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Why Lent?

lent word-1Growing up I didn’t know much about Lent. To me, it was simply a strange “Catholic” practice. Through the years, I’ve gained a broader understanding of the Body of Christ through the study of Church history and I’ve experienced a deeper expression of prayer and worship through a broader Christian heritage. Most Protestants think of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season as a “Catholic thing” or even a “pagan” holiday of some sort. The season of Lent appeared after the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) though some have noted that our earliest known reference of the practice was Ireneus (an early church father who died in 202 A.D.). With so many biblical precedents, it seems that the church would have seized upon the idea of fasting for forty days prior to that. But the early history of Lent is interesting and complex. Even the etymology of the word takes different paths. Known as Tessarakosti in Greek and Quadragesima in Latin, for “the Forty,” it was later referred to as “Lenten” which comes from an Old English word “lencten” meaning “Springtime” or “Spring.” This was derived from a West Germanic word that means “long-days,” because of the approaching Spring, or vernal equinox – literally, “equal night” and equal day. All of this to say, what it’s called has a long, winding history and it has been a long-standing practice of the Church. Understandably, many equate the practice of Lent, or Ash Wednesday, with the debauchery of Mardi Gras and, therefore, want to run as far away from it as possible. But is there something redemptive about this ancient practice that could actually bring us into a deeper walk with Jesus all the way to Resurrection Sunday? Why Lent? And even more, why Lent among believers who have not had the practice as part of their spiritual history? As noted, it is a part of our history and I believe there’s something here to be restored.

What we’ve sought to do is strip the Lenten season of anything that is not biblical or does not bring our mind’s attention and heart’s affection to Jesus. Instead, maintain a simple and clear focus of prayer, repentance, and personal sacrifice. I’ve heard many sermons on Christ’s instructions to pray as He says, “When you pray…” pray like this.  But He also says, “When you fast…” fast like this (Matthew 6:16). He doesn’t say “if” you fast, but “when.” Jesus expected His followers to pray, and at times, fast as a regular part of our spiritual pattern of worship. Could it be that we (in the U.S. in particular) could learn a few things about restraint, about giving up so much of what we want and dying to our selfish need for more? I am certain that prayer and fasting is greatly needed among believers, particularly in the affluent West.

What many have written off as a strange practice (ashes on the forehead, giving up certain foods, etc.) we’ve sought to recapture in its purest biblical sense. It is true that “Ash Wednesday” or “Lent” are not in the Bible. (Of course, neither are Christmas Eve services, Good Friday services, Advent, and so much of what others of us would call “normal.”) You don’t see “Easter Sunday” in the Bible either, because every Sunday is Easter Sunday – or better, Resurrection Sunday for the believer.

“Lent” may not be in the Bible but focused seasons of sacrifice, confession, and repentance clearly are. In the church I grew up in we rushed to Easter Sunday without any preparation of the heart before God. I’ve learned much from the larger Body of Christ as it relates to the spiritual disciplines of solitude, prayer, and fasting. The Lenten or Easter Season should be a focused time of confession and repentance from “Ash Wednesday” to Easter Sunday. Forty Days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday – minus the Sundays leading up to Easter – because the early believers would not fast on Sundays. Later many would go from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday (forty days later). Maundy comes from “mandatum” meaning “mandate” or “command.” Jesus said, “A new commandment (mandatum nuevum) I give to you” (John 13:34). So the Lenten season is a period of intentional prayer and fasting (with a focus on confession, restraint, sacrifice, and repentance). Why forty days? Forty days shows up throughout the Bible – the flood, the spies in Canaan, the Israelites in the wilderness, days before Samson’s deliverance, Goliath taunting Saul’s army, Elijah fleeing Jezebel, days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and on and on. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus (Luke 4:1-2) all fasted for forty days. Forty is not an arbitrary number.

Some practice the placing of ashes on foreheads or wrists signifying the start of a season of confession and repentance. The ashes remind the worshipper of his/her mortality, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) as well as the need to repent of sin in one’s life. It was common for Jews and early believers to mourn the loss of a loved one with “sackcloth and ashes.” Ashes were also a sign of brokenness and repentance of sin. Confession of sin, however, is a private thing between you and God and is not something to be paraded around and seen by everyone.

