ways they stood firm and tall in their faith, despite the adversity. They were insulted and persecuted, showing solidarity to others in similar situations. They were attentive to prisoners and sought to meet their needs. And they actually responded to the confiscation of their property with joy because they knew there was more than this present life.

God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12, NLT

The believers needed to reconnect with their purpose, with their why. The reason they had such incredible attitudes while enduring hard things is because they were pursuing heavenly treasure. Their earthly possessions were merely temporary things, not of eternal value. It is people who have eternal value, and the believers willingly focused efforts in helping others.

However, the Christians eventually, over time, lost their focus and could only see the pain and the difficulty. They became disconnected with their purpose. And so, they were in danger of losing their faith and becoming utterly hopeless.

Remember what God has done for you. Affirm what is right, just, and true. Embrace faith and patience. That’s what the prophet Habakkuk did. And his resilience helped to bring proper perspective to present troubles.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Habakkuk was distressed over the corruption of his fellow Israelites. So, he complained to God about it. God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to Israel through the Babylonians. This was neither what Habakkuk expected nor wanted. The prophet grumbled even more because the Babylonians were more corrupt than the Israelites. “The Babylonians need judgment, too!” believed Habakkuk. 

Habakkuk struggled to come to terms with what God was doing, and not doing. Finally, he concluded the matter by reconnecting with his faith: 

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NLT)

One of the most significant faith experiences we can ever have, is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. The truth is that the Christian’s joy and spiritual security is independent of what is going on around us. Even though situations might be difficult and even evil, believers can still rejoice because we do not need everything to go our way in order to experience happiness.

Faith, patience, and joy are neither cheap, nor easy. It requires daily affirmations of faith and patience. It requires remembering. There is a reward ahead if we persevere to the end.

We can remain patient, express faith, kindle hope, and remember necessary things whenever we stop doing unimportant things which do not add value to our ultimate goals; be mindful of those things which are most important to us; and move through life at a pace of hope, not anxiety.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.