Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What the Cross, Easter, and Telling Jokes have in Common

John 19:30
Therefore, when Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished!”

John does not record it, but the other Gospel accounts say that he cried with a loud voice. It was not the voice of the defeated; it was the shout of the victor. The Greek word for “it is finished” means far more than that something was over or done—it literally means that it was “rounded out to perfection.” This word was also used in those times for when something was bought and “paid in full.”

Good Friday reminds us that we each had a debt we could not pay. We have all sinned and we all fall short of God’s glory. We are all guilty and the punishment we deserve is death. Fortunately, the story of the Bible does not end with our sin. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ came and took the punishment we deserve.

2 Corinthians 5:21 says: “For our sake he made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Another translation puts it this way: “God put on him the wrong who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.” The debt we owe has now been paid in full by Christ. Redemption is complete. It is finished.

Luke 23:46
And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

You’ll notice that none of the gospel writers say that Jesus died. He yielded up his spirit. He committed his spirit to the hands of the father—this act was both voluntary and free.

While the crucifixion is sad and difficult to think about…we must remember that the cross was not a tragedy but a victory. This is why we call Good Friday “good.” Let us not be mistaken…the crucifixion was not a moment where evil got the best of God…and then Easter Sunday is a day where God got the best of evil. No…God won on both days. Sinful men did play a part in Jesus' crucifixion, however; we must keep in mind that ultimately God was in control here, not men. The Crucifixion was his plan, not theirs. Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday intentionally. Jesus allowed himself to be arrested. Jesus allowed himself to be crucified. This was not simply a sacrifice…it was a self-sacrifice. No one took Jesus' life...he laid it down. And when he had accomplished his mission—Jesus gave up his spirit.

I read recently that the Greek Orthodox Church had a tradition where the day after Easter they would get together to tell jokes. They felt they were imitating the cosmic joke that God pulled on Satan in the Resurrection. Satan thought he had won and was smiling about his victory...thinking he had the last word. So he thought. Then God raised Jesus from the dead, and grace and salvation became the last words. Because of Easter sin and death are not the ending of our story. That's good news!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday

Today we celebrate Maundy Thursday. This phrase comes from the latin language and is a reference to the new commandment Jesus gave his disciples. Jesus is sharing his final meal with the 12 men who have been following him for three years. He gives them his final sermon. In John chapter 13 he gives them these words: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me but where I am going, you cannot come. So now I am giving you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35).

When we think of people coming to Christ, we initially think of camp meetings and altar calls. We usually think of great preachers like Billy Graham and his crusades. Revivals, sermons, and altar calls are all effective tools of evangelism…indeed thousands have come to Christ through such means. However, in John 13, Jesus connects our witness and testimony to our love for one another. Our ability to reach others for Christ is contingent on our own faithfulness and commitment to each other. It is our Christ-like love for people that makes us the light of the world. My own conversion journey is a prime example of this truth. It was in the context of a faithful group of friends and adults that I began to believe the good news of Jesus Christ.

When I was fourteen years old my family moved from Colorado to Alabama. I was not very happy about the move. I was about to enter high school with all my friends and I had no desire to leave the Rocky Mountains for the Deep South. Plus, I had a girlfriend who I had been dating for a whole week and so of course we were in love. This was terrible.

However, in retrospect, this move was the best thing that ever happened to me…it was a part of God’s prevenient grace working in my life. Prevenient grace is the amazing truth that God has been loving us and working in our life long before we gave him two thoughts. Quickly after arriving in Alabama, my family began searching for a church home. One of the first churches we visited was a smaller church close to our house. I remember the overall service being incredibly boring. The preacher read his sermon in a monotone voice and the organ was way too loud for the size of the sanctuary. There was no reason why my family should have joined the church. Yet, I ended up spending the next four years of high school at that very church. In fact, this church was the place where I accepted Christ as my savior and where I received my call to the ministry. The main reason we stayed was due to the care and welcome we felt from the congregation. Specifically, my brother and I felt very comfortable with the youth group.

Both the youth minister and the other teenagers were very welcoming and accepting. Yet, it was not simply the welcome that drew me in, but the community itself that attracted me to the group. Honestly, it is odd that I would have been attracted to the youth group. They did not have a cool youth room. There were no big video screens or a great sound system. There wasn’t a youth band or contemporary worship. In addition, I did not have much in common with most of the kids in the youth group. They were primarily musicians and artists. I was your quintessential jock. I had nothing in common with them. You will never hear me sing a solo in church…unless we want people to leave. Nevertheless, I was attracted to this community of believers. This youth group was different. The young people were unlike the majority of teenagers I had met. They were truly connected to one another. They had fun together and they cared for each other. They talked about Christ as if they really knew him. Now, they were not perfect. Yet, they really loved one another and they really loved Christ. It was clear that they had something I didn’t and I wanted it.

