Standing on the Pinnacle

Posted: July 25, 2017 in Uncategorized


Everyone has a passion, a life’s work, a mission.  We all have things that are important for us to accomplish, things that are worth our work our toil, sweat and sacrifice.  Often, these things, even though they are “ours”, benefit others as well.  They are lofty goals and worthy targets, both large and small that fuel our lives.

When these life passions align with the gifts God has given you and the plans God has for your life, you are really onto something special.  This is when Satan steps in.  When you are climbing toward the pinnacle of your dreams, Satan will do all he can to force you off the path, or even push you off the edge.  He wants nothing more than for you to fall, fail or turn back.  No methods or tactics are off the table.  Satan will use anything and everything against you.  Ironically, his most powerful weapon is your own mind.  He knows your fears and your weaknesses and will use these against you.  The Bible refers to Satan as the deceiver and the liar.  He will go to any lengths to capitalize on your fears and doubts.  He will fill your mind with lies – “you’re not good enough, you’ll never reach your goals and nobody will care anyway.  You are worthless, you are dirty, you deserve to fail, you’re too far gone for God to care about you.

I was recently planning Vacation Bible School for my church  in Erin.  I was working with some great people and we had a good event planned, but a few days before the start Satan had me thoroughly convinced that no one would come.  I was discouraged, embarrassed and defeated.  I wasn’t sleeping well and having back spasms from the stress.  I tried my best to push these feelings aside, we had our VBS and it was an awesome experience for the staff, our church and the 8 children who attended.

We all will face these times of struggle.  Believe  in your goals, don’t give up, keep climbing toward the pinnacle no matter what.  Sometimes you’ll make great strides, sometimes you will crawl, but keep moving ahead.  Remember, you’re not travelling alone.  Lean on the people who love you and trust in God.  Cling to these words from Ephesians 6:10-17, “ Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.   Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Highway to … Hope

Posted: June 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

When I plan memorial services, one question I always ask the family is “Do you have a special song, something meaningful that you would like played during the service?”  I was doing a memorial service for a young man and I asked that question of his sister and she was quick to respond.  She said that one time her brother had told her that he wanted the song “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC played at his funeral.  After a minute my answer was “I can make that work.”  My goal is to honor him and his family, and to hopefully provide some comfort and hope.  If it takes a little AC/DC to accomplish that, so be it.


< ”Highway to Hell” >


We are all on a highway to hell.  We have all been infected since birth by a disease called sin. The world is a broken place and sometimes life can be disappointing, painful and tragic. In spite of these times, life is a wonderful gift. I went on to talk about some of the memories and special moments that had been shared with me by family members.  As good and happy as these times were, we all go through bad times, as well. Being human, we all make our share of mistakes, we fall, we fail and we often don’t measure up to the standards of the world.

The good news is that even though we all may be on the highway to hell, Jesus has other plans for us.  And his plan is for all of us.  There are no qualifications required and nothing we need to do to earn it.  It’s a free gift available to each one of us.

Jesus told a story about a man with two sons.  The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.  “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant country, and there he wasted all his money in wild living.  About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve.  He was hired by a local farmer who sent him into his fields to feed the pigs.  The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything to eat. He finally came to his senses and said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger!  I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please hire me as a servant.”

                So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.  His son started the speech he had been rehearsing, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.”  But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet.  And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.  The son was on the highway to hell, the road to destruction, but the father welcomed him home with open arms.  This is how God is with us.  He lets us go our own way, but is always waiting and watching for our return.

Jesus and his disciples were on the way to Jerusalem.  He had already told them that when they arrived in Jerusalem that he would be killed.  They were upset and afraid, and Jesus tried to reassure them about death.   John, chapter 14 records what he told them: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

                 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.  Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid because he knew that death is not the end … that there is more after our life here is over.  Heaven is real, and imagining what heaven is like gives us hope.


< “When I Get Where I am Going” >


I reminded the friends and family that the life of the young man who had died was full but way too short.   I said, “Remember him and what he means to you.  Cherish the time you were able to spend with him. And know that death is not the end, but a new beginning. My prayer is that you all draw close … reminisce together, laugh together, grieve together and weep together.  I also pray that sometime soon you will begin to see the hope; that pain will be replaced by warm memories, that tears will be replaced by smiles, that we will embrace this truth – he is with his mother, healthy and pain-free, in a place created just for him since the dawn of time.”  Amen.

(Luke 1:26-38)

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”  Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”  “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”  The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God.”  “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.


Going Deeper

Why would Mary have said “yes”?  I’m sure it was an imposing sight to encounter an angel, but the Bible is filled with people who said “no” to God.  God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh and he chose to run in the opposite direction.  Moses came up with an assortment of excuses why his brother Aaron would be a better choice to lead the Israelites.  Mary was an unlikely candidate for this particular mission.  She was a teenager, a very ordinary person.

She certainly had a lot to lose by agreeing to what was being asked of her.  First, she would have to explain her pregnancy to her parents, not to mention her fiancée.  What would the neighbors think?  Her reputation and the reputation of her parents would be ruined.  Who could possibly believe her story?  She was betrothed to Joseph.  He could break the betrothal because of the pregnancy, accusing Mary of adultery.  The penalty for this under Jewish law (Deuteronomy 22:20-24) was death by stoning.  There was no opportunity for her to think it over, to consult with her family or her fiancée.  The angel needed an answer, and there were certainly a lot of practical reasons to decline the offer.

In addition to the practical reasons, this all came at an important point in Mary’s life.  She was engaged … looking forward to beginning a life with her new husband.  She had a lot of plans and dreams for this new chapter about to unfold in her life … the excitement of building a marriage with Joseph, sharing a home, starting a family.  This could all change if she were to agree.

Yes, she had a lot to lose.  Her respectability, her family, her plans and dreams for the future … possibly even her life itself.  And what would it be like to be entrusted to raise the Son of God?  Was she capable of that kind of responsibility?

In the end, Mary, an ordinary girl, made an extraordinary choice.  She said “yes”.  “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said.”  What Mary realized was that no matter what difficulties she may have to face, whatever plans she would have to forego and whatever responsibilities life would present, God would be there to see her through.  As the angel told her, “nothing is impossible with God”.

Although not many people get as direct an invitation as Mary did, God still asks us to serve.  Serving God doesn’t always have to take place in a church and being a missionary doesn’t mean you have to go to a foreign country.  God needs His people in all walks of life, making a difference every day of the week, in the workplace, in the grocery store, in school and in traffic.  Mary was offered a life choice.  God offers us each a life choice as well.  Mary was given the opportunity to bear God’s child.  We are given the opportunity to bear God’s light.  By the choices we make, the integrity with which we deal with others and the hope which helps us through rough times, our lives will impact others, shining as a beacon in a dark world.

