Friday, April 18, 2014

The Power of Weakness

Crash Course 10
…the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” 1 Corinthians 1:25 NIV
            In the Gospels Jesus exercised power over crippling diseases, demonic spirits, and natural laws. Even his words demonstrated strength and authority. The guards sent to arrest him fell to the ground when he spoke.
So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.)
When Jesus said,
“I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
(John 19, NIV)

            But the next day—the day we commemorate as Good Friday—Jesus appeared powerless, so exhausted and beaten that he couldn’t drag his own cross to the execution site. His hands constrained by nails, his voice quelled by thirst, there would be no miracles that day.
            Except one. At his weakest, Jesus conquered his strongest foes, sin and death.
            Now he assures his followers that his grace and strength will outshine our weakness.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,
according to his power that is at work within us,

to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations,
for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20 – 21, NIV)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Jesus Wept

Crash Course 9
            Students in my Bible classes picture themselves as stand up comics when they ask if their next memory verse can be John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” I tell them the first time I heard that one I laughed so hard I pushed my stylus clear through my clay tablet.

            Thanks to the strange verse assignments in the Bible—I’ve heard the story that verses were created by a circuit-riding preacher who marked a new verse each time he bumped off the saddle—“Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the New Testament.

            All meager attempts at humor aside, the tears of the Lord are no laughing matter. His tears in John 11 were shed outside the tomb of Lazarus, a dear friend. On another occasion, Jesus wept during an exhilarating celebration. 

            “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to,” sang Lesley Gore in 1965.

            Jesus’ party was on what we call Palm Sunday or the Triumphal Entry, celebrated today in our churches. Due to a sleepless night, I didn’t make it to the party today, but truth be told, Palm Sunday bothers me more each year. It’s like going to a wedding reception when you know the couple is already having problems and the marriage isn’t going to last.

            Yet the story appears in all four Gospels:  Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 12.

            Matthew mentions no weeping, but includes an angry confrontation at the Temple. Mark includes nothing negative in his account. John’s account is likewise positive. So it’s Luke the physician—not an eyewitness, but a thorough investigative journalist—who records Jesus’ sorrow during the festivity.

When the city [Jerusalem] came into view, he wept over it. “If you had only recognized this day, and everything that was good for you! But now it’s too late. In the days ahead your enemies are going to bring up their heavy artillery and surround you, pressing in from every side. They’ll smash you and your babies on the pavement. Not one stone will be left intact. All this because you didn’t recognize and welcome God’s personal visit.” Luke 19:41 – 44, The Message
            In Crash Course 2, I wondered, “When did the man Jesus know he was the Messiah, the Son of God?” Today I ask, “What did Jesus know on Palm Sunday that his disciples, the large crowd of fans, the mostly antagonistic Sanhedrin, and the Roman procurator didn’t know?”

            What did they think they knew?

            The disciples and fans thought they knew Jesus was entering Jerusalem to claim the city and become King David’s heir on the throne, and Goodbye, Rome! After all, when Judas Maccabee rode into Jerusalem—also on a donkey—to waving palm branches, Israel became a free nation for over a hundred hears. James Nienhuis writes on his blog, 

When Judas Maccabeus led the Israeli victory over …(the syrian dynasty which followed Alexander the Great), the crowds celebrated his victory by waving palm branches, and to commemorate the victory, Judas “The Hammer” stamped an image of palm branches into their coins, thenceforth symbolizing victory for the Jews over their oppressors.  (
            But what did Jesus know? 

            He knew he was reporting to Jerusalem to die. 

            Mark records several conversations when Jesus bluntly told this to his disciples. (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33) And Luke records Christ’s words—a little dark humor, maybe?—as he traveled to Jerusalem, “In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (13:33, NIV)

            I believe Jesus used Palm Sunday to provoke the antagonistic authorities to set in motion the events that would lead to his sacrificial death on the cross. 

            On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus had said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45, NKJV) That was always the purpose of the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8)

            Jesus had clearly stated his authority over his own coming death. “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” (John 10:17 – 18, NKJV)

            Jesus went to his party, and knowing what lay ahead, he wept, not for himself, but for the city and people he loved.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Beyond the Fab Four

Crash Course 8

            (No, not the Beatles. Not that Fab Four. I mean the Fabulous Four Gospels.)

            The Gospels are not the only place to read about Jesus. The New Testament epistles tell lot about him, too. Peter and John, both disciples and eyewitnesses, wrote five letters between them.