Within a year of being with this group, I accepted Christ. And yes, I accepted Christ at camp after an altar call. Yet, I realize now that my journey toward the altar started long before that night at camp. The youth minister and the teenagers loved me into the faith. It was there I saw a group of people who prayed together, laughed together, and cried together. Their love for one another showed me what it meant to follow Christ. Moreover, it was their love for one another that helped me see and accept Christ. My guess is that many of you have a similar testimony. You probably accepted Christ during an altar call or at church. However, I am sure there was a group of individuals who loved you into the faith. A friend, co-worker, Sunday school teacher, or a pastor…someone came along side of you and invested in your life.

Jesus gave us a new commandment…to love one another as he has loved us. To extend the same grace, kindness, and forgiveness he has given to us. And when we do this...we show the world we are different...we show the world we are followers of Christ.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Keeping Up With Kenzie

More good news! The medicine Kenzie is taking for her seizures is working very well. She has not had a seizure in 6 weeks. She still has some shoulder twitches every now and then. However, her development is great and she is very healthy. We went to the doctor today and he is very pleased with her progress. She will continue on this medicine for the time being and we will go back to the doctor in two months. At the next check up she will have another EEG.

Best case scenario is that Kenzie will out grow the seizures and she will be taken off medicine. The likelyhood of this happening did not seem great at first. But her improvement and health are very good signs that this may happen. Thank you again for your continued support and prayers.

Kelli and I have truly learned the grace of community through this experience. It is very humbling to have so many people and so many churches praying for us. We feel blessed to have such a great family and so many close friends. In addition, we are so thankful to be a part of such an amazing youth group. I found out about Kenzie while away on a youth trip. I was heart broken by the prognosis and crushed that I wasn't at home. However, during this time the teenagers and my youth team really ministered to me. They gathered around me and prayed for our whole family. I was reminded again of the importance of Christian community. It's easy to forget that I need them just as much as they need me.    

Thursday, April 14, 2011

“Do you believe this?”

There is a beautiful story found in the gospel of John. It is a story of death, loss, and hurt. But it is also a story of victory and resurrection. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are all good friends of Jesus. Lazarus gets very sick quickly. Mary and Martha send someone to get Jesus. Jesus is several towns over and does not get there in time. Lazarus has died. Once Jesus gets there, Martha comes out to greet him and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

You can hear the hurt and disappointment in her words. Many of us have had these same emotions: sadness, confusion, and frustration. Jesus sees her and many others crying. He goes to the tomb of Lazarus. And then we have the shortest verse in the entire Bible and perhaps the most powerful. Verse 35 simply states that, “Jesus wept.” We see in this text that Christ is not removed or distant from our life. When you hurt…he hurts. When you cry…he cries. He cares deeply about each of us and what we are going through.

The story concludes by Jesus telling the people to roll the stone away. He then shouts, “Lazarus come out.” Immediately Lazarus walks out of the tomb. Earlier in the story when Martha stated, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus gives her an interesting reply: he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again. They are given eternal life for believing in me and will never perish. Do you believe this?

Ultimately, this is a question each of us has to answer. Easter is a day when we are reminded that the answer is YES! Easter reminds us that death and sin do not have the last word.

The Apostle Paul, when speaking about the resurrection says these words: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. How we thank God, who gives us victory over sin and death through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Do we believe this? If we do, then our earthly life is not the end. Yes, we will still have times of sorrow and sadness. Yet, in the midst of our grief we can have hope and faith….because we believe in a God who makes all things new. We trust in a Savior who brings redemption and life.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Grace that Goes Before Us...

I cannot believe I am about to enter my tenth year in student ministry. Time flies when you’re having fun! Of course, my time in ministry has had its highs and lows. Overall, however, it has been an incredible and exciting journey. By working with people everyday one gets to see the best and worst of humanity. There are moments when I see the change God is making in young people’s lives and I cannot imagine doing anything else. Yet, there are also times when teenagers break your heart by making a terrible choice or decision. Those are the times when you consider working for a bank.

One particular truth that has really helped during these moments is my belief in God’s prevenient grace. This is the grace that goes before us. This is the grace that pursued us long before we accepted Christ. John Wesley asserted that God’s prevenient grace is the love that surrounds all humanity and precedes all of our conscious impulses. This grace produces our first wish to please God, our first ability of understanding God’s will, and our first conviction of having sinned against God. Furthermore, this grace stirs in us a deep longing for freedom from sin and moves us toward faith.

My deepening belief and trust in God’s prevenient grace has greatly impacted my ministry to students. I have realized over the years that the spiritual lives of teenagers are not in my hands. It is a great relief knowing that God has loved these young people much longer than I have. Furthermore, God has been working in their lives long before I ever met them. On one hand, understanding the beauty of prevenient grace removes some of the burden when my ministry is struggling. On the other hand, prevenient grace eliminates the temptation of pride when my ministry is going well. I am reminded that we, as pastors, are merely participants in God’s mission of redemption.