What Easter gives us

PRAGUE 1

Each year our church has an Easter sunrise service at about the same place where the above photo was taken. (For those of you who don’t live in Prague, you have my sympathy.) We like to worship the risen Jesus at that spot because we love our city, and it’s one of the best places to get a good look at her as the sun comes up. For some of us the pictures taken from this site were one of the first things that grabbed our attention and drew us to Prague. It’s a beautiful city that has enchanted us, a city we love to call home.

We also know that for all the beauty, there is darkness in this city. Everything from government corruption to the sex trade to a lingering feeling of loneliness, of weariness that many of the people feel.  We know all that stuff isn’t the darkness itself, but symptoms of the darkness.

So we look at this city, knowing the darkness, and yet loving the beauty, especially as the sun comes up first thing in the morning. The beauty is there despite the darkness.

The Apostle Paul came to a city like ours once. It was a beautiful city with great history, yet Paul was “provoked in his spirit” as he saw that it was also filled with the worship of false gods. When he got the chance to address people of that city, this is what he said.

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

So Paul gives a fairly straightforward presentation of the Gospel: God is holy, we are created to know him, our relationship to him has been broken by our sin, he commands us to repent. But Paul goes further than that. Unlike most of our gospel presentations, but like most of the ones in the Bible, he goes all the way to the resurrection of Jesus; in fact, all the way to the final judgment.

Paul says all men should repent, because God will judge world in righteousness “by a man whom he has appointed”—Jesus the righteous one will be the Judge. Then he says that God has given assurance of this final judgment by raising Jesus from the dead.

What does that mean?

It means the Resurrection is God’s demonstration that all the promises of the Gospel are true.

It means Jesus really did have the authority to say the outlandish things he said, to call all people to come to him, to command us to repent and believe.

It means Jesus really did die, not for his own sin, but for ours.

It means God accepted Jesus’ death as a substitute for ours; that he could stand in our place.

It means we can escape God’s judgment by believing in God’s Substitute, the Man he has appointed, the Righteous One, Jesus.

It means not only that we should repent, but that we can repent, because God is willing to pardon repentant sinners who come to him by believing in Jesus.

The Resurrection is Jesus putting his cards on the table, saying “I was not bluffing. I really am the truth, the life, the way. I really do lay down my life that I might take it up again. I have defeated death by taking it on myself.”

In other words, Easter gives us a Gospel to preach. It gives us good news for the 1.2 million people in our city, many of whom still walking in darkness. It gives us something to tell them: not just that they must repent, though that’s true, but that they can repent. It lets us tell them that there’s a throne of grace to run to, with a sympathetic and kind and understanding and living high priest.

Easter takes all these things from realm of religious theory, unverifiable and unfalsifiable, and makes them unquestionable. Jesus is either dead or he’s not. If he’s dead, we can believe whatever we want, with no consequence. If he isn’t, the news is better than we could imagine.

Easter gives us a gospel to preach. It gives us good news to believe and to share. Do you believe Jesus is alive? Then that changes everything. Go share that news with your neighbors.

“Of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” He is not here. He is risen. Amen.

(this post was adapted from my sermon at this year’s Easter sunrise service)

Breaking and bruising

When Jesus knew Peter was about to deny three times that he knew who Jesus was– while Jesus was suffering to save Peter’s skin– he spoke to him very gently.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

When Peter had just been the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah– for which Jesus praised him– and then tried to talk Jesus out of doing something that was going to be very hard, because he loved Jesus and didn’t want him to suffer, Jesus was not as gentle.

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)

Many times Jesus spoke gently, reassuringly. This follows Isaiah’s prediction of how the Servant of the Lord would proclaim God’s word:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

Other times, sometimes with the same people, he could be very forceful. And we haven’t even brought up his words to the Pharisees.

Pastors, along with all Christians, should look to Jesus to learn how to treat people. He never broke a bruised reed, and neither should we. He never spoke harshly to someone who needed to be reassured, to the downcast who needed their heads lifted up. But you might say that he did bruise some reeds. He spoke strong words to those who were unbroken in their sin, who needed to be humbled so they might seek God’s grace. Sometimes that’s a pastor’s job. Sometimes that’s every Christian’s job.

Who is sufficient for these things?

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5)

The only thing there is

On Sunday, 9 June of this year I was rehearsing with the band at church when I got a text from Melissa: “Kels just called. They’re taking your mom to ICU.” Mom was in the hospital with pneumonia, but I had talked to her the day before and she sounded ok. Now her blood pressure was dangerously low. By that night they had her on a ventilator, and we decided I needed to fly to Georgia.

