A Story to Live By

Kathy and I have been thinking a lot about maps recently. The other day, I was trying to figure out how to get from Fithian, Illinois to San Antonio, Texas through Abilene, Kansas. For the life of me, I could not close my eyes and remember where in the world Abilene, Kansas could be! I had to look it up on a map.

I have a friend who used to have a huge wall map of the world sitting in his breakfast area. world-mapI have been thinking a lot about that map because we’ve been thinking about framing a map of the world for one of our Sunday School Class rooms. Two weeks ago, I was in a mission meeting listening to a report about world missions. I was amazed at how many places there were in the world that I could not close my eyes and imagine where they are!

Without some idea of where you are and where it is you are going, it is really hard to plan a trip. The same thing is true of life. Unless we have some idea of where we are and of where we intend to go in life, we have a lot of trouble getting anywhere. One problem in our world is that a lot of the old road maps for life have changed, and people have a hard idea formulating any idea of who they are, what they were created to be, what changes are needed to be who they were intended to be, and how to get there.

Many people in our culture have a sense of rootlessness. That is to say, they live day in and day out acting on the impulses of the moment. They do not feel particularly connected to the past of their families, communities, our nation, or our culture. They are making up life as they go along. The result is often misery.

The Importance of Scripture.

Our text is from Second Timothy. This is one of Paul’s last letters, if not his last letter. He wrote it from captivity, probably in Rome (2 Tim. 1:8). The letter is to Timothy, his “son in Christ,” protégé, and assistant (See, 1:2). imagesIn it, Paul gives Timothy the best advice he can, knowing that it may be the last advice he can give to him. Here is a part of what he says:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:10-17).

Prayer: Word of God: This morning we come to a teaching that is at the center of our faith—the authority of your Word and its importance in our lives. Come by the power of your Holy Spirit that we might hunger for the wisdom only you can give. In Your Name we pray, Amen.

A Story that Leads to Christ

Last week in this blog, we visited about worship and about the Jewish temple. This week, we are visiting about another aspect of Jewish culture that is just as important to Christianity and to us—the fact that Jews and Christians are both “People of the Book.” When the Jews were taken into captivity for the second time, this time in Babylon, the temple was destroyed. In any case, it would have been a trip of hundreds of miles to visit Jerusalem, a trip no captive slave could possibly take. Therefore, the Jewish people had to maintain their heritage without the aid of temple worship. It is at this time that the Jews began to create synagogues, diligently study scripture, and compile commentaries on their Scripture. Their worship, which could not include Temple sacrifices, became centered on Scripture.

When we teach one year through the Bible studies, one thing that amazes first time readers is the extent to which the first five books of the Old Testament, what the Jews call the “Torah” or “Law,” aren’t law at all. They are the story of the history of the Jewish people up until their entry into the Promised Land. The story Scripture tells continues right up until the people return from captivity. All this time, the prophets were writing and so were the wise men. By the time it was all over, the Jews had a scripture almost identical to our Old Testament containing their national story, their hymns and songs, their wisdom teachings, and the words of those who warned them against disobedience to God. In those writings was embedded the idea of a Messiah, a Savior who would come to free them from captivity and bring them into a time of renewal.

When the early Christians read the Old Testament, they immediately began to see in the story of the Old Testament and in all of its teachings a foreshadowing of Christ. They saw Jesus as the one who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). They saw in Jesus the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Isaiah 53). The life, death and resurrection of Jesus made sense of the human condition and of God’s intention for human life. The same thing is true today. The Bible, the written Word of God, has a purpose, and its first purpose is to lead us to Christ, to the Word of God in human form. We do not primarily read our Bibles for head knowledge, but to have a heart relationship with God. The first and most important role of Scripture is to lead us to God and to Christ.

A Story that Leads to Self-Understanding.

