Sunday, May 04, 2014

Here I Raise Mine Ebenezer

Here I Raise Mine Ebenezer

1 Samuel 7: 2 – 17


Today is our annual church picnic—the day we set aside to recognize our church anniversary.
According to our church history, First Baptist Church was born sometime in July 1883.  I say sometime in July, because the best we can tell there was no First Baptist Church at the end of June but there was a First Baptist Church by the end of July.  Traditionally, we have split the difference and claimed July 15 as our church anniversary.  July 15 is just as good a date as any.
Wait a minute…Today is not July 15.  That’s because July 15 is a good date for everything except a church picnic.  It’s too hot in July to have a picnic, so we recognize our church anniversary on the first Sunday of May—a great day for a picnic.
Thinking about our church anniversary led me to think of the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and the biblical story of the phrase, “Here I Raise Mine Ebenezer.”

1 Samuel 7: 2 – 17…  2 It was a long time, twenty years in all, that the ark remained at Kiriath Jearim, and all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the LORD. 3 And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, "If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." 4 So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only. 
5 Then Samuel said, "Assemble all Israel at Mizpah and I will intercede with the LORD for you." 6 When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the LORD. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, "We have sinned against the LORD." And Samuel was leader of Israel at Mizpah. 
7 When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them. And when the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. 8 They said to Samuel, "Do not stop cryingout to the LORD our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines." 9 Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it up as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. He cried out to the LORD on Israel's behalf, and the LORD answered him. 
10 While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. 11 The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Car. 
12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, "Thus far has the LORD helped us." 13 So the Philistines were subdued and did not invade Israelite territory again.
Throughout Samuel's lifetime, the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines. 14 The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to her, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the power of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites. 
15 Samuel continued as judge over Israel all the days of his life. 16 From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places.17 But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also judged Israel. And he built an altar there to the LORD.

I believe this biblical story functions on three distinct levels.
First, this is a story about Samuel.  Of course, that makes sense…the name of this Old Testament book is 1 Samuel…Therefore, since this book bears Samuel’s name, the whole book must be about Samuel (in one way or another).
This is the first time in the book of 1 Samuel that we get to see Samuel fulfilling his God-given role as judge / leader over Israel.  If we begin reading the book of 1 Samuel at chapter one, we know from the very beginning of the story that Samuel is going to grow up to be someone special.  Samuel’s mother could not have children, so she prayed that God would give her a child.  She even made a bargain with God…If God would give her a child, she would give him back to be used by God.  Then, we see Samuel serving alongside Eli in the Temple.  (Samuel was learning how to be a priest.)  While performing his priestly duties, Samuel received a word from the Lord that Eli is unfaithful and that Samuel is faithful.  Therefore, God is going to bring judgment on the house of Eli; God is going to take the priesthood away from Eli and his two sons; and God is going to bless Samuel as the next prophet-priest over Israel. 
Here, for the first time, Samuel fulfills his God-given role as leader over Israel.  Eli and his sons are dead.  There is a leadership vacuum.  Samuel steps into that leadership vacuum and allows God to use him.
Second, this is a story about the nation of Israel.  Of course, that makes sense, too…This story is in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament tells the story of Israel.  God took a people who were not a nation and established them as a nation.  God took a nation of slaves in Egypt and led them out of slavery and formed them into their own nation by making a covenant with them.  God gave them his Law and his requirements.  God promised to rescue them, establish them, provide for them, and use them to share God’s message of salvation with all of the nations of the world.
This story is one of many stories where it looks like God’s covenant and God’s message of salvation might be in jeopardy.  The nation of Israel isn’t looking very good right now.  Israel has been taken over by the Philistines.  The Philistines have won a series of military battles against Israel.  They have stolen the Ark of the Covenant from Israel, and Israel is now overrun with false gods—Baals and Ashtoreths. 

Biblical Pattern of Revival

There is a recurring theme in the Bible that began in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and continues throughout the rest of Scripture.  God calls us to be obedient and to live our lives dependent on God to provide for all our needs.  However, we would rather be independent (captain of our own souls, master of our own fates).  Sin and disobedience appear to be very attractive.  So, God’s people give in to temptation and turn our backs on God’s will and God’s Word. 
Of course, it doesn’t take very long to figure out that sin cannot deliver on its promises.  Disobedience isn’t as fulfilling as we thought it would be.  Independence never seems to work out the way we planned.
After twenty years of trying to do things their way, the people of Israel finally recognized that God’s way is better than their ways.  It is better to be obedient than disobedient.  It is better to be dependent on God than independent.  The people mourned all they had lost and asked Samuel to help them turn back to the LORD.
I think it is significant that this is the first time we see Samuel as an adult.  The first time we see Samuel as an adult he is stepping into a leadership vacuum and leading the entire nation of Israel through a crisis.
At first glance, it looks as if Israel is facing a political crisis.  But, Samuel recognizes this crisis for what it is.  It is a spiritual crisis.  Israel has ventured away from God and God’s ways.  They have been trying to do things their way.  Samuel, in his first act of leadership, leads the entire nation of Israel to experience a spiritual awakening.
This Scripture describes three important aspects of spiritual awakening.  Samuel called the people to REPENT from their sins.  They demonstrated their repentance through fasting and by pouring out water without drinking it.  Samuel called the people to REFORM their worship.  They threw away all the false gods—the Baals and the Ashtoreths.  Samuel called the people to RENEW their commitment to serve the LORD—the one true God of Heaven and earth—and to serve him only…

