Were You There When Jesus Talked About His Death?

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Mark 8:31-38

Most of us feel a great deal of discomfort talking about death, especially our own death. Many will come into the office and share with me what they want to take place for the funeral when they die. That way we can get it typed up and made a part of their membership record. When that time comes, either myself or whoever the minister may be, can honor their wishes. They will start by saying something like, “even though this isn’t going to happen for a long time….”

Sometimes the discomfort is not with us but a family member. I remember a man who was dying and needed to talk about his death. He had a son who wouldn’t allow him to talk about it. I had to arrange a time when the son wouldn’t be at the hospital so I could honestly talk with the father who needed to talk.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…and that he must be killed…and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter loved Jesus and didn’t want Jesus to die. The rebuke at first seems harsh, especially for someone who cared about Him. Peter’s attempt to dissuade the Lord from going to the cross was similar to the temptation in the wilderness. But for Jesus not to die was for Satan to win! The Greek verb used here refers to the set of the mind, the direction of thought. Peter’s mind was running contrary to the purposes of God.

The cross used as an instrument of death was either a plain vertical stake to which the victim was fastened, with the hands tied or nailed above the head, or such a stake provided with a crossbar, to which the victim was fastened with the arms outstretched. This form of punishment was in use among the Egyptians (Gen 40:19), the Carthaginians, the Persians (Est 7:10), the Assyrians, Scythians, Indians, Germans, and from earliest times among the Greeks and Romans. After the conquest of Tyre, Alexander the Great ordered two thousand Tyrians to be crucified as punishment for the city’s resistance. The Hebrew words apparently alluding to crucifixion are tala and yaqa`, generally rendered in the KJV “to hang” (Num 25:4, NASB, “execute,” NIV, “kill”; Deut 21:22; 2 Sam 18:10). The Jewish account is that the exposure of the body tied to a stake by the hands took place after death. Crucifixion after death was not rare, the victim being first killed in mercy. The Jews probably borrowed this punishment from the Romans.

In Christian times the cross, went from being in itself the most vile and repulsive of objects, to the symbol of all that is holy and precious, in the mind of true believers. In the pre-Constantine period the sign of the cross seems to have been quite generally recognized by primitive Christians. On the tombstones of the early Christians the cross was the emblem of victory and hope. It was only after superstition took the place of true spiritual devotion that the figure of the cross was used or borne about as a sacred charm. In the latter part of the third century, people signed the cross in token of safety and laid stress on figures of it as a preservative against evil.

The place of execution was outside the city (1 Kings 21:13; Acts 7:58; Heb 13:12); arriving there, the condemned was stripped of his clothes, which became the property of the soldiers (Matt 27:35); and the cross having been previously erected, he was drawn up and made fast to it with cords or nails, although sometimes he was first fastened to the cross and then raised. The limbs of the victim were generally three or four feet from the earth. Before the nailing or binding took place a medicated cup was given out of kindness to confuse the senses and deaden the pangs of the sufferer (Prov 31:6), usually of “wine mixed with myrrh,” because myrrh was soporific. If the nailing was the most painful mode in the first instance, the other was more so in the end, for the sufferer was left to die of sheer exhaustion, and when simply bound with thongs, it might take days to accomplish the process. Instances are on record of persons surviving for nine days.

Recently Kentucky ancestors carried a remarkable story written by Edwin Burrows Smith. It concerns a man and wife who, in the first half of the 19th century, bought the freedom of 107 slaves! Paul and Susannah Mitchem were not wealthy, but they did own 450 acres in Virginia. They had lived there for fifty years. They were getting older, they were childless and of modest means. But they had a grand vision. They moved first to North Carolina and then to Kentucky. In 1814, Paul and Susannah sent 49 slaves whom they had purchased to William Vinsett who took them to Indiana and freedom. They then sold their Kentucky land and moved to Indiana where they emancipated another 21. After Paul’s death, his wife freed another 11. Adding to this the number of earlier emancipations it is reasoned that one couple purchased and set free 107 slaves! Isn’t it amazing what two ordinary people with extraordinary convictions can do?

Yet Jesus, a penniless carpenter, freed more slaves than the Mitchems. He freed us all! It cost Him His life! “For you know it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ.”

In the Sixth century, the Emperor Justin II presented to the Vatican a cross. It was made of gold and covered with precious stones. The value of it is beyond calculating. In the center was a splinter of wood. That splinter seems out of place in such a jeweled cross until you know that Justin believed it was a splinter of wood from the cross of Christ. Today one suspects that Justin may have been the victim of a very good salesman. Certainly it would be fascinating if we had a splinter of wood from the cross. But if we did, it would not make Communion more sacred. It would not make sermons at the cross more effective. It would not make our worship more spiritual. It would not make our churches more holy.

