Palm Sunday

EPIC: How Christians View History

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Epic

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This morning, in the light of Palms Sunday, I want to talk about the history of the world — from the beginning to the end — the story of God and humanity.

Chapter 1: The Beginning

Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is the start of our story. Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there was ever a heaven or an earth.

So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, the sun, the moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.

And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly molding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them. And then He formed the woman from a part of Him, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image and carry inside us His divine breath. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.

And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease wasn’t heard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever. But it didn’t stay that way.

Chapter 2: The Fall

Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that Eden wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t aloud to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good choice. There was only one bad one.

Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be the option of choice. There must be a way to choose not to love, not to obey, not to believe God’s Word. If there is to be free will, rejection must be an option. There must be another choice.

And Adam and Eve made the other choice. They chose not to trust their Creator. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that which they were not allowed to have, and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.

Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden

The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. It was at that moment when sin entered the world. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they didn’t want only the knowledge of life, they wanted the knowledge of death too. They knew that once they ate it, they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “good”… but after they fell to temptation, they would know “good and evil”.

And since God is good, perfect and holy, and He can’t be around evil – He has no part with evil or evil-doers. Their action made it so that He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people anymore. Things had changed.

The sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle and the stewards of creation, and now that they had sinned, all of creation was marred – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.

Soon after the Fall we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… weeds, toil, pain, frustration… everything changes because of sin. God’s wrath and justice are at work, but in an act of divine grace, they were cast out of Eden so they would not eat of the Tree of Life as well and be trapped forever in their sinful state.

And, as God had promised, Adam and Eve knew death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobedience is the need for just judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. The punishment for sin is death.

All bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope in the whole midst – the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promises Eve that there will one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come as an enemy of the serpent, who though He would be struck, would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, there was still hope for humanity.

Chapter 4: Noah

Now even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated. The Bible says that Adam lived 930 years and someone can have a lot of kids in that amount of time!

Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, disregarding their Creator completely.

The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. So He decided to send a flood to wipe them out. Not to destroy humanity, but to destroy the wickedness of that generation which had gotten completely out of control.

But again, there was grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great grandson x 8. God decided to save Noah and his family, the one family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? No, but He did love God and seek to live like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved, but that He was the only one listening to the message of salvation.

After the flood, God used Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. He started over. That’s what God does. He takes in an impossible situation and adds creativity, and grace, and love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus in that we are reminded that even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long because there was a deeper problem, an internal problem with humanity, a darkness and depravity that went to every human’s core that needed to be dealt with. Sin wasn’t just about doing bad things – it is something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.

Chapter 5: Abraham

Right around the death of Noah, possibly even the same year, a man named Abram was born. God’s narrative of grace continues as He decides to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to work through, and who was willing to listen and obey. God says to him, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and Abram obeys.

God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen, married to a barren wife, and had no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and gets to work.

This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have two children, and his grandson would be a man named Jacob. Abraham’s second son, Jacob, was the one who would really see God’s blessings taken to another level, as his children became the 12 patriarchs for the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.

Chapter 6: Joseph

Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers to save the whole family from starvation, years before a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.

His story was personally tragic as his brothers sell him into slavery, he’s falsely accused of rape, and is sentenced to jail for many years. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God gave Joseph the opportunity to interpret a bad dream the Pharaoh was having – a dream about a terrible drought to come – and Joseph was put in charge of preparing for it.

In an amazing way, God rose Joseph up to take care of His people by bringing them down to Egypt to be saved from a famine that would have wiped them all out, and then prepared them for the next phase of His plan.

Chapter 7: Moses

Jacob and these 12 brothers were down in Egypt and were doing fine for a long time until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about Joseph or the promises that the previous administration had made to his family. And instead of being thankful for them, he started to fear Jacob’s family (who were now being called “Israelites”), and instead of talking to them or keeping his promises, he decided to make the whole nation his slaves. They were in slavery for hundreds of years, suffering, but still having children.

One of these children was named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.

But first, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them. He wanted to make an agreement that as long as they would commit themselves to being His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.

God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world. “Know that I am the only God and worship me only. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good, and to make sure that the relationships between Him and themselves could continue. And though God can’t be around sin, He gave them a religious system, centering around the shed blood of an innocent lamb, by which they could finally approach their Creator, know Him better, and get temporary forgiveness for their sins. All of this pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the perfect, sacrificial lamb, who would give people permanent forgiveness and restore humanity back to being like they were before Adam and Eve Fell.

Israel was now free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, laws to protect them, and God’s promise to care for them… but of course, still being marred by sin, broken in their souls, they rejected God and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the creator – even wooden and stone statues of their own making.

Even a good leader and a Law written by God Himself, accompanied by earthquakes and miracles wasn’t able to keep people from committing evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more that needed to be done.

Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat

The next chapter in human history is sort of the in-between time which you can call Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings, and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and when Jesus the Saviour would come a lot of things happened, but it seemed to keep to this endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.

As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history. They even took down the tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in a holy city.

A lot of bad things happened too. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, committed adultery, dishonoured their parents, broke the Sabbath, and even sacrificed their own children to demons. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!

For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Law giver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He somehow wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that he picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before.

They put kings in place who kept messing up, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to the way back to Him. We have a lot of these prophet’s writings in the Bible. Each of the prophets would share God’s mercy, remind them of His hatred for sin, about how much He wanted the people to come back to Him, warn them that if they continued on the path they were on that He would have to discipline them for their own good.

Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would talk about Promised One that would finally come and end this repetitive cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. They reminded the people of the One who was promised to Adam and Eve, the One who would come through Abraham’s tribe, the One that would conquer evil, sin and even death. The coming of Jesus is spoken of in every book of the Old Testament.

This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, and all the while God was continuing to prepare the world for Jesus. He was showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.

They needed one who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey the law perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would conquer their enemies, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed one. And for years, Israel waited.

Chapter 9: The Messiah

God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift to the world. But He surprised everyone by how He did it.

Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world from their greatest problems. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.

No, as the old Hymn says, “He had no stately form, He had no majesty…”. He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a humble stable, in a tiny village – a nobody from nowhere.

No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) are looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.