Personal Challenge

Assuming you haven’t been visited by an angel, do feel God’s whisper, nudging you toward any opportunities to serve?


What reasons do you have that would lead you to say “no”?  List them all.  Now circle the ones that are more important than God.


Challenge for the next two weeks:  as you go about your everyday routine look for opportunities to serve God.  I’m not talking about billboards advertising Christian mission trips.  I’m talking about people in your neighborhood or workplace who need a hand, a kind word or a Christ-like example.

Before reading this post, I suggest you check out Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which talks about the seasons of life, the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, the celebrations and the struggles.  When you think of life’s seasons, you naturally think of the long term.  With short term involvements and commitments, you only experience a snapshot of time. You don’t see a lot of change and you don’t go through the roller coaster of life.  The long term, on the other hand is where you experience the ebbs and flows, the changing seasons that come with living.  When I think of the long term and the seasons of life, I first think of family.  I also think of this youth ministry, because it has been going on for 25 years.  I took on leadership of this youth ministry in 1992.  Betsy joined in an official capacity a couple of years later, and Jenn joined us in 2005.  In these 25 years, we have truly experienced seasons.  In the beginning we had the task of inventing ourselves.  We tried things and failed, tried other things and failed, then hit on the formula that we still use today. We didn’t fall into the trap that many youth ministries fall into, being basically a play group that has a little bit of God thrown in.  We chose to do meaningful Bible study, we opted to have a serious commitment to missions and we expected regular attendance and participation.  We started this model with 4 kids. We called them our fab 4 (Lily, Laura, Craig and Ryan).  We’ve stayed true to that model since that time, and have fine-tuned as we went along.

In our 25 years of youth ministry we have definitely experienced some different seasons.  We started out with 4 kids and have had as many as 25. We don’t get too hung up on numbers.  Our feeling is that God will put people here who need to be here.  We have had years where everything just falls into place and other years when it seems that everything is a struggle.  We have celebrated achievements and milestones with some of our kids and we have walked with others through pain and loss.  We enjoy our special services and our weekly meetings and we experience the difficulties in doing all of the work that makes it all happen.  Our youth group is very much like a family.  We go through most of the negative things families go through all the while loving each other and savoring all of the positive moments.

Because, you see, with things that endure through time such as a family or a ministry that is in it for the long haul, there is something bigger than the seasons you go through.  There is something that transcends the ups and downs of life.  Something that is bigger than discouragement, stronger than failure.  Something that allows you to keep plugging away in spite of setbacks, that keeps you grounded when you feel that you can do no wrong. Satan loves it when we struggle.  He consistently points out whatever is troubling and won’t let us forget our failures or how much work is involved.  When things are going well he hopes that we take the credit rather than thanking God for what he is accomplishing through us.

We keep going in this ministry because there is a higher purpose.  With all of the negativity and drama kids face these days they need someone to show them that they will never face life alone.  They need to know that Jesus can help them rise above the negative messages.  They need to learn how to listen to God’s voice of truth.  We also keep going in this ministry because we are a big family.  We may go through the ups and downs of family life in our ministry, but we love the kids like our own.  As the Bible tells us in 1 Corinthians, “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

And once you’re family, you’re always family. Over the years we have attended graduation parties, weddings and baby showers of former youth group members and there are many others we still keep in touch with.  That is incredibly special.

With all these things in mind, I’d like to give you a modern day scripture: the seasons of youth group.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the youth group heavens:

a time to be energetic and a time to fall into bed dog tired,

a time to read scriptures and a time to play the frozen t-shirt game,

a time to teach and a time to learn,

a time to ride the roller coaster and a time to refrain because you just ate ice cream,

a time to thank God for this ministry and a time to wonder what we ever did to deserve this torture,

a time to weep and a time to laugh (I didn’t need to change that one),

a time to contemplate and a time to rock out,

a time to make sure you have gathered all the kids and a time to wonder if leaving 1 or 2 behind is really such a bad idea,

a time to talk about great spiritual truths and a time to just ask how things are going at school,

a time to call parents because the multiple notes we sent home all disappeared,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing (because there is a fine line between an embrace and a strangle hold),

a time to lift our kids up and a time to be lifted up by them,

a time to say hello to a nervous 7th grader and a time to say goodbye to an amazing young man or woman,

a time when you realize that there are no goodbyes because they’re family forever.

In their Gospels, Matthew and Mark both tell us that as Jesus died, he cried out with a loud voice, but neither records what he said.  John’s Gospel tells us that what Jesus said was “It is finished.”  Many view this statement from Jesus as an expression that his life was slipping away.  “It is finished.”  On the surface, this statement can be interpreted as finalwordsa cry of defeat, an admission of failure, finally an end to the humiliation, pain and agony.  In the book, Rev. Hamilton lists several things that would indicate that this interpretation is wrong.  “Jesus told his disciples on multiple occasions that he was going to Jerusalem to die.  His arrest, torture, and crucifixion were no surprise to him.  He had come to Jerusalem for this purpose.  This was not a cry of defeat.  Another clue that, when he spoke these words, Jesus did not mean that he was defeated is the fact that he shouted these words.  This would be something similar to what Michelangelo might have said when he looked up at the Sistine Chapel after he had completed the last brush stroke: “It is finished!”  Something astounding, amazing and awesome was finished as Jesus died on the cross – a masterpiece of love and redemption.”

What exactly was accomplished on the cross?  When we talk about the significance of the death of Jesus on the cross, we come to one of the most important doctrines in the Christian faith – the doctrine of atonement.  First of all, what is the meaning of atonement? “The word ‘atonement’ is one of the few theological terms derived basically from Anglo-Saxon. It means ‘a making at one’ and points to a process of bringing those who are estranged into a unity.  When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, it caused a separation between God and humanity.  God wanted us back and the only way to accomplish this was to send his Son to take our place and pay the price for our sins.  The death of Jesus is often associated with the forgiveness of sin, and that is true.  But there are other things to consider.


