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

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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.

John 12:20-36 – Tuesday of Holy Week

cross of christ

Some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration paid a visit to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee. They said, “Sir, we want to meet Jesus.” Philip told Andrew about it, and they went together to ask Jesus.

Jesus replied, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me.

“Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But this is the very reason I came! Father, bring glory to your name.” 

Then a voice spoke from heaven, saying, “I have already brought glory to my name, and I will do so again.” When the crowd heard the voice, some thought it was thunder, while others declared an angel had spoken to him.

Then Jesus told them, “The voice was for your benefit, not mine. The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. And when I am lifted-up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this to indicate how he was going to die.

The crowd responded, “We understood from Scripture that the Messiah would live forever. How can you say the Son of Man will die? Just who is this Son of Man, anyway?”

Jesus replied, “My light will shine for you just a little longer. Walk in the light while you can, so the darkness will not overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness cannot see where they are going. Put your trust in the light while there is still time; then you will become children of the light.”

After saying these things, Jesus went away and was hidden from them. (NLT)

We are taking another step in our journey together with Jesus.  That path leads to a cruel cross.  For the past six weeks the Christian has been on a Lenten walk.  To keep the long sojourn going, believers focus on spiritual discipline, prayer, and repentance.  Along the way we come face-to-face with the shadow parts of ourselves.  We discover that within us there is the pull to hold-on to unhealthy rhythms and habits of life, as well as a push to arrange our lives with the fragmentation of disordered love.

Perhaps our reflexive response to things we do not like about ourselves is to either use sheer willpower to change or try and somehow manage our brokenness, as if we could boss our spiritual selves out of darkness.  The problem and the solution are much more radical than we often would like to admit.

The answer as we journey with Jesus is to die to ourselves.  Yes, this is the teaching of our Lord.  Sin cannot be managed or willed away – it must be eradicated and completely cut out, like the cancer it is.  Transformation and new life can only occur through death.  Jesus uses the familiar example of a seed to communicate his point.  A tiny little seed can grow, break the ground, and develop into something which provides sustenance for others.  It does no good to remain a seed in the ground.

dying to self

Jesus did not tell others to do what he himself does not do.  Christ is the ultimate example of the one who died to himself and literally died for us.  Only through suffering and death did he secure deliverance and freedom from sin, death, and hell.  Through his wounds we are healed.  Through his tortuous death a resurrection became possible – and we must always remember that there must be a death if there is to be a resurrection.  Death always comes before there is life.  There must be suffering before there is glory.

Through dying to self and following Jesus, a wonderful growth and transformation can happen.  It is a change, when it matures and produces a crop, which brings the kind of spiritual sustenance the world so desperately needs.  Following Jesus, leaving all to walk with him, is true repentance and authentic discipleship.

Perhaps you think I’m being too forceful, too insistent about this Jesus stuff.  Yes, you have perceived well.  I am being quite single-minded about the need to die to self and live for Christ.  Somehow, within many corners of Christianity, a wrongheaded notion that suffering is not God’s will has wormed its way into many churches.  Jesus, however, is insistent that dying to self is necessary.  And it hurts like hell.  It’s a hard teaching to absorb when you so desperately want things to be rainbows and unicorns.  Yet, the Epistle to the Hebrews makes explicit the way of Christ:

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9, NRSV)

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Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

We are not above our Master.  Even Christ’s life on this earth, before his death and resurrection, was marked with suffering.  Even Jesus learned obedience through struggle and adversity.  Our Lord himself did what he is now asking us to do.  He gave himself up to do the Father’s will.  Jesus offered loud cries and tears and submitted to what the Father wanted.  We must do no less.  We don’t get to choose which parts of Christ’s life and teaching we will adhere to and which ones we don’t need to, as if Jesus were some spiritual buffet line.  All who live for Jesus will follow him into the path of suffering, of death to self, and of new life through the power of his resurrection.  In Christ’s own words from our Gospel reading today: “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  We must…

Surrender

We have hundreds, maybe thousands of small decisions every day with the use of our time, our money, our energy, and our relationships.  If we have tried to fix what is broken inside of us, we will likely just try to hastily fix the problems and the people in our lives and move on with getting things done on our to-do list.  Instead, we have the invitation to surrender.  We have opportunity to create sacred space for solitude and silence, prayer and repentance.  Take the time to (virtually!) sit with a person in pain and listen.  Reflect on how to use your money in a way which mirrors kingdom values.  Begin to see your life as a holy rhythm of hearing God and responding to what he says.  It takes intentional surrender to do that.

