Sunday, November 15, 2015

This is the Day

As Jesus hung from a Roman execution stake, He endured the insults of the crowd gathered around Him.  Additionally Matthew’s Gospel records that He was verbally abused by the two criminals who had been pegged up on either side, who also “heaped insults on him” (Matthew 27:44).  But then something happened to one of those men.
As he watched Jesus endure the suffering, praying for persecutors, showing compassion for loved ones, the man was touched.  The reality of his own guilt and the innocence of Jesus pressed on him and his tongue fell silent as through his own pain he reflected on these things.  He could hear the man on the far side continuing to berate Jesus: “Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)  He raised his head and called out to his fellow criminal: “Don't you fear God, since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41).  Then looking at Jesus he made a request: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42)

Wracked with excruciating pain of His own, Jesus turned to him and answered: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Jesus’ comment has long been pondered and puzzled over. 

By one theological camp these words are put forth as definite evidence that when a believer dies they are ushered immediately into the presence of God.  The emphasis of the verse is “…today you will be with Me in paradise.”

According to other groups the words emphasize Jesus' truthfulness in that moment and the surety of a future promise.  They emphasize “I tell you the truth today…”

What if both miss the point? 

What if Jesus’ words have absolutely nothing to do with either ‘immediate ascension’ or ‘resurrection hope’?

In the course of my general reading I came across a thought which struck me as very profound, yet very simple.  What if Jesus was directing His thoughts to something from the past being fulfilled in the present moment?  What if Jesus was drawing attention to something about the event itself?

“Jesus, having compassion on [the repentant criminal] said: ‘I say unto thee to-day,’ –this day, above all others, –this day, when my prospects for a kingdom are apparently blasted, even ‘to-day,’ – under these most trying circumstances, – ‘I say unto thee…thou shalt be with me in Paradise.’”*

What a different lens through which to view these things!  Jesus declares to the man that on ‘this day’ when all seems lost, salvation is secured!   

While Jesus most likely spoke these words in Aramaic, Luke utilizes the Greek adverb semeron which can mean ‘today’ or ‘this day’.  Where else do we find the day of Jesus’ crucifixion spoken of as ‘this day’? 

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  This is Yahweh's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.  This is the day that Yahweh has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:22-24)

In the Hebrew the phrase is zeh ha’yom (‘this the day’) and in the Greek Old Testament hautay hey haymera (‘this the day’) using the same root word as in Luke 23.

Rather than Jesus making a singular promise to one man, Jesus is making a declaration to all men: ‘This is the promised and long awaited Day!  God has ordained this day that through Me, the rejected stone, Paradise is reopened!  Rejoice and be glad!” 

What He said to the thief, He says to us all: “At this present hour, though all the evidence would witness to the contrary, I am the victor and you indeed will share in My victory when My Kingdom comes.”

The discussion will continue on those other theological points but no matter which side of that debate you are on, I hope that all of us can step back and read this passage with fresh eyes.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast out of Paradise with a mighty angel to bar the way back.  Now, because of the Day of the cross, Jesus has reopened Paradise that all who believe may enter in!  Rejoice and be glad!


*McKinstry, M. The World’s Great Empires. Advent Christian Publications, Inc. & The Delmar Companies: Charlotte NC, 1973.  Print. p519

Monday, November 9, 2015

It’s About God

In 1636, amid the darkness of the Thirty Years' War, a German pastor, Martin Rinkart, is said to have buried five thousand of his parishioners in one year, an average of fifteen a day.  His parish was ravaged by war, death, and economic disaster.  In the heart of that darkness, with the cries of fear outside his window, he sat down and wrote this prayer for his children:

“Now thank we all, our God; with heart and hands and voices; Who wondrous things hath done; In whom His world rejoices.  Who, from our mother's arms; Hath led us on our way; with countless gifts of love; and still is ours today.”

As we approach our celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday, I would like to reflect on one statement: My ability to give thanks is not conditioned by my circumstances; it is rooted in God’s character.  In other words, it’s not about how I feel; it’s about Who God is.

When we face trials in our lives, we naturally look at the circumstances surrounding us and feel overwhelmed.  The more we dwell on our situation the more our abilities to praise and thank God are diminished.

At sometime prior to 605bc God raised up a prophet named Habakkuk to speak to the Jewish people in the Kingdom of Judah, who had largely turned away from God.  As Habakkuk observed the wickedness of the people, he wondered about God’s justice.  How long could this evil go unpunished?  What would God do about it?

The answer was sobering: God informed Habakkuk that He was bringing the Babylonians to punish Judah.  If Habakkuk thought times were bad now, all he had to do was wait; things were about to get much worse.  Even more troubling was that the remnant of faithful people was likely to be caught up in the coming judgment.  Habakkuk had every reason to despair, but see how he responded:

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in Yahweh, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18 niv)

The situation can get as bad as it can possibly be, yet the prophet will “rejoice” in God.  The Hebrew word used for rejoice (alaz) means ‘to jump for joy’.  No matter how bad things are, Habakkuk will jump for joy because of Who God is; the Savior, the Source of strength, and the Victor; He is just and loving, faithful and merciful.  Habakkuk’s ability to give thanks was not conditioned by circumstances; it was rooted in God’s character. 

In writing the hymn, Now Thank We All Our God, Pastor Rinkart had it right!  This is what it is to know with certainty that thanksgiving comes from knowing Who God is, not from outward circumstances. 

Through Jesus Christ, a merciful and loving God has blessed us beyond all measure, we are saved from eternal destruction and have been made a part of His kingdom.  There is nothing that can happen, no situation or circumstance that is greater than that blessing.  It is only through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, that we may know what true thanksgiving is all about.

Christian, your ability to give thanks is not determined by circumstances; it is rooted in God’s character.  Whether you feel it or not, you are blessed.  Stop looking around and look up, because it’s not about how we feel, it’s about Who God is.
Be blessed.