Awkward

We’ve all had awkward moments:

  • In 8th grade, I threw up a beautiful shot … in the wrong basket.
  • I was asked to officiate at a funeral for a person I did not know. The funeral director gave me the wrong name that I promptly used throughout the service.
  • In my first wedding, I solemnly switched a key phrase – Instead of “What God has joined together …” I began with “What God has torn asunder.”

You’ve had them, too.

  • Perhaps you burst out laughing at a funeral.
  • Perhaps you began to sing loudly when no one else had started.
  • Perhaps the person you asked out for a date thought you were kidding.
  • Perhaps your boss sent you a friend request on Facebook.
  • Perhaps you’re Steve Harvey and you announce the wrong winner at the Miss Universe pageant.
  • Perhaps you’re Brooke Shields in a public announcement spot: “Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.”
  • Perhaps you’re Dan Quayle, who began a speech at NASA: “My fellow astronauts …”

Awkward, embarrassing, hard-to-recover-from moments of life happen. You hope people around you are kind, understanding, and compassionate … or not. When I returned to school after my goof at the basketball game, one of my coaches was waiting to christen me with a new nickname – “Wrong Way Wilbanks.” Tough for a 13 year-old boy to handle.

We should strive to show more grace in the awkward moments. You won’t meet a person who hasn’t stumbled or blown it or messed up. Jesus had a way of dealing with such things: “Treat others as you wish to be treated.”

A sign of a maturing person – if everybody’s laughing, you might as well join in. It may lessen the sting a bit.

The First Witnesses

Controversies around the Passion of Christ are numerous. Some people are desperate to find evidence that would prove the story false. Was there really a man named Jesus? Did He actually die on the cross (or did he swoon or faint or pretend)? Was there a substitute on the cross who just looked like Jesus? Were His followers complicit in a cover-up to steal the corpse and then spread wild rumors of His resurrection? You get the idea.

Often we speak of the first witnesses to what happened at the garden tomb. How many were there? Who was first to arrive? Were there two angels or just one? The gospel writers convey a chaotic scene but one common element is that women were the first to witness the empty tomb. From His birth to His resurrection, there is irony as to those who were the initial witnesses. In Luke, we are told that the angels announced to a band of shepherds that the Savior was born. In all of the gospel accounts, women came first to tend to the hastily buried Jesus.

The irony is that shepherds were held in low regard and were not trusted to give testimony in court. They were too unreliable. Women were thought to be unworthy and unable to bear witness. God chose a surprising audience for world-changing events!

But who were the first witnesses? In Matthew 27, the Jewish Temple leadership approached Procurator Pilate with a request: “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while He was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’” They wanted Pilate to station guards at the tomb because they feared the disciples would steal the body and then claim the words of Jesus had come true. It seemed they put more weight in those words than His own followers did!

Pilate agreed to the guard and placing a seal on the tomb. Some combination of Roman soldiers and Temple police formed the guard. The seal would have been Roman, meaning that  breaking the seal would have been a capital offense.

Matthew 28:1-4 explains the events at the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea on that Sunday morning. The guards were at their posts when an angel of the Lord rolled away the stone then sat on it. So much for the power of Rome. The text reads: “The guards shook with fear when they saw him, and they fell into a dead faint.”

Have you ever wondered what happened to those men? Later in the chapter, some of the guards reported to the leading priests what had happened. They were given “a large bribe” to spread the news that the body was stolen while they slept. How interesting. If those were Roman soldiers, they would have been executed for being asleep at their posts. The priests promised the soldiers that they would take care of them if they would participate in the cover-up.

They fade from the historical record but they were the first to know that death could not hold Jesus. How could they witness such a miracle and not have been changed? It seems that there are still many who seem unfazed by what occurred. Here it is: Jesus died on a Roman cross, bearing the sins of the world. His battered and desecrated body was buried in a borrowed tomb. On the third day, JUST AS HE PROMISED, He broke the power of sin, death, and evil. His resurrection gives any who would believe the assurance of life eternal. Happy Easter!!

I’m dreaming, right?