As I lay down for a couple hours of fitful sleep, some words played on a loop in my head. “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” I’m not sure I’d read those words on a page in 10 years or more.

When I was in college I spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. I did some in seminary and afterward too. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t do much memorization anymore, though I have a big stack of index cards on my desk. But that day, while on a long flight not knowing whether my mom would be alive when I got off the plane, lots and lots of Bible verses came to mind, many of which I had memorized a dozen years ago or more.

In those moments, there was no clever tweet, no episode of Arrested Development, not even a John Piper sermon that kept me sane. Only God’s word could do it.

Mom rallied. After two weeks I came home to Prague. I had a wedding to prepare for the week I arrived. Then I spent a week clearing off my desk, and planned to start all my regular meetings back the next week.

Except that at the end of desk-clearing week, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and our old life ended, and a new life started.

We have had 9 or 10 hospital stays of varying length. Our boys have been with lots of different people and watched more tv (and gotten more care packages) than usual. Most of our test results have been good, though the waiting never gets any easier. E has gone under general anesthesia six times. And we have stayed sane. I attribute this mostly to Scripture and prayer.

I certainly don’t mean we get up early every day for a long and substantial quiet time. It would be better if we did, but we don’t. I do mean we cry out frequently, and we remind ourselves of what we know to be true: not the vague assurance that everything will be ok (it might not, not the way we want it to be), but the actual promises God makes to us. I mean our friends copy and paste from their devotional reading and remind us. Like the IV that gives Eliza the fluids and nutrition she needs, God works by his Word and Spirit to keep us.

On Eliza’s first night in ICU after her surgery the wheels were coming off for me. There was a point where they wouldn’t let us in and we didn’t know what was happening. It turned out not to be a problem, but it was the most scared I’ve ever been. Then her numbers just weren’t as stable as they had been through the afternoon, and the stress of staring at them was driving me up a wall. I went outside and paced back and forth in the cool night air, reciting Psalm 46 out loud over and over. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The Lord of armies is with us.

That was enough to calm me down enough for that hour. Nothing else was working. I memorized that psalm when I was in seminary, and however long it took has paid off richly in the last three months.

God is always so eager to speak to us, to reassure us, to give us a firm foundation to put our feet on. His Word is so rich, so deep, so powerful and effective. And we are– I am– so eager to run to cheap things like the iPad I’m writing this on for fun.

I am 20 years older than I was in June. I hope some of the changes last. I still like to zone out plenty, but I have less patience with trivial and more desire for real. I have less energy, so I think hard about what will sap it and what will increase it. I want to pick up that stack of index cards again.

Please run to God’s Word. Do it when it feels good and when it doesn’t. When the earth beneath your feet gives way, his truth is all you have to stand on. It’s the only thing there is. It is sweet, solid ground.

Hating evil without being hateful

Zion hears and is glad,
and the daughters of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O LORD.
For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.
O you who love the LORD, hate evil!
He preserves the lives of his saints;
he delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
(Psalm 97:8-10 ESV)

God’s people are supposed to love what is good and hate what is evil. We’re to rejoice at God’s righteous judgments, including his judgment against sin.

God’s people are also supposed to be marked by our love, by our eagerness to forgive, by our mercy toward sinner and victim alike. We’re to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (and, by implication, for those who are neutral toward us as well).

So there has to be a way to hate evil without being hateful.

To be sure, we will at times be misunderstood. There are some opinions you cannot hold without being called hateful, no matter how nice you are. That fact tempts us not to hate evil, or at least to change the subject whenever possible. But then we’re not being faithful, just like we’re not being faithful when we demonize those we’re supposed to pray for. If we only stand up for socially acceptable truths, our faith isn’t worth much.

We must hate evil. Hate it. We must not be hateful toward people created in God’s image.

As in so many things, I suspect the key to getting this right has to do with being amazed that God would save sinners like us. A sinner like me.

“This man is not from God, for ________”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
(John 9:16)

Jesus has just healed a man who had been blind his whole life. But, as is so often the case, the Pharisees aren’t happy. This time it’s because he’s healed on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees had lots of rules about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. We’re not talking about biblical rules here, God’s rules– we’re talking extra rules added to make double-sure the people didn’t break God’s rules. Healing was work, Jesus healed on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus worked on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus doesn’t keep the Sabbath, therefore Jesus isn’t from God.

Problem: the Pharisees are wrong. Not wrong because Jesus doesn’t care about the Sabbath. Wrong because their interpretation of the Sabbath isn’t the same as God’s interpretation. Theological error leading to spiritual abuse of God’s people, and worse, rejection of God’s Son.

We do this too: write people off because they don’t check all the boxes we think they should.