There are several different theories as to how the Atonement was accomplished and what it means.  The debate goes on between denominations and between scholars and theologians, but I believe that God’s plans are so far above us that we could never completely understand.  Why try to reduce such a magnificent thing to facts and logic.  Why not just appreciate the awe and wonder?  Rev. Hamilton says, “At some point I came to realize that the cross is not math or science; it is poetry lived out in human flesh.  The cross is a divine drama in which God, through Jesus, is revealing the darkness of the human soul and the relentless grace and love for the human race.  It is a sculpture that when seen from one angle is so horrible and repulsive you can hardly stand to look at it, but when viewed from another angle is so beautiful you cannot help falling to your knees in utter amazement.  It is a masterpiece in which the Artist has painted at one and the same time a self-portrait revealing his character and a portrait of you – your need for mercy and his willingness to offer it to you.  It is a love story that moves you to tears – one that begs to be read again and again.”

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke in their accounts of the death of Jesus all provide an interesting detail.  They all tell us that when Jesus died, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two.  The temple had an inner court where only priests were allowed.  Within this inner court was the Holy Place, where priests would burn incense for various rituals.  Within the Holy Place could be found the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, considered the throne room of God.  Once a year, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies to atone for his own sins and the sins of the people.  An animal would be sacrificed and the blood would be sprinkled on the Mercy Seat, the throne of God, to make amends for sin.  There was a thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place.  The curtain would be lifted to allow the high priest in and back out for the annual ritual.  No one else was allowed to enter that room.  When Jesus died, this curtain was torn in two, showing us that Jesus had made the ultimate sacrifice and there was no longer anything separating us from the presence of God.  “Through Jesus human beings could now come directly to God’s Mercy Seat, to the cross, to ask for mercy and receive God’s grace.

After the Temple curtain was torn, Jesus offered one final statement, and once more, his dying words were a prayer.  His first statement from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” was a prayer.  Then around noon he prayed from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  Some believe that “I am thirsty” was also a prayer.  Then at the end of his life, Jesus offered one final prayer: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  These words are from another Psalm, Psalm 31:5, which tells us that Jesus was likely reciting this psalm silently as he died.  Here are the first 5 verses of Psalm 31:

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.

Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit”

“This was Jesus’ dying prayer.  It was a beautiful prayer of absolute trust in his Father.”

            In his New Testament commentary, William Barclay suggests that this prayer from Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” was a prayer Jewish children were taught by their mothers as a bedtime prayer.  Isn’t it a beautiful thought, that Mary  may have taught this prayer to Jesus when he was a boy, and that Jesus before he died offered this simple prayer to his heavenly Father?

            On the cross, Jesus was again teaching us about prayer.  “When we’re facing darkness and despair, when we’re facing the valley of the shadow of death, when we’re facing the unknown, how should we pray?  “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

            In these six weeks of Lent, we have examined the final words spoken by Jesus from the cross.  In the process, Jesus himself has taught us how to live and how to pray.  We learned from him to pray for those who wrong us: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  We saw that even in his pain and agony, Jesus was reaching out to seek and to save the lost.  We joined the thief on the cross in praying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” and we heard his words of promise, not just for the thief, but for all who call upon him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  We heard Jesus ask John to take care of his mother, and his mother to take care of John, and we understood this not only as a call to take care of our parents, but a call to take care of any of the “least of these’ who need our help.  We heard about the anguish and feeling of abandonment Jesus experienced when he prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  In this we recognized that Jesus identifies with our suffering and pain, and we learned that even in these dark times Jesus was still praying and seeking God.  In his cry of “I thirst” we saw the physical thirst of a real dying man.  We also saw a call to God that his soul was thirsty and dry.  In our spiritual thirst we join him in this prayer.  We heard his shout of victory, “It is finished!” as he completed the mission that God had sent him to perform to us, securing our forgiveness and making God accessible to us.  Finally, we heard the prayer his mother may have taught him as a little boy, a prayer of confidence and surrender to God.  This prayer from the cross enables us to live each day not in fear, but in confidence and hope.

            Lord, thank you for the beauty, the majesty and the wonder of the cross.  Thank you that it was for me, and for each person here.  In response may our daily prayer be, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  Yes, Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit.  Amen.

Link to entire sermon:

“I Thirst”

Posted: April 11, 2017 in Uncategorized

This simple statement, “I thirst.” seems out of place among the other dramatic statements Jesus made from the cross.  This seemingly insignificant statement is recorded only in the Gospel of John, and with John almost every insignificant statement is a clue to the deeper meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

One of the most important things we can learn from this part of the crucifixion story is that it paints a picture of the humanity of Jesus.  People who are very ill and near death typically become thirsty.  A nurse, hospice worker or family member will try to help out by giving a few ice chips, small sips of water or even a sponge on a stick dipped in water.  A similar technique was used for those dying on a cross.  The stick was much longer but the intent was the same – to quench the thirst of a dying individual.

The book says, “Here’s the point some think John was trying to make in his account of this scene:  Jesus was fully human.  Before his finalwordsdeath, he thirsted as we thirst, and then he died as we die. This was an important point for John, because even at the  time he wrote, there were some Greeks who saw Jesus as a spirit who only appeared to be a man.  Because such a spirit could not die, or even feel pain, he only seemed or appeared to die on the cross.  It was merely a drama.”  Others maintained that it wasn’t really Jesus on the cross.  They believed that when Simon of Cyrene carried the cross, he ended up taking the place of Jesus.  Their opinion was that the Son of God would never be defeated by evil people, not would he suffer and die on a cross.

By recounting the thirst of Jesus, John was saying “I stood by the cross.  I watched him suffer.  I heard him cry out “I thirst”.  It wasn’t just a show.  It was a real man, dying a real death.  It is an example of the humanity of Jesus.  Jesus didn’t circumvent death any more than he circumvented the suffering he could have avoided by drinking the wine mixed with poison or pain killer offered to him before the crucifixion.

Another interpretation of the words “I thirst” relates to an analogy Jesus used to describe the suffering he would endure.  At the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant.”  When James and John requested to be seated at his right and left hand, Jesus asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked asked three times if “this cup can be taken from me.”  When we understand that on many occasions Jesus used the idea of drinking as a metaphor for the suffering he would face, we see that the words “I thirst” may have pointed to something deeper.  It may be that Jesus was pointing to his willingness to drink the cup of suffering and sin and hate.  Or maybe he was pointing out the fact that the cup was now nearly empty.  His time of suffering was drawing to a close and the cup of his suffering was now nearly empty.  Rev. Hamilton says, “This interpretation is consistent with John’s statement: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were accomplished, … said “I thirst.”  His thirst was indicator that he had finished off the cup that his Father had given him: he had completed his mission to suffer and die on behalf of the human race.

Jesus’ words also remind me of Psalm 42 – “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, the living God.”  Perhaps when Jesus said “I thirst” he was speaking of his own inner longing for God.  Or maybe he was pointing back at his own words from the Sermon on the Mount when he said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  These words may have been intended for those around the cross to hear, or they may have been a prayer in which Jesus expressed his thirst for God.