We find in the story the Bible tells a way of making sense of our personal story, the story of our family and friends, and the story of our world. It is a story of a people created in God’s image, but fallen and prone to err. It is the story of God’s love for every human being. It is the story of God sending his Son to free us from the past, and give us new life. It is a story that can, as Paul says, make us “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). The power of the Bible is such that it can lead us to God and lead us to behave and be changed into more Godly people.

Paul goes on to say that the Scriptures are useful for teaching and for rebuke (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, an important purpose of reading the Bible is to allow us and cause us to come to a better self-understanding. The Bible leads us to Christ, but it also exposes our need for Christ by exposing who we really are. And, of course, when it does this we learn that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory God intended for us (Romans 3:23).

When I was younger I taught marksmanship and archery for a while. In teaching archery, I learned an important fact. Bent arrows do not fly straight. Each early summer when the counselors got to camp, we would look at last year’s arrows, some of which had gotten damp and warped. (This is before composite and aluminum arrows.) We threw them away because no one could shoot a crooked arrow straight.

This is theologically interesting.imgres One Old Testament word for sin connotes an arrow that has gone astray and missed the mark. [1] It is as if our lives are like arrows fired by our parents and God. Unfortunately, we are crooked arrows. We are all a bit selfish and self-centered. We are all a bit bent morally and spiritually.

A Word that Leads to Correction and New Life

Worse yet (and to change metaphors), all of us have bad sights. We all aim our lives more or less away from God’s perfect intention for us that we live lives of wisdom and love. The result is that we all like sheep, go astray (Isaiah 53:6). Therefore, we all need a bit of rebuking and correcting. In a word, we need to get back on the straight road.

I am not a very good shot, and I don’t know a lot about guns. Recently I have been trying to learn to shoot. When you purchase a new weapon, you have to see if the sights are correct. If the sites are not correct, you won’t hit the target. You also have to learn to aim the weapon properly. If you do not aim at the target, you won’t hit it. Getting your sights right and getting your aim corrected are really important if you want to learn to shoot well.

Every day, I read the Bible. It is a rare week when I do not feel myself condemned by some portion of Scripture I am reading. I don’t always like this aspect of reading the Bible, but I do think it is good for me because it leads to correction. You can only read so long about the need for wise speech before you begin to speak more wisely. You can only read so often about the importance of hard work before you begin to work harder. You can only read so often about saving money before you start saving money. You can only read so long about loving others before you begin to love others.

Those in Memphis who have been in Disciple Bible studies, and more recently in the new discipling study Kathy and I are leading, know that God has been working on my heart concerning discipling people and changing the emphasis of our Bible studies. We do not primarily read our Bibles to gain new information. We read them to correct our vision and attain a new kind of life characterized by wisdom and love—God’s wisdom and love. What is important is not so much how much Bible do I know, but how much Bible am I putting to work in my life. The big question is, “Am I being corrected and living a new, different, healthier, less self-centered, less selfish, less broken, less sinful life?”

A Word that Leads to Good Works.

I have been working our way through one single sentence of Paul. Paul says that “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, for rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (I Tim. 3:16-17). Those two little words, “so that” mean that God inspired Scripture, he allows it to teach us, rebuke is, correct us, and train us for a purpose. This purpose is that we are properly equipped for every good work.

This summer, I plan on doing some hiking. My plan was to put on my old running shoes and hike. The person with whom I am going hiking pointed out to me that this was a bad idea. Running shoes lack lateral support and are built for short exercise periods, not hours and hours of walking day after day. He told me I needed new equipment if I want to hike with him. The fact is most work requires some kind of equipment. One important purpose of the Bible is to equip us for the work and life God has for us.

In Ephesians, Paul says the following:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We are not saved by our works, that is, by doing good things; however, we were saved for good works. God has a plan to undo all the sin and all the violence and all the greed and all the misplaced passion in the world. He has the idea that people need to be respected, loved, saved from darkness, allowed to lived better lives, converted from sin, taught to live joyfully and healthily.