God Fights for Israel

While Samuel was calling on the Name of the LORD and leading the people of Israel in spiritual awakening, something very interesting happened.  While Samuel was calling out to God, the Philistines attacked the people of Israel.
According to the Scripture, all the people were gathered together in one place for the sacrifices and the worship service.  Perhaps the Philistines saw this as a good opportunity to attack—the people are all in one place and are distracted.  From a practical standpoint, this was a good opportunity to attack.
Of course, we could also say the same thing happens to anyone who is doing what God wants us to do.  When anyone recommits their life to the LORD, repents from their sins and prays for spiritual awakening…the enemy is going to attack.  The enemy is not interested in people who are disobeying God.  He wants to attack the faithful and to derail spiritual awakening before it can happen.
Notice what happens in verse 10.  WHILE Samuel continued to offer sacrifices and WHILE the people sought the LORD’s will, the LORD fought against the Philistines.  The LORD thundered and caused the Philistines to become so confused that the Philistine armies were defeated before Israel even got finished praying.  The LORD did all the fighting; and the LORD and won the battle.  All the Israelite army had to do was to pursue a fleeing enemy.
In one sense, this is a story of Samuel’s rise to a position of leadership…AND, this is a story about Israel.  But, the most important part of this story is what it tells us about God.  Israel did not win the battle against the Philistines.  Samuel did not win the battle against the Philistines.  God won the battle.

A Call to Remember

Verse 12 is where we get the lyrics to the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Here I raise mine Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I'm come
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

The Hebrew name “Ebenezer” is actually a combination of two Hebrew words: eben = stone and ezer = help.  Therefore, “Ebenezer” can be translated “stone of help,” or “this stone is my helper,” or “my helper is a stone.”  It is interesting that both of these words are used to describe the LORD.  The LORD is strong like a stone / rock.  The LORD is my helper in time of need.  This leads me to believe it is best to translate, “Every time I see this stone, I will remember who helped me.”
Samuel didn’t think that stone was the literal source of their help against the Philistines.  Samuel didn’t think God could be captured, contained, or even represented by an inanimate rock!  No.  This rock was to be a reminder of the time and the place where God stepped in and defeated the Philistines.
Verse 12 says, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”  The words of the hymn say, “Hither by Thy help I’m come.”  Both “thus far” and “hither” give us a couple of options about exactly what Samuel was saying when he placed a stone and named it Ebenezer. 
It is possible that Samuel was referring to geography.  “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”  The Israelites had been on the move for hundreds of years.  God led them every step of the way from one place to another place.  Maybe Samuel is building this Ebenezer to say, “God got us this far and no farther…This is the end of the road.”
It is also possible that Samuel was referring to time.  “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”  The entire history of Israel was in God’s hands.  They were slaves in Egypt who had no national identity of their own.  Then, God brought them out of slavery and established them as God’s own nation.  Israel was not the largest nation and was not the wealthiest nation.  But, Israel was special because God chose to work in them and through them.  Israel’s relationship with God is what made them special. 
(The words of the hymn choose to interpret Ebenezer as temporal / historical rather than geographical.  This is obvious in the words that follow Ebenezer: “And I hope by Thy good pleasure, Safely to arrive at home.”  Ebenezer is not the end of the journey.  Home / Heaven / Eternity…This is where our journey takes us.  As long as we are still living, God is still leading us, God is still our Stone and our Help.)   


This biblical story functions on three distinct levels.  First, it is a story about Samuel and his rise to a position of leadership.  Second, it is a story about Israel and the way God provides for his people.  Third, this is a story about you and me!  (In fact, I like to think this is the way we are supposed to read the stories of the Bible.  The Bible is more than a collection of stories about people like Samuel and the ancient people of Israel.  The Bible contains my story, your story, our story…)
Today, I would like to suggest that this is the story of Lufkin’s First Baptist Church.  According to Wikipedia, the city of Lufkin was founded in 1882.  According to our church history, Lufkin’s First Baptist Church was founded in 1883—just one year after people started calling Lufkin their home.
In 1883, First Baptist Church started out with 9 members.  In 2014, there are more than 1,000 members of our church.  That does not even consider the 12 churches in Lufkin that we have planted and the 3 mission churches that are still a part of FBC.  Thanks to those 9 charter members, there are now 16 Baptist churches and missions in the city of Lufkin.
Sometimes I wonder what those original 9 members would think about us today.  Did they have any idea that they were starting a church that would live on for 131 years?  Did they know that thousands of people would become Christians as a result of their decision to start a new church?  Did they know there would be hundreds of young men and women answer God’s call to become ministers, missionaries and church leaders because they started a church 131 years ago?

