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Thursday, April 24, 2014

When We Struggle (Location: Mount of Olives)

“Jesus left and made His way to the Mount of Olives, as was His custom, and the disciples followed Him. He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed. 
He said, ‘Father, if it’s Your will, take this cup of suffering away from Me.
However, not My will but Your will must be done.’
Then a heavenly angel appeared to Him and strengthened Him.”
Luke 22: 39, 41-43 (Common English Bible)

     Recently, this has become one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible. After thirty years of doing ministry, I expected that desiring and living by the will of God would come naturally. It has not. In fact, as I approach fifty-four years of age, the struggle of my will and God’s will has become more intense. It is some consolation that Jesus experiences the same struggle here on the Mount of Olives. Such was Jesus’ struggle that He asked that the suffering He faced be taken away. I need no further proof than this request that Jesus was, in fact, fully human as we are.

     We all face individual moments of struggle. Some struggle with seeking a new way forward after a major life change such as the death of a loved one or divorce. Others struggle with inadequate financial resources. Still others struggle with poor health, estranged relationships with loved ones or any number of new disappointments that come all too regularly. To all of us, in these moments of struggle, the message of these few sentences is loud and clear: do not imagine that because life has suddenly become difficult that you have made a wrong decision, followed a poor pathway in life or arrived at the wrong place. The idea that faithful Christians always have days without struggle is simply a romantic misunderstanding of what it means to follow Jesus; following Jesus always leads to the Mount of Olives.

     It is particularly comforting to know that it isn’t unusual to experience the struggle of our will and God’s will. The Apostle Paul once cried in utter despair that, “I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate.” (Romans 7:15) Paul knows well the common struggle of self-will and God’s will. We are routinely betrayed by forces – within and without – that cause us to make decisions contrary to our desire to follow Jesus. In these moments, we may be tempted to abandon hope; to throw in the towel and give up the struggle.

     In those moments, Jesus demonstrates an alternative to abandoning the struggle; Jesus invites us to prayer on the Mount of Olives. Jesus’ own prayer is a powerful witness to the difficulty of the struggle. Such struggle is too great to face alone. Our strength is not sufficient. In prayer, Jesus not only demonstrates His inadequacy to meet the challenge, Jesus’ prayer results in receiving uncommon strength from above. And Jesus wants us to know that if we share His struggle, we will also share in the power of God that gave Him strength. In those moments when we face a difficulty, when we struggle with what we want and what God wants for us, the Mount of Olives reminds us that the battle must be won on our knees.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

What God Does for Us (Location: Via Dolorosa)

“When Pilate heard these words, he led Jesus out
and seated him on the judge’s bench at the place called Stone Pavement.
It was about noon on the Preparation Day for the Passover.
Pilate said to the Jewish leaders, ‘Here’s your king.’”
John 19: 13, 14 (Common English Bible)

     Via Dolorosa means, the way of the cross. Historians and archaeologist disagree over the precise route that awful procession would have taken; the route Jesus took to the cross. What is certain is that it would become a route marked with grief. But the route to the cross began from a place known as the Stone Pavement, part of the Tower of Antonia bordering the northwest corner of the Temple complex. It is here that Jesus is tried before Pilate. It is here that Jesus is sentenced to flogging and crucifixion.

     Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa alone. The twelve men who shared in Jesus’ ministry, the twelve who shared a meal with Jesus only the night before, are not with him. What is likely is that they are hiding behind a locked door, questioning the abrupt arrest of Jesus and what that now meant for them. Specifics of their location are unavailable – only that they were not with Jesus. Perhaps they were experiencing shame, horror and disbelief. Their golden dream has now turned into a nightmare. 

     N. T. Wright, that wonderful teacher of our faith says that the absence of the disciples is important. Jesus had to walk the Via Dolorosa alone. It is a major problem in Christian devotion, suggests Wright, that when we think of the way of the cross we so often think of Jesus as the great example, with ourselves simply imitating him. Actually, central to our faith is the conviction that Jesus must do for us what we cannot. An important point of the Via Dolorosa is that Jesus must walk it alone.

     “Jesus suffers so that others need not; Jesus dies so that others may not”, observes Wright. Pilgrims who walk the Via Dolorosa today do so for many reasons. Some make the journey out of simple curiosity. Others wish to shop the endless souvenirs that are sold along the route. All jostle in the narrow streets and alleyways. But perhaps an authentic walk along the Via Dolorosa is one where we realize that here Jesus walked on our behalf, that this way of grief was an achievement, an accomplishment that could only be completed by God’s Son. This is a walk best completed in silence and reverence.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Speaking Wisely

“Do you love life; do you relish the chance to enjoy good things?
Then you must keep your tongue from evil and keep your lips from speaking lies!”
Psalms 34:12, 13 (Common English Bible)

     It is a rhetorical question, of course. Who doesn’t want to be thoroughly alive, enjoying all the good things that life has to offer, to be lifted above the plain of mere existence? To live a large life, a life of spacious activities and with a grand purpose, captures our imaginations. This is a life of abounding energy and possesses a deep awareness of the things that blesses – both personally and those around us.

     The Psalms offer treasured insight for such a life, insight for embracing a spacious life of blessedness, of extracting the secret flavors and essences of things as we live into each day. Very specifically, we are instructed in the wisdom of many who have traveled before us; we are told to exercise wise government over our tongues. Relationships with one another rises to unimaginable heights as the tongue is disciplined and directed to build, to edify and exalt those who hear us. It is as though life receives it’s nutriment from careful and blessed speech.

     Our speech is to often destructive. Poison-soaked speech first poisons the speaker. “Every word we speak recoils upon the speaker’s heart, leaves its influence, either in grace or disfigurement,” writes that wonderful preacher, J. H. Jowett. Where the tongue is untrue, the heart is afraid of exposure. Life is diminished. One may also argue that such speech is lazy speech. Where there is no exercise of restraint or government of the tongue; it is free to roam at will. Therefore, urges the Psalms, keep your tongue from evil and speaking lies. The tongue that is held in serve restriction, the tongue that only shapes words that are good and encouraging to others results in quiet and fruitful happiness.     

     Undisciplined tongues seem to flourish today. And the world is the poorer for it. Yet, our own lives may move to a higher plain simply by a personal revolt from the disorderly conduct of tongues. The best way to affect a departure from the guile and venom that flows freely around us is to exercise one’s self in active good, of words spoken kindly, with pleasantness and grace. The fragrance of our speech will tickle the hearts of others. It may invite them to share in the same wisdom of the Psalms, an invitation to experience a blessed life, full, safe and abounding in good things.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Looking for Jesus (Location: Nazareth)

“Nathanael responded, ‘Can anything from Nazareth be good?’
Philip said, ‘Come and see.’”
 John 1:46 (Common English Bible)

     It was an honest question. Nazareth was a tiny village with a population in Jesus’ day that is estimated to have been as little as 100 people. In the region of Galilee, Nazareth would be difficult to locate on a map, if it even appeared on a map. It was simply a small community of little significance; probably only ten to fifteen extended families. The birth home to Mary, Jesus’ mother, Nazareth was too small for strong employment prospects. What is more likely is that the few men who lived in Nazareth traveled to the nearby capital of Galilee, Sepphoris to work each day. Nazareth was a sleepy, bedroom community.

     So Nathanael is skeptical, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?” No ridicule was intended, only surprise. Nathanael reflected the popular opinion of the day. People that appeared on a world stage rarely came from such small villages. Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament or in any available Jewish literature. The unimportance of Nazareth creates astonishment that one of its residents could possibly be the one spoken of by the prophets.

     Philip’s response, “Come and see” is the best remedy against preconceived opinion. And opinions about anyone significant coming from Nazareth were strong; ancestry to Nazareth is synonymous with lacking all human means of power. Perhaps that is the reason that God chose Nazareth as the birth place for the savior of the world. As New Testament scholar Dale Bruner observes, Jesus’ royal claim would be utterly incredible to all persons who do not take God into account.  

     Often today we see people who live defeated lives. Marriages that are more difficult to sustain than ever thought imaginable on the wedding day, children who seem bent on making unfortunate choices, and preparing for a worry-free retirement in a difficult economic climate all deplete us some days. It isn’t surprising the number of people who move through the day with shoulders slumped and furrows on their brow. Life is hard and resources to meet the challenges of each day seem scarce – that is if God isn’t taken into account.

     What many people miss today – even occasionally good Christians – is that we were never intended to live only by human strength and power. We are promised more strength and more power than we are personally capable of. It is the power that was available to the one from Nazareth that drew the skepticism of Nathanael. Perhaps that is why so many people today make a pilgrimage to Nazareth. Deep down they are weary. They are desperate for refueling; for fresh energy for the living of these days.

     If you make the pilgrimage to Nazareth, go humbly, get down underneath the noise of the large town it is today and wait on God in the silence of your hearts. There is no telling what you may hear or what you will discover. But the heart that is attentive to God will recognize that following Jesus has little to do with geography. Jesus has left Nazareth. In prayer, Jesus may be met personally right where you are now. And His power is ready to change you.