And what did humanity do with Him? Well, His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. What did people do when they finally found out this Messiah that had come?

Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. It would be mostly rejection, not loving acceptance, would be the pattern of Jesus’ life.

Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that the followers of Jesus worshipped Him as Messiah, laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. They were celebrating the forthcoming conquest of the Roman army, the overthrowing of their political oppressors, their new position as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to anger.

I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. He was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! These were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge and spread the news that God had sent the Messiah!

Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)

Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. We murdered God.

One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead. Right?

For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…

Chapter 10: The Resurrection

But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story. Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!

God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. There is no greater hero than One who would give His life for others. The name of this Hero is Jesus Christ. He gave His life for us.

At the beginning of the story, God said that the consequence of sin would be death. The Messiah was going to come and defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human victory. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire… the greatest enemy in this world is death – death that came because of sin. So what needed to be conquered? Sin.

The judgement and effects of sin – physical and spiritual death, and the total removal of the grace, love and presence of God is called Hell. Sin entered the world with Adam and Eve and has poisoned every human soul, putting us on a one way path to Hell. And that needed to be dealt with. God’s righteous judgement, His wrath against sin, needed to be poured out to bring about perfect justice. He can’t just let humanity get away with it. He can’t just ignore sin. He must punish it.

We will never understand the full measure of the punishment that Jesus took for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus came to exchange Himself for us – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement­, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him, so we could be restored back to God.

Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that all of humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, and then offered the freedom that He bought with His own blood freely to anyone who would believe in Him.

Chapter 11: The Denouement

Today, we are living in the denouement. We are living at the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high. We are living in the days of epilogue before God brings His story to a close at the Final Judgement. Every day gets us closer to the end of this story and closer to next book, the story of eternity.

This Epic gives us the greatest message that can be known: That you were created for more than just what you see and touch. You were designed by a loving creator who gives you a hope and a purpose. Your life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and a career.

You are a created being whose decisions have eternal consequences. You need not fear death, and you can trust that even your most difficult times can be turned into great victories because of our awesome God. You can experience divine love, be cleansed, and made new. God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.

This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much, and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.

Will You Relent to God? (When God Answers Your Prayers in Uncomfortable Ways)

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When crisis hits – whether it happens to us, our family, our friends, or we just hear about it on the news – our first instinct is to ask a lot of questions. Why did it happen to me/us? What will happen next? Is it over now or will it get worse? How far do the effects reach? Who is going to fix it? What needs to be done? How can I make sure this never happens again?

If you live with a Christian worldview, then the questions go even deeper. Was this a spiritual attack or simply the result of living in a fallen world? What is God trying to show me here? What does the Bible say about this? How have believers dealt with this in the past? What is my responsibility here? Who should I tell this too, and who should I not?

I think part of the reason that crisis brings questions is because humans have an instinct to try to understand and control everything around us. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. When God first created us He told us to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over [it].” God is the Creator and Owner of the universe, and He has made us managers of it. Implicit in that divine command is the need to understand our world and exert our energies to control what’s going on. So it’s not a bad thing that when something bad happens we want to understand as much as we can and then try to deal with it. Doing so is our God-given nature.

However, when sin came into the world it corrupted everything – including our God-given our curiosity and management duties, now, instead of working with God to discover more about His nature as it is found in creation, and then partnering with Him to accomplish His will, we believe that we can know everything there is to know without His input and can solve all our problems by ourselves.

This is why, though problems abound and questions flood our minds, many of us do not pray. Our inherent sin has told us that we are alone, that we can’t trust God, that we don’t need God, and that we can do a better job of fixing our problems without him.

Quick Review

The book of Habakkuk is all about a man of faith asking questions and seeking solutions during a time of crisis. Like some of us here today, Habakkuk looked at his nation and saw some hugely troubling issues. The number of faithful people was shrinking and paganism was taking over the land. The people weren’t working together for a greater good, but instead were more divided than ever. Violence ruled the streets

He looked to the religious leaders to do something, but they seemed both powerless and corrupt – and any of the good ones were ignored. He looked to the politicians, judges and lawmakers to do something, but they only cared about keeping their own power and lining their pockets. If a good person finally did stand up and challenge the system, it wouldn’t be long until the bad guys would corrupt him or eliminate him. Habakkuk was losing hope that his people would ever find a way back to living good lives of Godly peace and prosperity.

Habakkuk was getting angry and had had enough. But, instead of doing what so many of us do, where we start trying to find a way to control and fix the problem, Habakkuk started to pray.

The book of Habakkuk is a record of Habakkuk’s prayers and God’s answer to them. Habakkuk asked some huge questions, the main ones being: Why is this happening to us and what are You going to do about it, God?

God’s answer was that He had been at work raising up the Chaldeans, later called the Babylonian Empire, to be His weapon against evil in the land. They would come in, decimate the nation, wipe out almost everyone, and drag the rest off as slaves. This would be how God would discipline His people and force them to re-evaluate their lives.

Habakkuk’s follow-up question was to ask how that could be fair? Why would God allow a much worse, pagan nation to conquer His chosen people? God’s answer was that no one would be getting away with anything. The corruption in Israel would be rebuked, punished and then the people would be restored – and later the Babylonians themselves would be destroyed.

What happens next in chapter 3 is remarkable, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Habakkuk has just asked some huge questions, and God has been good enough to answer him – but the answers were not what he expected. No doubt, Habakkuk wanted God to work some miracles, change people’s hearts, send the Messiah to replace the corrupt leaders, or just zap all the bad guys with bolts of lightning. God’s answer wasn’t what He expected at all, but involved an evil nation, the death of his countrymen, the destruction of God’s temple, the loss of everything He owned, and the requirement to be dragged off into slavery for 70 years. He would die well before any Israelite would come home.

How Do You React?

How would you react? Or, more accurately, how do you react? I ask that way because this isn’t a theoretical question – you’re all living this right now. You currently live in a world where you are surrounded by bad news, and on occasion, that bad news hits you directly. You know that this world is full of poverty, corruption, violence, death, misery, starvation, and evil – but it’s not too hard to pretend it doesn’t exist as long as you stay pretty healthy, keep paying your bills, talk to your friends, and watch the occasional funny movie or video on YouTube. It’s easy to pretend that it’s all someone else’s problem, until it suddenly isn’t.