As people stood around the cross that day, watching Jesus die, someone in the crowd heard him say “I thirst” and had the courage to break away from the crowd, find a hyssop branch, attach a piece of sponge to it and lift it with compassion to Jesus’ lips.  Maybe it was the disciple John or maybe it was his mother, Mary.  Maybe it was someone like Nicodemus who finally found the bravery to show his admiration for Jesus.  Regardless of who it was, someone dared to risk the scorn of the crowd to offer Jesus a drink before he died.  Today, we can still offer him a drink.  We do this when we see those who are physically or spiritually thirsty and we risk being scorned or ridiculed, or simply go out of our way to offer them a drink.  As Jesus said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

What is it that you thirst for? What are you lacking most in life?  What void do you need to fill?  We get hung up on things that we think will bring us satisfaction … money, cars, clothing, authority, fame and so on, but they still leave us empty.  The cross beckons us to thirst for Jesus – the one who chose to suffer and die for you and for me.

I would like to close in prayer.  Please join me in saying the prayer that is printed on the bookmark you were given earlier:

Lord, be for me the source of Living Water.  May my heart thirst after nothing as much as it thirsts after you.  And may I, as one of your followers, extend water, both physical and spiritual, to all who are thirsty.  Amen.

Here’s a link to the entire sermon:

 esv 040217 I Thirst

This is our fourth week of doing sermons based on Adam Hamilton’s book, “Final Words from the Cross”.  When I first saw the title to this chapter, “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me”, I wondered how it could possibly result in a positive message, but Rev. Hamilton came up with a perspective that I found to be completely powerful and uplifting.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a perspective that everyone needed to hear.  More than ever, I hope that today’s message, inspired by this book, will touch your heart and give you hope.finalwords

Between the four Gospels, there are a total of 7 statements made by Jesus from the cross.  For many today’s statement is the most moving, disturbing and powerfully haunting of the seven: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  The book says that “These words reflect not only the darkness of the horrific experience Jesus endured, but also the darkness within those who surrounded Jesus at the cross.”  Before Jesus made this statement, he had been tortured by the Roman soldiers, mocked and ridiculed by the crowd, insulted by the religious leaders and even taunted by the thieves being crucified with him.  This was more than just death by crucifixion … everyone seemed intent on destroying him, dehumanizing him and stripping him of any dignity.  It would be easy to say that the people involved were just bad people, but the ones behind the execution and much of the humiliation were the religious leaders … the priests and the scribes.  These were deeply committed Jews, the most pious and holy people of the day, people who studied and memorized the scriptures.  And the passersby?  They were Jews on their way to celebrate the Passover.  They would be praising God and thanking him for saving their ancestors, and then spewing hurtful words and hatred at Jesus. It has been said that in the trial and execution of Jesus, it was not really Jesus on trial, but humanity.  The rise of evil within the crowd and the passersby was the evidence of something wrong with humanity as a whole.  It wasn’t just first century Jews.  This scene is designed to hold a mirror to our own souls. We are as guilty as they were and we still inflict pain on others.  We need to confront our affinity for hurtfulness and strive to love others as Jesus challenged us to do.

“The cry ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is sometimes called the cry of dereliction or the cry of abandonment.  In that moment, as He prayed those words, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, felt abandoned or forsaken by God.”  This is hard for us to understand since we believe that Jesus and God are one. It’s important for us to know that Jesus, Son of God was actually experiencing the feeling of being abandoned by God,  a feeling that every one of us experiences at some point in our lives.  He knew what it felt like to be left alone in the depth of pain and despair.  He knew what it felt like to be hopeless.  Have you ever been in that place?  I know I have.  “We have all felt abandoned by God at some time in our lives – when someone we love dies, when we find ourselves facing a battle we never wanted to face, when we’ve been humiliated and made to feel small.  There are a thousand other ways we might experience a sense of being forsaken by God – times when God is conspicuously silent and absent.  In those times we can pray to Jesus Christ, because he knows what we are experiencing and feeling.  We can pray to the One who sympathizes with us in that moment while, at the same time, saying to us, ‘God didn’t forsake me and He has not forsaken you.’”

Jesus’ words reveal that in the moment when he felt abandoned and forsaken by God, he chose to pray.  What we call the cry of dereliction is actually the first verse of a psalm that Jesus must have been praying from the cross.  The typical human response to tough times is to become disappointed with God.  We may feel abandoned by God, so we respond by abandoning him.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  Even though he was questioning God – “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” – he was still praying.  Questioning God in prayer is an act of faith, even when we are confused about what is happening.  Actually Jesus was doing more than praying, he was worshiping.  The words he spoke are the first few words of Psalm 22, a scripture that most of the Jews in Jesus’ day would have known.  Those Jews standing around the cross would have been familiar with that Psalm.  They would have heard him speak the first lines, and they would have been able to complete the rest in their minds.  If you overheard someone say “I pledge allegiance to the flag …” the rest of the words would come to you naturally.  Jesus’ use of the phrase, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” tells us that he was thinking of and praying Psalm 22.  David wrote this psalm, describing a time when he was suffering at the hands of his enemies.  The words parallel what Jesus was experiencing on the cross.  But it is not a song of despair – it begins darkly, but throughout it affirms the psalmist’s trust in God.  All of the Jews around the cross would have known that Psalm 22 ends not in a cry of dereliction, but in a note of confidence that God had not abandoned the psalmist.  Listen to verse 24: “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”  In the book, Rev. Hamilton poses the question, “Is it possible that Jesus chose to pray the opening words of Psalm 22 as he suffered on the cross to point not only to his pain and despair but also to his trust that God had, in fact heard him and would deliver him?”

“When we feel abandoned by God, we, too, must choose to trust that God has not really forsaken us.  We must trust that God will not hide his face from us, and that God hears us when we pray.  And that leads us to confidence in a future yet unseen.  So when Jesus suffered there on the cross, preparing for his imminent death and burial, he likely recounted in his mind the final verses of Psalm 22: ‘Before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.’  These words pointed to the confident hope that death would not be the end for the psalmist, death would not be the end for Jesus and death would certainly not be the end for the gospel, for as the psalmist noted with confidence, ‘Future generations will be told about the Lord and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.’”

The book points to three things we are meant to remember when we hear Jesus praying from the cross “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”  First, we are meant to find ourselves in the crowd among the religious people who were taunting Jesus.  We’re meant to recognize the darkness that lurks within each of us and the ease with which even the most devout and religious people can be swayed to treat others with cruelty and hate.