For it is not the cross itself that is at the heart of our religion. It is the Christ who died on the cross. And He promised that He would be present every time the cup of Communion is lifted in His honor, every time His sacrifice is spoken in sermon or lesson, every time His followers meet in His name. We do have something from the cross of Christ.

IN THE MIDST OF US

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John 20:19-25

Every day 35,000 children under the age of 5 die. They die because they do not have enough water, basic medical care, and food. Most of these children could be saved on any day with just a tiny portion of what we spend on the military, entertainment or pork barrels. What do we do in the face of such a grim statistic? 35,000 children? What we usually do is to tune out, to willfully distract ourselves to more pleasant information. After all, what can one person do? Easter is a source of hope, a means of confronting the evils of this world because Easter says that it is not all up to us.

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Where have all of these disciples been? At the foot of the cross I find only Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James, Mary, mother of Jesus, his aunt and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Peter has already denied him three times and run away. But, where are the others? Now they all gather (except Thomas) in an upper room. And they are “afraid.” The Romans want to know how the body was taken from a guarded tomb. The Jewish leaders wonder how this conspiracy will end. And now the news is brought from Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Salome, that He is alive!

Reading this passage one has to ask the question, “What is Jesus wanting the believers to learn?” Certainly there is the lingering question in the minds of all the believers, “Is He really alive?” And his appearance will certainly dispel all doubt. But there is something more here then just removing their doubts.

The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

We often think of the Holy Spirit in terms of coming at Pentecost but here, Jesus is breathing on them and granting them the Spirit. Part of our reminder is that God is always present. Matthew has Jesus saying to the believer, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The issue is the “omnipresence” of God. Jesus has just come back from the dead and will now prepare for His ascension into heaven. They now remember His words, “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.” (John 14:18)

It is difficult for us to understand an omnipresent God. The Christ candle on the Advent wreath represents the omnipresence of God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Why? Because He is God. We want to treat God like we treat the Advent candles. When it is over, we box them up and put them away. But the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God. You may be waiting for Pentecost to come but the Father is still in our presence.

Prayer is not “going to God” for God is already here. We say we are “seeking God” but God has already found us. We say we want to “open ourselves to God” but the truth is we couldn’t keep God out if we tried. We say we are “becoming more spiritual” but we already have the spirit.

I went flying a kite was a friend a few weeks ago. We had two kites – one with two strings and one with one string. We discovered that the more weight that we put on the tails of the kites the higher they would fly. Isn’t that odd?
The more weight the higher they would fly. But I also discovered that I could control the kite with one string better than the kite with two strings. Now, it wasn’t designed that way. The two strings were supposed to give better control. But I was always getting them tangled. Always unable to operate two hands independently.

Maybe that is the way it should be with God. One line of control, allowing God to control our lives. We, like the disciples live in fear that God has forgotten about us. Somewhere we have boxed Him up and put Him away.
Understand, God is always with us.

House in Order

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Isaiah 38:1-5

Men who climb mountains are referred to as “Mountain Men.” It is estimated there are some 60,000 serious mountain climbers in the United States. But in the upper escutcheon of serious climbers is a small elite group, known as “hard men.” For them, climbing mountains and scaling sheer rock faces is a way of life. In many cases climbing is part of their whole commitment to life. Their ultimate experience is called free soloing. Climbing with no equipment and no safety ropes. John Baker is considered by many to be the best of the hard men. He has free soloed some of the most difficult rock faces in the United States with no ropes or any safety equipment of any kind. His skill has not come easily. It has been acquired through commitment, dedication, and training. His own wife says she cannot believe his dedication. When John isn’t climbing, he is often to be found in his California home hanging by his fingertips to strengthen his arms and hands.

Where are the hard men and women for Jesus? Where are those who will bring all of their energies to bear for the sake of Christ. As he walked to the screen door the mailman saw a small boy practicing the piano. The mailman tapped on the screen and asked, “Is your mom at home?” The boy never looked up from the piano, but said, “What do you think?”

Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah went to him and said, “Put your house in order because you are going to die.” PUT YOUR HOUSE IN ORDER! In the Old Testament, to put your house in order was always a preparation for death. We still hear it used that way today, when the doctor comes in and says, “Get your affairs in order.” In the New Testament, to put our house in order was a spiritual quest.

How does one put his or her house/life in order? Joshua said to the people “…as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” For Joshua, to have your house in order was to put God first. Putting our lives in order must always begin with putting God first. If God isn’t first then the foundation isn’t strong. (Matt 7:24-27) “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Paul writes about leaders in the Church. Certainly to be a leader certain standards are to be set since that person would influence many of individuals. But there is a theme that emerges from all of these standards to be an overseer in the Church. They are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. What is that theme? Self Control!