All of a sudden you’re the one who is in pain, facing financial struggles, is treated unfairly, has been a victim of violence, comes face to face with mortality, or has been touched by evil in some way. Suddenly it’s not just on the news, but it’s at your work, in your home, in your bedroom, in your body.

So, how do you react? Of course, as I just said, our first, instinctual reaction, is to ask a bunch of questions. And a Christian turns to God for answers to those questions, and we believe Scripture reveals to us many answers to these questions: Where did evil come from? How should we respond to crisis? What is God doing about the problem of sin? How can we live through it and come out better on the other side?

The whole series has been answering those questions, but we’re not done yet. The next questions is this: How are you going to react to God’s answer? .

A favourite atheist reaction is to use the misery of the world as a proof that God doesn’t exist or to question His goodness. After all, if God is good and wise and holy and loving, then how can bone cancer and tsunamis and ticks exist? Or, as Habakkuk asked, “God, if you are good and wise and holy and loving, then how can evil Israelites and evil Chaldeans and Babylonians exist?” Or as we ask today, “God, if You are good and wise and holy and loving, then why do that bad thing happen?”

A Christian reaction is to bring these questions to God, read His answers in the Bible, and then listen to His answers as He speaks to our spirit. My intention right now is not to rehash the last nine sermons and try to convince you to bring these questions to God, but instead to get you to ask yourself how you react when God answers your prayers in ways you don’t expect.

Habakkuk’s Relenting Prayer

Habakkuk gets it right. He hits his knees, asks some questions, and then waits for some answers. When God shows up and tells Him what’s going to happen, it’s not even close to what he expected, but what does he do next? He relents to God’s will and continues to pray.

Let’s read his prayer together and then we’ll take it apart a bit, but first I want you to notice one thing… this is a song meant to be sung by God’s people year after year. The words “according to Shigionoth” and “Selah”, and the comment at the end about instrumentality tell us that this isn’t a one-time prayer for one man during a crisis, this is a prayer given by God to His people to remember and sing for ages to come. This isn’t just a historical song, there is something here for us today.

“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.

God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. (Selah) His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels. He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways.

I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was your wrath against the rivers, O LORD? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation? You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. (Selah) You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. You marched through the earth in fury; you threshed the nations in anger.

You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck. (Selah) You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret. You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.

I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” (Habakkuk 3 ESV)

I Have Heard and Remember

This prayer has only one theme: Habakkuk’s relenting to God and His plan.

The first section is an introductory phrase where Habakkuk turns the whole problem over to God. Do you remember the very first verses of Habakkuk? He asks these opening questions: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” At the very beginning of his final prayer we see that Habakkuk has received his answer. God has heard, God is at work, and God is not idle.

The implicit accusation behind “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” is that God is seeing all the evil going on around him, but not doing anything. And now, after hearing from God, Habakkuk’s prayer begins… and I much prefer the NIV’s translation here:

“LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.”

Habakkuk, as he prays, is remembering and talking to God about what He has learned about how God does things. He’s processing how God operates in this world, the reminder that God is patient and kind, but also has a great wrath against sin. And while that knowledge blossoms, he’s recalling some of the times that God has chosen, because of his wrath against sin, to put his people through difficult times, and then later, restore them with acts of His great power. After talking to God and hearing His answer, He’s now convinced that God has been doing exactly what He’s always done – being patient, offering salvation, and then judging evil. This is Habakkuk’s prayer, relenting to God’s plan.

He has gained wisdom. He no longer believes, as some do, that God’s perfect will must always be happiness and comfort for everyone, but sometimes – as we’ve learned in Pilgrim’s Progress – that He sends His people through the Slough of Despond, and requires them to face the fiery darts, before they reach the Hill of the Cross. Wisdom knows that the straight and narrow path a pilgrim must follow always leads over the Hill of Difficulty, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, across the streets of Vanity Fair, and past the Giant Despair before they can reach their rest in the Celestial City.

Habakkuk now knows this, and has decided not to fight it – and as He does, the stories of scripture come flooding into his mind:

  • He remembers the fear and awe that came upon the people as the earthquakes and lightning and smoke poured out of the mountain, as God descended during the giving of the Law. (3:3)
  • He remembers the pestilence and plagues that came upon both their Egyptian enemies and upon Israel when they broke God’s law. (3:5)
  • He remembers how great nations feared the people of God because He was with them. (3:6)
  • He remembers how God used His power even over nature – turning the Nile to blood, crushing the perusing armies in the Red Sea, and making a dry path through the Jordan River for his people to come to the Promised Land. (3:8)
  • He remembers how, though they have been at war for so long, that when they have been faithful, God has always defended them in miraculous ways; even stopping the sun in the sky – but has brought terrible justice and wrath upon the whole earth; from global floods to plagues to enemy armies – when His people broke their covenant with Him. (3:11, 15)

Habakkuk says in verse 16, “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.”

He’s not denying his disappointment, nor his fear, at what is coming. He’s not looking forward to seeing God’s wrath come upon His people, and he knows that it’s going to be a terribly hard road. BUT, he says, “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.” In other words, “God, I trust you. I know how you operate. I know that you don’t always do things that are comfortable for me. But I also know that you are just and good and that in the end, all evil will be repaid. I may not look forward to the immediate future, and I know it’s going to be hard, but I look forward to your end game, where all of Your enemies are brought to justice.”

Palm Sunday Application

The application, or rather, the final question today is this: Can you pray that prayer with Habakkuk? All through this study we’ve read how the Bible makes the case for the importance of bringing our questions and fears to God in prayer. We’ve seen how God’s plan of salvation often leads through difficult times, and how our response needs to be to run to God, not away from Him. And we’ve even had God explain how His long-term plan is to bring salvation to believers, wrath against evil, and glory to Himself.

But, are you willing to relent to God and have Him save you His way?