Second, we are meant to understand the costliness of God’s grace.  Jesus’ pain was not just physical; it was also psychological and spiritual.  The price of our salvation was steep and the wounds by which we are healed cut deep.

Finally, we remember that the one to whom we pray in our darkest hour knew firsthand the feelings of hopelessness, doubt and despair.  Jesus himself cried out to the heavens “Why?”  Yet as he made this cry, he was using the words of a psalm that points to God’s ultimate deliverance.

When you face the worst that life can throw at you, consider these words from Deuteronomy 31:6, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”  And remember: At your lowest, God is your hope; at your weakest, God is your strength; when you are feeling your worst pain, God is your comfort.  Amen.


This is the third week of our sermon series drawn from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Final Words from the Cross”.  Some of the words of today’s message are mine and some are those of Rev. Hamilton, but the inspiration and credit go to him.  My hope is that you are blessed by these messages as the book has blessed me.

“I am Mary, wife of Clopas. I begged Mary, Jesus’ mother, not to follow as he was led away to be crucified. “Mary, it will be too hard. You don’t want to see this.” But she said to me, “I will not let my son die alone among these wolves.” And so we went, joined by only one of his disciples, the young John, and by Mary of Magdala.  Jesus’ mother was a strong and determined woman. And she loved her son. He was to her the joy of her life and the purpose of her existence. Jesus had sought to prepare her for what lay ahead in Jerusalem. Somehow she had always known he would die as a young man, giving his life to save the world. Mary was determined to stand near Jesus as he suffered. She would fight to hold back the tears, seeking to show her son strength and love. She would do all she could, standing there, to ease his pain and to give him hope. As the crowd hurled their insults, Mary slowly pushed her way through until she stood before him. They hung him naked, so as to humiliate him, and in wretched pain. Jesus’ feet were two feet off the ground, and from where Mary stood she could reach up and touch his chest, though the Roman guards forbade such things. As we stood there, Mary said to Jesus, “I love you, my son. Your Father will soon come for you. You are in his hands. I love you.” It was then that Jesus looked at his mother and spoke slowly and tenderly to her, “Dear woman, this now is your son.” He nodded his head toward John. And then, to John he said, “Here is your mother.” John placed his arm around Mary and held her as if to say to Jesus, “I understand, I will take care of her.””

Who are these people at the foot of the cross, watching Jesus die?  Tradition teaches us Mary the wife of Clopas was Mary’s sister-in-law, believed to be the wife of Joseph’s brothfinalwordser. Both women would have known everything about the life of Jesus. That’s why they followed him from his birth to the cross.

Mary of Magdala, more often referred to as Mary Magdalene was a close follower of Jesus.  The Bible referred to her as a “sinner”.  Luke 8:2 says, “The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others.”  She was forever grateful for her freedom and was a faithful disciple, devoted even to Calvary.

Jesus’ mother Mary was only a teenager when God came to her and asked her to give up her hopes and dreams. Instead, God was asking her to bear His own son, to take a risk, and trust that Joseph would believe she had conceived by the Holy Spirit. This was a lot to ask of a teenage mother. She was young, inexperienced, but she was faithful to God’s calling. Mary carried the baby Jesus in her womb. She changed his diapers…fed and nurtured him…she and Joseph took him to Egypt to insure his safety…returned to Israel and gave him an education in the Synagogue…and she followed his ministry…all the way to the cross. 

 The young disciple John is sometimes referred to as the beloved disciple. Jesus loved him and trusted him. At the time of his death, Jesus turned to John and asked him to care for his mother as if she were his own. There must have been a bond between these men that was tested by time. Their bond brought them as close to one another as though they were brothers. 

 Jesus loved his mother. He knew she had stood by him as an infant, as a child, at the time of his earthly father’s death, throughout his ministry, and even now…as he hung on the cross. I don’t think any of us can imagine being in this situation. What would it be like for a mother to stand at the feet of her son while he is being executed by the authorities? What would it be like for a son to look into his mother’s eyes as he felt his life slipping away?  Jesus loved her so much that he wanted her to receive John as her son. Trusting that they would love and care for each other. 

What lessons can we learn from this passage of scripture?  As you think about the boldness of these three women waiting at the foot of the cross, in the midst of a hostile crowd, it points to the role of women in the ministry of Jesus.  As outlined in the book, “It was the women who financially supported the work of Jesus and the disciples (Luke 8:1-3).  It was a woman who became the first missionary to the Samaritans (John 4:28-29).  It was a woman who anointed Jesus with oil in preparation for his death (Matthew 26:6-13).  It was three women who had the courage to stand by Jesus’ cross for six hours as he died (John 19:25).  It was women who first came to the tomb and found it empty on Easter morning (Mark 16:1-8).  It was a woman who first saw Christ raised from the dead and, in turn, a woman who became the first to proclaim the resurrection to others (John 20:11-18).  Jesus regularly showed compassion, mercy and love toward the women in the Gospels.”  This was all very unusual for that time period.  Women were usually thought of as property, or at least second-class citizens.  Thankfully, these cultural norms have changed, and today, the church is filled with women who are effective teachers, preachers and leaders.  “Their leadership is in a long tradition that began with these Biblical women who followed and supported the ministry of Jesus and who courageously stood with him during those final hours of his life.

We also learn about Mary, and how as the mother of Jesus, she is one of the most important human beings in history, and second only to Jesus in God’s plan to save mankind.  Rev. Hamilton says, “It was Mary who, when called to risk her life and give up all of her dreams in order to carry, deliver and raise the Messiah, replied, ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’  It was Mary who carried the Son of God in her womb, having supplied the human materials needed for the Incarnation; her body and blood nurtured and nourished God’s Word as it was becoming flesh.  No other human being has ever had such an intimate relationship to God.  This woman who stood by the cross seeking desperately to console and give hope to her dying son paid a great price for our salvation.”  Surely her soul was pierced that day.

Jesus loved his mother and even in his last moments he was concerned with her wellbeing.  He wanted to be sure that she would be taken care of after he was gone, so he asked John to take care of his mother and he asked Mary to accept John’s protection and care.  One of our church traditions tells us that Mary lived out the remainder of her life in Ephesus with John.  There is a house in existence there today that some believe is the house that John built for Mary.  The very beginning of John’s Gospel says that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh.  The things that Jesus did and said serve to amplify and exemplify the Bible.  As Rev. Hamilton says in the book, “In this tender conversation, we see the fifth commandment, God’s call for humanity to honor our mothers and our fathers.  To honor them is to ensure that they are cared for.” 

