Inspired by a sermon By Pastor Jason Cook at Fellowship Bible Church, Roswell, GA 4/18/2021
It was just after sunset. The sky was dusky, and the shadows in the alleys grew deeper. The Temple took on hues of pink and gold as the marble reflected the last rays of day, a glorious sight for those who had eyes to see. The women did not see the beauty; they were consumed with making the perfect meal, centered around lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. The tradition dated back centuries, to the time of the great exodus, and it was surrounded by specific rituals, prayers, and songs. Jerusalem was crowded as people from all over pilgrimaged to the holiest city they knew. Many of those pilgrims had surely been part of the great crowds that sang, “Hosanna” on the first day of the week. While the sacred meal was primarily for families, individuals could also gather as companies, temporary families united by being among the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
By this time, the noise of the crowds had diminished as the sacrifices were completed and the men returned to their homes to partake in the Passover meal. They led their children for a search of hidden leaven in the house. As guests arrived, servants would wash the dust from the travelers’ feet. Wine was served for both sacred and non-ritual consumption. Throughout the meal, family members would retell the exodus story as they recalled God’s miraculous freeing of the people of Israel from slavery under the Egyptian pharaoh.
This night, a group of men met in the upper room of a home they knew. There were thirteen in all, but when the meal was eaten, one left mysteriously, before the final cups of wine were blessed: “Blessed are you, o Lord our God, King of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine…[who said,] I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements.”
By now, the men in the group were concerned. Why had one left their midst before the final prayer? Why did Judas not sing the words, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever?” And then the Master spoke to them, words of a new commandment to love even though some of them would shortly depart, even denying they knew Him. He told them He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He reminded the remaining eleven that, even when He left them, they would not be alone, but that He would send a Counselor, a Holy Spirit, to walk with them and through them as they kept His commands.
He spoke plainly to them, that the next moments and days would be the worst they could possibly imagine. And then Jesus spoke these words:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.John 14:27
As the group departed when the meal was complete, Jesus told them more about what was to come. He finished by warning them that they would indeed face tribulation, but they could endure because He conquered the world and the sin that inhabited it (John 16:33).
The world in which we live is indeed troubled. Culture is as evil as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, and it seems there is no redemption ahead. What was once thought to be evil is now celebrated as good, and what was once good is now portrayed as offensive to a progressive society. As Jesus followers, it might be easy to be discouraged by the daily manifestations of Satan’s rule in this world. We may fear the consequences of expressing our faith in the open. It’s true, our livelihoods may be threatened by our spoken convictions. We may lose credibility with our secular friends when we speak the truth, even when we say there IS Truth (not my truth or your truth, but REAL Truth). The disciples lost more than credibility; they all lost their lives in their proclamations of Jesus as Lord and Savior. For hundred of years, Jesus followers around the world have faced everything from ridicule to persecution to their very lives. Yet Christianity has endured.
Christianity has endured. Not because Christians are perfect. People have done horrific and vile things claiming the name of Jesus. The name “Christian” has been misused, misplaced, and maligned for so long that its very meaning has been altered in the eyes of a secular society. But being a Jesus follower is unchanged over the centuries. It is not an easy road to travel. It requires stamina, discipline, and trust in the One who gives us peace.
That Passover meal so long ago was the portal to a world where ordinary people did extraordinary things because Jesus. As complicated and complex and corrupt this world becomes, we can persevere. We can sing, “His love endures forever” no matter what we face. Jesus is our salvation. He is the Cornerstone of all Truth. He gives light in the darkness, hope in distress, and peace in all the trials we face.
Strange, J.F. (2014). Jesus’ Passover. Friends of Asor, 2(4). https://www.asor.org/anetoday/2014/04/jesus-passover/
Wallace, D.B. (2004). Passover in the Time of Jesus. Bible.org , https://bible.org/article/passover-time-jesus This is a transcript of a Seder meal practiced according to first century traditions.
A year ago the novel coronavirus was a story of interest, but not headline news in most of the world. It had been identified in China and had just been confirmed in the Mediterranean region (World Health Organization interactive timeline). Daily briefings from WHO didn’t begin until February 5 and it wasn’t until February 24 that WHO issued a warning about the potential for rapid spread.
The epicenter moved to Europe in early March, and interest in the US began to rise, but still, other news, mostly political, ruled the headlines. But by the middle of March, following the official declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, people in the US started paying attention. On March 11, the day WHO declared the virus as “the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus” (npr.org), it had spread to eight countries and killed 4,000 people.
As of this writing, COVID19 has taken 2.16 million lives across every continent on the planet. It’s far more devastating than anyone could have imagined a year ago.