            In his first letter, Peter calls Christ a “lamb without blemish or defect…chosen before the creation of the world… " (1:19 – 20). Only a lamb used in Israel’s sacrificial system would warrant the phrase “without blemish or defect.” Peter understood the significance of Christ’s substitutionary death. Peter also speaks of the resurrection and coming return of Christ (1:3 and 1:7). 

            Peter reveals two intriguing facts about Christ that I haven’t found elsewhere in scripture. (Illuminate me if I’ve missed them.) He says the Spirit of Christ indwelt and guided the prophets who wrote about him in the Hebrew Scriptures (1:11). He also writes that after the Lord’s resurrection, he preached to spirits of the disobedient Noah-era people “in prison.” (3:19 – 20)

            That’s something coming from a fisherman.

            I always imagine Peter excitedly exclaiming, “I was there!” Fifty days after the crucifixion and resurrection, Peter told a Jerusalem crowd, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of this fact.” (Acts 2:32) Some years later when Peter wrote his second letter, he said, “We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (1:18). 

            I was there! I was there!

            John writes in the first few verses of his first epistle about Christ’s incarnation (taking on human flesh). “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of Life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard…(1:1 – 3)

            In less than 75 words, John manages to say in 7 different ways (highlighted by me) that he was an eyewitness, an earwitness, a handwitness of Christ. 

            Handwitness? Sure. Years ago in Fort Worth, Texas, I was beyond excited to shake hands with presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and his wife. I was an eyewitness, earwitness, and handwitness of the future president. 

            How much more memorable for John to have rubbed elbows with the Messiah in a fishing boat, to have passed him the bread at a meal, to have leaned against him as the disciples all reclined in Jewish fashion around the Passover table. To those who were beginning to deny the Incarnation, John could say, “Hold it right there. I touched him. He was really here.”
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we beheld His glory,
the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,
full of grace and truth. John 1:14, NKJV

Monday, March 24, 2014

I love a good story

Crash Course 7

            I barely tolerated the non-fiction cards in the SRA reading program we used at East Brook Elementary School in Park Ridge, NJ. I happily worked through the fiction cards and then begrudgingly read non-fiction when I’d completed fiction. 

            As I matured, I developed a tolerance and then an appreciation for non-fiction. But stories are still best. For every non-fiction book I read, I probably read twenty novels. 

            Jesus told great stories; we call them parables. 

            I relied on William Barclay when preparing to teach my students about parables. Barclay taught me how to recognize a parable. The most obvious way:  The Gospel writer says it is, like “And he taught them many things by parables…” (Mark 4:2) Some other good ways:

  • ·         It sounds like a story:  “A certain man had two sons…” (Luke 15:11)
  • ·         It makes a comparison:  “It is like a mustard seed…” (Mark 4:31)
  • ·         It begins ““What shall we say the kingdom of God is like…?” (Mark 4:30)    
           Barclay also gave guidelines for interpreting a parable. Sometimes Jesus comes right out and says what everything means, like in the parable of the farmer and the soils in Mark 4.

  • ·         If Jesus doesn’t explain it, look for one main point, usually at the end.
  • ·         Parables are not highly developed allegories where every blade of grass stands for something. In the parable of the two sons, starting at Luke 15:11, the pig slop was just pig slop, a great detail to add description to the setting. No secret meaning, just pig slop.
  • ·         What circumstances or questions led to the parable? The three parables in Luke 15 are preceded by the complaint, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Verse 2)
  • ·         Finally, notice how the original audience reacted to the parable. In Mark 12:12, “Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.” 
            Jesus told three stories of lostness—is that a word?—which are recorded in Luke 15. He told about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. 

            The sheep was naively lost. It just wandered away. I’ve heard that sheep are not the brightest animals. 

            The coin was unwittingly lost. We can’t even give it as much blame as the sheep. The coin was not even alive and self aware.

            The son was willfully lost. He chose to get lost, to get away from rules and responsibilities.

            I see two threads connecting the three stories:  The desire of the owner to find each lost item and the overwhelming joy when each item is found. 

            Whether we are naively lost, unwittingly lost, or willfully lost, we are valuable to God and he wants us back. Jesus not only hung around with people disapproved of by self-called good people, he also told these three stories comparing sinners and tax collectors to items of great value in his day—livestock, gold, and sons.

            If we doubt God’s joy at finding us, look at the tenderness of the shepherd toward the found sheep:  He carried it home on his shoulders. Look at the tenderness of the father toward the returning son:  He ran to greet him, hugged and kissed him, cleaned him and clothed him, and barbecued a huge rack of baby back ribs.

Luke 15
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Luke 15, NIV, via