Just as Israel was not the largest, strongest or wealthiest nation in the world, First Baptist Church might not be the largest, strongest or wealthiest church.  What made Israel special is the same thing that makes First Baptist Church special…it is our relationship to God.   God is at work in us and through us to change the world.
Thus far the LORD has helped First Baptist Church.  The pastors haven’t won the victories.  The church hasn’t won the victories.  The LORD has won the victories.  And as long as we are alive…As long as we are a church…God is not finished with his work in us and through us.  This is not the end of the journey.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

After Easter, Hope

After Easter, Hope

Romans 5: 1 – 11


We had a great Sunday last week.  After all, it was Easter Sunday…And Easter is supposed to be a big deal.  Easter 2014 did not disappoint…Baptism, Great music, Powerful Message of Cross and Resurrection, and the biggest crowd since I came here in 2006.
A couple of years ago, I started keeping a document with Easter Sunday attendance for our church and our three mission churches.  In 2007, we had a high attendance…then the following years fluctuated up and down staying close to 625.  This year was a big bump.  We had 717 in worship! 
When you add 717 in our worship service to 319 at Cross Timbers Cowboy Church; 95 at La Casa del Alfarero and 205 at New Beginnings Baptist Church, we had a total of 1,336 people at First Baptist Church and her missions!  That’s a great day!  But, there’s a problem.  How do you follow Easter Sunday?
The Sunday after Easter can be a letdown.  Of course, it shouldn’t be a letdown.  Instead, it should be a reminder that Easter has changed everything.  Because of the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, we have a new life…And, we live in a world which has been changed forever.  In one word, we live in a world of Hope.

Romans 5: 1 – 11… 1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his loveinto our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. 
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 
9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! 10 For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

“Religion is the opium of the people.”[1] 
This quote is famously attributed to the atheist philosopher Karl Marx.  The quote never mentions the word “hope,” but “hope” is exactly what Marx was criticizing.  Marx believed that humans could create a better society by getting rid of religious belief and religious expression and what he thought was false hope.  His views led to the uniquely Twentieth Century phenomenon we call Communism and its ultimate expression in the Soviet Union—a society and government built on atheist foundations.
Marx’ beliefs about religion were complex.  On one hand, he considered religion to be oppressive and dreamed of a society in which people were no longer held back by the teachings or authority of the organized church.  On the other hand, Marx labeled religion as an opiate—a drug which had the power to mask the pain of suffering or to induce dreams of a fantasy world.
Legendary psychologist Sigmund Freud held a similar view of religion as an opiate.  Freud claimed that religion was nothing more than wishful thinking that there was a God, who could accomplish all our unfulfilled father issues.  Since our earthly fathers are the ones who provide for us and give us protection when we are children, Freud suggests that we imagine that God is our Heavenly Father who does for us what our earthly fathers never could.
These two views of God are similar in the way they describe religion and belief in God as nothing more than a crutch for weak-minded people.  They are also similar in the fact that they reject “hope.”  Faith and hope are illusions.  Religion is a crutch.  God is something we have created and not Someone who created us.  There is no reason to hope for anything other than the physical world we can perceive with our senses.
The biggest problem with this theory is the way it contradicts universal human experience.  We can illustrate this in two significant ways.
First, there is the historical evidence that religious belief has been widespread throughout human history.  People from many different cultures and historical eras have almost universally acknowledged that there is a God.  When I say “God,” I am referring to a supernatural Being who is worthy of reverence and worship.  This belief has taken on many different expressions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, nature worship, etc…  Not every culture has gotten this right, but every culture has entered into a search for meaning (and a search for hope) through a search for God.  This leaves us with an important choice.  Either, the vast majority of humanity in every culture and every historical era has been wrong to search for God.  Or, they haven’t.  The most rational choice is that they have not been wrong to search for God.  Therefore, the most rational choice is to believe that God exists, and we are correct to search for meaning (and search for hope) by searching for God.
Second, we can argue that there is a natural and innate human desire to find God.  Of course, we know that every innate desire has some real object which can satisfy that desire.  For example, hunger is a desire for food—and food is real.  Being tired is a desire for sleep—and (believe it or not) sleep is real.  Thirst is a desire for water—and water is real.  Loneliness is a desire for companionship—and other people are real.
Someone might argue that they have desires which can never be satisfied.  Some people desire to drive a fancy sports car but realize they will never have enough money to buy a sports car.  Other people desire to fly through the air like Superman but realize none of us will ever have the ability to fly.  Some people even desire for the Baylor football team to win the national championship.  But these are not natural, innate or universal desires.  Not everyone wants to drive a sports car, fly like Superman or for Baylor to win a football championship.  These desires are conditioned by advertising, societal influences or where you went to school.  Desire for food, water and God are experienced universally.
I cannot say this better than C.S. Lewis: 