Through this year of loss, God has not forgotten His children. We may feel like our prayers are unheard, but He hears. We may momentarily wonder where to find respite, but He is with us in the middle of our pain.
How long will this endure? There’s no telling. But God has not abandoned us. He is eternal and waiting for us to focus less on loss and to take refuge in His everlasting arms.
When this pandemic is over (and it will eventually end) we will look back and see how God revealed Himself in the middle. He will be glorified by the testimony we share because He brought us through it all. When we abide in Him, we are safe in His arms, no matter what happens in the chaos of the world around us.
There’s an old song that keeps playing in my head today. The words I recall are these:
This world is not my home; I'm just a-passin' through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door. And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
The events of the last several weeks that culminated in the events of January 6, 2021 just confirm to me that I don’t belong to this world. I knew there would be a time when many people calling themselves “Christians” would turn away from the gospel of Jesus and the love of God; evidently that time is now. I am horrified by the events at the US Capitol on Wednesday. Ironically, Wednesday was also Epiphany, a day set aside by liturgical traditions to remember the Magi and to ponder the baptism of Jesus by John. It was at the baptism that John introduced Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:19-34). Epiphany, a sudden illumination of something. Epiphany, the recognition of Jesus as fully God and fully man. The wonder of the Incarnation, now a man beginning his public ministry. How far the Church has fallen from the wonder of God’s mercy and grace for us. How devastating is that fall!
The Church in the US and much of the West is broken. It has been broken by teachers and pastors who sought recognition and fame. It has been broken by church attendees who stay for the music, but leave as soon as the teaching gets serious. Cultural Christianity (churchianity) focuses on blessings instead of trials and boasting instead of truth. The Church in the US, for the most part, has moved away from worshipping the righteous and holy God who created all things and holds all things together, replacing the Father with a national identity and the human leaders they elect.
Whether or not people believe that the 2016 or 2020 elections resulted in fraudulent officials is irrelevant. The kind of violence exhibited on January 6 was illegal, seditious, and wrong on every level. Those who hung up the name of Jesus in the process defiled his holy name. Amos wrote that God’s people must seek good, and not evil, especially when they live in a country that thrives on the titillation of wickedness. “Hate evil and love good,” he wrote. “Establish justice in the gate.” Amos goes on to describe how the Lord looks upon self-indulgent and proud people who claim they have “rights” because of their affiliation with God. The Lord abhors that pride. Amos spoke for the Lord saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen.” Displays of nationalism and religiosity do not honor the Lord. He is not the God of the United States of America. He is the Lord of ALL creation. To honor the Lord means His followers pursue justice rolling down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God’s righteousness, not self-righteousness. The actions of people on January 6 revealed the utter wickedness that dwells within all people. They pursued a path that would vindicate their self-righteousness and the false gospel of nationalism. They put a political figure in the place of the Lord.
Nations rise and nations fall. Institutions are built up and torn down. There will come a day when the US will fall, just as every empire has fallen. But the people of God are not to be part of that destruction. We are to seek peace. We are to pray for the welfare of where we live (Jeremiah 29:4-14), not listening to those who seek to deceive. God is abundantly clear about what is good: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the Lord. None of the humility, kindness, nor justice were on display by the people who called themselves Christians while they broke into the Capitol, wreaking havoc in their violence. Make no mistake, these people were not acting in the will of God and God was not glorified. In fact, Malachi wrote that people like those who use the name of Jesus and the idea of Christian the way they did on January 6 weary the Lord with their words. They say that doing evil is doing good and that God is too slow in enacting justice. These claims illustrate just how self-serving these people are. They worship a nation, a Constitution, and institution, not the Living Lord.
The Lord will refine His Church. The pandemic has revealed those who used church as a social gathering place by closing the physical doors. The ugliness of the campaigns of 2020 revealed just how deep the corruption of ethical behavior has become. The riots of summer 2020 demonstrated the inadequacy of church teaching, especially with the notion of the prosperity gospel or the social gospel that infiltrated many churches. The refining has begun. The heat has been turned up, and unless there is general repentance and lamentation of the Church’s failure to teach the Word to the people, things will continue to get more difficult. All the dross must be burned away in order for those of us who seek Jesus first to fully reflect Him in all that we do and say.
In the end, however, this world, this country, this national institution is just a place of passing as we journey to our eternal home. For those who fear the Lord, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing. We will look to the Lord, waiting for the God of our salvation. He hears us. He is our light. His love is steadfast.
And that song? It has an interesting story that I’ll share another day. For now, enjoy one of the first recordings of it by the composer, Jessie May Hill:
Philippians 3: 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Wait. Not exactly the word I expected for 2021, but that’s the one that stuck. Some people might say it was a word from the Lord, but I won’t be so bold as to claim to hear God in such specific terms. Still, this is the word that came to mind over and over as I pondered my focus for 2021. Two passages of scripture also circled in my head: sections from Habakkuk 2 and Jeremiah 33.