Michael Licona coauthored the 2004 book, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. He addressed objections to the resurrection. One of them has been that people hallucinated the risen Christ. They wanted to see Him so badly that they did. Licona lived in Virginia Beach for a number of years. During that time, he got to know several Navy SEALs stationed there. He knew that few applicants made it through the intense, strenuous training. These guys were normally tight-lipped about their experiences, but Licona had heard enough to realize the stress these men had gone through. One of the infamous components of their qualification process was “Hell Week” – sleep deprivation, constant and vigorous exercise, verbal assault, team-building challenges, and much more. Some of the SEALs told Licona that 80% of the men experience hallucinations – but not the same hallucinations. One guy told him: “Hallucinations aren’t contagious. They’re personal. They are like dreams. I couldn’t wake my wife in the middle of the night and say ‘Honey, I’m dreaming of being in Hawaii. Quick, go back to sleep, join me in my dream, and we’ll have a free vacation.’”

Did people hallucinate the risen Lord? Even though Jesus had announced on at least three occasions the events that would take place in Jerusalem (Including “But on the third day, I will be raised from the dead.”), none of His followers would make sense of His warning until after the fact. They weren’t expecting to see Him. Those who went to His tomb weren’t thinking they would encounter anything other than a dead body.

The tomb couldn’t hold Him. What He promised really happened. My life was changed by what took place two thousand years ago. One day, perhaps soon, He will return. That won’t be a hallucination either!

Believe it or not

Around this time of year you can count on media attention on the person and story of Jesus. A few years ago, an article appeared in Newsweek magazine where the religion editor explained that “Easter is a celebration of the final act of the Passion, in which Jesus rose from his tomb in his body three days after his execution. The Gospels insist on the veracity of this supernatural event. Jesus died and rose again so that all his followers could, eventually, do the same. This story has strained the credulity of even the most devoted believer. For truly, it’s unbelievable.”

Unbelievable? The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “And if we have hope in Christ only for this life, we the most miserable people in the world” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Is it all fanciful? Has the story of the itinerant preacher who walked the earth two thousand years ago been transformed by mythical proportions? Can we really believe what the Bible has to say about Jesus of Nazareth?

In his marvelous book, King’s Cross, Timothy Keller offered “a meditation on the historical Christian premise that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection form the central event of cosmic and human history as well as the central organizing principle of our own lives. Said another way, the whole story of the world – and how we fit into it – is most clearly understood through a careful, direct look at the story of Jesus.”

So this is not a debate about one of many historical figures who shaped the way we think or live. It is far more important. There is no list. He has no peers. There is no one like Jesus.

As we enter Holy Week, much of the world will shift its attention to the improbable story of God entering His creation, becoming human, suffering an ignoble death, and stirring a following that exists to this day. In Christian symbol, the Lion of Judah became the Lamb of God. The altar of sacrifice was a crude Roman cross where one innocent man died for the sake of every human. Isaiah called Him a man of sorrows who carried the burden of every sinner and every sin.

We don’t expect gods to act that way. He came into the world in the most primitive way possible. His abode was not a palace. He had no human-devised credential. He was a common man who came from an obscure village in the hill country of Palestine.

As the week began, He rode into Jerusalem at the beginning of the festival where great crowds had gathered. But He didn’t ride on a war horse as a conquering king might have done. Keller described His triumphal entrance this way: “Here was Jesus Christ, the King of authoritative, miraculous power, riding into town on a steed fit for a child or a hobbit.”

Jesus did a lot of things in unexpected ways. He focused His attention on the outcasts and the downtrodden. He refused to cater to the powerful. He comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. He who knew no sin became sin so that humanity be freed from the punishment we deserved

As we experience this most important week in the entire year, I pray we remember what Jesus determined each of us is worth … whatever it took.

Making Sense of Suffering

First of all, making sense of suffering is an almost impossible task. The tragedies that the author of It is Well with My Soul, a hymn that has comforted countless grief-stricken, heart-broken people, are almost incalculable. Horatio Spafford lost so much in a short span of time that it would have been quite understandable if he had given in to bitterness and fury. How did he cling to faith in the midst of such pain?

Most of us have known the wrenching devastation of grief and suffering. Platitudes don’t help. It would be better if those who try to explain our misery would just remain silent. When there are no answers, we don’t need someone to try to give them to us.

Where do we turn? Where is the God who promises protection and provision for His children? How can God claim that “never again will you fear any harm” and be “mighty to save” (Zephaniah 3:15, 17)? How can a loving God allow so much suffering?