We can also view this scripture as going beyond the example of caring for our parents.  Author Fleming Rutledge says that “both the disciple and Mary represent the way that family ties are transcended in the church by the ties of the Spirit.”  In this example, John wants us to understand that as disciples of Christ, we are responsible for caring for one another, “even taking on the role of parent or child or brother or sister to another who needs us.”  We are expected to extend family-like love, compassion and kindness to others, even strangers.  The two commands Jesus gave us are, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  To further clarify the question “who is my neighbor?” Jesus told this parable: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  When we think of “neighbors” we think of those people close to us … family, friends, people we have lived near for a long time and share a bond with.  It’s natural to consider these people as brothers and sisters, but in this parable, Jesus teaches that everyone in need is our neighbor, deserving of our compassion, our care and our love.  Everyone is our neighbor, everyone is family. 

There is also a special bond within the church.  Mark 3:31-35 tells this story about Jesus:  “Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” .

There is also a special bond within the church.  Mark 3:31-35 tells this story about Jesus:  “Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  In response to his biological family, Jesus creates a whole new definition of family. Family is the new community of Jesus’ followers; those who strive to do God’s will are Jesus’ family. 

Early Christian communities represented a specific kind of group: they functioned as a family. Kinship language (brother, sister, Father, child, inheritance) can be found throughout the New Testament. Family is the dominant metaphor for the church in the writings of the church fathers. Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. If we’re really serious about spiritual formation, then we must become really serious about creating church communities that act like real families.

Think about it. If you’re an orphan, you don’t adopt parents; they adopt you. If your adoptive parents are named Smith, you now attend the Smith family dinners with the parents and all the children. You share a bedroom at night with the Smith siblings. When the teacher at school calls out attendance and says, “Smith?” you raise your hand like your older brother did before you and your younger sister will do after you. And you do this not because you decided to play the role of “Smith,” but because someone went to the orphanage and said, “You will be a Smith.” On that day, you became the child of someone and the sibling of others.

            We can also consider 2 Timothy 1. Paul speaks to Christians in families. Paul acknowledges the importance of Timothy’s biological grandmother Lois and mother Eunice in the development of Timothy’s faith. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul calls on natural sons and daughters to take care of their own widowed mothers. But later in that same chapter, Paul also speaks to Christians as family. Paul says for a widow who has no children, the church is to be her family and to be as responsible for her as if she was a biological parent. Jesus himself practiced this kind of first family. On the cross, Jesus asked a “beloved disciple” to take care of his mother and make her part of his own family. Christians in families are important but Christians as family is even more important.

            For the first few centuries, churches met in homes. In Acts 16, an out-of-town businesswoman named Lydia listens to Paul’s message. She accepts Christ and is baptized. She immediately invites Paul and his companions to stay at her house. By the end of Acts 16 it’s clear that a brand new Christian fellowship has begun meeting in Lydia’s home, and Paul goes there to encourage “the brothers and sisters” (Acts 16:40). In the church, “water is thicker than blood.” The waters of Christian baptism initiate us into Jesus’ new definition of family.

            Because of the difficulty in speaking during crucifixion, we can assume that these final words spoken from the cross by Jesus were critical.  There is much that he needed to say and that we needed to hear.  “In this scene and in these final words, we see the courage of the women who were a part of Jesus’ life and ministry.  We are reminded once more of the profound role that Mary played in God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ.  We recall Jesus’ witness and call to care for our parents.  We see a picture of what it means to be the church … Christians caring for those who are younger and those who are older, as though those in need were our children or our parents.  And we see in Mary one who, though favored by God, walked through this dark valley, but – as Jesus himself expected her to do – carried on Christ’s mission after he was gone.  Jesus’ words to “Behold your son” and “Behold your mother” remind us that this mission is ours as well – caring for those Jesus cares for as if they are our own family.”

As Jesus instructed us, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.…You are my friends if you do what I command you.…It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another.” Amen.

This is the second week of our sermon series drawn from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Final Words from the Cross”.  Some of the words of today’s message are mine and some are those of Rev. Hamilton, but the inspiration and credit go to him.  I hope you are blessed by these messages as the book has blessed me.

I love all four Gospels, but I especially love Luke.  His Gospel highlightfinalwordss Jesus’ concern for the least, the last and the lost.  Luke begins by pointing out the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth.  As Rev. Hamilton says, “In Luke’s description of Jesus’ ministry, we find Jesus consistently concerned for the sinner, the outcast, the unclean, and the nobody.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus clearly identifies his mission as coming to ‘seek out and save the lost’.  It is not surprising then that only Luke’s Gospel records a conversation Jesus has as he hangs dying beside a thief.   As we consider this conversation, we’ll focus on the words of Jesus and ask: What does this scene teach us about Jesus, and what does it teach us about ourselves?”

People are often judged by the company they keep.  Throughout his life, Jesus associated with people who were looked down upon, and this troubled the religious leaders of the time.  In Luke 15:1-2 we read, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  Jesus associated with all sorts of undesirable people.  He touched lepers and ate meals with the unclean.  Even his inner circle of disciples consisted of a tax collector, several fishermen and other very ordinary men.

Rev. Hamilton points out that is Jesus’ day, the non-religious people did not generally like associating with religious people.  They probably knew that they were looked down upon, and they felt that they had to put on a show, pretending to be something they weren’t.  He says, “It is still that way for many nonreligious and nominally religious people today.  They might think about going to church, but then they think about what it feels like when they walk into church – and it doesn’t feel good.  The preacher seems to talk down to people like them, making them feel small.  But when Jesus was around nonreligious people, they didn’t feel small.  They didn’t feel like nobodies.  They didn’t feel like sinners.  They just felt like people who came to hear the good news of God in a way that made sense to them, and they found that they wanted to know more about this God Jesus talked about.”