God saved us all right. But, let’s think back a bit: someone communicated God’s love to us. Someone shared the Gospel. Someone treated us with dignity. Someone helped us up when we were down. Someone shared an insight that helped us solve a problem. Someone invited us to church, or youth group, our Bible study, or an AA group. Someone did something when God saved us.

There is a movie I like called Pay It Forward. [2] It is the story of a young man named Trevor who has a terrible life. His mother and father are both dysfunctional. One day in class his teacher challenges them to do something to change the world. A few days later, Trevor decides to do something big for three people who really need it, with the understanding that each will pay it forward with three good deeds of their own. In Trevor’s vision, the whole world will be changed for the better as people pay good deeds forward.

It so happens and Trevor and God have the same idea. God saved us from our brokenness, and in response, he desires us to pay it forward.


Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] One of the many words for sin connotes missing the mark, as if an arrow missed its intended target. This is not the only connotation, for there are many Hebrew words used to connote sin. If the target of life is to live wisely in community with others, then sin is anything we do to miss this target of life.

[2] Leslie Dixon wr., based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, Pay it Forward dir. by Mimi Leder, starring Keven Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment (Warner Brothers Pictures, October 20, 2000).

A Life of Constant Worship

For a long, long time, I’ve wanted to preach a sermon on worship, which I have done for the past two weeks at Advent Presbyterian Church at each pf our campuses. In this Blog, I want to center on why worship is essential to the wise life. All over America churches are struggling with worship attendance. There are a lot of reasons for this, but at the center of the problem is the notion that worship is something optional. If there is a God, it cannot be optional, because when we cease worshiping, we eventually cease recognizing that there is a wisdom greater than ours. Soon, as Paul puts it in Romans, “thinking ourselves wise, we become fools” (Romans 1:22).

I remember a day when I was in college sitting on the grass on the commons at Trinity University. imgresA group of freshmen were watching an anti-war demonstration and talking. Our conversation drifted to the subject of chapel and church attendance. A friend of mine from Oklahoma said, “I just don’t need to go to church. I can worship God anywhere.” We all agreed. Within about a year, we were all in various stages of losing our Christian faith—and none of us were behaving well at all. It was only a number of years later, after some suffering, that I realized how important worship and the Christian community are.

Worship is important to wise living; but to understand how and why, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what worship is and is not. Two weeks ago, was Palm Sunday. We thought and meditated about the cross. Last week was Easter. We thought and meditated about the resurrection. We spoke about how the lives of the apostles and disciples of Jesus were changed by those twin events. In the cross, we see the Amazing Love of God, a love so great it would give anything, even life itself, for the Beloved. In the resurrection, we see the victory of God’s Amazing Love over death.

images-2All love evokes a response. Christians have always seen worship not as a duty, but a response to God’s Amazing Love. True worship is a response to God’s love. As we respond to God’s love in worship, we ground ourselves in the source of all true wisdom and all self-giving love–a wisdom greater than natural wisdom and a love greater than natural love.

A Life of Christ-Formed Worship.

To guide our meditation, I have chosen a passage from First Peter. First Peter is one of what are called “the Catholic Epistles.” [1] The Apostle Peter wrote it to congregations in Asia Minor, probably from Rome, near the end of his life (I Peter 1:1). In this letter, Peter gives mature advice to congregations he helped plant and over which he had authority concerning essential parts of the Christian life. In this particular passage, he talks about the Christian life, but what he says is entirely relevant to the subject of worship:

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (I Peter 4:4-10).

Place Centered Worship.

In this is a passage, it is evident that the writer was a Jew. Peter begins by speaking of Jesus as a “living stone” (I Peter 2:4). He speaks of Christians being built into a spiritual house (2:5). He speaks of a precious stone being laid in Zion (2:6). He speaks of Christians as a “royal priesthood” (2:9). In all of this, Peter is recalling Israel and its history.

