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“Along the Journey” column for @wieuca newsletter

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!!

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.


His eye is on the sparrow

“What is the price of two sparrows – one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Matthew 120:29,30)

“Mrs. Civilla Martin, author of this gospel hymn text, tells of a visit in 1904 to a bedridden Christian friend. Mrs. Martin asked the woman if she ever got discouraged because of her physical condition. Her friend responded quickly: ‘Mrs. Martin, how can I be discouraged when my heavenly Father watches over each little sparrow and I know He loves and cares for me.’”

What song would you write about your response to the circumstances of your life? With much to complain about or to grieve over or to be terrified by, it might seem that our lyrics might display our disenchantment or disgust or anxiety. Or we could live in trust and faith …

God said to Joshua: “Be strong and very courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged . For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

David said to Goliath: “You come to me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies – the God of Israel. This is the Lord’s battle and He will give you to us!” (1 Samuel 17:45-47)

Nehemiah said to the residents of Jerusalem: “Don’t’ be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Paul said to the church at Rome: “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow – not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky about or in the earth below – indeed nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38,39)

Jesus said to His disciples: “I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give you is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27)

John Henry Howett wrote: “Let us sing even when we do not feel like it, for in this way we give wings to heavy feet and turn weariness into strength.”

Civilla Martin wrote: “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He’s watches me.”

What song will you sing?

Can you top that?

Kim and I went to see illusionist David Copperfield years ago. In a career that has spanned over 40 years, his illusions have included making a Learjet disappear, escaping from Alcatraz, levitating over the Grand Canyon, and making the Statue of Liberty vanish. He is the best-known and most commercially successful magician in history. He even owns a chain of islands in the Bahamas!

The challenge for people like Copperfield is that the next illusion has to be better than the last one. He has to be more sensational. He has to cause consternation at higher levels than ever before. He wants to go beyond “How did he do that?”

Our featured song this week was written by George Beverly Shea, the man best known for his singing at Billy Graham crusades for many years. The text for the worship service is Psalm 8. Both Scripture and song extol the magnificence of the Creator – the One who brought the universe into being and breathed life into humans.

“There’s the wonder of sunset at evening, the wonder of sunrise I see;

But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul is the wonder that God loves me.”

“O Lord, our Lord, Your majestic name fills the earth!”

The songwriter and the psalmist knew that God didn’t have to top anything. He didn’t have to come up with a new trick. As our knowledge of the universe expands, we realize more and more that there is no end to the wonder of God’s creation. As we grow deeper in our relationship with the Lord, we realize we will never fully explore the depths of His love for us.

Oh, the wonder of it all!

The Way of the Cross leads Home

The first verse of the hymn – “I must needs go home by the way of the cross. There’s no other way but this. I  shall ne’er get sight of the gates of light if the way of the cross I miss.”

The song was a collaborative effort by two accomplished composers – Jessie Brown Pounds and Charles Hutchinson Gabriel. Between the two, over 8000 songs and hymns were produced. In 1906, Pounds provided the lyrics and Gabriel wrote the tune to this, their only joint effort. Gabriel, composed the music for such classics as “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” “Send the Light,” and “Wonderful Love of Jesus.” This prolific gospel songwriter was often asked to produce a song to fit a sermon in a matter of days.

Each of the songs and hymns we sing carries a story. In the Lenten season that brings us to the celebration of Easter, we will allow the music of our souls to help us journey to the cross. The essence of the life of Jesus is best viewed through His death and resurrection. With the use of hymn texts and Scripture, we examine the great truths of our faith.

Any journey worth taking contains surprises, disappointments, twists, and turns. The destination determines our commitment to carry on, no matter what. In Luke 9, we find this verse: “As the time drew near for Him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (v.51).

The rest of the ninth chapter includes the stories of people who added a “but” to their decisions to follow Jesus. “I will follow You but first I must …” Jesus was almost brutally firm in His response: “Anyone who puts a hand to plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God” (v.62).

In other words, the journey requires something other than a casual or distracted effort. With His eyes completely focused on what awaited Him in Jerusalem, He knew the journey would take Him through agony, humiliation, torture, and death. He must suffer the cross before He could emerge from the tomb.

He never asked us to complete His journey, but He did call us to finish ours.



It’s not a sprint

Years ago I chose the title for these weekly blogs. “Along the Journey” suggests the reality of the twists and turns of life, the moments when we soar and the moments when we stumble. The road isn’t straight, the way not easy. There are times when we feel it’s all up hill. There are other times when we can coast. Life is more marathon than sprint.

After the author presented the hall of faith in the letter (chapter 11), he or she gave us one of the most impressive word pictures we can find in the Bible. We can understand the image because we have seen it in person or on the screen – a stadium full of people cheering on their favorite teams. We have witnessed the compelling sights of the world’s best athletes competing in international events like the Olympics.

As chapter 12 opens, individual runners are surrounded by a cheering throng. The noise begins to swell as the participants stretch, strip down to their uniforms, and find their place at the starting line. On the huge video board, a single runner is pictured – a Champion who finished the greatest race of His life, achieving a record never to be broken. His victory becomes the inspiration for every runner about to begin his own race.

The athletes have trained for this moment. They know there will be moments when they have to push through fatigue, cramping, depleted oxygen, and soreness. They somehow find a second wind, and then another and another. Their eyes are fixed on the journey ahead, knowing there is a finish line. The temptation to slow up or even quit is resisted. You cannot win if you don’t keep running.