Today is Palm Sunday. It is on this day that Jesus came into town, riding on a donkey, fulfilling Messianic prophecy and declaring to all of Jerusalem that He is the Son of David, the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Saviour. That’s why they called out “Hosanna! Save us!” They knew what Jesus was doing.

But within five days the citizens of this same city would be shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” What changed? Part of the reason was that He refused to save them the way they wanted to be saved. He was supposed to come in and use His divine power to overthrow the Romans, set up a new kingdom, and distribute their wealth to the Jews. But He didn’t.

Instead, He came and preached against the Jews! He preached against the religious elites of the day, pronouncing woes upon them and calling them blind guides. He preached against the hypocritical worshippers who had turned the temple into a shopping mall. He taught that they were supposed to pay taxes to Caesar! He said that God doesn’t prefer the rich and happy, but the poor, the humble and the outcast! He said that Jerusalem would be encircled by armies and then destroyed. He said it was never His intention to create a worldly kingdom, but a spiritual one – and everyone who followed Him would be persecuted and hated. He said the only way for anyone to be saved would be to believe that He, the Son of God, had to die on an accursed Roman cross, taking the punishment for their sins.

That wasn’t what they wanted. They didn’t want to admit they had a sin problem. They didn’t want a suffering saviour. They wanted worldly comfort, not spiritual salvation. Jesus wouldn’t save them the way they wanted to be saved – and so they turned from laying palm branches before Him and shouting “Hosanna in the Highest” to trading him for the terrorist Barabbas and shouting “Crucify Him!”.

The Final Prayer

Let’s close by re-reading the final part of Habakkuk’s prayer, but as you read it, I want you to ask yourself: “Can I pray this prayer honestly?”

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”

If you can pray that prayer, then praise God, because that’s an uncommon faith.

But if you are struggling to pray that prayer today – knowing honestly that you would prefer God save you on your terms rather than His – then let me encourage you to do a few things so you can grow in your faith and trust in God’s plan:

  1. Start praying that God would increase your faith, teach you to trust Him, and show you how He provides for you in ways you’ve never seen or expected.
  2. Get into your Bible so you can know what He has done in the past and let that inform for you how He works.
  3. Surround yourself with people that will help you grow in your confidence in God. Get into a good church, join a small group, find a study group.

 

Passion Week Series: Palm Sunday & Monday (Cursing the Fig Tree, Cleansing the Temple)

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Passion Week - Sunday Monday

Over the past couple years, going back all the way to September 2012, we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark – and have made it all the way to Mark 7. My resolution this year, even though it is going to feel like lightspeed (to me), is to finish the Gospel of Mark before the end of Summer.

But since we’re in the Lent season, we’re going to do things a little out of order. For the next while, up until Easter, we are going to be working our way through Passion Week. Each Sunday we’ll be talking about a day in the life of Jesus Christ – the last week before His crucifixion and resurrection. Today, I want to talk a bit about Sunday and Monday. I also want to note that this series was inspired by an amazing book called “Crucify: Why The Crowds Killed Jesus“.

Rising Tide

Up until this point, and for the past three years, Jesus has been wandering from town to town, preaching, teaching and announcing and explaining the message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:1). Everything has been about explaining that message. What has been fulfilled? What is the Kingdom of God?  What is repentance? What is belief? What is the Gospel?

Over the last three years the teaching has been getting more and more specific. When he started, He was explaining His position as the fulfiller of Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. Then He confirmed His claims through miracles. At first the messages and miracles were private – to individuals and the followers of John the Baptist, changing water to wine and healing small town people in their homes. But His reputation grew quickly and the crowds grew larger and larger.

After a time He was forced to teach from a boat to shores full of people, climb mountains to address thousands gathered to hear Him and have their sick healed. The pressure became relentless so He was forced to hide from the crowds and wake up extremely just so He could get some quiet time.

From these crowds He chose a select group of people, whom we call the Apostles, that would receive special training and a more intimate communion with Him. But even they didn’t fully grasp what He was doing. He had been making messianic allusions all along – explaining that He was intending to go to Jerusalem and suffer, even die, at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities. No matter how many times He explained it, no one really understood, no one really believed Him.

For them, He is a King, the Messiah, the Great Prophet, the Healer, the Miracle Worker who can make the lame walk, the blind see, and food materialize out of nowhere. Sure, He had some hard things to say as He preached things like the Beatitudes (What does “blessed are the poor” even mean?), or “Love your enemies”, or “God prefers when you pray privately and no one sees you”, or “if your eye causes you to sin, cut it out”, but this kind of extremism is to be expected from a prophet, isn’t it?

And He certainly had some strange habits for a future King. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He performed miracles for Roman centurions and talked to Samaritans. But so what? He had undeniable power and authority from God, had gathered thousands of followers, and was now marching His way towards Jerusalem!

Surely this would be the One to finally conquer the Romans, destroy their enemies, elevate the Jewish people to be the greatest nation on earth… and have each of His twelve apostles at His side – each on a throne, with a province to rule, the world at their feet – I mean Jesus’ feet… yeah, Jesus’ feet.

Palm Sunday

Let’s read the events of Sunday from Mark 11:1-11:

“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’’ And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’ And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

The Triumphal Entry

Many Bible’s call that part “the Triumphal Entry”. We usually commemorate that day on Palm Sunday, which is 4 weeks from now. It was quite a day, and everything that happened, was exactly what His followers wanted to happen!

Imagine the intensity of the crowd. Jesus slept the night before in the house of His friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus – who many followers know because Lazarus’ resurrection. The disciples bring the animal for Jesus to ride on – a very important sign to everyone since it fulfilled the messianic prophecy of Zecheriah 9:9:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Everyone knew what Jesus was doing and claiming – to be royalty, the king of Jersualem, the Saviour of the city and its people – but they were completely mistaken as to why.

The Passover was only a week away, Jerusalem’s most popular event, and the city is already filling up with visitors – not to mention the entourage following Jesus. The multitude grows as the colt slowly makes the two mile journey from Bethphage to Jerusalem. The anticipation grows with every step with people laying down cloaks waving palm branches like flags in a royal procession.