In the ancient world temples were built of stone. Mt. Zion was the place where the Temple of the Jews was built. The Temple was manned by priesthood, a special group of people called out of ordinary living to serve the God of Israel at the Temple in Jerusalem.

When Moses led the people out of captivity, he instituted a form of what we might call “Place-Centered Worship.” (Exodus 25-40) Worship was to be in the Tabernacle, a tent designed to be the place where the God of Israel was present in a special way. Aaron and the Levites were called out of the tribes of Israel and given special responsibility to supervise the worship of the Jewish people. The Tabernacle traveled with the Jews, and they believed that God was present there in a special way.

4.The_16Once Solomon became king, he built a Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the successor to the Tabernacle. No longer did the God of Israel travel around present in a special tent. Now, God was especially present in his Temple on Mt. Zion, in Jerusalem. Therefore, Jews who wanted to worship their God or make a sacrifice to their God needed to travel to Jerusalem, the place God chose for his dwelling (See, Deuteronomy 12:5).

When the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, they rebuilt the temple and reinstituted the form of worship they had before they left (See, Haggai, Zechariah, etc.). Right up to the time of Jesus, Israel had a place centered form of worship, and the place was the Temple.

Most churches are proud of their buildings. Over the past thirty-seven years, the people of our church have built a number of times. We are proud of the sanctuaries and facilities we have built in Cordova and Arlington. Nevertheless, we cannot come to believe our buildings are necessary for worship. People gather all over the world, sometimes in tents or under trees to worship God. Too often in the West, we have allowed ourselves to be excessively committed to a “Place Centered” kind of worship.

The Church is not the building. It is the people. We all love our worship services, whether contemporary or traditional. However, we cannot mistake a worship service or particular liturgy or style of music for true worship. True worship goes beyond a building. True worship is about God and about the human and divine spirit. It is about coming together to worship the Living God of Wisdom, Power, and Love.

Christ-Centered Worship.

Recently, a number of us have been memorizing a story from the book of John. In John 4, Jesus met a woman at a well in Samaria. Jesus was tired and thirsty, so he asked the woman to draw water for him (John 4:7). This was unusual for a couple of reasons. First, the woman was a woman, and Jewish rabbi’s seldom talked directly to women to whom they were not married. Second, she was a Samaritan, and the Jews did not like Samaritans, whom they felt were half-breeds who worshiped falsely on Mt. Gerizim not in Jerusalem where they were supposed to worship (4. 22). Finally, this woman was an immoral woman, and rabbis were never to even be seen with such a person, much less speak to them.jesuswell

Jesus and the woman got into a talk about water. Jesus asked her to fetch him a cup of physical water, and then began to talk about a kind of living water that, once you drank it, you would never be thirsty again (4:10; 13-14). The woman was amazed at this, again for several reasons. First of all, the well at which Jesus and the woman were having the conversation was one of the most famous wells in all of Jewish history. It was called Jacob’s well (4:12). Second, this woman, like all ancient women, spent hours each day going to and from the well getting water. (This is still the case in much of the world today.) Therefore, this woman is interested in this living water for purely selfish reasons.

“What is this Living Water?” The Living Water is the Holy Spirit—Jesus’ continuing presence and power with us today. Jesus promised this woman a spiritual water to wash away her sin and guilt. He promised her a living water that will allow her to live a completely new kind of life free from the problems and sin of her past. Jesus was also promising her a new kind of worship.

As Jesus and the woman began to talk about worship, the woman pointed out that both the Samaritans and the Jews had a place-centered kind of worship. For the Samaritans it was centered on Mt. Gerizim. For the Jews it was centered on Mt. Zion. She expected that Jesus would defend the Jewish position that all true worship has to take place in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion, in the Temple. Surprisingly, he did not. Instead he said:

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).

