Shepherds

Some of the most interesting questions are raised during Bible study. Like this one, that came about while reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth: And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them… And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8-11).

“Why,” the question was raised, “did the angels visit shepherds?”

Why not kings? Why not the village watchmen? Why not dispatch angels to every corner of the earth with this astounding news?

Isn’t it interesting that apart from angelic visits to Jesus’ earthly parents, the only recorded angelic herald surrounding Jesus’ birth was to shepherds?

Think about that.

The first recorded use of sheep as a sacrificial offering dates all the way back to Cain and Abel. Abel was a keeper of sheep…and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering (Genesis 4:2,4). Sheep were also likely part of Noah’s offering after the flood (Genesis 8:20), and when God tested Abraham during the binding of Isaac, it was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns, that God gave to Abraham to sacrifice in place of his son (Genesis 22:13).

Generations later, God’s law dictated the use of sheep as burnt offerings (Leviticus 1:10-13), peace offerings (Leviticus 3:6-11), sin offerings (Leviticus 4:27-35; 5:1-6), and guilt offerings (Leviticus 5:14-19; 6-1-7). And it was lamb that served as the first Passover feast on the night the Israelites fled from Egypt. Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire…you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt…The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you… (Exodus 12:6-13).

It was the commemoration of this very Passover feast that Jesus celebrated with His disciples on the night before He was crucified. During that meal, Jesus set before all people a new covenant. No more would continual sacrifices be necessary to abide by God’s law; all of God’s law was being fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

The next day, Jesus would sacrifice Himself on a cross and then rise again three days later, defeating once and for all the sin, death, and devil that plague this world.

So why, on the night of Jesus’ birth, was His entry into the world heralded to shepherds? Perhaps it was to let them know that some of their services would no longer be needed. And to introduce them to a Lamb more perfect than any they would ever find within an earthly flock.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29). For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Pursued

Earlier this week as I was passing through the student union, a lady suddenly came running toward a student walking just ahead of me.

“Ma’am, ma’am!” She cried.

I stepped to the side, as startled as the student who looked up from her cell phone. As I walked by, I heard the lady say:

“I will buy you your coffee.”

Apparently the student had forgotten her wallet and was unable to purchase the coffee from the little store we were walking by. This lady had noticed, and had not just offered to help, but had literally chased the student down the hall to do so.

Several days later, I keep replaying the incident in my mind. When was the last time I chased someone down in order to be kind to them?

Do good, seek peace, and pursue it, the Psalmist wrote (Psalm 34:14). Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, Paul told Timothy (2 Timothy 2:22). Do not be overcome by evil, Paul wrote to the Romans. But overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21).

On this day 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ pursued us. He did not just casually intervene. He purposely chased us down so that He could lay down His life in our place. On this Good Friday day of remembrance, I wish you the peace and contemplation that comes with knowing that God never gives up in his pursuit of you. He has pursued you; He has overtaken you; He has laid down His life for you.

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends… I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:13,15).

Points of Music

I distinctly remember the first time I heard a bell choir.  I was at a church in southern Illinois when half a dozen ringers stepped to the second floor railing and raised their bells.  I watched, dumbfounded, as first one and then another flick of the wrist sent forth a stream of intricate notes.  Until that moment, I had never considered bells to be a musical instrument.  Bells to me were a cacophony of random sounds strung to a winter sleigh.  But here were these tiny domes pealing out a melody.  I’ve been a bells’ fan ever since.

I recently attended a concert.  The singers were good, but the highlight for me was the bells.  I sat in the darkened auditorium and smiled in anticipation as two rows of ringers walked onto the stage. I was not disappointed. In perfect order the arms came up and out and the notes began to peal.  From one end and then the other, singly, in pairs, and then together – notes chimed a ribbon of music.  How was this possible?  How was it possible for so many disconnected metal pieces to chime in such unity?  It seemed like magic.  Even thinking about it now, several days later, it seems like magic.

