THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 2

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Visible Jesus

While lambs and bunnies and foil-wrapped chocolates are a hollow substitute for the true significance of Easter, they’ve got one thing right: they’re visible, tangible, unmistakable objects that symbolize something about Easter for us. They represent new life.

God’s plan for Easter expresses it much better than bunnies do, though. He planned to put His own invisible, immortal being into a visible and tangible package we people would understand: He became fully human.

Isaiah describes the unpretentious figure God would assume, describing Him “like a tender shoot”, “like a root”, “like one despised”, “like a lamb”, and “like a sheep”. Those expressions are how the Sovereign Immortal God chose to reveal Himself as the man Jesus. They don’t conjure up for us much in the way of majesty or power, do they? In fact the plan was that Jesus would show up in flesh and blood during the peak of the Roman occupation of the Middle East when prelates and prefects had the power to treat innocent people like animals to be slaughtered if they so desired.

Didn’t God know that when He made His plan for Easter?

Yes. He did know that. It’s one of the most pronounced and palpable examples of how God works in peoples’ lives: He takes hopeless and painful situations and brings unimaginable good out of them. A writer to the early Christians in Rome in the first century A.D. would describe this penchant of God like this: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God works good out of all things, even things that appear bad.

So God squeezes Himself into a form expressed by twenty-three pairs of chromosomes and shows Himself to be a real man.

But in living among men and women of first century Roman occupation something became noticeably obvious. He was like other people in every way except one. He never did a single wrong thing. Never. He never hurt or hated another person or disobeyed any moral law in any way. Not even once. He never spoke the whitest of lies, never judged those who had fallen into immorality, never coerced or manipulated others to have His own way.

So Isaiah’s pictures of Jesus as a tender shoot and a lamb accurately describe the core uniqueness of Jesus as perfectly sinless. But those of you who know anything about the Jewish culture into which Jesus would come know something else about the typology of lambs. They are not merely the tangible embodiment of new life and flawless innocence. They represent the concept of self-sacrifice for another.

Debts must be paid. Sins must be punished. Offenses cannot be swept under the carpet when a completely holy and just God must be faced.

So the Lamb of God is the uniquely sinless One who could be the visible, tangible perfect human worthy of taking the death consequence every one of us has earned by our own rebellion against God. Do any of us claim to be innocent, completely perfect and free from any wrong-doing? We know better. We’ve all fallen short of the high mark of perfection God designed us for. We’ve chosen to make up our own rules. And, sadly, we’ve all become prisoners of the merciless taskmaster of sin whose wages are death.

That is why Jesus chose to die – not because the Romans put Him on a cross, but because He wanted to pay the moral debt we owe. That is why He came to earth as visible, tangible man. That was the plan for Easter. The big question is: Will we accept Jesus as the ultimate Easter gift?

(Photo Credit: “Osterhaeschen aus Hefeteig” by Schwäbin (Wikimedia)License: CreativeCommons by-sa-3.0-de (deed). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons)

 

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THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 1

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Malady

In 2800 B.C., when the idea of civilization was still a young one, people already knew there was a problem. An Assyrian tablet inscribed in that period bemoans, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days…Bribery and corruption are common”—that comment from a military civilization known for its extreme and violent barbarity.

Two millennia later, inscribing with stylus on stone or lead, the prolific Hebrew writer Isaiah observed the same core problem with humanity, saying, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Our ‘own way’, he observes, has led us into “infirmities”, “sorrows”, “iniquities” and a lack of “peace”.

He is a spokesman for every one of us. From the earliest cave dwellers and nomads, to the metropolitan elite of our day, every one of us must concede we suffer the same malady. We are, by nature, a species in pursuit of elusive peace: with God, with others and with ourselves.

But Isaiah’s purpose is not to express a fatalist’s perspective. His intention is to reveal God’s means of resolving the conflict. This is one of the earliest and clearest prophecies outlining God’s proposal: God’s plan for Easter.

Of course, Isaiah doesn’t call it Easter. He’s too busy inscribing words he would likely have had no way of fully comprehending. He was eight hundred years too early to see God incarnate being arrested, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.”

Have we thought of that as carefully as we ought to? God Himself, knowing more intimately than anyone else how dreadfully our sorrows and iniquities mar our lives, plans our malady’s resolution to come at His own expense.

He wasn’t planning the lighthearted Easter egg hunts we love to celebrate with children running in green spring fields. He wasn’t devising new ways to wrap chocolate in brightly coloured foil. He wasn’t even insisting it ought to be imbedded in a four-day weekend so that we could gather with loved ones from near and far. Those are joyful add-ons to Easter.

