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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

He is Risen!

    Good Friday. The crucifixion. The most intense suffering the world has ever seen. Jesus, God the Son, rejected, humiliated, tortured, executed in the most excruciating way possible. The greatest agony of all—separation from God the Father. Completely cut off. Abandoned, forsaken (Matthew 27:46). Two who had been in perfect, intimate, inseparable fellowship for all eternity are now torn apart.

    This is beyond my comprehension, but I get a vague glimpse of it in this world. The sorrow that I feel when I lose a friendship to a foolish argument, or when one of us moves too far away, or when a loved one dies. Experts say the most stressful event a human being can go through is the death of his or her child. It brings intense, intolerable pain. But that’s only a shadow of the grief of God the Father and His Child on that Good Friday.

    And then came Easter Sunday. Just as the first Good Friday witnessed the greatest suffering ever, so the first Easter announced God’s greatest triumph over all suffering.

    He is risen!

    How can I ever say this without experiencing the deepest reverence, the ultimate joy, the humble awe that God would demonstrate His complete mastery over all of our trials and afflictions by raising Jesus from the dead?

    He is risen!

    I’ve heard it so many times that I seldom appreciate the power behind those words. We evangelicals don’t wait until Easter to remember Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. We bring it to mind all year long. It becomes almost commonplace, everyday, ordinary. I forget the wonder of knowing that death, the ultimate in suffering, is defeated. And so I forget the consequence—God has the power to defeat the suffering in my life.

    Not that I’ll never hurt again. Not that my heart will never break again. Not that I’ll go through life with a smile plastered on my face as I deny the reality of the misery in this world.

    One particular aspect of God’s triumph over suffering is often stressed in the New Testament. Jesus’ resurrection has ended the pain of the separation between God and us. The curtain in the temple has been torn in two (Matthew 27:51).

    From what I understand of salvation in the Old Testament, it was based on faith, as in the New (Romans chapter 4). But the Holy Spirit wasn’t given to an individual permanently, like He is now. He was with a person, on the outside, not within the person. Even after being saved, someone could be alienated from God in the sense that His Spirit could leave them.

    That changed with the resurrection. Since that momentous event, when we become Christians by grace through faith, the Holy Spirit comes to reside within us as a guarantee of our future life with God in heaven (Ephesians 1:13-14). He will never leave us. We will never again be estranged from Him.

    “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

    We can never experience the rupture in our relationship with God that Jesus Himself went through. The result is that even in “all these things,” in trouble and hardship and persecution and famine and nakedness and the threat of death, we can be more than conquerors. With His continual presence, with His constant power, we can know something of God’s victory over pain and suffering as He confirmed it in the resurrection.

    Occasionally, this comes in the form of relief from the source of the ordeal—an illness or injury healed, a financial need met, or a relationship restored. But even when the physical affliction continues, we have His spiritual resources to strengthen us: His love, His joy, His peace, His patience, His kindness, His goodness, His faithfulness, His gentleness, His enabling us to exercise self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

    “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). This is a picture of the complete, total, absolute lack of all food whatsoever. Guaranteed starvation. And an expression of extreme faith by one who started out questioning and complaining: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2).

    Skeptics ask how we can believe in a good God in the midst of the trials and sorrows of this life. As I grow in my faith, as my relationship with Him deepens, as I get a little closer to understanding the enormity of what He’s done through Christ’s death and resurrection, I marvel over a different question: Why should this most perfect, most powerful, absolutely free God even care about me, much less make the greatest sacrifice possible so that I can have a relationship with Him?

    In comparison to that and to the consequences that it brings, the worst trouble imaginable is hardly worth mentioning. Not that the suffering is so trivial, but that this relationship with God is so very great.

    Until I can better grasp that, I will wallow in misery and self-pity. I will view my life from the world’s perspective and feel disappointed, cheated, bitter, angry. I will be unable to honestly say with Habakkuk, in spite of the difficulties of the moment, “I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

    Even as I write this, there’s that voice in my head that magnifies the physical and emotional pain and minimizes His presence. But Jesus is drawing me nearer to the faith of Habakkuk as I journey through this life in inseparable, unbreakable, eternal fellowship with the good, kind, gracious, generous, loving God of the universe because . . .

    He is risen!

