Enjoying Good Friday, and how weird that feels

IMG_1973Normally, the week before Easter, often called Holy Week, is a very busy time in my line of work. (I stuck that “often called” in there for a reason, which we’ll come back to.)

But this is a strange Easter in a strange year. Basically, all over the world, most people are sitting at home. Churches do all sorts of different things around Easter, but odds are, whatever your church usually does, they’re not doing.

As a pastor, my job both has and hasn’t changed in the past few weeks. I talk to people, I write and preach sermons, I do admin. A lot of that I can do at home. Like most people, I’m having a lot more Zoom calls than normal, and like most pastors, I’ve learned more about live streaming than I care to know. The very real crisis honestly feels distant, as the Czech Republic has done a fantastic job of flattening the curve.

But today, which is often called Good Friday, 2 days before the Sunday that is often called Easter, when Christians have historically celebrated the Resurrection of Christ, I’m not leading a Good Friday service. I’m not making sure everything is squared away for Easter Sunday, or double checking with Melissa to make sure no one’s left out of Easter dinner. All those things would be normal.

Instead, I’m sitting in my happy place: at a table in our garden, watching meat cook on the smoker, smelling charcoal and hickory, hearing my kids run around and birds chirp and normal neighborhood sounds.

This is one of my favorite things to do. But it feels weird today. Shouldn’t I be mourning over the death of Christ and my sin that made it necessary, or at least watching a Good Friday service? Maybe we should have planned one. Maybe I’ve failed to call our people to meditate on the Cross and God’s redeeming love. Maybe this is a huge missed opportunity. All of these thoughts have gone through my head in the last hour, and maybe they’re right.

Maybe.

I’m a pastor in the Reformed tradition, which is vast and varied. The stream I generally line up with has historically not made a huge deal of the church calendar. Calvin, from what I understand, didn’t preach Easter sermons and Christmas sermons. He preached whatever was next in the Bible. He was very sensitive, for very good reasons, about innovation and observing man-made traditions.

(Can we just agree not to argue over that right now, and follow me to the point.)

I’m not as hardcore on these points as Calvin. I love Advent and Christmas, and I really love preaching my tail off at Easter and singing “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today.” A pattern of observing major events like the incarnation, the cross and resurrection, and Pentecost (you forgot about that one, didn’t you) is a great way to make sure we take time to emphasize those aspects of the work of Christ.

But man, am I glad to be a Protestant today.

The Bible tells me to reflect on the priceless gift of the Lamb of God, slain for my sin. It tells me to rejoice that Christ is risen, that death no longer has mastery over him. It does not tell me I have to celebrate the Resurrection on the first Sunday following the first full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox. It does not tell me that I have to keep the Friday two days before that in any particular way. Again, these can be helpful rhythms. I’m not anti-Easter; the sermon is written and ready to go.

But my little back-and-forth with myself today has pointed me to one more reason to rejoice in the cross: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—not my proper celebrating of them—has purchased the forgiveness of my sin, brought me home to God, and secured for me all his benefits.

Am I sufficiently sober and worshipful today? No. I never have been a day in my life. Have we emphasized the story of Holy Week enough with the kids? No, though we’ve tried. Am I thinking enough about the Resurrection and not too much about the deviled eggs I’m planning to make for the first time? Almost certainly not. And that’s OK, because one thing Jesus purchased for me with his death is the freedom not to worry about those things.

Jesus’ work on the cross is complete. He has purchased for me every kindness I receive from God, from forgiveness of sin to this quiet moment with the smell of the hickory. He died so that I can receive these gifts from my Father, and not fret over whether I’m responding sincerely enough.

Tonight we’re planning to watch the Jesus Storybook Bible video on the crucifixion, then wait until Sunday to watch the one about the Resurrection. Our 3-year-old, who’s new to our family, hasn’t heard the story in all its details, so we want her to sit in the sadness and then experience the joy. I’m about to read and meditate on some hymns about the Cross. I’m also going to listen to my daughter jump on the trampoline, probably have a beer, and thank Jesus for loving me enough to give me all these good gifts. I believe it will be a good Friday.

Only One Chapter

A train ride

Imagine you’re on a two-hour train ride. In your compartment are just you and one other person, and after a while you strike up a conversation. Your fellow traveler casually mentions being part of a church. A Christian church. This intrigues you, because she’s young, apparently educated, and gives an overall impression of being a normal person. She is not what pops into your head when you think “Christian.”