I read Habakkuk back in January, well before 2020 turned the world upside down. At that point, I considered his cry of “How long” from a theoretical perspective on the evil and injustice of humans. I could not have foreseen that “how long” would be the cry of so many people across the globe. Habakkuk prophesied in an evil age, one in which violence, poverty, devastation, and strife ruled, while the Law was ignored and justice never upheld. The Lord told him, ” Watch! Be horrified! Be frightened speechless! For I am accomplishing a work in your days — you would not believe it even if you were told!” (Habakkuk 1:5). Jeremiah heard the same word: “Call to me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). Those unbelievable “great and mighty things” included the total destruction of Judah at the hands of the Chaldeans because the sins of God’s people had reached a point of utter wickedness. Zephaniah also preached against the rebellious and defiled people who refused to obey the Lord and did “violence to the Law” (Zephaniah 3). Even before 2020, there were people crying out to God, “how long?” How long will bitterness and injustice rule even in our churches? How long will people flout God’s command to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength while loving each other? (Matthew 22:35-40). I wrote in my journal on January 17, 2020:
How long? The question of the ages, it would seem. Evil still runs rampant in the world. War, slavery, and violence are as much a part of this time as in any other…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth. Pay attention. To say God works in mysterious ways is an understatement. However, He know what is happening, and He will judge the wicked even if we don’t. However, because His ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8-9), how He works may not make sense to our limited minds. Here [Habakkuk 1], God uses the Chaldeans, who were know for witchcraft, astrology, and worship of Marduk to punish the wicked in Israel and Judah…How long? Until the people repent and a leader comes forth to honor God.
And here we are, nearly a year later. The world has suffered a deadly pandemic, drought, horrific natural disasters in the forms of fire, earthquake, and flood, economic catastrophes, and human suffering on a massive scale. The US has endured riots, protests, division, hatred, contentiousness, and violence, not to mention an election that pleased nobody. The economy suffered as businesses either shuttered or pivoted to “contactless” commerce. People argued over wearing masks of all things: protection or liberty. Physical distancing drove families. Work and school and church moved to online platforms. (Oh, to have bought stock in Zoom back in February.) Hugs and handshakes became elbow bumps. The virus that upended everything created chaos by its sheer inconsistency: most people recovered quickly, but some endured long term effects, and many died. Will a vaccine help? Maybe. Hopefully. But the damage to the psyche of the world is done.
And yet, after all these things, we still wait for the return of the good times. Back to “normal.” When we can attend church services and have school in classrooms and travel freely. But if we just return to the way things were, what have we learned? Have we made changes in justice? Are we better, kinder people? Do the good guys in white hats come out ahead? I submit, we have not made changes and we are not better people. The white hats are more than fifty shades of gray. And, with Habakkuk we might ask, why do the wicked seem to prevail, even after all the events of 2020? Evidently, there’s still a lesson to be learned.
I spent a fair amount of time in 2020 studying the minor prophets and considering the “day of the Lord.” Joel wrote that “the day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” (Joel 2). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that the day would come like a “thief in the night” but before that time, people would be talking about world peace and security (1 Thessalonians 5). After 2020, not much is certain, but no one is claiming this as a time of peace and security. I think the Lord does have a word for us, the same word he gave to Habakkuk: “Write down the vision…so that one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hurries toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it delays, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay long” (Habakkuk 2:2-3). This year has been a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus called times like these the “beginnings of the birth pains” (Matthew 24). Habakkuk saw that things were going to get far worse before they got better; we must understand the same thing.
Why? Why the suffering? Why the certainty of eventual destruction? Because humans are desperately wicked by nature. Because, until people see themselves as they truly are, they will not see their desperate need for a Savior. We are stubborn, we humans. We want to be the masters of our souls, but we cannot be holy. And the Lord will do whatever it takes to make us see that, without Jesus, our souls are doomed. C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that God shouts to us in our pain (Lewis 1940, 2001). Joel foresaw a time when God will light up the sky with fire while turning the moon into blood. At the same time, young people will have visions and the old will dream of God’s wrath, judgement, and salvation (Joel 2). There will come a time when everyone will choose for themselves: worship the self or call on the Lord. Moderation, fence-sitting, cultural “churchianity”- these will be abolished and the lines of demarcation will be clearly drawn.
God has not destined us for that wrath. He sent Jesus, the Incarnation of Himself, for our salvation. When we call on His name, we are eternally His, no matter what happens on this earth (1 Thessalonians 5; Romans 5). The question we must address today is the same one Habakkuk faced: how do we respond to the certainty of hard times ahead?