Sacrifice

Holding-on to our stuff and time is the opposite of sacrifice.  In fact, it’s avarice.  Yes, I understand that you and I are not Jesus – our sacrifice and suffering are not efficacious, that is, it doesn’t deliver other people from sin.  Only Christ’s death does that.  Yet, we are still called to sacrifice.  This was the Apostle Paul’s understanding:

“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24, NRSV)

I’m just going to let you wrestle with that incredible verse and mull it over.  Pleasure is not the summum bonum of life.  Our lives are not meant to be lived solely for minimizing pain and maximizing comfort. Jesus has extended a call to view our workplaces, communities, neighborhoods, and families as our mission field of grace to a world in need of basic human attention.  This takes sacrificial love on our part.

Christianity is not really a religion that’s for people who have put together neat theological answers and tidy packaged certainties to all of life’s questions.  Rather, Christianity is a dynamic religion of learning to follow Jesus, discovering how to die to self, and struggling to put Christ’s teaching and example into practice.  It is a path often characterized by a three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward, and three-steps-forward again kind of reality.  The road is zig-zaggy with plenty of potholes.  Those who don’t struggle are in big trouble.  However, those who go through the pain of dying to themselves for the sake of their Lord, find that the harvest they produce leads to eternal life.

May you struggle well, my friend.

Almighty God, your dear Son did not ascend to joy until he first suffered pain and did not enter glory before he was crucified.  Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it as the true way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.  Amen.

Click Lead Me to the Cross by Hillsong United to continue contemplating the way of Christ.

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.

Hebrews 9:23-28 – Once and for All

atonement modern

“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (New Revised Standard Version)

Once and for all.  Those are some of the most gruesome and beautiful words in the entirety of Holy Scripture.  The sacrifices of bulls and goats in the Old Testament had its place.  But those were mere shadows pointing to the reality of Messiah – the one whose sacrifice is so potent as to do away with sacrifice forever.

Christ’s cross was the once for all sacrifice that has settled the sin issue forever.

This is the heart of the New Testament’s good news.  Forgiveness of sins comes through the sheer grace of God in Christ.  Through faith, we have the privilege of entering the realm of new life.  In other words, Jesus has paved the way for eternal life, everlasting salvation, and complete remission of sins.

If it has not yet become self-apparent as to why Christ’s once for all sacrifice is such a game changer, then let’s take the cross from this angle: guilt is done away with, forever.  Do you think your life would change forever if you never had guilt hanging over your head?  What if all your past indiscretions; stupid life decisions; failures to speak or act; overt things done which you cannot take back; or, even the little things said or done in anger or hate; were all washed away, forever?

The precious blood of Jesus has nailed guilt to the cross once and for all.  There are three options of dealing with a guilty conscience when it happens.

1. Rationalize

First, you can rationalize it away, as if you have no responsibility or no culpability.  This is a one-way path to hardness of heart.  Whenever we sin in speech or in action, and don’t acknowledge it as our fault, then there is a little piece of us which hardens.  The next time it happens, it’s a bit easier to respond with callousness.  If you’ve ever encountered someone who seems utterly unfeeling to your situation, then there has likely been a pattern in that person’s life of keeping distance from pain.  It only leads to hardness of heart.

2. Punish

A second way of facing guilt is just the opposite of rationalization.  It is to punish and beat yourself for your faults and sins.  Heaping abuse on ourselves for our sins takes two different tracks with either: discouragement, defeat, and depression resulting in inaction; or, working like crazy to try and earn God’s favor with hyper-activity.  Both ways are a kind of self-imposed penance to try and atone for one’s sins or failures.

3. Confess

The third way is a biblical path to facing guilt.  When there is true guilt for things done or undone, said or unsaid, we must confess it, repent of it, and believe God has taken care of it.  Unlike dealing with guilt in unhealthy ways resulting in callousness, discouragement, and super-activity, the path of confession and repentance allows the person to have a clear conscience, resulting in freedom.  Christ’s once for all sacrifice is completely able to clear the conscience of the worshiper so that he/she may live into the grace and freedom of an enjoyable daily life.

Nothing needs to hang over the believer’s head because Jesus Christ, the pioneer of our salvation, has accomplished deliverance from and forgiveness of sin, once and for all.  He didn’t just put a nice-looking veneer over sin; he took care of it, thoroughly.  Jesus didn’t whitewash things so that we looked okay; the salvation he offers is permanent.

The cross which held Christ’s naked and tortured body exposed the true violence and injustice of sin.  The cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness and sin; and, a God of extreme sacrificial love and grace.

What this world, and you and me, need more than anything else is forgiveness – not a cheap sentimental forgiving, but a real forgiveness that is so costly that it lasts forever and ever.

Either to justify or to judge is God’s business.  Our business is to believe in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus that brings permanent and lasting forgiveness; and, to share that life-giving message with others so that they, too, might experience deliverance from sin and its horrible effects.

“For he delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14, NIV)

May you know the freedom and joy today which comes from knowing Christ as Savior.