By this teaching, Jesus is alerting the woman that in him, something new is coming in the area of worship. A particular place is not going to be as important as it will be that worship be spiritual. In First Peter, Peter is talking about a post-place centered worship. He is saying that, in Jesus God was building a spiritual temple that we can be a part of as we are built up into the community of faith and become God’s priests, or sharers of grace. As we open our hearts to God, our hearts become a place of worship. God is saying the same thing to us today. God intends our worship to be a true spiritual worship that lasts all week long.

A Community of Constant Christ-Centered Worship

10922771_10206566193938639_4671154989334180850_nOne of the fundamental differences between the way ancient people saw the world and the way we see the world has to do with the role of community. Every “you” in our text is in the plural. All the verbs are in the plural. In our way of speaking it would be “all of you together are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (I Peter 2:9 (GCS paraphrase). In the ancient world, only a few chosen people were priests who interceded for the people to God. Now, we are all priests together. We are all called to worship together, declaring the praises of God as a community. We are all called to sacrifice together for the salvation and healing of the world. We are all called to live lives of worship (Romans 12:1-2).

One implication of this is that we need to meet together once a week to worship. We need to be together! In fact, that is what the early church did and what Christians have always done since the earliest times.  Jews met on Saturday to worship. Christians met on Sunday. They met to sing songs together. They met to pray together. They met to listen together to the word of God being read. They met to hear the encouragement of the apostles, sometimes, as in First Peter, that encouragement was in the form of a letter read in the service. They met to baptize new believers and to have a meal and communion together. [2] Ever since the beginning of the Christian movement, Christians have taken time to worship the Living God together weekly, singing, praying, hearing the word of God read and expounded, and having Communion.

Sunday, however, was only the beginning of the week. The people of God went from their weekly worship services out into the world where they continued to worship God in spirit and in truth by their daily lives. That is why Peter goes on to urge his readers to live lives worthy of the One who was raised from the dead and who had brought them into his Kingdom of Love (I Peter 2:11-12). This is why Paul urges the early Christians to offer their bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” as true, spiritual worship (Romans 12:1). [3]

We know that in the early church people shared their faith fearlessly. They lived in households where entire groups of people were converted, sometimes all at once. They shared their lives and belongings in ways that caused people to take note (Acts 2:42-47). They were unafraid to live differently than those around them. [4] The weekly worship was lived out in day-to day living. Just as God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lives in a communion of love, Christians are meant to live and worship in community. A God who exists in community needs to be worshiped in a community that tries to emulate the wisdom and love of the divine community in their worship and life.

In large part, the goal of the Reformers, and especially of Calvin, was to reinstate a humble, spiritual form of worship that was consistent with the intentions of Christ, the practice of the early church, and Holy Scripture, especially the worship we see in the book of Acts. The focus of their efforts was to be sure that worship was spiritual, Christ-centered, and scriptural. [5]

The Church today needs to recover the notion that we are not individuals who privately have been called into a new kind of relationship with God. We are part of a family of people who have been called to live each day in constant worship to “glorify God and enjoy him forever,” as the catechism puts it.  In order to be empowered and encouraged to live the Christian life week in and week out, we need to meet together once a week and worship in community.

A Call to Life Changing Worship.

I began this blog with an illustration of the beginning of what I would call the Post-Modern Christian perspective on worship attendance. My experience in college was just the beginning of the decline in worship we have seen in America. Worship has become increasingly unimportant to Christians in our excessively individualistic culture. In recent years, attendance has fallen in almost all denominations and in almost all churches within those denominations. This phenomenon has impacted Presbyterian churches, Baptist churches, Assemblies of God churches, and independent churches—all kinds of churches. The problem did not begin yesterday. In fact, the seeds of our crisis were sown years ago as the church, and especially the evangelical churches, increasingly adopted the personalistic, entertainment oriented nature of the surrounding culture.