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Crucifixion

    Hearing the gospel for the first time as a teenager. No one’s good enough to please God, to deserve His favor, to earn a place in heaven on their own. It’s a radio program that I’ve stumbled across unintentionally. I certainly wouldn’t be seeking it out. The DJ plays current hits, applying certain themes to Jesus. His tender heart. His willingness to carry our burdens. His peace in our turmoil. That’s the part that gets me.

    Then comes the catch. He loves, He cares about every one of us, but there’s this separation between us. It’s called sin. No matter how hard I try, no matter how good I am, I will always fall so far short of the holiness of God that I cannot reach Him on my own. Without some kind of outside intervention, I’m headed for hell.

    I’m skeptical and offended. I’m not such a bad person. I am so much better than so many other people. Who does this preacher think he is, telling me I’m not good enough to go to heaven?

    But I listen. I tune in each week to hear the message again. And again. I like this Jesus who loves so deeply, so selflessly, so far beyond what any human being is capable of. For the next several months I weigh the arguments, consider the options. My thinking starts with “If God is who I think He is, then . . .”

    Then how perfect would He be? Absolutely perfect. Then how good would I have to be to satisfy Him? That’s a tougher question. Better than Hitler? That’s not too hard. Better than my best friend? Got that one beat. She misbehaves more than I do. But the evangelist insists that no matter how good I am compared to others, I can never be good enough for God.

    I don’t want this to be true. I don’t want to be humiliated like that. I’m good at lots of things. School, athletics, puzzles and games. If I set my mind on something, I can do it well. Better than just about anyone else that I know. Surely if I tried hard enough, I could earn God’s favor.

    But the preacher makes so much sense. If God is who I think He is, then He couldn’t simply accept me unless I’m morally perfect. I may be good, but I’m not that good. If God is who the DJ says He is, then He’s so loving and kind and compassionate that He would take the initiative to reach down to me since I’m unable to reach up to Him. If sin separates me from Him so completely and yet He loves me so dearly, then He would pay any price to make it possible for me to come to Him.

    And the only price that would be high enough would be the life of a perfect, completely innocent human being. That would be the most valuable thing in the universe. But the only way any human being could be perfect and completely innocent would be if He was also God. God the Son. Jesus. As I ponder it, I realize that it all makes sense. Eventually letting go of my pride as the conviction hits—yes, I believe. I start reading my Bible and going to church.

    A few months later, a terrifying thought strikes out of nowhere. My faith depends entirely on that little “if.” If God is who I think He is. I’ve never doubted that. I’ve never questioned His existence, His character. Why not? What reason do I have to believe that He is, and that He is who He says He is? None.

    I stumble around in this agony of doubt, seeing no way out, trying to push it from my mind, trying to work up enough faith to overcome it, unwilling to express any of it to my new Christian friends for fear of rejection. I keep reading my Bible and going to church in an attempt to stifle it, to avoid it, to find my way through it.

    Then I come to Psalm 22 in my daily Bible reading. Verse 1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Isn’t that what Jesus said on the cross (Matthew 27:46)?

    Verses 6 though 8: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’” That’s exactly what happened to Jesus in Matthew 27:39-44.

    Verses 14 and 15 could be a description of the effects of crucifixion: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.”

    Then the most amazing prophecy: “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (verse 18). John 19:23-24: “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. ‘Let’s not tear it,’ they said to one another. ‘Let’s decide by lot who will get it.’”

    How can this be? How can David, writing many centuries before Jesus was born, describe in one Psalm so many aspects of the day we call Good Friday? It’s not possible. It’s not humanly possible.

    My faith is restored. Only God, the God I’ve grown up believing in, the God who reveals Himself in the Bible, could orchestrate such precise fulfillment of prophecy.

    All this happened to me years ago. Since that time, I’ve learned about many other prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in the New. Faith doesn’t mean irrational belief in something that I know can’t be true. It doesn’t mean psyching myself up to believe when the doubts creep in. God didn’t give me a brain so I could turn it off when it comes to trusting in Him.

    Every year on Good Friday I celebrate the good God who reached down to me because I was incapable of reaching up to Him, who paid the highest possible price in order to bridge the great gulf between us, who saved me from an eternity of torment in hell. The One who led me to that radio program and to Psalm 22, who provided a solid foundation for my faith just when I needed it.