God’s plan was to create a place for Himself to enter humanity’s broken world the way we all had to enter it, in flesh and blood, and bear a crushing blow on our behalf. The One who is rebelled against by every one of us bears the brunt of His own righteous justice. Can we understand it?

It would be like a judge pronouncing with the fall of his gavel the death sentence on a guilty prisoner, and then stepping up to the gallows himself to take the punishment. It is inconceivable, isn’t it?

And yet, that is what God’s plan for Easter was, long before our lives, long before Jesus’ life on earth, even long before Isaiah’s life. The writer of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, describes Jesus as “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev.13:8). What that means is that God, knowing we would each choose rebellion against Him in one form or another, made plans way back at this earth’s birth, to solve the malady we would bring upon ourselves. And He would solve it at His own expense, by His own incarnate death.

That was His plan for Easter.

As we prepare for Easter 2015, let’s begin to think that thought through, and Isaiah’s chapter 53 is a good place to start.

(Photo Credit:Wikimedia Commons; Creator: Luba Petrusha)

THE SAME COMPASSION

Vanuatu Cyclone Pam

Cyclone Pam was merciless to Vanuatu last week. 300km/h winds tore corrugated iron roofs off buildings as if they were tinfoil. Crops have been left devastated, and drinking water is contaminated as a result of the destructive winds. Thousands of people are suddenly homeless, and some sources say people are drinking salt water for lack of a fresh, clean water supply.

Some seasons of life are like that. I don’t mean the meteorological phenomenon, but rather affairs that bear down on us and overwhelm us with their emotional and relational, financial, physical, or spiritual forms of destruction like literal cyclones. It’s no wonder someone termed them the ‘storms of life’. When something with this level of impact hits us we, too, experience a sort of homelessness and thirst.

The routines we’ve built around us, the adaptations to life’s little quirks, and the strategies we’ve developed to interact well with people around us can come crashing down at our feet when an unexpected storm thunders through. Surveying the damage we wonder how we will ever reconstruct the scattered pieces back into any semblance of order.

If there is one good thing about mishap and calamity, it is that it puts us in a position where we are recipients of the greatest humanitarian aid ever offered. I don’t mean World Vision, GlobalMedic, or the International Red Cross, although they and several other non-profit humanitarian organizations are already generously involved in aiding Vanuatu. I mean Someone much greater and of further-reaching impact than any NPO. I mean Jesus.

Jesus has a heart for the hurting. That’s you and me, though we don’t always admit or appreciate it. If we take the time to read through any of the gospels, though, we see a major theme running through the narrative of Jesus’ life on earth. His purpose was to accomplish the Father’s will, and the Father’s will was always to heal broken lives. God really loves people.

On many occasions when Jesus surveyed the people around Him, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). He always healed those who came to Him for help, yet never forced Himself on those who refused to be touched by Him. Sorrowing over those who were not open to His compassion, He observed, “Look, your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38).

Jesus’ compassion is about making desolate lives whole and full and glorious. It’s a task He begins while we are here on earth and will complete at our inauguration someday in heaven when our earth-life is finished.

So whether we’re talking about catastrophes like cyclones, or the inner turmoil of lives under daunting pressures, there is nothing less than the compassion of Jesus that can solve the core of the problem. The same compassion that motivated Him to heal individuals, feed thousands, and pay the moral debt for all the millions of humanity, moves Jesus on your and my behalf to be available to us today.

“Come to me,” Jesus invites, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). That’s an invitation of compassion that Jesus offers anyone who is willing to be touched by Him. Is it you?

(Photo Credit: Non-Profit Organization 350.org)

A SEEKER’S STORY: Conclusion (John 3:1-21)

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The night was over. The first rays of the morning sun were sending shafts of sunlight in through the windows. The flickering light of the lamp had gone out, and Jesus and Nicodemus rose from the table and stretched. Their discussion had required all those hours of exploration—Israel’s teacher had needed time to ask the Master questions a thinking person wrestles with. Jesus’ words were rich with truth and understanding, concepts Nicodemus would need to mull over on his own.

But it was clear to Nicodemus that this talk had been a study in contrasts. Jesus had shown Nicodemus the dividing line that separates inclusion in the kingdom of God from exclusion from it; spiritual birth from physical birth; eternal life from mortal life; and living in truth and light from living in evil and darkness.