In addition, Americans, even American Christians, have developed what I would call a “personal self-fulfillment search” focus on life, which has impacted churches and church attendance. Too often we seek a particular music, preacher, worship style, etc. that we find personally moving. As a pastor, I cannot complain too loudly about this, but I think it is mistaken. It is mistaken because we are called into communities of people who are bound together by both a relationship with God and with each other, not just here once a week, but in all of life. God did not mean our worship to be like going to a rock concert, but like going to a family reunion.family-worship-backgrounds1

It is easier to complain than it is to see the way forward. The church I serve, for example, has two different worship services to meet the felt needs of two different kinds of worship preferences. Churches that cater to a younger audience surround us in our community. These congregations have a still different worship format. Each week in all these places, people worship God “in spirit and in truth.” Nevertheless, taken together, we are not reaching the vast numbers of people who never or only very seldom come to worship. Just in our area of Memphis, Tennessee, there are as many as 30,000 people who never attend worship.

Surely part of the solution is to concentrate on a kind of discipleship that encourages new believers to understand the importance of true discipleship, true life in community, and true worship. Salvation is a great thing. However, as Paul says, it has to be worked out in “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:2). Those who have a godly “fear” (Deep Respect) for God will not only understand the duty of corporate and personal worship, but will seek it with hearts aflame. Our first duty, then, is to make such disciples.

I began with an observation that living a wise, loving,  joyful, spirit-filled life is impossible without worship. Indeed, this is so. It is simply impossible to live a life in community with the Eternal God without living that life in community with others. It is simply impossible to continue to live a life infused with the Spirit of God without remaining connected to that Spirit day in and day out. For Christians, Sunday is that day we set apart for a special worship time together as a community. We believe that worship is essential to being continually connected to the source of the true wisdom, true power, and true suffering love we need to live out the example of Christ in our day to day lives. There is no substitute for true worship.

[1] See, William Barclay, “The Letters of James and Peter” in The Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), 137 ff.

[2] See, “The First Apology of Justin Martyr” in Cyril. C. Richardson, ed. Early Christian Fathers (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1970), 282-288.

[3] This is another place where the Jewishness of the Paul and the early church comes through. In the Temple, there were animal sacrifices of blood. In Jesus, this system was completed and ended. Now, the true form of sacrifice is spiritual. There are intimations of this in the Old Testament. For example, In Micah 6:8 the prophet says, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is an expression of the inadequacy of the external religion of temple sacrifice.

[4] This is not the place for me to dwell on this issue, but in my view the biggest issue for the contemporary church in America is the unwillingness of Christians to be different and live differently than the surrounding culture.

[5] There is a vast volume of literature on this. See, Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 73-84.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Love’s Ultimate Victory

There are times in all of our lives when we are hoping and praying for Easter. There are times when life has been unfair. At such times, we hope for God to intervene and undo its unfairness. There are times when life is being fair, but we are under a kind of judgment and/or time of suffering that we truly wish would end. We hope for God to shorten our suffering. There are times when we have been suffering for some time and begin to lose hope that our personal Easter will ever come. We hope against hope that God will come quickly. There are times when we have suffered a death in our relationships or career. We hope God will resurrect the death of hope we are suffering. There is that time when we know that our time on this earth grows short. We hope that this world is not the end. The Message of Easter is this: Death is not the final word. Love wins in the end. Amazing Love Main Graphic

Years ago, Kathy and I had two friends, a young couple, who desperately wanted to have children. It seemed impossible. They had been married for several years when we got married and trying to have children for most of that time. They were very strong Christians, but it seemed to the doctors that it was not possible for them to have children. Finally, they decided to adopt. About a year later, they discovered that they were going to have a baby. All those years of sorrow were swallowed up in a moment of joy. Love finally had its victory.

The First Easter

This year our Lenten meditations have all been on the Amazing Love of God. Last week, we meditated on the cross and on the death of Jesus, which John tells us embodied God’s love for the world—a love so deep and powerful that it would endure the cross )John 3:16; I John 4:8-9). The cross and the resurrection belong together. The cross is God’s judgment on the sin, brokenness, and evil of our world. The resurrection is God’s validation of the sinless life and sacrificial death of Jesus and this promise to us of eternal life with him.