I understand that any band needs to work together.  There has to be teamwork.  And practice.  But the coordination of a bell choir seems to take teamwork to a whole different level.  A bell choir isn’t just blending instruments. They are the instrument.  It’s like sitting a dozen people at a piano, giving them each a single key to play, and watching them belt out Beethoven.  Each note is clearly and separately rung; there’s no hiding a mistake.  I imagine it only starts working when the ringers don’t merely read the music; they become it.

It would be easy to let Paul chime in here with 1 Corinthians 12:12.  Bell choirs seem like a custom-made analogy for the importance of individual effort and team coordination, right up there with Paul’s analogy of the Church being a body made up of many members.  Everyone has a different part. (A choir of bells all with the same pitch wouldn’t be very interesting). And everyone has to act at the right time. (Can you imagine the sound if everyone rang their bells whenever they wanted?) But the true joy of a bell choir is not the mechanical precision.  It’s the transformation from inanimate metal into something mysteriously alive.  You can talk about rhythm and tempo, pitch and melody, sharps and flats and notes. But you will never be able to capture what actually happens when dozens of bells are carried into the spotlight.  When the notes are struck, something beautiful comes into being that was not there just moments before.

We are entering into the season of bells.  Jingle bells, caroler’s bells, church bells.  Bells rung over red Salvation Army buckets and bells jingling on shopkeeper’s doors.  Many of these bells are reminiscent of daily life – rushed and discordant.  Even as we prepare for Christmas, most days feel more like clanging gongs than melodious music.  We need a Great Conductor to step in and teach us when to chime, when to remain silent, and how to rest in God’s love.

We could try to study Christmas in the same way that we could try to study a bell choir.  We could consider science, history, philosophy… but none of these can ever really capture what happens when Jesus walks into the spotlight.  Something even more beautiful than the most amazing bell choir was born into the world a little over 2000 years ago.  Out of God’s love for us, Jesus Christ came to heal the discordant pieces of our lives and to envelope us in His song. When we pause to listen, we will find that His Spirit is still chiming quietly within us. 

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1).

More than Decoration

I love my home church; it’s my local family.  But I also enjoy visiting other churches during my travels – seeing other sanctuaries, experiencing other worship styles, meeting other congregations within our extended family.

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to visit St. John’s Church just outside St. Louis, MO.  The people were welcoming and the teaching was great, but the lesson God sent home with me had to do with… are you ready for this?  The building.

My first impression was that the building looked more like a convention center than a church.  There was nothing overtly church-like about it.  The sanctuary itself was expectantly large, but the thing that struck me the most was the giant wooden cross at the front.  Even though it was the largest structure in the room, I almost didn’t notice it.  It was integrated into the framing of the room in such a way that at first glance it looked like nothing more than a supportive cross beam.  It seems like that should be more prominent, I thought.

Crosses framing a window

Crosses in the window.

I should have known right then that God had a lesson for me.

It’s easy to think of the cross as an important central feature of a church.  After all, the cross is the primary symbol of the sacrifice Jesus made for us.  It is a tangible representation of our connection back to God.  But in its original form, the cross was never just a symbol.  The cross was real.  Jesus was real.Cross in the glass.

Sometimes we hold out the cross as something separate and shiny to be given a place of prominence, and to some extent it is.  But Jesus does not want to be merely placed on a shelf to be worshipped from afar.  He could have stayed in heaven for that.  Instead, Jesus came to us, becoming fully human, so that He could live among us.  He took our sins upon Himself and nailed them to the cross so that He could live with us.  He sent the Holy Spirit so that He could live within us.  Jesus and His cross are more than decoration.  They are structurally essential.

There is nothing wrong with shiny crosses; it is good to have Christ’s cross before us.  But what’s more important is that we have Christ’s cross within us.  When others look at us, do they do a double take, suddenly recognizing the reflection of a cross?  Within our own lives, do we merely wear the cross as a decoration, or do we cling to it as our main support?