Jesus doesn’t offer any neutral zone – Nicodemus understood that. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many more topics they discussed, but poor old John the disciple could only transcribe for us these twenty-one verses from the conversation. Perhaps he even nodded off sometime after midnight and missed the last few hours of talk. It wouldn’t be the last time that would happen to him.

Regardless, we can be confident that the extent of the conversation John did transcribe was precisely the part God intends for us to hear. There’s probably more in these verses than a person could grasp in a lifetime, and they are as pivotal to us as they were to Nicodemus two millennia ago.

It really all boils down to what and whom we choose to believe, says Jesus. He repeats this concept some six or seven times to emphasize it. To believe in the redeeming work of Jesus as the sole means of restoring our right relationship with God is not random; it is not haphazard, wishy-washy, or ignorant. It is the informed conviction that Jesus not only has the answer to life’s biggest questions, but He is the answer. To entrust our one and only chance at life to the One and Only Son of God is the most rational response any person can have. It is also the most difficult, because it involves admitting that His ideas, His ways and means are better than ours. And sometimes His ways are going to feel a bit uncomfortable.

We’re going to have to live day-in, day-out lives following a God who prefers us to be humble rather than proud, relational rather than detached, honest rather than superficial, and searching rather than apathetic.

It sounds a little daunting, doesn’t it? Again, Jesus draws a clear line for His followers and seems to expect more of us than is humanly possible.

Exactly the point. Jesus’ final words recorded for us of His conversation with Nicodemus explain that those who choose to live in His light are not independently capable of living that way. He says that the kind of life a Jesus-follower lives “has been done through God.”

That’s the amazing mystery. It’s the promise He makes and never withdraws: His Spirit will literally live in us and strengthen us for the challenge and adventure of eternal life. It’s the only way we can live that kind of life. That is the gospel according to Jesus.

Go dig out a Bible and pour over the gospel of John for yourself; see if it’s true. Mull over the life and words of this amazing God-man Jesus and see if He doesn’t turn your life upside down, like He has done for countless others. No one remains in the neutral zone when it comes to Him.

A SEEKER’S STORY, Part 4

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 The Verdict

“This is the verdict,” pronounces Jesus at the end of the midnight discussion with his questioning visitor. He’s speaking like a judge, an investigator, a philosopher and a physician all in one. He wants to explain abstract ideas in a way we can understand, because He, like no other person on earth, has a unique perspective—an otherworldly view–on life. He has the whole story, the big picture, the last word. Hearing this verdict of His will separate the ‘men from the boys’. It will determine who goes on to flourish in the fullest sense of human existence, and who will refuse, preferring the slow petrification of soul and spirit.

His verdict starts with a metaphor, saying, “Light has come into the world”. It reminds us of the morning sun that greets us as we wake to each new day. But this light is more significant than our earth’s sun; this light is the source and sustenance of real, complete, and eternal existence. It is the light of God’s presence, truth and unending life embodied in His one and only Son, Jesus. Do we greet this light with joy and acceptance, or do we roll over and hide our heads under the cover of our nighttime existence?

The continuation of the verdict tells us that “(people) loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” This, He says, is the problem: We choose actions contrary to God’s desire for us, thinking we are expressing our right to freedom, but in so doing we find ourselves ruled by those dark deeds. Even our highest emotions can be in bondage to actions that are godless at the core.

There is no divine balance on which God weighs the evil and the good we do, granting us divine immunity if the good outweighs the bad. The verdict is worse and better than that.

“Everyone who does evil hates the light,” He continues, “and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” That’s a grim prognosis, isn’t it? Is he right? Have we ever experienced that phenomenon where we find ourselves hiding something we’ve done or thought? Why would we hide it if there was not a vestige of our conscience that was pronouncing its own verdict of searing light on our choice?

But He doesn’t stop there. There is also good news. He goes on to say, “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” Stepping willingly and humbly into the limelight of God’s complete knowledge of us is transforming. Admitting our faults as darkness, and accepting His ways as light is a daily necessity for us. It’s a journey. The experience of being ‘born again’ into new spiritual life does not make pious oblates of us. It simply means we now can see our own faults more clearly and are willing participants in a divine therapy of de-petrification. Hard hearts are made soft and pliable. Blind eyes are daily given more and more clarity.

Jesus’ verdict leaves Nicodemus and us with a choice: we may stay in the dark about our real state of affairs, or step into the light. And make no mistake about it – if we choose light rather than darkness, the journey of partnership with God will not always be easy. There is an old poem that says, “God has not promised skies always blue…” But the path of believing Jesus will be true and right and good. We can take His word for it.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; juliusturm – last steps to the lightTill Krech from Berlin, Germany)