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists.  A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water.  Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex.  If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[2]

There are really only two ways an atheist can argue with C.S. Lewis.  They might say something like, “But, I am perfectly happy and satisfied with the material things in life.”  Are they really happy and satisfied?  Universal human experience and the themes of classical literature suggest otherwise.  The search for meaning in life is uniquely human.  Plants do not search for meaning in life.  Dogs, horses and emus do not search for meaning.  To be human is to be unsatisfied with the material universe.
The other argument is to say something like, “I might not be happy and satisfied right now, but I will be happy if I could just have $10 Million, the biggest house in town and a new relationship.”  If you think this will bring you satisfaction, then you are in good company.  Billions of people are desperately searching for satisfaction like this right now.  They will be disappointed.  This is the only gamble in life guaranteed not to pay off.  It has been tried for centuries and has a proven 100% failure rate.
The good news is that people are beginning to realize that there is something else beyond the material world.  We have been taught by the brightest philosophers that the only real things in life are the things we can experience through our senses.  However, we are beginning to rebel against our philosophers.  TV personalities like Oprah Winfrey are teaching us about “spirituality.”  Bookstores are carrying books about mysticism, reincarnation, and (if you look hard enough) books about Jesus.
We can agree with the prayer of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who prayed, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”[3]

In Romans 5: 1 – 11, the Apostle Paul makes two very important points about Hope. 
First, Paul connects the dots between suffering and hope.  Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. 
Suffering by itself is inanimate.  It has no life of its own and cannot accomplish anything in our lives by itself.  Paul tells us to think of suffering as an instrument or tool, which can be used by God to accomplish God’s good purpose in our lives.  Through suffering, God teaches us how to persevere.  Through perseverance, God develops our character to become more like the character of Jesus.  Through character development, God instills hope in us—a hope that does not disappoint.  This is a hope that will be fulfilled when God keeps his promises.
One way to think of this is to make a very common illustration about the way our physical bodies grow and develop.  There is only one way to grow your muscles and to make them stronger.  Muscles grow when they face resistance.  Without resistance, our muscles would become weak and flabby.
In the same way, suffering is exercise for our spiritual lives.  We grow spiritually to become the men and women God wants us to become—molded into the image of Jesus our Lord—through suffering and perseverance.  This is the reason why Paul tells us to rejoice in our sufferings.  When we suffer, it means God is using the difficulties of life to make us stronger in faith and in character.  It means God isn’t finished working on us.

Second, Paul ends this passage by giving us three descriptions of salvation.  Salvation is Justification / Righteousness.  Salvation is Reconciliation.  Salvation is Life.  I believe Paul is making a connection between the Resurrection of Jesus and our Resurrection / eternal life in Heaven.  If Jesus died and rose again, then we have hope.  If Jesus did not die and rise again, then we do not have hope.  SINCE Jesus died and rose again, our hope is secure. 
When we read Paul’s words about salvation in the context of Christian hope, we can form a good definition of Christian hope.  First, we have hope, because God is still working on us…as long as there is suffering in the world, there are opportunities to grow.  Second, true hope has nothing to do with this world (and this life) becoming a better world.  Instead, our hope is found in God’s salvation—God’s Righteousness; Reconciliation with God; and the life God promises through the Resurrection of Jesus.


Back in March, I did something that I have never done before. 
March is the month for the NCAA basketball tournament—March Madness.  The tournament starts with 68 teams, then 32, then 16, then 8, then the Final Four, then the Championship Game.  I have been filling out a bracket of winners and losers for a long time.  Back in the days before the Internet, I used to get a bracket from the newspaper, fill it out with the teams I expect to win and lose, and exchange my bracket with my brother.  That way we can laugh at each other and our picks.
This year, I went on the Internet and filled out a bracket like I always do.  But, I did something different this year.  I entered my bracket into a contest on the Internet.  You can probably guess which contest.  I entered the contest that offered $1 Billion for a perfect bracket.
I never really expected to win $1 Billion.  But, hey…it’s worth a shot.
On the first day of the tournament, there was an upset.  Number 11 seed, Dayton, beat number 6 seed, Ohio State…I picked that!  Then there was another upset.  Number 12 seed, Harvard, beat number 5 seed Cincinnati…I picked that one too!  I went through the first 24 hours of the tournament with a perfect bracket.
On the second day of the tournament, number 15 seed, Mercer, beat number 2 seed, Duke.  And, NOBODY picked that one.  I certainly didn’t pick it.  My dreams of having a perfect bracket were over by the second day.
I never really expected to win $1 Billion.  But, I went to bed after the first night of the tournament dreaming about how I might spend $1 Billion.  (In my defense, I did plan to set up endowment funds for every church I have served and to establish a scholarship at Truett Seminary.)
My dream of winning $1 Billion is what a lot of people think of as hope.  But, that is not hope.  It is nothing more than wishful thinking.  “I wish / hope I can win $1 Billion.”  “I hope it doesn’t rain on Sunday.”  Wishful thinking is dreaming about a better future with no basis in fact / reality.
Hope is not wishful thinking, because hope is based on reality.  Because Jesus died and rose again, we know that we have a better future ahead of us.  My future does not depend on random chance, luck or wining a basketball tournament.  My future depends on the accomplished fact of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.  I know that Jesus died and rose again.  Therefore, I know that I will experience Resurrection / Heaven / eternal life.
Easter gives us hope, because Easter has changed everything!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Luke 23: 44 – 46