The practice of fasting is the act of the will through which the follower of Jesus puts forth spiritual control over the flesh (through sacrifice – i.e. not eating, or some other form of self-denial) with a view to a more personal and powerful experience with God in prayer. Fasting involves giving up but is much more about receiving.  You give up in order to receive. You die in order to live. The essence of fasting and renewed commitment to Jesus is summed up in Philippians 1:21, “For me, to live is Christ and die is gain.” During this season of restraint, Christ is experienced as more than enough for us in every way. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work” (John 4:34). During a fast He becomes our “food.” The will of God becomes your sustenance.

Come walk to the cross with the Lord Jesus this Easter season as never before. Let the prayer of David be yours.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10 

Gospel Identity and Racial Harmony

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#blacklivesmatter

Following the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case, I added the popular hashtag to a post. Knowing how some of my white friends would respond, I waited. Sure enough: “All lives matter!” was the response, missing the point altogether. Of course, all lives matter. What white people don’t understand (and cannot know experientially), is what it’s like to feel that your race does not matter to people of other races. Indeed this is what the response (to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown) is all about.

The varied responses in the aftermath of recent incidents have clearly exposed the racial divide we still have in our country. We are not as far along as we thought we were. As a pastor, I see something that may be even more disturbing: the lack of Gospel identity among God’s people has been deeply exposed as well. It may be more disturbing because the appropriation of the Gospel is the only way to racial reconciliation. It’s time for followers of Christ to let their identity in Christ to displace their racial identity. Or as Bryan Loritts stated, “My Jesusness must always trump my blackness.”

The most recent racial challenges have given believers across our country the opportunity to show what we really believe about the Gospel. As those transformed by the Gospel, our response should be markedly different from those who have never tasted the grace of God. It should be evident that Jesus has actually changed our lives. The appropriation of the Gospel means that we really do believe that grace triumphs over all things; that listening precedes talking, and that being “right” (winning an argument) is not as important as loving others without condition. We actually live like Jesus, “full of grace and full of truth” (John 1:14).

How would Jesus respond in the midst of recent happenings? Living in response to the Gospel means that we live in light of what He’s already done for us. Romans 5:10 says,  “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.” Reconciliation is the restoration of friendly relationships and of peace, where previously there had been hostility and alienation. If possible, it also includes the removal of the offense that caused the disruption of peace and harmony. This is what Christ has done. We must do the same, whenever possible. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says, “that, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” “Us” is us, those who claim to have been transformed by the Gospel.

The 2nd chapter of Ephesians serves as a field guide for racial reconciliation. Ephesians 2:14 says, “For He Himself is our Peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility”. This “dividing wall” was as much a racial divide as it was a religious one. Paul says that Christ Himself is the Answer, “and might reconcile us both (Gentiles and Jews) to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” Ephesians 2:16. The power of the cross is still in effect today. He is mighty to save, to destroy hostility, and to reconcile all people to one another through His finished work on the cross.

For nearly 30 years, Jonathan Scott has been my best friend in ministry. Jonathan is African American and knows everything about me. Through the miles, we still connect monthly, talk about life, ministry, and how God is changing us. Race is not central to any of our conversations; the Gospel is. Jesus is. We love each other without condition and though we do not deny the color of our skin, the Gospel defines us and the friendship we share. Christ in us trumps all other identities.

The problem with many reading this post is that you agree with me in principle, but not in practice. Too many white people (and black people) would say they are not racists (who would admit that?), but they do not have close relationships with anyone of another race. Therefore, they never really get inside the mind and heart of someone of another race. If we do not know each other, how can we trust each other and how can we love each other? We could only do so theoretically and Jesus had much to say about those who claim to love, but can show no evidence of any love in action.

