EASTER: ALL ABOUT GRACE

We are uncomfortable with grace. We cannot get our minds around it, or adjust our feelings to it. It upends our inner scale of justice because most of us live under the merit system.

A murderer gets the death penalty and we’re okay with that. It makes sense to us. We resonate with reward, and punishment. Do good, work hard, keep your nose clean, and you will be rewarded. Be selfish, be mean, be slack, be criminal, and you get what you deserve.

But deserve and reward are words that have no meaning under grace. That is the scandal –- even a Timothy McVeigh can receive a full pardon from God.

“For the wages of sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Death is something we earn. Life is a gift.

If you have trouble absorbing that, consider these three thoughts.

Grace Is Costly

Justice was done. Sin was paid for but not by us. “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21).

In the film The Last Emperor, a young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a magical life of luxury with a thousand eunuch servants at his command.

“What happens when you do wrong?” asks his brother.

“When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy king answers. To demonstrate, he shatters a jar, and one of his servants is beaten.

God reversed that pattern. When the servants sinned, the king was punished. Grace is free only because the giver has born all the cost.

Grace Is Extravagant 

Think of the parable Jesus told about the lost sheep (See Luke15). The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the open country, vulnerable to theft, wolves, and wandering, to find the one, and then celebrates with friends.

That’s extravagant.

I would say, “Miserable little ingrate sheep. Let him wander. Wolves would do me a favor if they ate him.” But not God. God’s grace is extravagant.

Grace is Overwhelming

Some of us have done things that we are ashamed to admit, and some of us have done things–violent things, cruel things, and heartless things–that, in the clear light of day, horrify us. Not only would we never tell someone else about them, we can hardly tell ourselves. Some of us still find ourselves, long after putting faith in Christ, doing things we regret deeply and cannot explain.

The Apostle Paul was like that. He confessed, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst,” and “ … I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”[1]

That same grace — God’s Amazing Grace — is here, now, offered to us. The resurrection proved that it is true. That is why we celebrate Easter.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:15; Romans 7:18-19, 24-25.

PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

OF JEOPARDY AND BIBLICAL EPICS

 

The game show Jeopardy is an occasional evening indulgence. Answering correctly, before the contestants, is the big draw, and fun when it happens, but let’s just say that I’m never tempted to audition, except when the Bible is the category. Alex Trebek became the host of the hit game show the year we got married, and since that time it seems the contestants’ biblical knowledge has decreased with each decade.

We have become a visual media culture, learning more from television, film, and streaming sources than any civilization in history. Fewer Americans, it seems, are reading the Bible, but more are watching movies.

That’s why I’m recommending my top five biblical movies just before Easter. I’m not suggesting that anyone can build a solid foundation of biblical literacy, still less doctrine by watching, but we can get the big picture, and some of the major themes. And movies contribute to cultural conversation. It’s always easier to begin a discussion with, “Have you seen …?” than with “Have you read the book of Matthew lately?”

The Passion of the Christ – Mel Gibson’s R-rated (for violence) 2004 blockbuster is not for children, or the faint of heart. It was controversial, but brutally accurate in its portrayal of the final twelve hours before Jesus’s death. The expressions on Jesus’s (Jim Caviezel) face at the beginning and the end capture the conflict with evil, and the hope of resurrection, like nothing else available on screen.

Ben Hur – The 1959 classic with Charlton Heston in the title role was remade last year by husband and wife team Mark Burnette and Roma Downey (The Bible). The new film is shorter, by an hour, and faster paced. But the mid-twentieth century version is truer to the best-selling, 1880, Lew Wallace novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The story of revenge and redemption between two adoptive brothers, Roman Messala, and Jewish Ben Hur, plays out in and around the crucifixion and resurrection. The climactic chariot race benefits from better special effects in the newer film, but the 1959 classic won eleven Academy Awards.

Risen –The 2016 film follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics, it is a good story well told.

Prince of Egypt – The 1998 animated epic remains one of the most powerful and accessible retellings of the Exodus ever produced. Watch it with your children and grandchildren. It is visually compelling and musically breathtaking.