Perhaps it is no surprise that I love Easter Sunday.  As a Christian, I love Easter, because this is our most important Holy Day…Easter is more important than Mothers’ Day, more important than Thanksgiving Day, and more important than Christmas Day.  As a pastor, I love Easter, because I have the privilege and responsibility to preach about the single greatest event in human history…The Resurrection of Jesus.
As Christians, we confess that Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection is a real, literal and historical event.  In one important sense, belief in Jesus’ Crucifixion Resurrection is an act of faith…Because we have never seen anything like that before..  In another sense, belief in Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection is like belief in any other historical event.  We can read and trust the historical documents.
Some people like to say that the books of the New Testament are religious writings and therefore cannot be trusted as historical documents.  However, these books are actually MORE reliable than any other form of ancient history.  (1) The New Testament was written by eyewitnesses.  (2) It was written within one generation of Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection—the earliest book written around 50 AD and the last book written around 95 AD.  (3) The history recorded in the New Testament was not contradicted by any other contemporary historical accounts—in many cases, secular history actually verifies the historical facts recorded in the New Testament.[1]
Consider these words from Tacitus, the most respected ancient Roman historian:

Christus, from whom the name (Christian) had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”

Tacitus was a Roman and was not a Christian.  He wrote a history of the Roman Empire.  He was not fulfilling some kind of Christian / religious agenda.  This passage acknowledged that there was a man named Christ who was executed by Pontius Pilate, and this executed Christ is the namesake of the religious movement known as Christianity.

Another example is the political correspondence between Pliny, the Younger and Trajan, the Roman Emperor:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”
-Pliny the Younger, Letter to the Emperor Trajan, 112 AD (

Pliny was a governor over one of the districts within the Roman Empire.  During his reign, Christianity was considered an illicit religion / superstition.  Pliny arrested a group of Christians and told them they were facing execution unless they renounced their faith and worshipped the Roman gods.  In his letter to the Emperor, we discover that (as early as 112 AD) Christians worshipped Jesus as God and committed themselves to a countercultural form of morality.

A third example comes from Josephus, the Jewish historian:

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.  For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.  He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.  He was the Messiah.  And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease.  He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him.  And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
-Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book XVIII, Chapter III, Paragraph 3), 93 AD (

This is the most controversial non-Christian reference to Jesus.  If Josephus truly believed what he wrote here, he would no longer be a Jew—he would be a Christian!  Also, many people today deny the authenticity of this quote.  However, recent scholarship has discovered a secondary source with a very similar quotation.  This leads to the interpretation that Josephus is not expressing his views about Jesus.  He is quoting another source.  Even though these words do not reflect Josephus’ personal beliefs about Jesus, they do reflect an existing First Century understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, who was crucified and rose again on the third day as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified on a Friday and rose again by Sunday morning.  Jesus hung on the cross for six hours from 9:00 AM until 3:00 PM.  During these six hours, Jesus spoke seven times: (1) Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing; (2) Today you will be with me in Paradise; (3) Woman, this is your son, and this is your mother; (4) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?; (5) I am thirsty; (6) It is finished; (7) Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

Luke 23: 44 – 46…  44 It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour,45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.     