I believe one of the greatest opportunities for the Body of Christ in our day is to come together across racial boundaries for the common good of our cities and the world. Indeed, for the sake of the Gospel. If we go it alone, no one will believe us. If we come together – Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, etc. – then they will see that there is something greater that unites us, beyond the color of our skin. They will discover that it is Jesus.

I know of no other gathering in the metroplex that draws together the Body of Christ, across racial boundaries, like  Movement Day Greater Dallas. I hope you’ll join me, Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 at the Kay Bailey Convention Center in downtown Dallas, for a historic gathering. My friend, Bryan Carter, pastor of Concord Church, and I will be leading a session on the role of the Church and racial reconciliation. We’ll also discuss next steps toward racial harmony for all believers, that will result in a Gospel movement across greater Dallas. Register here.

This will be a great way to kick off the new year! See you there.

Happy New Year!

 

Better late than never.

"The Three Crosses" by Rembrandt

“The Three Crosses” by Rembrandt

Luke 23:32-43 describes the story of the crucifixion and Jesus’ conversation with the men on either side of Him of the cross at Golgotha. Why were they not put together? The prophet Isaiah tells us why:

“He was numbered among the transgressors.”  Isaiah 53:12

God decreed that the most holy should die with the most unholy. At His birth He was surrounded by beasts, and now, at His death He is surrounded by criminals, deserving of capital punishment. This “friend of sinners” finds Himself with them once again. In fact, it seemed that was where He was always most comfortable. He lived among them, now He dies among them. Our attention turns to the two men crucified on either side of Jesus. One particularly captures our attention because he received the promise that we must share if we are to see our Lord in Paradise. Pastor Erwin Lutzer wrote, “What a day for the thief!  In the morning he was justly crucified on a cross; by late that evening he was justly welcomed into Paradise by Jesus!”  Let’s look at this thief who is each of us.

The thief in the mirror 

I think we’ll discover he is you and me.  In fact, the two thieves on the cross represent every human being who has ever lived.

  • His failure – We don’t know what he had done but we know, whatever it was, it deserved the death penalty. He was the vilest of offenders.  Like us, he was trapped by his sin.
  • His fate – His fate was determined by his sin. He, like us, is paying the consequences for his sin. Every person in the world is bound for the same fate, the same destination as this man- were it not for the intervention of Jesus. Romans 3:23- “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…”
  • His faith – Consider the faith of this man. It was a simple, yet amazing faith. Consider what he had seen. On the one hand he had heard Jesus say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” No doubt that prayer pierced his conscience. He heard the inadvertent testimony of the crowd: “He saved others…but he can’t save Himself.” No doubt he pondered, “What do they mean- “He saved others”. And then there was the “first Gospel tract” ever- nailed to the cross proclaiming, “This is the king of the Jews.” And then he had this conversation with Jesus.

Do you think his faith came easy? Does faith come easy for you? For most of us it doesn’t. Consider that this man had perhaps never seen Jesus before. It’s one thing to believe in Jesus when He does a miracle or has just provided some great teaching or act of love. But this man believed at a time when it appeared that Jesus was entirely helpless to save anyone. In fact, it seemed that Jesus Himself needed saving! Jesus hung there as the hapless victim, not a king. When you need saving, you don’t turn to someone in the same predicament that you’re in. You don’t turn to someone who is dying in disgrace. Or do you? The scandal of the Gospel is that we worship the God who died. This thief believed before the darkness fell over the land. He believed before the earthquake rocked the place, and before the veil of the Temple was torn in two. Improbable as it was, he believed.

Here’s the point- you too can believe. Does God seem distant to you? Does Jesus seem weak and powerless in your situation, in your life?  How can we explain the fact that this dying thief took a suffering, bleeding man for his God!? There’s only one answer- it was the work of the Holy Spirit drawing this man toward the Man in the middle. The Spirit is drawing you as well.  His faith was simple. It was courageous. It was enough.

  • His future  - This man, whose entire life was consumed with a never-ending struggle to find meaning and purpose, enslaved to sin, now finds himself about to enter eternal paradise. Notice the reunion would be that very day!  “Today.” Jesus died before this man did. Charles Spurgeon noted that “this man, who was our Lord’s last companion on earth” was His “first companion at the gates of paradise”. Notice, he did not make a pit stop in purgatory en route to paradise. His future- in heaven- secured by Jesus alone, began that day. With such a dark past, how bright was the future of this dying thief!