Jesus stated his personal mission statement just a few days before his crucifixion.  Jesus was passing through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem, where the events of Holy Week would soon unfold.  Zacchaeus was one of the head tax collectors in the region of Jericho, and the Bible says he was a rich man. Jewish tax collectors like Zacchaeus were scorned by their countrymen for a couple of reasons: one, they were known for cheating the taxpayers; and, two, they worked for Rome. The other Jews saw Jewish tax collectors as collaborators with the enemy—traitors to their own people.  Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as the Lord passed through town, but, because Zacchaeus was a short man, he could not see over the crowd. Knowing that Jesus would pass by a certain sycamore tree, Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed the tree, figuring he could see Jesus passing below. To the complete astonishment of Zacchaeus and the crowd, Jesus stopped under the tree, looked up, and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”  Zacchaeus was overjoyed, but the crowd grumbled because Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and they could not understand why Jesus would choose to associate with such a man—a “sinner” as they called him. Sharing a meal with someone in the Middle East in Biblical times meant that you were willing to call that person your friend.  So when Jesus said that he wanted to stay at Zacchaeus’ house and later had a meal with him, the religious people couldn’t believe it.  Why would Jesus want to stay and eat with a known swindler like Zacchaeus?  The book imagines the scene: “Zacchaeus invited all his sinful friends for supper that night – prostitutes, tax collectors and thieves.  I picture Jesus eating with them, laughing and telling stories about the kingdom of God in a way that made the people want to know more.  And I picture the religious people standing outside, waving their fingers and saying, ‘Why does he eat with people like that?’  That’s when I imagine Jesus got up from the table, went to the religious people and said, ‘You just don’t understand, do you?’  And then he gave them his personal life mission statement: ‘The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.’”

As Jesus lived, so he died.  Even as he was crucified, Jesus was carrying out his mission statement and associating with sinners.  In his final moments, he reached out to save a lost soul.  If reaching the lost was so important to Jesus, what does that mean to us, his followers?

If we look at the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus, we can see the two possible responses people might make to Jesus.  Both criminals saw the same thing that day – a man who claimed to be the Messiah abused and crucified.  The heard the insults and the taunts.  They saw the cruelty.  They heard Jesus cry out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  But the conversation, as recorded in Luke, reveals their different responses.  One man’s heart was hardened.  He looked at Jesus and saw failure.  He heard Jesus’ plea for mercy and heard weakness.  “But something was happening to the heart of the other criminal as he watched and listened to Jesus on the cross.  Perhaps as he reflected on what Jesus had said and what Jesus had prayed, he began to think to himself, ‘My life is hopeless right now.  I’m going to die in a matter of hours, humiliated and defeated.  But maybe, just maybe, Jesus might be my hope.  Maybe there really is a God who loves us.  Maybe there is a God who cares for the hopeless.  Maybe there is a God who gives second chances.’  Then, whether from an emerging faith and understanding of what Jesus was doing or from a sense of compassion, he spoke to Jesus and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  Two criminals.  Two responses.  The question we must ask ourselves is this:  Which thief will I be?”

Jesus listened to the second criminal’s plea and answered him: “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  This one simple statement has a lot to teach us about life after death, God’s mercy and heaven.  What did Jesus mean when he said the word “today”.  A question that is frequently asked is “Exactly what happens when we die?”  Some scriptures talk about a future resurrection day when Jesus will judge the dead, while others seem to point to heaven immediately after death.  Let me share what Adam Hamilton has to say on this question.  He says, “After 30 years of study, my own view of what happens to us when we die is shaped by this passage and several others in the Bible.  I believe that when we die, we immediately enter into Christ’s kingdom – we are raised to life.  I believe this because Jesus is recorded as having conversations with Moses and Elijah in the Gospels.  I believe this because Paul noted that if he died he would be with the Lord, and his statement seems to indicate that this would happen immediately.  I believe this because Jesus turned to the thief on the cross and promised him that ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’”  On Ash Wednesday we confronted the finiteness of life … “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”   Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross assures us that there is more after this life is over.  His use of the word “today” is reassuring and comforting to us. Even so, this reassurance is not the primary point of Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross.  So what was his main point when he said, “Today you will be with me in paradise”?

The main point of Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross was to demonstrate the great mercy of God.  Luke, whose focus throughout his Gospel was the concern that Jesus had for the lost, forgotten and the outcasts, wants us to see that even as a criminal was dying for the crimes he committed, Jesus offered salvation.  As the book explains, “We would do well to notice that Jesus didn’t say, ‘Before I can offer you salvation, I need to make sure you fully understand some things.  Do you believe in the Trinity?  Do you believe that I am fully God and fully human?  Do you believe the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God?  Have you been baptized?  Have you accepted me into your heart?  No!  Jesus saw that this man was reaching toward him, and he offered him paradise.  I’m not suggesting that understanding Christian doctrine and being baptized are not important; but what we see here is that Jesus looked at a man who had just turned to him in that moment, and that was enough.  This man did not know Christian doctrine.  But he had faith the size of a mustard seed, and that was enough for Jesus to say, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Sometimes, we think we have a handle on who is saved and who isn’t, who we’ll be seeing in heaven and who we won’t.  But how many of those people we don’t think make the grade have as much faith as that thief on the cross? Shouldn’t we be hoping that Jesus’ words to the dying thief on the cross reflect the heart with which Jesus will judge us?  That he will look past our mistakes, our misconceptions and misunderstandings, our faulty theology.  That he will see that we wanted to be with him and put our trust in him.  That will be enough … as Ephesians 2:8 tells us, “We are saved by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God.”

Finally, let’s look at what Jesus’ words tell us about heaven.  Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  The original Greek word for “paradise” in this scripture comes from a Persian word meaning the “king’s garden”.  In ancient times, the king’s garden was a walled garden that was a place of incredible beauty.  When someone was being honored in ancient Persia, they were given the privilege of enjoying the king’s garden.  I love the image of heaven that this brings to mind – the King’s garden.  There are not a lot of descriptions of heaven in scripture, but the thought of spending eternity in the King’s garden with people I love, without hate or violence or stress or anxiety, sounds like paradise to me.

“Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  These words of Jesus from the cross point us toward his mission, and ours: to seek and to save those who are lost.  This includes those who, to us, seem hopelessly lost.  The words beckon us to be like the thief whose heart was moved by seeing the crucified Jesus, and to pray with him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  These words lead us to the paradise that was restored by Jesus on the cross, and remind us of the promise we have of dwelling in the King’s garden with him.


Father, Forgive Them …

Posted: February 26, 2017 in religious, Uncategorized

(This is a summary of today’s sermon, which was based on the book “Final Words From the Cross” by Adam Hamilton).