Death on a Roman cross was the most painful and the most humiliating way to die in the ancient world.  The physical pain of the cross was so bad, there were no words to describe it.  The Romans had to invent a new word.  It was not brutal.  It was not gruesome.  It was excruciating—ex is the Latin word for “from” or “out of” and crus is the Latin word for “cross.”  Excruciating pain is pain from the cross.
Of course, physical pain is only part of what Jesus experienced on the cross.  Jesus was abandoned by most of his family and disciples.  Jesus was mocked and ridiculed by his tormentors.  This mockery was an intentional part of a Roman crucifixion.
The Romans made sure that the person who died on a cross died without any dignity.  Crucifixion was reserved for the worst kind of criminals…usually men who were revolutionaries, trying to rebel against or even to overthrow the Roman government.  That is what Jesus was accused of doing.  When he preached about the Kingdom of God and claimed to be the divine Son of Man, the Romans felt threatened…Jesus was trying to establish a rival Kingdom.
If Jesus was gathering followers around him and promising a rival Kingdom, then the last thing the Romans wanted to do was to make Jesus a martyr.  They did not want Jesus to die as a hero…To die with dignity…To die as a respected religious / political leader.
And the Romans knew how to do this.  They had done this thousands of times before.  They had crucified thousands revolutionaries and rebels and Jewish men who claimed to be the Messiah.  They had stolen their dignity and stolen their lives.  Yet, this is not the case with Jesus…No one could take away Jesus’ dignity…No one could take away Jesus’ life…

John 10: 14 – 18… 14 "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father." 

As long as Jesus was on the cross, his life was in the hands of the Roman soldiers.  Ironically, they did not have the power to take Jesus’ life from him.  Instead, Jesus was in control of his own life.  Jesus reclaimed his own life from the Roman soldiers and placed his life in God’s hands.
This is an important part of the Christian message.  Jesus died on the cross to offer us forgiveness of sin.  Jesus died as a willing and voluntary sacrifice.  Jesus was not murdered by the Romans (or the Jews).  Jesus’ life was not taken away from him.  Jesus did not die a tragic death.  Instead, Jesus gave his life willingly and voluntarily.  Jesus gave his life as an expression of God’s love for sinners.
Jesus’ death on the cross expressed God’s love, because God (in Christ) provided the way for us to be saved—for our sins to be forgiven and for the division between God and humanity to be torn away.  That was what Luke was describing when he told us that the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple was torn when Jesus died on the cross.
The curtain was a visual symbol and reminder that human beings are separated from God.  The curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple complex.  Only the high priest could enter behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies—and he could only do this one day a year on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifices for all the sins of all the people of Israel.
The Romans did not take Jesus’ life from him.  Jesus willingly gave his life to forgive your sins and to make relationship with God possible...An expression of God’s love.

Jesus’ last words on the cross—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”—tell us something important about the way Jesus died.  But, they also set an example for the way Christian people are supposed to live.

Luke 9: 23 – 25…  23 Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 

Jesus willingly gave his life for you.  Will you give your life for Jesus?  Will you commit your life into God’s hands?
There are two words we can use to describe what it means to give your life to Jesus. 
On one hand, this is “discipleship.”  We give our lives to Jesus to follow Jesus as the Lord / King of our lives.  When Jesus is my Lord / King, my life is not my own.
On the other hand, this is “stewardship.”  Ultimately, life is a gift from God.  I did not create myself.  I did not choose to be born / to live / to exist.  God gave me this life.  My life is my most precious possession, but it doesn’t really belong to me.  We give our lives to Jesus, because it belongs to him anyway!
Ironically, most of us spend our lives wrestling with God.  We wrestle and struggle against God, hoping to get our lives OUT of God’s hands.  We think we can save ourselves / establish a good life for ourselves / find our own security.
The only true salvation…The only good life…The only ultimate security…is found by giving our lives away in faith…Wholly trusting our lives into God’s hands.  Whoever loses his / her life will save it…What good is it for someone to gain the whole world and forfeit his / her own soul.


I think it is important to note that Jesus died just like he lived.  Jesus was able to trust his death into God’s hands, because Jesus trusted his life into God’s hands.  He died faithfully, because he lived faithfully.
We can compare Jesus’ last words on the cross to other famous last words:
Circus entertainer P.T. Barnum asked on his deathbed, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?”  He lived chasing a dollar and died the same way.
On his deathbed, hotel founder Conrad Hilton was asked for words of wisdom.  He replied, “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.”  He died the same way he lived.
In 1776, Nathan Hale was hanged by the British for spying and stealing military secrets.  His famous last words were: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”  He died the same way he lived.

Will Jesus’ words on the cross be the defining words of your life?  Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.  Jesus, I give my life to you.
These are the last words of a faithful life and the first words of a life of discipleship.

[1] For more examples of what ancient, non-Christian sources said about Jesus of Nazareth, see

Sunday, April 06, 2014

"I am thirsty."

“I am thirsty.”