Obedience! Judg 2:17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the LORD’s commands. 1 Sam 15:22 Samuel replied: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

Self control is a big issue in scripture. The control of our desires and of our lives. Just because we feel like doing something doesn’t make it right. That is the beginning of wisdom and satisfaction.

“Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” Hezekiah is saying, “My house is in order.” And God says, “you are right.” “Go and tell Hezekiah, I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life.”

The fifth commandment “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you,” implies that the benefit for being obedient to our parents is a long life. In scripture, especially the Old Testament, one of the rewards for faithfulness and obedience to God’s word, was longevity of life. Why should this surprise us? Research shows that people who are happy live longer than those who are not happy. Happy in our marriages. Happy having a pet. Or happy because of a prayer life with our Heavenly Father.

Hospitality: God’s Whisper

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Hebrews 13:1-3

Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner, and those who are mistreated as if you were suffering.

A stranger came to church, and the minister was pleased to see him come forward to sit in one of the empty seats. Afterwards he greeted the newcomer and said, “I’m glad you felt free to sit well forward, even though you are a visitor.” Well,” said the man, “I’m a bus driver, and I just wanted to see if I could learn how you can get everyone to the rear all the time.”

A university professor from Salt Lake City conducted an experiment at Christmas time a few years ago. He randomly selected six hundred names from telephone directories from several major cities and sent Christmas cards to each of them. His return address was included on the card and he received an amazing one hundred and seventeen responses from the six hundred cards sent to perfect strangers. One replied, “I just got out of the hospital, and how good it was to hear from a long-time, wonderful friend!” — Must have had amnesia! Another said, “We had difficulty at first remembering who you were, but after some thought, we remembered. Please give our love to your father. He is a wonderful man.” — What creative memories! One reply was unexpected: “It was really great to hear from you again. We will be in Salt Lake City this summer, and if you have a spare room, we would like to stay with you two or three days! — What else are real friends for?

It is no wonder that in 15 years of asking high school students throughout America whether, in an emergency situation, they would save their dog or a stranger first, most students answered that they would not save the stranger. “I love my dog, I don’t love the stranger,” they always say. The feeling of love has supplanted God or religious principle as the moral guide for young people. What is right has been redefined in terms of what an individual feels.

Today we teach our children not to speak to strangers. We don’t like making eye contact because we may be considered weird or odd or they may ask us for a favor. A young farm girl was out milking the family cow when a stranger approached the house and asked to speak with the girl’s mother. The girl called for her mother and yelled, “There’s a man here to see you.” The mother hollered back, “Haven’t I told you not to talk with strangers? Get in this house right now.” The girl shouted, “But Momma, this man says he’s with the census.” The mother then stepped onto the porch and said, “In that case, bring the cow in with you.”

In biblical times it was believed to be a sacred duty to receive, feed, lodge, and protect any traveler who might stop at one’s door. The stranger was treated as a guest, and men who had thus eaten together were bound to each other by the strongest ties of friendship, which descended to their heirs and was confirmed by mutual presents. Hospitality was a religious duty for the Greeks as well as for the Hebrews, who were enjoined by the law of Moses (Lev 19:34). The present practice of the Arabs is still similar to ancient Hebrew hospitality. A traveler may sit at the door of a perfect stranger and smoke his pipe until the master welcomes him with an evening meal, may tarry a limited number of days without inquiry as to his purposes, and may then depart with a simple “God be with you.”

Two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.” “No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.” But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom–both young and old–surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.
In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, `Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ What was the rich man’s sin?

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. In the bible the “stranger” is someone who is outside our community. The stranger is someone unknown to us.
The stranger is someone different from us. The Old Testament often called them “aliens” because they were unlike us.

To “welcome” a stranger was to become friends. To no longer be a stranger meant to get to know the person and make them a friend. Fundamentally the person hasn’t changed – they may still be different or unlike us, but now we understand them. We become “friends” when we feel at home! To “welcome” someone who is a stranger doesn’t mean politeness or distant charity, but means to make them a part of the family. We are not talking about giving money, we are talking about a relationship.

Congregations often put “welcome” signs out without changing anything and then wonder why “strangers” don’t join. The issue isn’t tolerance as much as welcoming strangers as an act of affirmation prior to any judgment about them. Matthew suggest that Jesus identified himself with these strangers. I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

Who are the strangers in our midst? Racial and ethnic minorities. Migrant workers. People with different sexual orientation. Persons of other faiths.
People of a different class. Jesus replied: “`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

…he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers.
They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.
The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”