One commentator wrote, “There is one such case recorded that none need despair, but only one that none might presume.”  Warren Wiersbe points out that this man was not saved at his last opportunity, but at his first. Don’t wait another minute.

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

William Cowper, the great hymn writer, though plagued with doubts in his own life, understood that if the thief could be saved, then he could too. He wrote a song entitled, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”. One of my favorite stanzas reads: “The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day; and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.” The thief’s forgiveness should remind you that there is more grace in God’s heart than sin in your past.

It’s better late than never… but it’s better now than later.

 

The Saddest Day in History

rsz_jesus_on_the_cross_john_3-16_

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Matthew 27:46

We call it “Good Friday” but like so many things in the Kingdom of God, it was good for us, but bad for Him. What we call “Good” was terrible for our Lord Jesus. As you go about your day today, consider these facts: Early on that Friday morning, after no sleep the night before, Jesus was taken to Pilate’s prison. He was beaten by professional torturers who knew their craft all too well. He was then presented to the crowd who chose a notorious prisoner over the very Son of God. Throughout the day Jesus was silent and ironically, directing every move that was taking place. He was taken into the courtyard (called the Praetorium) and the entire company of soldiers surrounded Him.  They stripped Him, put a crown of thorns on His head, a staff in His hand, and knelt down before Him in mockery. They spat on Him and punched Him many times, as hard as they could. Tortured nearly to death, exhausted and famished, He carried His own cross to Golgotha and was nailed to it about noon. Darkness came over the earth from noon until 3:00 p.m. Close to 3:00 p.m. Jesus cried out “It is finished!” and He died. Around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. the women came to prepare His body for burial and they placed His corpse in a borrowed tomb. The massive stone was rolled into place as the sun went down on the saddest day in history… and the angels were silent as all creation watched to see what would happen next.

As you go throughout the day today, be in a constant state of remembering what happened to our Lord Jesus. Think about each event as though it was all happening today. Consider the horrific emotional strain of knowing you are about to be killed, and greater still, the anticipation of the very wrath of God upon sin that would come upon you. And remember, He did all of this for one reason: you. Of all the faces that came to the divine mind of Jesus, one of them was yours. And it was enough to kill Him.

Pray: Lord, today I will walk with You through Your sufferings. I will meditate on every phase of Your sacrifice for me.  My heart breaks over my sin that put You on the cross.

Thursday night before His death

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“After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him.”  John 13:5

On the night before His death, Jesus would teach the greatest lessons of His ministry to His disciples. The Master-Teacher would use object lessons, symbols, and hands-on teaching to make His point. The first lesson was on servanthood; the second was on sacrifice. The first involved the washing of His disciples’ dirty feet, an act performed only by a servant, not a master. He took off His outer garments, taking on the appearance of a slave boy. When He finished washing their feet, He didn’t say, “Now that I’ve washed your feet, you wash mine”, (as we would have done). Instead He said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). You see, the way we express love to Jesus is by expressing love to one another. The way we serve Him is by serving others.

The second lesson was around the table as He took the familiar elements of the Passover Meal and re-interpreted them as fulfilled by Him. The matzah bread, (unleavened bread, always pierced and always striped), represented His body. The cup of redemption represented His blood shed for them. How unusual it must have been as Jesus brought new meaning to these ancient symbols; how amazing it must have been after His death and resurrection to understand with crystal clarity what He meant. And now we know as well.

“The Master will dress Himself to serve and tell the servants to sit at the table, and He will serve them.”  Luke 12:37

Pray: Lord, thank you for your amazing act of servanthood and your example of sacrifice for me. I want to live the life of a servant. I will love someone for free today and in so doing, I will be expressing my love to you. Tonight, as I lay my head down to rest I will remember the sleepless night you had as you were arrested, tried, and beaten. I worship you as the Servant and Lord of all.