Soon the large crowd following Jesus joins with the large crowd coming out of Jerusalem – even Jesus’ enemies, the Pharisees, have come to see the spectacle. The crowd’s excitement can’t be bottled up anymore and they shout, “Hosanna in the highest!”

Hosanna” means “Save us! Please Save us! God save us!” They are shouting their expectation of Him to usurp King Herod and overthrow the Roman oppression of Emperor Tiberius. Some even shout the traitorous slogan: “Blessed is the King of Israel!” which could get you killed under Roman law.

The Pharisees hear this and are terrified. In Luke we read that they tell Jesus to command His followers to be silent! If the Romans hear this they could send their army, start arresting and killing people as rioters and traitors to the emperor. But they couldn’t be stopped, and eventually even the Pharisees give up trying (John 12:19).

Jesus Weeps

The telling of the story in Luke gives us a glimpse into what was going through Jesus’ heart and mind at this time. As the crowds yelled adulations, His enemies were embarrassed, and the whole city chanted praise to Him, it says:

“And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’” (Luke 19:41-44)

He’s looking into the eyes of the people, and knows their future. The gate He’s entering, the walls He’s passing, the people who are shouting, in mere days will turn on Him. They will reject their King and their Messiah. And then, in less than 40 years, in 70 AD, Emperor Titus and his Roman army will have enough of this ridiculous city with its rebellious people, will sack the city, and destroy everything, killing and enslaving hundreds of thousands of people.

He’s not revelling in His popularity, He’s weeping over the foolishness and rebelliousness of the people before Him. They just don’t get it. His words come in sobs. And what happens next, no doubt, comes as a surprise to everyone. Look at verse 11.

“And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

The multitudes around Him are on bated breath , waiting for a word from their Saviour, their King, their Messiah. And what does He do? He leaves. He doesn’t walk up to the palace and demand an audience. He doesn’t perform any miracles. He doesn’t teach. He breaks into sobs of lament, gets to the Temple, looks around at everything, and then… walks away.

This helps to explain what happens the next day – on Monday.

Monday

Let’s read from verse 12:

“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it. And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.”

On the way to Jerusalem we see Jesus do something very peculiar and highly symbolic. It’s no coincidence that the Cursing of the Fig Tree and the Cleansing of the Temple come next to each other. Many times in the Old Testament prophets use the fig tree as a symbol of Israel. scripture  Mark is showing us something here.

Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree with green leaves. He walks up to a tree expecting to find the little, edible buds that come out around March and April, before they fall off and turn into figs. The green leaves implied the presence of something more. This tree had leaves and no buds. No buds meant no fruit.

Jesus curses the tree that looks to everyone like it was healthy and could nourish those who come by. He curses the tree that, from afar, makes the promise of health and fulfillment, but that, up close, is fruitless – an utter disappointment.

And then he walks into Jerusalem. Jesus comes into a very different city than He had left on Sunday. The fervour of the previous day had abated and now it was time to get down to some serious preparations and shopping. Things had to be ready for the fast approaching Passover – which is why there were so many retailers in the temple courts.

The city was in full bloom, activity everywhere, a flurry of religious activity. Pharisees prayed on street corners, women ran to and fro busy in their preparations, men selling religious requirements and exchanging foreign currency at exorbitantly inflated prices. The noise was overwhelming, and Jesus’ heart was still heavy from the day before.

Not a thing had changed since He had cleansed the temple two years earlier. They had all come back and were just as fervent in their sales as before. The poor are being abused, the sick are forgotten, the needful pushed aside so more money could be made, and the religious machine could move forward.

Jesus is heart-sick at this situation. His closest followers don’t understand what He’s doing. The religious elites have forgotten the meaning and spirit of the Law He gave Moses. The Temple, the place that God had set aside so that the world could come and meet with Him, had been turned into a religious market designed to prey upon those who were meant to come and worship.

And Jesus has had enough.

“It is His last opportunity to demonstrate what His Father feels about the religious system that operates to keep the powerful in power, the weak in bondage, and the nation in self-serving blinders. He grabs the sides of tables and flips them over. He kicks the chairs of those selling pigeons at the expense of widows and orphans.” (Crucify: Why the Crowd Killed Jesus, Pg 226)

It’s the same as the cursing of the fruitless fig tree. Jerusalem, and its Temple, looks like they can satisfy the spiritual needs of its people, but it can’t. It’s all show and no substance. A mile wide and an inch deep. They were so caught up in religious activity that they forgot to feed the people. It was empty of anything good – nothing but green leaves.

The current reality of what Jesus was looking at “is so far removed from His Father’s intention that it compels Jesus to react.” (ibid)

Application: A Personal Cleansing

You can already guess at the application today – and it’s something that God has been working in my heart for a while now. In fact, before I started preparing for this sermon, I was asked to share a devotional with some area pastors, and I had come up with the same message to them – though I didn’t figure it out until I started my sermon prep. Unbeknownst to me, the lessons of Sunday and Monday have been stirring in my heart for some time.

And to close today, I want to read to you what I wrote to this group of pastors because I believe it applies to all of us today:

The heart, motivations and character of the worshipper is paramount to God – not the motions and methodology of our ministries. It doesn’t matter how right we get it, how great our churches are, how amazing the music, how far our reach, or how many people we get in the door. If our hearts (and the hearts of our people) are not connected to God, all that we have done it utterly meaningless.

I’m convinced that this is the reason we are not seeing revival in our churches – because we’re trying to find our salvation through methodology. We, the pastors and the churches, are not unlike the hypocritical Pharisees who conduct our rituals in public, open our doors, show off our religion and the trappings of our spiritual ceremonies – but they have not been energized by spiritual consecration, suffering obedience, and private prayer. A few people may be in prayer before we conduct our ceremony, but in my experience, is literally perfunctory – meaning “carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection.”

We give God our perfunctory prayer before the service and music practice, our perfunctory scripture reading at the right time, our perfunctory gathering of the offering, our perfunctory singing of the songs, our perfunctory attention to the sermon, standing up and sitting down when we’re supposed to…. We know it must be done, and we are doing it in obedience, but are we not just like the Israelites from Isaiah 1 who are going through the motions, doing the right thing, saying the right words, but the hearts of our people – and the ministers, elders, deacons, teachers – are in fact far from God? Are not our churches, pulpits, choirs, and pews not full of banging gongs and clanging symbols?