The roll call of those who also struggled to finish serves as motivating encouragement. Your eyes lift to the video board again and see the lone figure who battled all the tests and trials runners face. He has mounted the victory stand as the crowd roars. You dig deeper and stretch your stride. His example calls you to greater effort. Their encouragement gives you a surge of determination.

No one can run your race for you, but you do have the example of Christ and you do have a crowd of witnesses who cheer you on. It might not be easy, but it is worth it. Run on!

Closer than you think

The relational God. The invitational God. How close is He? Jesus responded to the query of the soon-to-be disciples, “Come and see” (John 1:39). To the dispirited and confused, He said, “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

In his impactful book, God is Closer than You Think, John Ortberg quoted Frederick Buechner: “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize Him or not … because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The waiting God. The beckoning God. The gracious God. How close has God come? Ortberg writes: “So close that your heart will be beating with life because Someone is walking around in there. God is closer than you think.”

All of us have known times when God has seemed distant. Perhaps He is too busy. Perhaps I’m not important enough. Perhaps He cannot love me after what I have done.. Perhaps He doesn’t care. Perhaps He cares but chooses not to act.

If God seems distant, it makes sense to ask a simple question: Who moved? My dad used to tell me a story about how relationships change. An elderly couple was riding together down a country road. The man was driving. The woman was leaning against the passenger door. They had been quiet for some time when she glanced over at him. “Fred, do you remember when we used to sit close and cuddle in this old car?” He paused for a moment before muttering, “I ain’t moved.”

I have to admit that most of the time I’m the one who has moved. We get distracted, overscheduled, and complacent. The relational, invitational, waiting, beckoning, and gracious God hasn’t moved.

Nicholas Herman was unhappy with his life. He felt a disconnect with God and wanted to change. He decided to make his life an experiment in what he called a “habitual, silent, secret conversation of the soul with God.” He joined a monastic order and was given a new name, Brother Lawrence. After he died, friends gathered his writing and produced a book that has been widely read for four centuries, Practicing the Presence of God. One friend noted, “The good brother found God everywhere, as much while he was repairing as while he was praying with the community.”

Perhaps we’re not looking like we should. One thing seems certain: God is indeed closer than we think.

Life in the Spirit

In his classic work The Spirit of Christ, Andrew Murray quoted a young Christian: “I think I understand the work of the Father and the Son, and rejoice in them, but I hardly see the place the Spirit has.”

The Third Person of the Trinity has been misunderstood by many of us. We don’t know quite how to take Him. Is He wind … the force … a ghost? How are we to relate to Him?

Murray offered help: “God created man’s heart for His dwelling. Sin entered and defiled it. God’s Spirit worked to regain possession for four thousand years. Finally, the redemption was accomplished and the Kingdom of God was established through Christ. The Spirit of Christ Himself is to be within us as the power of our lives. I have God Himself – a living Person – to dwell with me. And so, the Spirit becomes to me what He was to Jesus, the very life of my personality.”

The Spirit of God is not a portion of God; He is fully God, present in the life of the believer. Christ promised the presence of the Advocate, the Comforter – the One who would guide and teach and empower us. Jesus promised that He would never abandon His own. The Spirit is the fulfillment of that promise.

As followers of Christ, we would certainly agree that we would choose power-full lives over power-less lives. Sadly, when we cannot acknowledge and appropriate the power of the One who has made us His temple, we fail to experience the richness of His presence.

What does Scripture teach us about Him?

  • He teaches us truth
  • He consoles and comforts us
  • He intercedes for us in prayer
  • He bestows gifts in each believer for the edification of the Church
  • He kindles hope within our hearts
  • He reminds us of how much we are loved

Life in the Spirit is opportunity, not obligation. It is a deepening relationship with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

“Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me. Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me. Break me, melt me, mold me, fill me. Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.”



The first miracle

Frederick Dale Bruner wrote: “I like to consider this Jesus’ first miracle: the miracle of His humility. The first thing Jesus does for us is go down with us. His whole life is like this, It is well known that Jesus ended His career on a cross between two thieves; it deserves to be as well known that He began His ministry in a river among penitent sinners.”

The writer of Hebrews emphasized the humanity and humility of Jesus: “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for He faced all of the same testings we do, yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:14). Jesus didn’t sympathize with humans; He empathized.

Someone once described the difference between sympathy and empathy this way: You’re walking along a road and notice a man who has fallen into a ditch. Sympathy says that you feel sorry for the man’s predicament. Empathy says that you get down in the ditch and help the man out. Jesus did not observe our predicament; He entered it.

The mystery of the Incarnation that He was capable of experiencing the human condition without being tainted by it. Tempted but without yielding, He lived among us as one of us. It was crucial to His mission. The manger, the cross, the tomb were not symbolic gestures; they were demonstrations of His commitment to dwell among us and then pay a price no other could pay.

Paul captured the humility of Jesus perfectly in his letter to the Philippians. Reciting what had to be one of Christianity’s earliest hymns, the apostle called upon believers to follow the example Jesus set: “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:5).

What does that attitude look like? From the Christian Bible Reference: “Humility as a virtue is a major theme of both the Old and New Testaments. Why do qualities such as courtesy, patience and deference have such a prominent place in the Bible? It is because a demeanor of humility is exactly what is needed to live in peace and harmony with all persons. Humility dissipates anger and heals old wounds. Humility allows us to see the dignity and worth of all God’s people. Humility distinguishes the wise leader from the arrogant power-seeker.”

Jesus provided the leadership through His example. What kind of followers will we be? I still believe in miracles.