  • “This man is not from God, for he’s not a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he is a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he’s in favor of female deacons.”
  • “This man is not from God, for his church has a steeple and he wears a robe.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he wears product in his hair and preaches on a screen.”

Of course, any time the Pharisees criticized Jesus they were wrong. That’s not the case with us– we can have entirely legitimate critiques of pretty much anybody. There are good times, good reasons and good forums to confront or debate on those critiques. When we’re deciding who to work with, who to read or listen to, who to recommend, these things matter.

But we should remember: we have our own issues too. Chances are we’re actually wrong on some of the issues we’re passionate about, and most of the people on the other side are doing good work for the Kingdom. Remember how the Pharisees missed the boat entirely, and don’t miss God’s work through people who think and work differently.

Why the cross is loving

In worship we sing a lot of songs about the cross. We call it “wondrous” and “mighty”. We sing about how it’s powerful, how it cleanses us, how it displays God’s amazing love.

This is all true. But it’s good to stop and think: Why?

The cross was an instrument of torture and death. When we sing about Jesus’ death, we’re celebrating the wrongful execution of an innocent man. Why?

We sing about how cross shows God’s love. Why?

We sing about how the cross means we’re healed and forgiven. Why?

Even some non-Christians are inspired by Jesus’ example of innocent suffering. But why? Jesus was accused of blasphemy, that’s what he was executed for. Was he really a blasphemer? Or is it particularly virtuous to let yourself be executed when you haven’t done anything wrong? Why?

Why was the cross loving? To adapt an illustration from (I think) D.A. Carson, if I ran onto the Charles Bridge and announced “I love you all! And I’m going to prove how much!”, then jumped into the Vltava, nobody would be amazed at my act of selfless love.

The words we use are so familiar that we need to remind ourselves what they mean. There’s a reason Jesus’ death is good, a reason it’s loving, a reason it’s beautiful. Isaiah tells us:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Jesu’ death was beautiful and loving and good because it was for us in a very specific way: He was found guilty of our sin, took the punishment we deserve. He bore our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities.

He did not lay down his life to make a general point about passive resistance, or to express the truism that love conquers evil. His love did conquer evil. It conquered evil in a specific way: by satisfying perfect justice. Blood was shed to atone for sin.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” The guilt is ours. And yet, “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” So when he died, our debt was paid. The breach between God and man was closed.

This “worked” because he had no transgressions of his own for which to be pierced, no iniquities of his own for which to be crushed. He was a substitute. He stood in our place, taking the punishment that by all rights was ours. He took the poison cup out of our hand and drained it to the dregs.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is how God showed his love for the world: by putting his Son to death. So that whoever comes to Christ in faith has death swallowed up in victory. This is why the cross is loving: because Jesus takes our punishment on himself. He opens the door for us.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” His chastisement has brought us peace. By his wounds we are healed.

Love and the Law

Jesus in the gospel of Matthew:

 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
(Matthew 22:36-40)

Paul in his letter to the Romans:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
(Romans 13:8-10)

I have occasionally heard Christians say something like “Keeping the Law doesn’t matter; what matters is loving people.” I don’t think that’s what Jesus and Paul mean here. If they did, it’s unlikely Jesus would say this earlier in Matthew’s gospel:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:17-20)

Neither Jesus nor Paul thought the Law was overbearing or unnecessary. So when they say that loving God and neighbor is the fulfillment of the Law, I think they mean that “Love God and love your neighbor” is an accurate summary of the Law; it expresses the heart behind the Law.

Does this render the Old Testament law unnecessary? Not at all.

In a perfect world filled with perfect people, God could say “love me, and love one another,” and that would work. But we’re sinful people living in a broken world, so that isn’t enough. We need to know how to love God; we need to be told how to love one another. That’s what the Law does. It describes exactly what God expects from his people. And since his people are sinful, it graciously gives provisions for how we repent when we fail to keep his law.

Another dimension to the Law: One feature of our sinfulness is that we tend to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. So rather than leave it at “love God and love one another,” knowing that we might well respond like the rich young ruler and say “All these I have kept from my youth,” God shows us how high the bar is. You say you love me? Have you ever taken my name in vain? Have you kept a weekly Sabbath of rest and worship for your entire life? You say you love others? Have you ever told a lie about someone else? Have you ever been jealous of someone else’s property?  The Law shows that we can’t keep the Law. It makes us want to look for a Savior. That’s by design.

Far from relaxing the Law to a broad we could claim to have kept, Jesus and Paul are showing us what the Law is about. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbor. We can’t do either of those, which is why Jesus came. His life and death covers over our failures, and frees us to pursue obedience with a renewed mind and heart.