We are so used to the system we have come up with to worship God that we can go through all our religious activity – prayer, bible reading, study, fellowship, visitation, and worship – without even having to think about it. Everyone knows what must be done, when it must be done, and who must do it – and any deviation from the plan causes our little canoe to wobble precariously as people grump about how they “feel” and how they “want to be fed”.

Part of us (part of me) believes that if we keep working the methods, keep performing the ceremonies, that at some point God will bless us. I’m slowly learning that this attitude is fruitless. We need to be cleansed.

I am convicted so deeply these days that I am a mile wide and an inch deep – and I don’t think I’m alone. We pastors are nice people, full of bible knowledge, able to answer a multitude of questions about life, the universe and everything, faithful in our obedience’s, even hard workers – but I don’t think that’s enough.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, every verse takes away our methods and forces us to stay away from perfunctory obedience. In the Beatitudes we see Him stripping us of every worldly help as He says Blessed are the “poor, mourning, meek, hungry, merciful, pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the reviled.”

In that Jesus strips our ministries of thinking revival will come through riches or emotional displays of happiness. He strips us of believing revival will come through the spectacle of worldly consumerism and demonstrations of how clever we are. He tells us to be meek and takes away belief that revival will come by the force of our own will. He refuses to give us satisfaction, knowing that spiritual revival will not come to the satisfied. He smashes our idols and tells us that revival will not come if we bend the truth and partner with the world. He strips us of comfort, of safety, and even of friends as He tells us that following Him will require us step into a warzone, be amazingly costly, and make a lot of people many people angry. And Jesus’ path of cleansing and away of worldly methods and thinking continues throughout the sermon. He cursed the fruitless tree, He cleansed the Temple, and He cleanses us when we read His Sermon on the Mount.

Being “salt” and “light” means we lose our right to privacy and spiritual contentment Loving our enemies means we are forced to always be the bigger person. Next Jesus strips us of a private thought life as he says adultery is happens in mind, and is not merely an action.

Jesus tells us that we must stay married – even to a horrible, neglectful, bitter, unhelpful, selfish spouse – and that we have to serve them, love them, and give more and more to them every day. Some are stripped of the refuge of marital love.

Jesus says that every word we say matters – we are stripped from meaningless conversation or blowing off unimportant things that we foolishly agreed to.

Jesus says we have to “turn the other cheek”! Which means even if we are wiser, smarter, stronger and more right than our enemies– and could turn our enemies inside out – we aren’t allowed. We must let them strike us again.

I read the words of Jesus, and the actions of Christ as He curses the green fig tree and cleanses the temple, and I’m deeply convicted about the overwhelming depth of my sin and the personal responsibility I take for the lack of revival in my heart, my family, my church, my town and my nation. In a lot of ways, it is my fault. I’m just like that green tree, and those who used religion to their own selfish ends.

I can’t get away from that. I am so full of besetting sin and woeful spiritual inadequacy. The 7 Deadly sins of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony are the air I breathe and the food I eat. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get away from them. I desperately need Jesus to cleanse the temple of my heart.

I want to be a better man, and I want God to make much of Himself through me – through each of us – but I cry out with Paul:

“I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24)

And in the same measure I lean on the answer Paul gave; the only hope that He found:

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 7:25; 8:1, 31-35; 37-38)

What else can I do? What else can we do? In Jesus I must put my hope. If we are to see revival, we all must put our hope in Him. Not in our methods, not in our own strength, not in our consistency, friendship, relationship or even our giftings – but in Christ’s power to overcome all of our sins and somehow work good for His glory instead.

Jesus Died

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Podcast Audio:

As the sun gets warmer and the trees start to bloom, I find myself looking forward to summer vacation. I’ve heard of one place that sounds nice… but I’m not sure that I’d ever go there for a holiday. I think you’ll understand why once I tell you about it.

A Not So Lovely Vacation Spot

Behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely, little wood-lot on a hillside where people are often seen lying in the sun or reclining in the shade, as squirrels and other little forest creatures play in the trees.

It is out on this hillside where a man named Arpad Vass, a scientist at the University’s Anthropological Research Facility, works every day. All those folks spread out there in the Tennessee heat didn’t get there on their own. They are not lying down because they need a tan, but because they’re all very much dead — they are cadavers, sprawled out intentionally as a way of studying modes of human decomposition.

They are the lifeless bodies of people who have donated their bodies to science, and it is Doctor Vass’s job is to evaluate how these bodies decompose under various conditions: buried in shallow graves, stuck in car trunks, wrapped in plastic bags, submerged in a man-made pond, just to name a few. He figures out all the different ways the human body can be disposed by a murderer. The data collected helps detectives throughout the world catch murderers.

Maybe you’ve heard of this. There is a TV show that I used to watch called Bones. At its core, Bones is a drama about forensic science. Each episode focuses on solving the mystery behind someone’s murder by examining the remains. They are brought to Dr. Brennan’s forensic anthropology team at the Jeffersonian Institution, and by studying whatever is left over of the person, they are able to figure out ‘who-dun-it’. The series is somewhat based on the life and writings of a real life forensic anthropologist named Kathy Reichs.

Death Sanitized

The truth is that in the 21st century, death has been almost thoroughly sanitized for our protection. We simply don’t like to think about death. We don’t even like to say that someone died. We’ve come up with all sorts of nicer ways to say it. They “Passed away”, are “deceased”, have “ceased to be”, are “no more”, have “gone to the other side”, , “shuffled from this mortal coil”, “gone into that good night”, are “in a better place”, have “crossed over”, are now “asleep”, are “dearly departed”, “pushing up roses” or have  simply “kicked the bucket”. We’ll come up with any way to say it other than, “They died.”

Consider funerals. Many people spend thousands of dollars to pay an expert to prepare the body for us, so we don’t have to see it. We get them to put makeup on the body so they will look like they are only sleeping and not really dead. Then we pay them to put the dead person into very nice clothes, complete with jewelry and a new hairdo, and lay them into ornately carved, plush box full of silken pillows. Then after paying all this money to dress up the body, we close the box so no one has to see it, cover the box in flowers, so we don’t have to think about the box, and then we bury it in the ground — and put up a very expensive, beautifully carved piece of stonework to mark the spot. Even the hole we dug for the body gets decorated.