John 19: 28 – 29


Over these past few weeks, we have been reading the last seven sayings of Jesus from the cross.  So far, Jesus’ words from the cross have been very selfless.  Instead of focusing on his own needs and his own pain, Jesus focused on others. 
The first words Jesus spoke from the cross can be described as a prayer…a prayer for forgiveness.  Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The second words Jesus spoke from the cross can be described as an answer to a prayer.  The thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into the Kingdom of God.  Jesus replied, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus’ third words were instructions for John, the Apostle to take care of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
The fourth words sound like a selfish cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But, when we read them alongside Psalm 22, we recognize that Jesus is quoting an Old Testament passage that prophesies about the suffering of the Messiah and the triumph of the Messiah…
The fifth words Jesus spoke from the cross are very self-focused.  Jesus speaks about his own physical need…AND, one of the people standing nearby responds by meeting Jesus’ physical need…

John 19: 28 – 29…28 Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 

These words from the cross show us the human side of Jesus.  As Christians, we believe that Jesus is both human and divine.  AND, it is important that we affirm both aspects of Jesus’ character…Jesus is 100% human and 100% divine…
It is important to say that Jesus is 100% divine, because this affirms the fact that Jesus’ death on the cross and his Resurrection are acts of God.  God stepped into human history and provided the only way human sin can be forgiven and the only way the relationship between God and humanity could be reconciled.
It is important to say that Jesus is 100% human, because this affirms the fact that Jesus has experienced everything a human being can possibly experience.  Jesus felt the physical pain of the cross and the emotional pain of being despised and rejected.  And, Jesus experienced the spiritual pain of temptation to sin but remained without sin.
So, when Jesus said, “I am thirsty,” Jesus was actually thirsty.
There are a couple of very creative interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The Gnostics of the First and Second Centuries said that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.  Instead, it only SEEMED like Jesus died on the cross.  Another theory—which has become very popular among Muslim interpreters—says that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.  Instead, Jesus was able to switch places with Judas Iscariot.  In an ironic twist, Jesus did not actually suffer and die on the cross: Judas—the one who betrayed Jesus—suffered and died on the cross.  (Of course, this also explains what they believe happened on Easter Sunday.  They think Judas’ body remained in the grave, while Jesus walked around making people think he had been Resurrected.)
These two creative interpretations of Jesus’ death and Resurrection have one thing in common.  They are NOT Christian views.  The Christian view is that Jesus literally, physically and actually died on the cross and that Jesus literally, physically and actually rose from the grave.  Jesus did not appear to die—Jesus actually died.  Jesus did not trick Judas and switch places with Judas—Jesus actually died.
According to historians (and some modern day doctors who study the crucifixion of Jesus), a person who died by crucifixion usually died with one of three possible causes of death.  Suffocation—the weight of the body pulling against arms nailed to the crossbar made it difficult to breathe.  Loss of blood—in Jesus’ case, Jesus was bleeding from the nails, the crown of thorns as well as the beating he experienced before the cross.  Dehydration—hanging on the cross in the middle of the day, exposed to the elements, with no food or drink.  Therefore, we can probably take Jesus’ words—I am thirsty—as an indication that he was getting close to death.  By indicating he was close to death, Jesus is reminding us of his humanity.
Of course, Jesus was no ordinary human being.  Jesus was and is the Son of God.

Son of God

There are three occasions in the life of Jesus where the New Testament emphasizes that Jesus is the Son of God.  In the Old Testament, Son of God usually referred to a divine being.  In the New Testament, this is a title for Jesus.  If the early Christians who wrote the New Testament and professed Jesus as the Son of God were shaped by their understanding of the Old Testament, then it is easy to see they actually believed Jesus was divine.  Jesus is God Incarnate—God in the Flesh.
One of the places where we read that Jesus is the Son of God was Jesus’ baptism.  When Jesus came out of the Jordan River, the Spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice from Heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in him I am well pleased.”  Another occasion was on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain and showed them his glory.  Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Jesus.  And a voice from Heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”  The other occasion was the miraculous birth of Jesus.
According to the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born to Mary at a time when she was still a virgin.  Jesus did not have a normal birth like you and I did.  Jesus was not conceived by a husband and wife.  Jesus was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit.  God himself is Jesus’ Father.
Jesus is the Unique Son of God.  His miraculous birth demonstrates that Jesus came from Heaven.  Throughout his life, Jesus maintained a close and intimate relationship with God.  Jesus lived his life as God’s loyal Son.  Jesus imitated his Father in everything he did and said.  Jesus did nothing on his own initiative.  He modeled God’s character and was always faithful and obedient to God as his Father.
This leads us to what is perhaps the most important thing we can say about Jesus.  Jesus was God Incarnate or God in the Flesh.  Jesus was and is both divine and human.  We see his divinity in the fact that all of creation was under Jesus’ control.  He could heal the sick.  He could even control the wind and the storms.  We see Jesus’ humanity in the fact that he experienced everything it means to be human.  The Bible tells us that Jesus was hungry and ate food.  Jesus was thirsty and asked for a drink (on the cross).  Jesus was tired and took a nap in a boat.  Jesus was sad and grieved at the grave of a friend.  Jesus was angry when he overturned the tables in the Temple.  Jesus was even tempted by Satan when he fasted in the desert for forty days.
The proper theological view of Jesus is to say that Jesus was and is both fully divine and fully human.  If Jesus is ONLY human, then God has not come down to save us from our sins.  If Jesus is ONLY divine, then God has not entered our world.  If Jesus is BOTH divine and human, then God has entered the world of sin and evil…God has set an example for how we ought to live our lives…And God has provided the way for our sins to be forgiven and for us to have an eternal relationship with the living God.
At the beginning of Jesus’ life, the story of the Virgin Birth tells us that Jesus is divine and human.  At the end of Jesus’ life, Jesus’ words from the cross—“I am thirsty”—tell us that Jesus is divine and human…But why thirst?  There are a lot of things Jesus could have said from the cross to demonstrate his humanity.  Jesus could have described his pain…or drawn attention to the blood flowing from his hands and feet…or said “I am hungry; I am sad; or I am tired.” 
I believe it is remarkable that Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”  Remarkable, because in my recollection of the Gospels, there were two other times when Jesus said he was thirsty.