Crosses in the building.

The cross is the support beam in everything we do.

Indeed, the cross is more than a decoration.  It is functional, structural, and actionable.

Thank you, St. John’s architect, for that lesson.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Peter 3:15)

The

Here’s an interesting game to play.  Someone shout out a word… what’s the first Bible passage that springs to mind?

Perhaps someday I’ll study enough Hebrew and Greek to attempt an original language word study.  But for now, here is a word study in English.  Stick with me here, this is cool.

When I think of “The” the first passage that springs to mind is John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” Every third word is “the!”  Is this repetition important?  Probably.

Jesus is claiming that He is not just one way to know God.  Jesus is claiming He is the way.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said.  And then He continued, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Definitive, declarative statements.

This was not the only time Jesus refered to Himself in such definitive terms.  Earlier, before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:27).  And before that, when Jesus was travelling with his disciples into Caesarea-Philippi after performing many miracles in the surrounding countryside, He asked his disciples, “Who do you say I that am?”  Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 15:15-16).

Did you catch that?  The Christ, the Son of the living God.

Peter’s proclamation is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  And it is at this point in the story that an important narrative turn occurs.  From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matthew 16:21).  Jesus repeats this lesson several times (e.g, Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-20).  But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him (Mark 9:32).

Throughout the rest of the story, the disciples struggle to understand what Jesus told them.  When He was captured in the Garden of Gethsemene, they scattered.  When He was put to death, they feared for their own lives.  Even after the tomb was reported empty, they hid behind locked doors.  They knew He was the Christ, the Son of the living God.  He was the way, the truth, and the life.  He was the death and the resurrection.  More than anyone else, His disciples should have understood.  But they did not.

Until Jesus appeared to them again.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).

My Bible then says the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  I can’t help but think “glad” is a bit of an understatement, but regardless, they were finally beginning to understand what it meant that Jesus was the Christ.  All except for poor Thomas, who had missed the visit.  The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe (John 20:25).

Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:26).  Jesus showed Thomas His hands and His side and Thomas no longer disbelieved.  “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.

Here is the most fascinating part of this word study.  The disciples knew long before Jesus’ death and resurrection that He was the Christ.  But simply knowing that He was the Christ was not enough.  It took a personal encounter for them to truly understand.  And it took a personal encounter for that tiny definite article “the” to transform into an even more powerful little word.  Did you catch that transition?

Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  But like the disciples, we can know all that and still not really know Christ.  The transition happens when we declare not only that Jesus is the Lord and the God, but that He is my Lord and my God.

Jesus will not be coming to each of us in the same manner that He came to Thomas.  After 40 days of teaching His disciples, He ascended into heaven and the Bible suggests He will come again only at the end of this world.  But Jesus also promised that when He went, He would send the Holy Spirit to abide with each one of us and draw us into a personal understanding of Him.  And in this way, Jesus does appear to each one of us.  To each one of us He says, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27b).

Jesus does not want us to respond with a definite article.  He wants us to respond with a personal one.  Because Jesus is not simply the way, the truth, and the life.  He is my way, my truth, and my life.

Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28)

The Other Christian

Along one of my favorite hiking trails there is a bench that overlooks a little pond.  Sometimes there are swans there.  I’ve yet to determine whether they are naturally migrating swans or if they were deposited here, but I often like to pause on my hike and sit to watch them.  This past weekend as I approached my bench, I noticed something different: the graffiti artists had been out.  Not just with ink, but with a knife.  There were the ubiquitous carved initials and secret codes and then one that made me angrier than all the others combined.  Someone had carved into the seat the Christian fish symbol with a tiny cross in the middle.

Now I suppose a non-Christian could have done this, but my assumption is that it was a Christian.  Someone who tried his/her hand at evangelizing through destruction of property.  That’s just great.