The text for this week is from Mark 16:1-8:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:1-8).

Prayer: This Easter season, O God, we ask that the power of the Risen Messiah, Jesus the Christ would come into all of our hearts and minds. Give us all a new outpouring of your Holy Spirit this day and each and every day. In His Name we pray, Amen.

A Fearful Beginning

images-2As we have seen, the last week of Jesus’ life was a week of growing pressure, gloom, and disappointment for the disciples. Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey, a symbol of his continuity with Solomon and other “Sons of David” who sat on the throne of Israel was the highpoint of a week of disappointment. All week long, until his death, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Priests and the Teachers of the Law opposed him. Finally, on Thursday night, he was betrayed and deserted by everyone. Even Peter, the “Rocky Balboa of the Disciples” denied and deserted him. Then, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. There was no appeal process. He was marched straight to Calvary, the Place of the Skull, where he was crucified. Near dusk on Friday, he died, and Joseph of Arimathea quickly claimed the body and buried him in his personal tomb so that the Passover would not come before his burial (Mark 15:42:46). Mark’s description of the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus ends by noting that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses knew where he was buried (15:47).

There is a lot packed into that one sentence. The disciples did not know where Jesus was buried because they were scattered, hiding in fear, afraid of the authorities and what might happen next, disillusioned, and desperate. Only the women knew. They had gone with Joseph to the tomb and watched as the body was hastily interred. They planned to return on Sunday to anoint the body.

No one expected Jesus to rise from the tomb or find it empty when Passover was over. They knew Jesus was dead, and they knew that dead people do not return to life. We sometimes believe mistakenly that the ancients did not know things we know. That is not true when it comes to things like virginal births and a man rising from the dead. What made Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ resurrection so important to the early church was precisely the fact that they were impossible. If true, they forced a complete conversion and a different way of seeing reality.

All of us, ancient and modern, have a way we see the world. We observe things happening and not happening. We conclude that things we see happening over and over again will keep happening. We also conclude that things we do not see happening will not happen in the future. Death is one of those things that we have certain expectations about what will and will not happen next. We expect the person to stay dead, and we do not expect a resurrection.

Sometimes, we are glad we know these regularities. Sometimes we are not so glad. For example, when we are suffering and our suffering goes on for a long time, we sometimes conclude it will never end. Experience begins to tell us this is going to be true. This was the condition of the followers of Jesus Friday and Saturday before the first Easter. Jesus was dead. He was going to stay dead. All of their hopes and dreams died with him, and they expected those hopes and dreams to stay dead.

A Surprise Announcement

imgres 5.00.25 PMAll four gospels are unanimous in recording that it was the women who found the tomb empty on that first Easter morning (Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). As we learn from Mark, they came to the tomb to finish embalming the body of Jesus (Mark 16:1). They knew that Jesus had been placed in a wealthy person’s tomb, and there was a large stone capping the tomb that would have to be rolled away (16:3). They were not sure that they were strong enough to roll away the stone and, because it was very early, they wondered if anyone would be around to roll away the stone.

When they arrived, they were amazed and confused. The stone was already rolled away (Mark 16:4). As they began entering the tomb, they were faced with another amazing fact: There was an angel in the tomb waiting for someone to arrive! The angel made what is probably the most famous announcement in world history: “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (16:6-7).

There is a lot of hope for us in these words. First of all, God has vindicated Jesus who died for our sins on the cross. Secondly, by the power of the resurrection God has declared his judgment fulfilled and our reconciliation complete if only we believe. Third, this gracious gift of forgiveness and new life is offered to his disciples who deserted him, even Peter who denied him. It is offered to everyone however far from God. God is not finished with the disciples, with us, or with the human race. In the person of the Risen Christ, God has gone ahead of us, and now by the power of his Holy Spirit draws us into his future of mercy, wisdom, and love.