And sadly, people don’t even have to be dead for us to put them out of sight. It seems that anyone that reminds us of death is locked up and sent away. The elderly, the sick, the dying are stuffed away in special hospitals and homes, away from eyes of our society, so we don’t have to think about death – especially not our own.

Easter & Death

The way we celebrate the Easter season points to our phobia about death. These days, when most people think of Easter, their minds are filled with pink bunnies, new bonnets, marshmallow chicks, plastic grass, colorful eggs and candy! Even crosses – the symbol of the bloody death of Jesus Christ – is sanitized and decorated to make it easier on the eyes. We want to fast forward to Easter Sunday – and forget about the crucifixion.

But, scripture teaches us that as important as new life in Christ is – and the wonderful truth of the resurrection – it doesn’t overshadow the death of Jesus. Please open up your bibles to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

Nearly every year since it came out I’ve watched “The Passion of the Christ.” Not because I like the movie, but because it remind me of the price that Jesus paid for my sin. It shows me courage Jesus showed on His march to the cross. It reminds me of the love our Heavenly Father has for us, that He would send His Son to go through that for our sake.

Think back to you you’ve done on Good Fridays in the past, and how you’ve responded to Holy Week – from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Have you taken the time to remember what happened – to acknowledge the death of Jesus Christ – or do you avoid thinking about it in favour of more pleasant things?

The thing is, if we had to pick a decoration theme that the Easter season, it wouldn’t include flowers and bunnies – it would more resemble Halloween! There’s a corpse, burial clothes, embalming, a tomb, ghosts, screaming, torture…

I hope you come to the Good Friday service this week. Even though I don’t have control over what all happens there, I do get to preach, and it is my hope to remember the Amazing Grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Good Friday that was necessary because of our sins.

Why? Because, as Paul said to the Christians in Corinth, it is of “first importance.”

Uncomfortable Friday

You see, along with our discomfort with death comes the same kind of discomfort with Good Friday. We know the story and want to skip to the good part. We don’t like the part where Jesus is wrongly arrested, falsely accused, beaten, tortured, abandoned, crucified, stabbed in the heart and then placed in a borrowed tomb, alone. We want to skip to the good part on Easter Sunday.

We like to forget that the disciples and the women who went to the tomb on Sunday morning were fully expecting to the dead and already decaying body of their friend and teacher, Jesus. They did not go to His tomb to see His resurrection. They intended to make certain that the body of their friend, their mentor and their rabbi was properly and respectfully prepared so that it could decompose quickly and with dignity. That’s what the spices they were carrying were for. And then, later, the bones could be taken and put in an ossuary or “bone box” and then buried somewhere else.

We can make no mistake. The women and disciples expected to find a corpse. Although Jesus had told them of His resurrection all the time, they really didn’t get it. Even though He said that He would rise in 3 days, they didn’t really believe it. Jesus said in John 14:1-3,

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Jesus said it over and over, but on Easter Sunday, there was absolutely no doubt in the minds of the women who were coming to the tomb (Luke 23:56-24:1, 10), that that when they arrived they would find the lifeless body of Jesus… and they wouldn’t need a forensic scientist to tell them how He died. Most of His followers didn’t have the stomach to stay and watch, but they knew. He’d been on a Roman cross – and while you go up on a cross alive, you always come down dead.

RABBONI!

That’s why they panicked! Let’s read the story from John 20:

“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).”

In a lot of translations there’s exclamation point there on “Rabboni!” That’s possibly the most under-rated exclamation point in the entire Bible. Seeing Jesus alive was the most incredible thing that she had ever seen – and the last thing she would ever expected!

First Importance

And that’s the point the apostle Paul drives home in 1 Corinthians 15 when he writes to the church about 20-30 years later. Verses 3 and 4:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried…”

You see, back then there was no funeral homes to preparing bodies for burial. Family and friends were the default morticians. Their culture knew what death smelled like, what death looked like, what death does to a body. Tombs were closed, barricaded by large rocks and stone, but everybody knew what was happening inside the darkness of the sealed tomb. In fact, before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Martha reminded Jesus of how much it would smell.They knew what tombs were like, and what went on in them.

When Easter happened, those first witnesses saw something unprecedented in the history of human remains. The material, fleshly body of Jesus of Nazareth, somehow became a former-dead-body! They had seen Lazarus come to life after 4 days, sure… but that was Jesus healing someone else. What they were seeing here was different. This was someone actually bringing himself back to life! No one performed a miracle. There was no doctor, no prophet, no prayers. But He came back!

Even modern science hasn’t found a way to change dead bodies into live ones. They can take the parts from a recently dead body and transplant them into the living – like heart or lung…. but they can’t raise the dead.

The Miracle of Resurrection

When Paul is writing this to the Corinthians he’s addressing something that was being wrongly taught in the church. Some people were saying that there was no resurrection from the dead… no life after death. Even people today have a problem with that concept. But the church in Corinth had people who were teaching that there was no such thing as someone rising from the dead. Paul’s whole point here… his whole reason for writing this section… is to give proof and testimony to the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a critical, uncompromising part of the Christian faith. It is the central part of the Christian faith – that DEATH HAS BEEN OVERCOME!

Paul hammers this message here: Jesus was dead, and then He was alive. And Jesus, as a live, post-crucified person, was seen by numerous individuals whom he lists in verses 5-8.

“…and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

The disciples did not make the resurrection up. To them it was a crushing defeat. Peter returned to fishing… the disciples has scattered… the followers of Jesus knew He was dead. They were not just gullible witnesses who were testifying to a hope that they had… they were people who were telling the story of the hard evidence that had stood right in front of them!

Resurrection = Hope

Here’s why it’s important: Look at verses 16-19 of this same chapter:

“For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

This is how monumental the death of Jesus is to Christians. Our salvation is only possible if Jesus died and rose again. As Hebrews 9:22 says,“… without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” That’s a restatement from the Law of Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement…” Jesus had to die.