So you ask a few questions, she asks you some, and the conversation is surprisingly normal. About halfway into the train ride, your seatmate reaches her stop. She says “It was nice talking to you. This is kind of weird, but I have this copy of the New Testament, and I’d like to give it to you. Just read it and see what you think.” That’s it. No hard sell, nothing creepy. She gets off the train.

After a few minutes, you decide to take a look at the book she gave you. It’s a fairly thin paperback. You open it up to the very beginning. The Gospel According to Matthew. You start reading.

The first half of Chapter 1 is basically a list of names. Kind of boring. Then there’s a story about Jesus’ parents, and finally his birth. You close your eyes for a minute, then doze off. You wake up when you hear the name of your stop, and in the rush to pack up and leave, you forget the Bible. You leave it there in the train compartment.

All you read was Matthew 1. The first chapter of the first book of the New Testament.

If you never read another word of the Bible for the rest of your life, what would you know?

After one chapter…

You would know that this is a book about Jesus.  “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

You would know that the Bible at least claims to be real history. The genealogy anchors the birth of Jesus not only in his own day, but in a long history of a certain people group in a certain time.

You would know that the Bible teaches that God is active in human history. Again, the genealogy, and also the way God intervenes supernaturally around the birth of Christ.

You would know that Jesus is the Christ. Matthew 1:16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ… Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows” (Matthew 1:16, 18).

You would know that the Bible teaches the virgin birth. Matthew 1:18 When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” This is further emphasized in the quotation from Isaiah (1:23) and in the statement that Joseph “knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son” (1:25).

You would know that the New Testament writers believed the Old Testament talks about Jesus. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet…” (Matthew 1:22).

You would know that the Bible says Jesus is divine. “ ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23).

You would know that the Bible says Jesus came to save sinners. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

 

On further reflection

If you had very good reading comprehension, the words might stick in your head, and you might keep thinking about them. Upon further reflection, you might have a few more thoughts:

The Christ was born from a family of human beings. This means that, at least according to Matthew, he is somehow both human and divine.

Jesus was descended from a royal family. Maybe that foreshadows something important about him.

Godly people can defend their rights without humiliating others. That might seem to come out of left field, but it’s exactly what happened with Joseph. His plan, before the angel visit, was neither to marry an adulterous woman nor to shame her publicly. He found a way to defend his own honor without destroying the person who (he thought) had wronged him.

Several women are mentioned in this list of Jesus’ family tree. That might surprise you if you previously thought the Bible treated women like property.

If, by chance, the New Testament you were handed had some simple study notes, you might have learned some helpful background information.

The women included in the genealogy point to some scandal. Not that the women themselves are scandalous. At worst they’re making the best of a bad situation; in some cases they’re great examples of faithfulness.

The fact that there’s literary crafting in the narrative doesn’t mean it’s not historically reliable. Skipping generations in a genealogy, for example, was a common way of giving structure and drawing attention to specific details.

 

What’s the point?

The Bible is a long and complicated book (which is a collection of a variety of smaller books). People spend their whole lives studying it, without getting at everything that’s in there. But the Bible is also refreshingly simple. You can get what you really need to get, without a master’s degree or a particular skill in understanding ancient texts.

Lots of us wish we knew the Bible better. There are great resources to help you do this. But for many of us, the best thing to do is pretty simple: Sit down and read. Take notes. Ask questions. Sit and think about things you don’t understand. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom and insight. Do all this in community with others.

When we open our Bible and read, God is speaking to us. One of the best ways for us to know him better, experience him more deeply, and protect ourselves against false ideas is simply to listen to his voice. For most of us, if we leave that first New Testament on the train, it’s not that hard to get our hands on another. Maybe even spring for the whole Bible. If we do that, once we reread Matthew 1, there are 928 more chapters waiting to teach us even more of who God is.

 

Vain the Stone

Every Easter we sing one of my favorite lines in a hymn: “Vain the stone, the watch, the seal.”