The Woman at the Well

John 4: 1 – 14…1 The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. 
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) 
10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." 
11 "Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?" 
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."  

There is a lot going on in this story.  Jesus was trying to travel from the Southern part of Israel (Judea) to the Northern part (Galilee).  Most Jewish people went the long way when making this trip, because the shorter route / the direct route went through the region known as Samaria—the home of the Samaritans.  Jesus traveled through Samaria and struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman.
This interesting little story gives us some insight into Jesus’ understanding of racial and gender issues.  Jesus crossed over racial and gender boundaries and shared the Good News of salvation with someone who had two strikes against her.  She was a Samaritan and a woman.  This woman would have been overlooked by the Jewish religious leaders.  But there is something even more important than racial and gender issues in this story… Jesus tells us the true meaning of his mission.  Jesus was born of a Virgin.  Jesus lived a sinless life.  Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons.  Why did Jesus do all this?  To provide us with the Living Water. 
A person can live without food, but no one can live without water.  Water is the source of life.  (When NASA sends robots and rovers to other planets to search for signs of life, they begin their search by searching for water.  If there is no water, then there can be no life as we know it on earth.)
Just as water is the source of our physical lives, Jesus is the source of our life with God.   Without Jesus, there can be no forgiveness of sin…Without forgiveness of sin, there can be no relationship with God…Without relationship with God, there can be no eternal life in Heaven…  God became a man and lived among us so that we might have forgiveness of sin, relationship with God and eternal life in Heaven.

The Least of These

Matthew 25: 31 – 46…31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 
34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' 
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' 
41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 
44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 
45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 
46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." 

Jesus told this parable of the sheep and the goats to his disciples right before he sent them out on what we might call the Gentile mission.  Previously, Jesus had sent his disciples to the nation of Israel.  Now, Jesus is preparing them to go out and preach to the Gentiles…There was one important thing lacking…The mission to the Gentiles could not begin until after the crucifixion and Resurrection…Ultimately, this mission to the Gentiles is what we commonly refer to as the Great Commission…All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples of all nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you, and surely I am with you always even to the end of the age…
This mission to the Gentiles is a preaching mission…but it is much more than that.  It is also a mission to serve the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the prisoner.
When Christian people serve the physical needs of the world around us, we actually do three things.  First, we obey the teachings of Jesus…Second, we imitate the example Jesus set for us…Third, we make Jesus real to people who have never heard of Jesus before…In other words, we make Jesus Incarnate—in the flesh…
The Incarnation is more than a one-time event in history.  The Incarnation happens every day, when the world sees Jesus in the way we live our lives.


One of the most popular religious affiliations in the United States of America is the group of people who call themselves, “Spiritual but not Religious.”  Of course, Spiritual but not Religious means different things to different people.  For some people it is a rejection of every organized religion.  For other people it is a mixture of every organized religion.
“Spiritual but not Religious” is more popular in the United States than in other countries…and I believe this is for good reason.  “Spiritual but not Religious” fits the American mindset better than any other nation / culture / philosophy.  In the United States of America, people prefer spirituality over religion.
Spirituality is private; Religion is public.  Spirituality is individualistic; Religion is social / corporate—in Religion, you have to learn how to forgive and get along with other people.  Spirituality is personal (to the point of being relativistic and even customizable / what works for me might not work for you); Religion has been handed down for thousands of years / hundreds of generations…
If you are coming to church in order to be more spiritual, I have some bad news for you.  The church is not a very spiritual place…Because Christianity is not spiritual.  This is the way God intended.  Christianity is not spiritual, because Christianity is Incarnational. 
God doesn’t want you to be more spiritual.  God wants you to be Incarnational!  God doesn’t want our church to be more spiritual.  God wants us to be Incarnational!

Christianity has ALWAYS had a body.  Jesus has a body, and that body literally, physically and actually died on the cross.  As Christians, you and I have a body—and it matters what we do with our bodies.  And the church IS a body—the Body of Christ.  We are called to make Jesus real for people who have never heard of Jesus and never met Jesus.