Never, no never, no never.

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
(John 6:37)

When Jesus says “I will never cast out”, he uses a double negative. If you want to be fancy (and why wouldn’t you?), it’s οὐ μή ἐκβάλω ἔξω: something like “Not not I will cast out.” In English this is bad grammar; in Greek it’s for emphasis. (Also in Czech, for what that’s worth.) In fact, it’s pretty much the strongest negation available in Greek.

The English phrasing I like the most for this idea is at the end of the hymn “How Firm A Foundation”:

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes!
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

That’s what Jesus is saying here. He will never, no never, no never cast out the one who comes to him in faith. There is no circumstance under which he will reject those who trust in him. I’m not saved by how well I hold onto Jesus– not so well!– but by how well Jesus holds onto me. And he is, as my daughter’s name means, “God of the oath”– the One who always keeps his promises.

So when I’m at my worst, selfish and self-absorbed, seeking my own little kingdom at the expense of everyone else, there Jesus is: holding onto me. Not casting me out. That’s very good news.

Jesus isn’t a jerk, but sometimes he’s awkward.

In John 4 Jesus is having a perfectly nice conversation with a Samaritan woman. By the standards of the day he’s being nice to talk to her in the first place, her being a woman and a Samaritan and all (v. 9). And he gives her a beautiful picture of the Gospel:

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (4:13-14)

She’s sold. She wants this water. She asks for it. Then Jesus makes it awkward.

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (4:16-18)

Now this isn’t Jesus having a little faux pas, like when my dental hygienist apologized for hurting me and I said “That’s ok, if you came to me for marriage counseling I’d probably make you cry,” and she said “You’re probably right. I went through a divorce a couple years ago…” It wasn’t like that at all, because Jesus isn’t a blabbering fool like me. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows this woman has a particular sin pattern, and right at the point where she seems ready to believe his message, he baits her and brings it right out into the open.

In the process of sharing the Gospel, Jesus pointed directly to someone’s obvious, external, sexual sin.

Can you imagine what we’d say if we heard someone preaching the Gospel like this? We’d call him a fundamentalist, or at least a jerk. We’d say he wasn’t being missional, or incarnational, or sensitive. We all know that kind of preaching is no good anymore.

But Jesus isn’t a jerk, and he went there.

My point is certainly not that we should go around constantly pointing fingers at people’s external sins. There were plenty of times Jesus didn’t do this. Also there’s the whole omniscience thing, and the fact that he knew things about this woman she didn’t know about herself. And we can be certain that what he did here was out of love, out of a desire for this woman’s good, not a desire to shame or humiliate her.

But Jesus’ love is often very different from our culture’s view of love. In the case of this woman, the rest of the conversation shows she’s very willing to talk about spiritual things, but always wanting to keep it on the level of the theoretical. So he shows his love for her by poking that bubble. He makes it personal, brings it down to earth. “You’re a sinner, and you need a Savior.”

We cannot be more loving than Jesus. We can’t be kinder or wiser or more sensitive or more missional than he was. And yet, sometimes he was quite abrupt, even awkward. (As we see here, it wasn’t always with conservative religious types.) We don’t have the exhaustive knowledge or wisdom he does, but surely there are times when we should speak with that same kind of boldness.

“Behold, the Lamb of God”

There are a lot of ways to look at the atonement and how it works. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis speaks of different “theories” of the atonement and sort of brushes the differences under the rug– the point, he says, is that we are saved by Jesus’ death, not how we are saved by his death.

Many of the ways people speak about the atonement are absolutely true. Jesus did die as an example of self-sacrificing love. His death did disarm the powers of darkness. His suffering does show that he can identify with all all those who suffer unjustly in this world. But at the heart of the atonement is the idea of substitution: Jesus stands in our place, receiving the punishment we deserve from God for our sin. (This is actually what makes all the other views make sense, but that’s for another day.)

As an illustration of this point, take John the Baptist’s first words when Jesus first appears on the scene:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John 1:29

The phrase “Lamb of God,” to all John’s Jewish hearers, would have brought to mind a very specific set of ideas: The lambs offered in the sacrificial system were a substitute offering. The priest would lay his hands on the animal, symbolically transferring guilt from God’s people to the lamb. Then the lamb was slaughtered, its blood poured out, to demonstrate God’s wrath against sin. The people were then counted innocent, because blood had been shed on their behalf. Substitution. Imputation of guilt, and therefore innocence. Propitiation (the removal of wrath). All these ideas are wrapped up in that little phrase.

Penal substitution is not the only thing there is to say about the atonement. But if it’s not central to what Jesus accomplished on the cross, then the title “Lamb of God” is meaningless.

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