Our old expectations, the certainties by which we normally navigate life have been superseded by an even greater certainty: This world is not all there is. Our current problems are not all there is. Our current limitations are not all there is. The Risen Christ has given us a new hope, a hope against all hope. By the resurrection, God promises us an eternal fellowship with the Risen Christ.

An Eternal Presence

By the resurrection, Jesus was restored to his disciples. The fellowship they once had was restored, not just for a time, a few days while he walks the earth in his resurrected body, but forever. Nothing, not even death can separate them or us from the love of God (Romans 8:38). Here is how Paul puts it in Romans:

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 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 8:32-39).

Nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God. God’s power will always be with us.

What Good News this is! In Matthew, when Jesus gives the disciples the Great Commission, he promises to be with them always, always “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). In Luke, Jesus promises his disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). In John, Jesus breathes upon the disciples after his resurrection, symbolically giving them the promised breath of God (John 20:22-23). In Acts, Jesus promises them the power of the Holy Spirit—a promise kept on Pentecost (Acts 1:8). The promise of the Holy Spirit is the promise that Jesus will always be with his people until the end of time with the power of God’s Spirit of Amazing love.

On Good Friday, Jesus died for our sins on the cross. On Easter, he rose from the dead as a sign of God’s New Creation in him and of the power of his life-giving sacrifice in our lives. This is not something we feel just once, when we come to believe in God, but something we can always experience. His forgiving love is always there for us when we fall short and fail. His cleansing power is always there to cleanse us from guilt and shame. His power to overcome the past and bring new life is always there for his people.

Often, we see Christians who begin the Christian life with joy and in the power of the Spirit. Unfortunately, slowly, ever so slowly, they begin to make of Christian faith a religion of works and duties. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, the joy and power of the Spirit fades from their lives. Old, bad habits recur. This does not have to be! God is always present for his people to undo the effects of sin in our lives. We can live a life of victory over sin and death, if we will only accept God’s gracious offer of salvation and become disciples of the Risen Christ.

A Love that Will Not Fail

Jesus’ Amazing Love is with us when we fall short, when we are called to sacrifice for others, when times are tough in our nation, city, or families. God’s resurrection power is always with us and never fails. This is the sign of Christian hope.

This week a passage from Romans came to me during my quiet time. In Romans, Paul uses Abraham as an example of the power of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Abraham wanted a son, and he believed God had promised him that son although he and his wife, Sarah, were too old to have children. For years and years, Abraham held onto that promise. Finally, Paul tells us, God honored the hope that Abraham had by faith, and he was given a son of the promise God had made (Romans 4:7). Paul goes on to say:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:5-9).

The life of which Paul speaks is resurrection life by the power of the same Holy Spirit that resurrected Jesus from the dead. The God who gave his only Son to save the world on the cross (John 3:16) will save us through the power of the eternal life the Son has received as a result of the resurrection (Romans 5:9). This same God can be trusted to resurrect each one of God’s children to an unimaginable life. God’s Amazing Love is finally going to win.Amazing Love Main Graphic

The hardest part of every Easter message is how to end it. The story ends with the women afraid to tell anyone about the empty tomb, perhaps from fear that people will think they are crazy. I think their fear is our fear as well. But, the ending of Mark is not the end of the story. The women did in fact overcome their fear and tell the disciples and Peter (Matthew 28:8-16; Luke 24:9; John 20:1-3). We know that because of the other Gospels and also because we are here today!

In the same way we must go and overcome our fears. We too must go and proclaim to our own generation the Good News that sin and death do not have the final victory. In the end, God’s Amazing Love wins. [1] In the end, wisdom and love are more powerful than armies. This is a message that our dying culture and violent world desperately need to hear again and again.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1986), 99. In writing this, I am also indebted to Thomas Torrance, Space, Time, and Resurrection (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1976 and John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), both of which I reread and consulted in preparing to write.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved