Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Can you hear me now? An Easter meditation on suffering and God's will

If you have watched television at any point in the past five years, at some point you have been besieged by the ever-present flood of ads for various cell phone companies. Probably the most effective of these ads is the series by Verizon, which feature a sort of geeky looking fellow in glasses and a zippered jacket, the Verizon Guy. Verizon Guy travels all over the country, looking for places the average cell phone might not have service. So he walks through swamps and into elevators, football fields, and fashion shows. Everywhere he goes, Verizon Guy asks a question that has so penetrated the brains of everybody in our culture that it has become part of late-night comics’ routines, YouTube videos, and everyday conversation. The question is, “Can you hear me now?”

While that series of ads was an effective way for Verizon to sell phones based on the idea that their cellular network was more reliable and had a wider coverage area than any other, it’s also a profound question when it is asked in the spiritual dimension. Sooner or later, most people go through circumstances in their lives in which they stare up at a heaven from which all trace of the presence of God seems to have vanished and ask Him “Can you hear me now?” Maybe that describes you right now. Maybe you have watched your mother suffer through Alzheimer’s slow march into the darkness. Or maybe your spouse or your child went to see a doctor who told you that they wouldn’t live to see another Christmas. Or perhaps you are simply going through your everyday life with everyday pains like family members you have prayed for that will not turn to Christ, a marriage that seems broken beyond fixing, or a spiritual life from which all of the joy and vitality has leeched away. And you prayed and in your pain you cried out to God, “Can you hear me now?” and hoped for a definitive “Yes.”

If you know the story of Jesus, you know that his life didn’t end well. He was stripped, mocked, beaten, and crowned with thorns. He was then crucified, nailed to tree to suffocate to death and finally pierced through the heart with a Roman spear. All of this happened after being declared innocent of any wrongdoing. In the midst of it, Jesus cried out to his Father, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabancthani!” which is Aramaic for “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As our sins were laid on him, Jesus cried out, having lost the close fellowship with the Father that had been his for all eternity and that, more than the wounds and the cross, broke his heart and tore his soul. And so he screamed forsaken, so that none of us would ever have to eternally cry out in that same way.

And significantly, God did not immediately intervene. I think the reasons that He did not do so are manifold. But I think one reason is to teach us something about God’s presence with us in suffering. Let me just ask those of you who know your Bible a few questions. Who was it that permitted Jesus to die? God. Who loved him? God did. He said “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” How did God feel about what He allowed to happen in Jesus’ life? All we know is that Jesus’ prayed “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” When Jesus was crucified, what do you think God thought about that? It’s my belief that only Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness for his torturers prevented God from bringing justice right then and there. God hurt over what He had sovereignly planned and purposed.

Let me ask you a couple more questions. Could He have kept Jesus from dying? Yes. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden, Peter tried to defend him with his sword. Peter didn’t do a very good job, but regardless, Jesus said “Peter, put it away. If I want to, I can call 12 legions of angels to defend me.” A legion is 6,000 troops, and one angel is described in the Old Testament as wiping out 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night. So Jesus is saying, “Peter, I’ve got 72,000 angels I can call on right now. I can take care of myself.” Yet he never called them, because he was looking to fulfill God’s greater purpose in our salvation. One more important question: Was God able to do something about the suffering He allowed? You bet He was. What happened to Jesus? Less than 72 hours later He walked out of the grave with a resurrected, glorified body. So let me ask you, when Jesus cried out, wondering if God could still hear him, what was God’s answer?

In Romans 15, Paul reminds us that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (v. 4). Let me read that for you again: “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” With Jesus as our example, let’s ask the same questions about us when we suffer: First, who is that permitted us to suffer? God. Who loves us? God does. In fact, His love has been so sufficiently and eternally demonstrated that it is the holiday that we are celebrating tonight. Could God have prevented the evil he allowed into your life? Yes, absolutely. The Creator of all things could have easily stopped any evil that comes into your life from touching you, even an evil of the sort that caused you to question whether He is there to hear your prayers. But he sovereignly allows that particular trial because He has a sovereign purpose in your life, just as He did in Jesus’ life.

Last two questions: How does God feel about what He sovereignly allows and purposes in your life? He hurts for you, weeping along with you just as Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus. Are you ready for this last one? Is God able to do something about the suffering he has allowed? You bet he is.

For every person who has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ has God as Father and becomes a fellow heir with Jesus of the glory that is to come. Just as Jesus suffered, died, and was raised into glory in a glorified body, so the Scriptures promise us that after we have suffered in this life for a little while, we too will die and be raised into glory in a glorified body. Because the message of Easter is that death is not the final word. Or to say it as the book of Hebrews does: Jesus “offered up loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard” (5:7). In other words, when Jesus screamed out to his Father “Father! Can you hear me now?!” God’s answer thundered back “YES!” And that “Yes” is the same answer that He gives and will give to you when you cry out, because if you are God’s child, He hears you in the midst of suffering. In fact, He will do something one day that will be so great and so grand that Paul says what we go through now doesn’t even begin to compare with it. One day the Sun will rise on a new Day, just as it is rising now and we will stand face to face with the Maker of Heaven and earth in a place where the “dwelling of God is with men,” where “righteousness dwells,” where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes,” there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away,” and where “men study war no more.” We will be delivered from death into a glory that cannot be described. Just like Jesus.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sunrise and snowfall

This past Sunday was our church's Resurrection celebration. As part of that celebration, we rented the clubhouse at one of the local parks. This particular clubhouse is a neo-classical turn-of-the century mansion that dates from the park's days as a country club. The back wall of the clubhouse's central room is lined with windows that look out over the Illinois river flowing gently just a few yards away.

It was a neat setting to celebrate the Resurrection. But I'm trying to remember when the last time was that I saw snowfall during the Easter Sunrise Service. Kind of a surreal experience actually. But of all of things we celebrate in life, there is nothing so worthy of celebration as the fact of the Resurrection. Lots of religions (primarily pagan fertility cults) believe in a god who dies and rises. But in only one did it actually occur.

Top 10 Signs You Are a Father of Small Children

As anyone even remotely familiar with this blog knows, I am the father of four children, ranging in age from 7 to 2 (which somehow sounds a lot better than when they ranged in age from 5 years old to 6 months!). Nevertheless, apart from the rather obvious signs there are little people about (such as the fact that there are little people underfoot), I have been noticing some things which serve as daily, humorous reminders of the stage of life in which I find myself:
  1. A window in your kitchen is covered with buttery handprints.
  2. Your garage door is going up and down even though neither you nor your wife have touched the remote.
  3. You find a half-eaten chicken nugget laying on the top of the toilet tank. (Which brings up another question: What part of a chicken is the nugget?).
  4. To take a trip to the kitchen at night with the lights out is to take your life in your hands, because scattered about the floor are various animals, cars, Lincoln Logs, and blocks, the pointy parts of which will inevitably lodge in the tenderest portions of your feet, causing you to fall while stifling the urge to scream.
  5. Your hairbrush disappears from your bathroom drawer only to reappear under the living room sofa a week later.
  6. Every nook, cranny, and crevice of the family vehicle is filled with an assortment of McDonald's french fries, cheerios, Tic-Tacs, and other detritus.
  7. Your find your toothbrush on one of the lower shelves of the the pantry, wet and freshly coated with food that you definitely don't remember eating.
  8. You know what the current prize is in McDonald's Happy Meals.
  9. You know all of the words to the themes from Elmo's World, Veggie Tales and Larry Boy.
  10. You sure hope ketchup counts as a vegetable, because it's one of the only ones certain members of your family are regularly eating.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

God So Loved The World

For God so loved the world, not just a few,
The wise and great, the noble and the true,
Or those of favored class or rank or hue.
God loved the world. Do you?
Easter is drawing near, and each year its coming always reminds me of the astonishing love of our great God for all people. For who but an amazingly loving God would not only send His Son for rebellious people, but willingly die for evil those people did against Him? And who but the self-giving Triune God could ensure that the demands of both justice and grace were both met so that sin could be paid for without requiring death of every person who has ever lived? And who but our marvelous Lord would not only pay for sin and provide human beings with homes in heaven but also adopt those who believe as His children and give them His Holy Spirit to empower, indwell, and seal them for their redemption day? Easter, more than any other day, reminds us of these great truths and spurs us toward gratitude.

But in addition to gratitude, it ought to spur us also toward action. After all, if we love and serve a good of such astonishing, amazing, marvelous love for people who hated and rebelled against Him, how can we do less than to serve as the heralds of that love to all people, just as He has called us to do? And if God’s deep desire is that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), then shouldn’t it be the deep desire of every Christian as well?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

God Wants All Men to Be Saved

I urge then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone-for kings and all those in authority...This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. -1 Timothy 2:1-4
It seems to me that, a lot times, we Christians start drawing the circle of God’s mercy a lot narrower than God does. In the 1800s, the Southern Methodists and Southern Baptists split from their parent denominations because the people forming those denominations refused to accept the biblical idea that God viewed black Africans as possessing equal dignity and an equal standing before God. They forgot that God wants all men to be saved, not just the ones that look like me.

In a similar way, sometimes Christians today lack compassion for those on the other side of the political spectrum. Rather than pray for them or seek to befriend them, we write articles condemning them and their ideas. Moreover, we often lack compassion for those with morally "messy" lives. Their homosexuality, or promiscuity, or drunkenness, or vocabulary turn us off so much that rather than pray for them, try to befriend them, or share Jesus with them, we get scared and build ourselves separate cultural institutions so we don’t have to spend time with people from “the world.” Yet it’s for all men that Christ came, not just the ones we find appealing or lovable. Thus, we have no right to discriminate between people we are willing to relate to and people we are not. Christ died for all men.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Gap

No, this isn't a post about a clothing store, but about the distance within each of us between the truths we profess and the lives that we lead. Last Sunday I spent a bit of time on 1 Timothy 1:19,
...holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith.
My point was simple: To the extent there exists any separation between what you say you believe ("faith") and how you live ("a good conscience"), to that extent there will be pressure in your life to adapt your faith. People simply cannot live long-term with internal contradictions. Either a man's beliefs will overrule his behavior, or his behavior will overrule his faith. There simply is no middle ground in which a man can continue in sin indefinitely without any adverse effect.

Monday, March 3, 2008

From the lips of children and infants...

I spend a part of each night tucking in the girls. Though I'm usually pretty tired by the time they go to bed, most nights I really look forward to those few minutes alone with each of them. Every night we have the same routine. I arrange their blankets and tuck them in, then we pray together, I answer the last of the day's questions, turn out the lights, and wish them good night. On most nights I pray for peaceful sleep, the absence of nightmares, and good days at school. But I also pray on most nights that they will grow into great followers of Jesus and have opportunities to talk about Jesus with each of their friends. Usually these prayers conclude with hugs and kisses and wishes for a good night. Tonight was different.

Tonight after I finished praying, Sara stopped me and said "Daddy, I'm scared to talk to my friends about Jesus." When I asked why, she replied "Because I'm scared that they won't like me anymore if I talk to them about Jesus and I don't want to lose any of my friends." Then she started to cry. After I dried her tears, we talked about the fact that sometimes doing the right thing is scary and carries a cost, but it is still the right thing to do.

When adults get vulnerable with one another about why they don't talk about Jesus with their friends and family, fear of rejection tops the list of reasons. I was shocked to realize that fear starts so early. Apparently, it's Satan's best lie and he can't wait to use it.