A few years ago a friend’s father died somewhat unexpectedly. The family had young kids, and our friends weren’t sure how to help them understand what it meant that Grampa was gone and wasn’t coming back. So the dad did something that wouldn’t have occurred to me: He sat with his kids after the graveside service, and they watched the entire burial happen. The casket was lowered into the hole in the ground, and the guys came with the machines and filled the hole with dirt. They tapped it down and covered it with sod. When they were finished, the ground over the grave looked just like everything else. At that point, my friend said, his kids understood what had happened. Grampa’s body was in the box, the box was in the ground, and that was done. Grampa’s soul was in heaven with God.

These little kids were able to understand that burial is final. Once a body is in the ground, that’s it.

Now, contrast this with the approach of Pilate and the Jewish leaders after the death of Jesus.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Matthew 27:62-66)

I love what Pilate says: “Go, make it as secure as you can.” Do everything you possibly can to make sure that a dead body doesn’t go anywhere. Do everything you can to make sure that a 2-ton stone doesn’t move. Do everything you can, professional soldiers with javelins and swords, to make sure a bunch of terrified fishermen who ran into the night as soon as their leader was attacked don’t come and steal his decaying body. These guys literally have one job.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal.

Fast forward to Sunday morning. The professional soldiers, having failed to keep the dead body and the 2-ton stone in place, are in trouble. So what’s the plan? A cover-up.

While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matthew 28:11-15)

I want to be at this meeting where the soldiers explain “all that had taken place.” So, boss, here’s the deal. There was an earthquake, and an angel, and we, uh, passed out, and when we woke up the stone had moved and the body was gone.

You notice what the religious leaders don’t say? “Those rascally disciples!” They know that’s not what happened here. But it’s the story they go with. So the narrative becomes:

  • The professional soldiers all fell asleep. Asleep enough that
  • The disciples snuck to the tomb, rolled the 2-ton stone away, grabbed the body, and carried it away.
  • The professional soldiers did not notice all this.

The longer you think about it, the worse of a story it is. But at Matthew’s writing, it was the official version of the events among the Jews. It still is among a lot of otherwise intelligent people. Because they have to deal with the empty tomb.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal.

Pilate couldn’t stop that body from rising, despite all the resources at his disposal. The religious leaders couldn’t stop the word from getting out that Jesus was alive, despite all the resources at their disposal. Because it had been determined from eternity past that the Son of God would become man, would live a perfect life on behalf of his people, would die for them, and would rise from the dead, having defeated death and sin and hell forever. Nothing was going to stop that.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal. Vain the schemes of the devil. Vain the lies of God’s enemies. Vain the cowardliness of the disciples. Christ had risen, and the people in charge were powerless to deny it.

This is still the case for us today. Christ is risen. You can deny it if you want, but it’s just like denying that the sun came up this morning. Your denial doesn’t change the reality.

This is bad news for God’s enemies, then and now. But it is very good news for us.

If we are in Christ, the same unstoppable power that raised him from the dead now works for us. The devil can accuse us; our own sin can cause all kinds of problems; our enemies can persecute us; death can even seem to take us out for a time. But it’s all in vain. If God is for us, who can be against us?

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal. Vain every attempt the world, the flesh, and the devil can make against God’s people. The Resurrection proves this is true. He is alive. He lives forever. And because of him, so do we.

When the wreckage washes up

This Vanity Fair piece about how Tinder is changing dating culture was disturbing, though not all that surprising. (Some offensive content at that link, but that’s kind of the point.)

My first response was to plan on sending my children of both genders into seclusion from about ages 15-35. My second was to want to punch the guys quoted in the article, and give the girls a hug.

My third, most rational response was a sense of mild encouragement. The wreckage of the sexual revolution is beginning to wash up on the shore. As the Tinder generation ages, the whole sex-without-intimacy thing will, for many, become deeply unsatisfying. It will also leave them with incredible baggage as they attempt to build marriages and families (still pretty popular among the upper-middle class). Some of them will show up in our churches, carrying this baggage. This is an opportunity. What will we do?

I was a church kid in the 90’s. “True Love Waits” was pretty much the extent of our Christian teaching on sexuality. I was fortunate to get that at home as well as at church, and don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for it. It protected me from a lot of (certainly not all) sexual sin and brokenness. But it’s no longer enough. And as we look at where we are now, in the church as well as in the world, we can see that it was never enough.

It’s not enough to assume biblical sexual ethics. To the extent that most people even know them, they reject them.

It’s not enough to tell people what not to do, because most people have already done a lot of what’s on that list.

It’s certainly not enough to say “Told you so!” when people show up at our churches with sexual baggage.