If Jesus didn’t die, our sins wouldn’t be paid for. And if He didn’t die, then he couldn’t be resurrected. And if there is no resurrection, then we have no hope.

If Jesus wasn’t raised, if the tomb isn’t empty, if death can’t be reversed somehow, then, as verse 14 says, “your faith is futile”. If Jesus’ death didn’t pay our penalty for sin… then we “are still in our sins.” If There is no resurrection, then all those who have died before us… no matter what they did… “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” They’re dead in their sins because “the wages of sin is death, and the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ …”(Rom 6:23)

Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If the only reason that we are Christian is because of the perks we get while we are alive on earth… then we are to be pitied. One of my commentaries says it this way:

“If all the preachers lied (15:15) and no one will be raised, then not only is faith meaningless for this life, it is meaningless in death. Those who believed in Christ believed a lie; those who died because of persecution for their faith perished for no reason. The consequences of believing the lie that there will be no resurrection shake the very foundations of the Christian faith…. If the only promise of the Christian faith applies to this life, then why believe in it? Why believe in a faith that brought –in this culture and even still in many places in the world – persecution, sorrow, death, ostracism, separation? Without the resurrection, there would be no hope for final judgment and justice or hope for a final dwelling place with God. There would be nothing but death to look forward to. If the end is the same for everyone, then why not live like the pagans in sensual pleasure (15:32)? Why deny oneself? Why be miserable if the other choices bring the same result?” (Life Application Bible Commentary – 1 & 2 Corinthians)

The bodily death and burial of Jesus is truly of “first importance” and is the very linchpin of human history. His dead body, coming to life, has made all the difference, and has given hope everyone who believes.

Three Things to Remember

So there are three important things that I want us to remember during the next week of the Easter Season, and they are found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.

1. Jesus’ Death was Always the Plan

First… Jesus died for our sins “according to the scriptures”. The death of Jesus as the substitute for our sins wasn’t something that the church or the Apostles came up with. It’s wasn’t something that God came up with on the spot. The crucifixion of Jesus was always God’s plan to save humanity from the consequence of sin, right from the beginning.

The Phrase, “according to the scriptures” refers to the Old Testament prophecies regarding this event that would come true in the future. Plans that God wrote into every book of the Bible. Plans He would carry out.

The People of Israel were waiting for God to send them a Saviour, and the reason they were waiting was because of the prophecies about the Messiah that would come, that God would send!

It is so important that we know that Jesus’ death as a sacrifice on our behalf wasn’t a way to make good of a bad situation. It was exactly the way the scriptures said He would save us – hundreds and thousands of years before.

2. Jesus Was Buried

The second thing I want us to remember is that Jesus was “buried.” The fact of His death is revealed in His burial. Everyone in Paul’s day there were false teachers of trying disprove the death of Jesus Christ.

But Jesus did die on the cross and was buried in a tomb. It’s a historical fact. Some have tried to say that Jesus only passed out… usually called the “swoon theory”. But consider that it was a Roman Soldier who told Pilate that Jesus was dead… not a follower of Jesus or someone with a political agenda.

And remember, they didn’t break His legs because they knew He was dead. They even stabbed Him in the side, right into his pericardium (his heart sac), making “blood and water” pour out of Him (John 19:34). Then Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took him and wrapped his whole body in traditional fashion and placed it in the tomb themselves (John 19:38-42). Then the enemies of Jesus, the Pharisees, stationed a round-the-clock guard so no one could mess with the body. Jesus did die.

Consider for a moment the lives of the apostles after they saw Jesus alive. One theologian (David Strauss) said this, “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to His sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that He was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which He had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it a [mournful] voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”

3. Jesus’ Resurrection is a Historical Event

And the third thing that I want us to remember is that it is this week, as we gather together to celebrate and remember Holy Week, is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Permanently. He did not die again.

This is not just a belief, but a historical fact. Jesus said Himself that He would be in the tomb for three days and rise again… and even though no one believed Him… He did. He was seen in the flesh by many people, and even ate and taught publically only days after his very public crucifixion. Hundreds of witnesses attested to this fact. Look at 1st Corinthians 15:6. Paul seems to be saying, “If you don’t believe me ask one of these other 500 or so people. Don’t take my word for it… go ask one of the witnesses who had seen Him live, die, be buried, and then come back to life!”

Believe it or not, there are those who doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. And there are lots of supposed “arguments” against the resurrection.

Some say that the women went to the wrong tomb… but they were present when Jesus was placed there and new the area well. (Matthew 27:61)

Some say that the followers of Jesus stole the body and then pretended He rose again.… but no one questions that there were soldiers stationed there to guard against that.

Most of the disciples ran away like scared little girls when the guards came to get Jesus in Gethsemane, so it’s hard to believe that they would suddenly became so brave that they would be willing to face a detachment soldiers to steal Jesus’ body and fake a resurrection.

Some say that Jesus’ resurrection was some kind of group hallucination, but it’s hard to believe over 500 people had the same hallucination. Not to mention that if it was all in their minds, there would be an actual body that could be produced to discount their story.

We simply cannot get away from the fact the historical evidence points to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Sure, the details of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus is a subject of debate among scholars, historians, philosophers and theologians… I admit that. You almost get the sense in reading chapter 15 that Paul himself was trying to describe a process that is somewhat mysterious to even him. But the bottom line is that somehow, at God’s initiative, and through the resurrection of Jesus, death became a lot less about blood and guts, bodies and decay, and a lot more about the power of new life – and the very temporary, unscary nature of death – now that Jesus has defeated it.

After His resurrection, Jesus invited His disciples to check him out — to put their hands in the wounds, feel inside, touch him. To be sure that it was Him, and that He had conquered death. It was a proclamation to everyone that this secret, dark world of the grave had been exposed — the gruesomeness of Friday had turned into the glorious light of Sunday morning.

For a while there’s still a lot of darkness in this world, but believers have the promise that it won’t always be that way. The cure for death has been found — and we learned it from the only One who could teach us… from the one who Himself died… and was buried… and rose again… so that we might live with Him.