It is not surprising that the first words spoken by Jesus from the cross were a prayer.  What is surprising is what he prayed: “Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.”  The nature of this prayer is not only surprising, but also haunting, confusing and even disturbing.  We will begin our examination of this prayer from the cross by asking this question – for whom was Jesus praying?  What did he mean by “them”?  Who was Jesus asking God to forgive?  He was, of course, praying for the soldiers who had beaten and tortured him, who had nailed him to the cross and who were about to gamble for his clothing.  “Father, forgive them.” He was also praying for the crowd who had gathered to watch this spectacle.  Not only were they watching, but they were joining in the verbal abuse … mocking him, accusing him, laughing at him.  For them he prayed, “Father, forgive them.finalwords  Rev. Hamilton says, “This is astounding!  Can you imagine such mercy?  That Jesus would pray for them as he hung on the cross is one of the most powerful images in all of the Gospels.”  Yes, he prayed for his executioners and he prayed for his tormentors.  But there was someone else included in Jesus’ prayer, someone else for whom Jesus was pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness to be extended.  We are among the “them” Jesus was praying for.  He was praying for us.  There’s a classic hymn which asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  The answer to that question is “yes”.  In a profound spiritual sense, you were there, I was there.  The entire human race was there at the crucifixion.  The death of Jesus was an event that transcended time.  This sacrificial act was for those people who had come before and those who would come after just as much as it was for those who heard his words that day.  “Father, forgive them …” This is the power of the words Jesus cried out from the cross.  These words were for all of humanity.

With that in mind, here are three additional truths that these first words from the cross can teach us.  The fact that Jesus devoted one of his last statements to a prayer asking God for our forgiveness tells us something significant – we need forgiveness. It was not just those around the cross who needed forgiveness … we need to be forgiven, too.  Two of the underlying themes of the entire Bible are our need for forgiveness and God’s willingness to give it.  We need forgiveness because of our struggle with sin.  The Greek and Hebrew words most often translated as “sin” in the Bible are words whose literal meaning is “to stray from the path” or “to miss the mark”.  God has a plan for us, a path for us, but we stray away from that path.  We fall, we fail and we make mistakes.  Some people feel that Christians dwell on sin too much and make people feel guilty.  On the other hand, there are churches where you will rarely if ever hear the word “sin” spoken.  Let’s come down somewhere in the middle.  If sin is something we see in everybody else except us, that’s a problem.  Everybody sins, even people who faithfully go to church.  The church is not a hall of fame for the perfect, it’s a hospital for sinners.  We all sin, period.  So, if everybody sins, why bother talking about it?  We need to talk about it because unless we realize that we are broken and lost, we don’t know that we need a savior.  We all sin and our sin has a cost.  The Bible says that the wages of sin is death.  But we don’t have to pay that price … the cost of our sin was paid in full by Jesus Christ on the cross.

A second thing we need to know is that God’s grace is a gift.  Jesus didn’t just point out our sin.  He was asking for God’s mercy toward those who sin.  What is especially amazing is that he prayed for God’s mercy for those who stood at the foot of the cross while they were still tormenting and abusing him.  Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them”, for them and for us, while we were still in the midst of our sin.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul puts it this way, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  He didn’t say “Get your act together first and I’ll see what I can do for you.”  He didn’t say “I know how you’ve messed up and I know you’ll do it again.  You’re a bad risk.”  Before you were born, God knew the sinful things you would do and he forgave you in advance.  Jesus went to the cross for you and for me because we are worth dying for.  Our forgiveness is not a reward for good behavior.  He forgives us because He loves us unconditionally, mistakes and all.  Rev. Hamilton says, “Never have human beings done anything so dark as to condemn, torture, and then crucify the Son of God, and yet Jesus prayed for them even as they were in the midst of their sin, asking that they might receive mercy.  If mercy was available to them, and it was, then I promise you it is available to you.  The gift of salvation has already been given to you.  Your task is to receive it, to trust it, and to accept your forgiveness and salvation.”

Rev. Hamilton says that God’s grace is not only a gift; it is also an example for us.  Jesus could have prayed this prayer in silence, but he chose to pray it aloud.  He wanted us to “overhear” this prayer.  Not only did he want us to know that we are forgiven, but he also wanted to teach us what it means to be his follower.  If we choose to follow Jesus, we are expected to practice forgiveness, just as he did.  Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry teaching about the importance of forgiving others.  In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  He taught his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  When his disciples asked him how to pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer which says “forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.”  This is a perplexing verse.  Does it mean that God will not forgive us unless we forgive other people?  Not exactly.  The book explains it this way: “Remember, God has already forgiven us.  The question is whether we will accept the gift of forgiveness that God has offered.  If you are someone who resents other people and refuses to forgive them, then you carry bitterness in your heart toward them.  That makes it very hard for you to accept God’s forgiveness, because in your heart you are unwilling to forgive others … People who regularly forgive others, on the other hand, find it easier to believe and trust in the grace of God because their hearts have been enlarged by grace, and they freely offer it to others.”

Is it easy?  No. Even the twelve disciples struggled with forgiveness.  They asked Jesus, “How many times must we forgive?  Is seven times enough?”  Jesus responded, “Not seven times but seventy seven times.”  We are to keep on forgiving. Forgiveness is hard for us because it is human nature to want justice for those who have hurt us, even as we want mercy for ourselves.  That’s why Jesus showed us how it’s done.  He taught about it and preached about it, then he modeled it for us in the worst of circumstances.  He spoke this prayer out loud to show us how to forgive.  Jesus was saying, “This is what forgiveness looks like.”

Forgiveness is not something we learn early on. It is not intuitive and is not natural. As I have gone through life, I have learned a lot about it.  For example, I have learned that forgiveness is not always fair. There can be a pretty big dose of inequality in forgiveness. I have learned that forgiveness is not easy. In fact it is hard. Another thing I have learned is that forgiveness has little to do with how deserving the person is or whether they have asked to be forgiven. God expects us to forgive even the unforgivable. C.S Lewis summarizes this idea when he said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” And that means forgiving somebody who has wronged you even if they are not sorry. Forgiveness is an act of faith: trusting God to work in every situation, knowing God has greater plans and knowing God will handle any justice, mercy, or grace that needs to take place. Still another thing I have learned is that forgiveness is a choice; a choice I make. And I have learned that forgiveness is not about “letting go” pretending we can “just get over it” without addressing the heart.  Moving on without addressing the heart accomplishes little.

Forgiveness is not only difficult, it’s complicated.  Just because there is forgiveness doesn’t mean there are no consequences.  We can forgive others and continue to love them, yet not want to be around them much anymore.  There may be legal consequences or financial consequences, but forgiveness can still flow.  Sometimes it is hard to let go of the hurt and we find the anger creeping back in.  This will happen until we can truly forgive.  Lewis Smedes once said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

On the cross, the first words of Jesus demonstrate God’s willingness to forgive our sins, and these words call us to become people who follow in his path – people who can pray, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.  Take a moment to think about people who have hurt you or wronged you in any way.  Think of their names.   Are you willing to let go?  Are you willing to forgive?  Would you be willing now to join in the prayer that Jesus prayed for those who crucified him?  Father forgive them … Father you know their heart … and you know my pain … I pray for those who hurt me … Forgive them … and heal me …  Amen.