Here’s where my sense of mild encouragement comes in. The church has Good News for the sexually broken. Not just “here’s what you should do” or “here’s what you should have done,” but good news for where they are. Suffering the effects of their own sin, others’ sin, or quite likely both. Wondering if there is hope for their marriage, or their singleness, or their struggle with temptation of various kinds. Wondering if they are irreparably screwed up, damaged goods.

We have good news for these people because we are these people. We have experienced, are experiencing, the grace of God in the face of our brokenness. My sense is that increasingly this will be a felt need among our neighbors. Let’s be the kind of people who step in to the messy places, show compassion, and offer hope.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

The Pastor’s Kid

I haven’t done a book review in years. For no particular reason, here’s one now.

I’ve been looking forward to Barnabas Piper’s book The Pastor’s Kid for a few months, and got to it on vacation last week. Short review: I appreciated it, and recommend it especially to fellow pastors.

Slightly longer review: The book is worth the price (and the quick, easy read) simply to get that there are challenges inherent to being a PK. Barnabas has done us pastors a favor by sharing out of his own experience what some of those challenges are. He also offers advice on how pastors can help their kids through those challenges, maximize the benefits of being a PK, and perhaps lessen the drawbacks.

Since I work overseas and our church culture is different, I think my kids avoid some of the grief that PK’s in the States get. We haven’t seen much of people in the church bossing them around, or expecting more out of them than they do other kids. (They get MK/TCK issues instead. You’re welcome, guys!) But reading about the in-home challenges, the ways that simply having ministry parents impacts kids, was good for me. My two biggest takeaways:

1. Be your kids’ dad before you’re their pastor. Don’t look at every conversation as a way to make a spiritual point. Focus on knowing your kids, making them feel known and enjoyed. Of course, teaching your kids about the Gospel is an important part of being a dad, as Barnabas would agree, but they don’t need to ever doubt that you love being their dad first.

2. Have shared hobbies and passions with your kids, other than Bible/theology/spiritual stuff. Invite them into that if they’re interested, but show them you’re a normal human being who likes to have fun, and likes to have fun with them. This hit me especially because I have one kid I think might be into that kind of stuff, and one who might not. It would be bad for the one who’s wired more like me to have more access than the other.

The strength of the book is in pointing out the challenges PK’s face. As far as weaknesses, I would have appreciated more on the advantages. He does mention some, like learning the Bible well, but I would say the overall message of the book is that being a PK is hard. That left me feeling kind of bummed for my kids, maybe even a little guilty. More on the positives would have been nice, but that could also be me wanting Barnabas to tell a story that’s not really his so that I’ll feel better.

The book also could have benefited from more stories and illustrations. There were lots of quotes from PK’s, which showed that Barnabas had interacted with lots of them in researching and writing. Sharing more anecdotes from Barnabas’ life and others would have helped me understand his points better.

These small things aside, this really is a good book. I imagine PK’s would enjoy hearing that others’ experiences are similar, and pastors should listen to Barnabas’ perspective even when it’s hard for us to hear.

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)

Shooting the Bible in the foot

If the existence of disagreement over what the Bible teaches means we can’t be sure what the Bible teaches, then the Bible teaches nothing and commands nothing.

The Bible can’t teach us that there is one God, because some believe the OT teaches henotheism.

The Bible can’t teach us that the one God exists in three persons, because some people are modalists.

The Bible can’t teach us anything about sexual ethics, because people disagree on where the Bible draws the lines.

The Bible can’t teach us to serve the poor, because people disagree on who exactly “the poor” are and what our responsibilities to them are.

The Bible can’t teach us to love our enemies, because Jesus may or may not have existed, and may or may not have said that.

The Bible can’t teach us not to be hypocrites, because how do we know those passages weren’t added later as a dig at the Pharisees? (I just made that theory up, which is how we get a lot of smart-sounding ideas about the Bible.)

The Bible can’t teach us that the Gospel is for all sinners, including homosexuals, because there’s this one “church” in Kansas that believes they can’t be saved.

Of course, this is nonsense. Sure, there are lots of topics where there’s legitimate debate over what the Bible means. But there are also lots of topics where the Bible speaks very clearly, and there has been overwhelming consensus for centuries on what it means. When we shrug and say “who’s to say?” we’re not helping anyone. We’re just shooting the Bible in the foot.