I stewed about this for the rest of my hike.  This is precisely the kind of nonsense that leads folks to sagely quote Ghandi: I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

The Bible is pretty clear about how Christians should act: with love, goodness, gentleness, patience, kindness (Galatians 5:22-23).  We should be taking care of God’s good creation (Genesis 1:26-31).  We should be thankful for the gifts He has bestowed (Psalm 107). We should not be partaking in idiotic gestures like carving fish symbols into public property.

And we should not be publicly calling our Christian brothers and sisters idiots.

That last part, in case you were wondering, was written for me.  Because here’s another thing the Bible is pretty clear about: we should examine our own heart before we examine someone else’s. “First take the log out of your own eye,” Jesus told his followers. “and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of  your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). 

How often am I that Christian that someone is watching, thinking, wow, she certainly doesn’t act Christian?  Maybe I don’t deface property, but there are plenty of times when I’m preoccupied, self-absorbed, angry, selfish, frustrated… shall I go on?

First take the log out of your own eye, Jesus said.

I get easily frustrated when I see Christians acting “so unlike your Christ.”  But as I was trudging back to my car, it suddenly occurred to me: other Christians are not the benchmark of Christianity anymore than I am.  We are unlike our Christ.  This should not make us run from Christianity.  It should make us run to it.  In fact, the entire foundation of Christianity rests upon the recognition that we are fallen human beings.  We sin.  We do idiotic things.  We are unlike our Christ.  And this is exactly why we need Christ.  The fruit of the Spirit, Paul wrote, is love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23a).  The fruit of the Spirit.  These are not things we accomplish on our own.  These are things that Christ accomplishes within us.

The foundation of Christianity is not other Christians; it is Christ Himself. We do not come to Christianity because we want to be like other Christians; we come to Christianity so that we may become like Christ.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8b-9).

Have you observed an un-Christlike Christian lately?  Rather than getting angry, take a moment to look in the mirror.  If you’re anything like me, it will be a humbling experience.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.  Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1). 

Interesting Message

I came across an interesting sermon on the radio last night while driving in my car.  It was interesting enough that I sat there an extra five minutes to hear the end of it.  Michael Ramsden, part of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries team, was giving a message on the uniqueness of Christ in fulfilling many of the philosophical ideologies that are rooted in thinking, feeling, or doing.  Since I haven’t had a chance to write much lately, I decided to repurpose his content.  I couldn’t find a transcript of the broadcast, but truthfully, he had such an engaging presentation style that I’d recommend listening to it anyway.  If you are interested, you can listen to the message on the RZIM website.

God’s blessings on your week!

The Ending of the Easter Story

Jesus the Christ was put to death on Good Friday, but that is not the end of the story.

Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb…And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back – it was very large.  And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.  And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen; He is not here” (Mark 16:2,4-6).

That is the Easter story.  But that, too, is not the end of the story.

He [Jesus] appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me [Paul], as to one abnormally born (1 Corinthians 14-15).

Even after His death and resurrection, Jesus continued to teach his followers.  He ate with them, He met with them, and when he ascended into heaven, he promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide them (e.g., Luke 24:36-53).  For forty days after his death and resurrection, Jesus continued to lead His followers.  Then He ascended into heaven.

But even that is not the end of the story.  While they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

In other words, this story isn’t over yet.

Easter is not just an event we commemorate; it is an event we continue to live.  The miracles of Easter are as real and present today as they were 2000 years ago.  Jesus is as alive today as He was that first Easter morning.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” the angel asked the women at the tomb.  “He is not here, but has risen…” (Luke 24:5-6)

“Christ is risen!” We say on Easter morning.  “He is risen, indeed!”

Sometimes I hear people wonder what it would have been like to live during the time of Jesus.  Sometimes I even say it myself.  Perhaps we should stop wondering and look around.  Because this is still the time of Jesus.  True, we cannot see Jesus, but until His physical return, God is guiding us through the Holy Spirit. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus told His disciples.  “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth… (John 16:7,13).  Just because we do not see Him, does not mean He isn’t here.  We don’t exclaim on Easter morning that He was risen; we exclaim that He is risen.  He is risen, indeed.