With joy. We choose joy in the God of our salvation. We choose joy because He made a way of escape; these light and momentary struggles are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us on that day (Romans 8). And for now, we wait in anticipation.
Lewis, C.S. (2001) The problem of pain. Harper. Original publication 1940.
I am spending a little time this November to create images using the places in Scripture that include the words “give thanks.”
Even in 2020. Give thanks. God is sovereign. Give thanks over ALL circumstances, even if they aren’t the ones you hoped for. Give thanks because gratitude is always part of God’s will for us. Give thanks because God will be glorified.
Living in the world of academia, I witness the comings and goings of all kinds of philosophies that people create in hopes of making society a better place for everyone. They try to uplift people by bringing others down. They give objects the same “rights” as humans (except for unborn humans–somehow unborn humans are of less values than rivers.) They blame systems for the ills of society and they pursue individuals whose world views and philosophies are different as enemies rather than alternate points of view.
“Goodness” is not a human construct. It comes from the holiness of the Creator, and there is not one person living on this planet who can define goodness without God. No one is without sin. No one group has a monopoly on the “right” philosophy, which is why philosophies come and go with the generations.
In my own lifetime, I have lived under philosophies of extreme licentiousness and extreme prudishness. In academic circles, structuralism (the idea that everything in human culture has a particular place in a pattern of structures) has been replaced with varying degrees of post-structuralism (there is no place for individuals because individualism is a fiction–there is no self; there is only a combination of knowledge and tension in conflict.) Post-modern, post- truth, post-intentional–these are all philosophies in the academic realm that attempt to explain and describe human culture, and they are just as convoluted as they appear.
Truth is. Competing philosophies are not Truth; in fact, most of them distain the possibility of Truth. There might be “my truth” or “your truth,” but even these ideas are more for convenience than for inquiry. Most of the time, people who pursue these errant philosophies wind up frustrated and even angry about their inability to coerce culture into something no one really understands.
The beauty of scripture is that it IS Truth. It is unassailable because it is the Word of the Creator who is outside the boundaries of time, space, and culture. It cannot be diminished, not can it be undone. Competing philosophies cannot counter the Word. Goodness is grounded in the reality of God. It doesn’t change.
This is our confidence. When we know and press on to knowing more of the Lord, He will come to us. He will establish us in Truth, not philosophy.
Deer are simple creatures. They are usually skittish, running from perceived danger in a zigzag to confuse predators. They hide by melting into the landscape around them. But when the predators press in and neither running nor hiding work, deer head for the water. They instinctively know that water will hide their scent so they will avoid be chased further. Water also quenches their thirst after a long chase.
It is this kind of longing that the psalmist describes. He is exhausted by the attacks of his enemies and by the taunts of his people who challenge him, “Where is your God?” All the psalmist can think about is finding the waters of God’s righteousness where he can find safety and satiety. He knows the Lord is there; he ends the psalm determined to praise Him in spite of his fear, his depression, and his circumstances.
When we hunger and thirst for righteousness in this way, God is faithful to meet us where we are (Matthew 5:6). He alone can satisfy our deepest needs and He alone can calm our fears no matter what our circumstances may be. In Him we find protection and peace. No matter how dark our days feel, He is with us. His righteousness ensures justice; we can trust His faithful love for us. Even when we feel lost in the dark, we can praise Him, knowing that His righteousness will prevail.
Everything we need. When we know Jesus, we don’t need to know anything else to live a life devoted to justice, mercy, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Remember that. Remember that when you read angry social media posts so you do not respond in kind (pointing at myself, here). Remember that when stuck at home for the millionth day with cranky kids and work deadlines (even more when the cranky kid is you). Remember that when heated arguments among your friends threaten relationships. Remember that everytime you feel ambushed for your opinions. Remember that when you feel self- righteous about your opinions.
God has given you everything you need. His power (not yours, not denominations, not political parties) calls us to Him for His glory and His excellence. Walk worthy of that call (Ephesians 4).
Mourning is more than sadness. It is the gut-wrenching wail of devastation and loss. It is the same Greek word used is Revelation 18 when Babylon falls and the people realize there is nothing left of the great city. Mourning is the attitude of the prodigal, the repentance of Job, and the cry of David at his lowest moment in life (Luke 15, Job 42, Psalm 51).
Mourning is a present and active response to sin, and not just our individual sins, but over the ramifications of human sin on those who live in this world without hope. Mourning laments over the divisions in the Church, the oppressive treatment by one person or group over another, and the chaos that comes from human nature run amok.
Jesus offers consolation to mourners, telling them that they will be comforted. Mourning is not done in vain when it causes us to turn to the One who is the Comforter.