Scotty Smith, founding pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, wrote a wonderful book, Objects of His Affection. In the eighth chapter of the book, he offered his thoughts on the love of suffering. The love of suffering? Whose love? Can we really believe that God can love us through suffering? Can’t He just take our suffering away or keep it from happening altogether? Can there possibly be a purpose in our suffering?

We draw close to Holy Week, the week of the passion of Jesus. Smith noted that God has responded to the suffering of His world through His Son. Jesus Himself spoke of His purpose in coming into our world. After His encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and save those like him who are lost” (Luke 19:10). Mark’s gospel recorded these words of the Lord: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Smith wrote: “To desire the saving of many lives over the preservation of one’s own life is the way of the cross. It is the saving of many lives that defines the suffering of Jesus.” It is ultimately the suffering of Jesus that can help us gain a better perspective. “It is the suffering of Jesus that answers our cry for justice in the face of evil, suffering, and injustice. And it is the suffering Jesus who knows how to console us until the promised day of vindication and consummation of our redemption.”

“The Way of the Cross Leads Home” is not just some trite religiosity. It is a life view. It is a way of facing the tragedy and pain with hope that sin, evil, and death are not the end of the trail. The cross is our symbol of what we mean to the Father. The cross is His statement that nothing would prevent the ultimate destruction of that which seeks to destroy us. Even through a veil of tears, we continue to be a people of faith, trust, and love.

 

Excuses

Creativity is a wonderful thing. We see it everywhere. It shows up in some interesting places … like when parents come up with excuses for their kids:

“Please excuse Josh for being absent. I forgot to wake him up and I did not find him until I started making the beds — by then it was too late for him to go to school.”

“John didn’t come to school yesterday because he was feeling like he was going to be sick. Thankfully, he wasn’t!”

“Please excuse Janet’s absence from school. It was Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Since I don’t have a job, I made her stay home and do housework.”

“Please excuse Ricky from school yesterday. He spilled gasoline on his stomach and I was afraid he might explode.”

“Please excuse Mary for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the Sunday paper off the porch and when we found it on Monday, we thought it was Sunday.”

Excuse is defined as an attempt to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault or offense); to seek to defend or justify.

We’ve all done it. We have tried to excuse ourselves for something we have or haven’t done. We would like to justify ourselves or simply get off the hook in an embarrassing or an uncomfortable situation.

Eve had an excuse: It was the serpent’s fault. Adam had an excuse: It was Eve’s fault.

Somebody has to take the fall (pun intended). One of the marks of maturity is when we own our thoughts, words, and deeds. We live in a shaming/blaming society where it seems to get easier to point to someone or something else.

My mom, and probably yours, used to say that when you point your finger at someone else, you still have four fingers pointed back to you. Lord, help us to take responsibility for our own lives!

Courage

Paul Harvey, loved for his heartwarming tales and unique style, told this story: “One summer morning as Ray Blankenship was preparing his breakfast, he gazed out the window, and saw a small girl being swept along in the rain-flooded drainage ditch beside his Andover, Ohio, home. Blankenship knew that farther downstream, the ditch disappeared with a roar underneath a road and then emptied into the main culvert. Ray dashed out the door and raced along the ditch, trying to get ahead of the floundering child. Then he hurled himself into the deep, churning water. Blankenship surfaced and was able to grab the child’s arm. They tumbled end over end. Within about three feet of the yawning culvert, Ray’s free hand felt something hard; possibly a rock protruding from one bank. He clung desperately, but the tremendous force of the water tried to tear him and the child away. ‘If I can just hang on until help comes,’ he thought. He did better than that. By the time fire-department rescuers arrived, Blankenship had pulled the girl to safety. Both were treated for shock. On April 12, 1989, Ray Blankenship was awarded the Coast Guard’s Silver Lifesaving Medal. The award is fitting, for this selfless person was at even greater risk to himself than most people knew. Ray Blankenship can’t swim.”

This Sunday, the featured hymn was written by Lydia Baxter, a woman who was invalid for much of her life. “Take the Name of Jesus with You” is a testimony of courage in the face of suffering and difficulty. During the great Moody-Sankey evangelistic campaigns in the late 19th century, the song with lyrics by Lydia Baxter and tune by William Doane was popular with the great crowds.

The human condition is often one that affords us opportunity to rise above our circumstances. Paul wrote, “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” The key is found in those two words: through Christ. The One who displayed the greatest courage in history offers His presence and power to us daily. When we appropriate what Christ gives, we can indeed take the name of Jesus wherever we go.