Jesus’ commission to His followers is as applicable to us today as it was the day He ascended into heaven:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

This Easter season, are we merely celebrating a story we think is over?  Or have we considered the possibility that Christ is calling us to partner with Him (right now!) as He writes the rest of the story?

The Easter story, my friends, has not ended yet. 

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48).

A Good Friday Greeting

I have often wondered what the appropriate greeting for Good Friday should be.  You can’t say “Happy Good Friday” or even, “I hope you have a good Good Friday.”  Good Friday is a day to commemorate something that is definitely neither happy nor good… even when we know the rest of the story.

But I feel like there should be some kind of acknowledgement.  What does one say about Good Friday?

The answer – or at least an answer – came to me unexpectedly in the form of an email from a friend:  We should say about Good Friday the same thing we should do about Good Friday.

We should contemplate it.

So here is my Good Friday greeting to all of you:

P&C –

Peace and Contemplation –

A peaceful and contemplative Good Friday to you.

Lord, help us to remember what this day signifies.  Help us to experience your peace even as we contemplate the day that Jesus died.  What was I doing today at 9 a.m.?  At noontime?  At 3 p.m.?  Was I standing at your cross?  Was I recognizing that even here – because of here – there is peace?

It was nine in the morning when they crucified Him (Mark 15:25).

The Beginning of the Easter Story

Jesus the Christ was born on Christmas Day, but that is not the beginning of the story.

The coming of Jesus was foretold throughout the Old Testament.  The prophets announced throughout Israel’s history that a Messiah would come.  But even that is not the beginning of the story.

We could argue that the Easter Story begins with us.  After all, our sins are the reason Jesus came.  We are the ones being connecting back to God through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We are the reason for the Easter Story.  But I don’t think that is the beginning of the story either.

The need for a savior is first manifested in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve go against God’s only command.  “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die… Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 2:16-17,3:1).  We know from the passages that follow and from the intent of this serpent that this is no ordinary serpent.  This is not one of God’s good creations.  This is the Great Deceiver and the Great Tempter, masquerading as a lowly serpent.  No one but Satan would prod God’s good creation to question God’s authority, wisdom, guidance, and love.

Eve and then Adam made humankind’s biggest mistake – they listened to Satan’s whispering and went against God’s command.  Indeed, as Satan had suggested, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened to good and evil, but at a terrible cost.  Sin was unleashed into the world, and they were powerless to escape it.  They hid.  They covered themselves with leaves.  But the release of sin was not something they could erase.  It would be passed down, generation to generation.  Every generation would be just as powerless as the last to staunch the rush of sin.

Except that God made a promise – even then.  Although Satan would wield sin, it would not overcome us.  Somewhere down through the generations, an offspring would crush Satan’s head.  “You shall bruise His heel,” God told Satan.  “But He will bruise your head (Genesis 3:15b).  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22).

So we see that God’s promise came first in the Garden of Eden.  But even that is not the beginning of the story.

It is John who tells us where the Easter Story truly begins.  In the beginning, John wrote, was the Word.  And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God… the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-2,14).

Jesus was in the beginning with God!  Jesus was God!  God is the beginning of the Easter Story.  Consider for a moment what that means.

We can feel our need for the Easter Story in our own failures.  We can hear the promise of the Easter Story in the Garden of Eden and in the prophets’ proclamations.  We can witness the Easter Story in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  But we can trace the beginning of the Easter Story to only one place.  The beginning of the Easter Story is God.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

The Easter Story does not begin with us reaching out to God, or even with God becoming one of us.  It begins with God himself.  For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).

Thanks be to God.  For He is the beginning of the Easter Story.

In the beginning, God… (Genesis 1:1)