The Jesus Film – This 1979 film hasn’t won many awards–on earth. Neither has it made much money, but the two-hour long, faithful rendering of the Gospel of Luke has been shown on more screens, to more audiences, in more diverse places than any other biblical film in history. From Bible-less peoples in the Amazon jungle, to Aborigines in the Outback, this film has probably changed more lives, and will win more awards in heaven, than any other. If you want a literal rendering of the most historically detailed Gospel, this is it.

These are just my favorites, included because I’ve seen them. What are yours?

 

 

 

Rx for Anxiety

ANXIETY, I am not immune to it. I doubt you are either. Yet something Jesus said just before his crucifixion reminds me that we have a choice about our anxieties.

The Apostle John describes the scene for us in chapters thirteen and fourteen of his gospel. Jesus, already in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, is in the upper room with his closest followers, his twelve, hand-picked men. There is a price on his head. He washes their feet, shares the bread and the cup, and most notably, predicts his betrayal. All are aghast. All are frightened. They are well aware of the threat they are under, the risks they are running by being in Jerusalem. It is a time of great anxiety.

Into this fractious moment Jesus speaks some his most familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). I’ve read those words hundreds of times, often at funerals. But this week the first three words stood out from the rest in a way they haven’t before because I realized Jesus repeated them near the end of his talk, just before they left the upper room, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).

The first three words of each line tell us something about ourselves that can be hard to believe: We have a choice about our anxieties. Jesus’ two “Do not let(s)…” make an emphatic statement about our ability to select worry and its gut-wrenching results, or trust and the peace that accompanies it.

The fact, the physiological fact, is that we can worry ourselves sick. Psychiatrists have reliable evidence that the more we worry, the more we fixate on some fearful thing over which we have no control, the more likely we are to push our brain chemistry out of balance. Once the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and others get off-kilter it can be very difficult to return them to an even keel. In some cases medications are necessary to help restore the balance. But for most of us medication is a temporary fix. If we don’t address the underlying habit of fear in the first place the imbalance is likely to reoccur.

Jesus has a prescription for preventing such brain disorders in the first place. “Do not let” it happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God (instead). Trust me (instead).” Do not choose worry and it cannot enslave your mind. Choose to trust God and he will set it free.

Easier said than done? Yes, certainly. But it can be done. Let me offer a couple of practical steps to help. Call it Rx for Anxiety.
First, it may be necessary to confess that we’ve allowed the source of our worry, in our minds at least, to become more powerful than God, more important to our wellbeing than Christ. That’s actually idolatry and it requires confession and repentance. “Father, thing A or thing B is occupying front and center in my life. That’s your place. I now repent of that and confess that you are God and nothing else. I confess that I am not in control.”

Second, remembering that physical expressions of worship often help us deal with difficult emotions, take a step of faith. Take that thing over which you have no control (which includes most of life, does it not?), write it down on a piece of paper, and in an act of worship offer it up to God. Then set it on fire.

Some things are more difficult to offer up like this than others. Some may require a daily offering for a while. But make it a habit with all of your worries and peace will become your companion.

We have a choice about our anxieties. As you think about all that Christ accomplished for us during his Passion this week, choose trust.

RISEN: Something Good Out of Hollywood

Based on Bible stories made into movies of late, the Nathaniel’s among us would be justified in paraphrasing the dubious disciple’s first question about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Hollywood?”

Noah, in spite of my initial enthusiasm about it, turned out to be a theological mish-mash and a box office disappointment. The trailers for Exodus: God’s and Kings, revealed such an obvious hack job on the original story that I, along with many others, didn’t waste my time or money on it. Roma Downey and Mark Burnette’s 2015 television hit, AD, also left me disappointed by the middle of the series.

Not so with Risen, the Sony Pictures release now playing in local theaters. Instead of trying to make something more or something different than the original Easter story, Risen follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics it is a good story well told.

Joseph Fiennes (Luther 2003) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, the Roman Tribune charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) with insuring that Jesus stays dead, the Sanhedrin remains mollified, the mob remains pacified, and Caesar stays in the dark about all of it. The cinematography is good. The plot is believable, the film is well paced, and even though it’s obvious that special effects were relegated to the shallow end of the budget pool, the script and the acting more than made up for it. Pilate’s cynicism is palpable, but not overdone, as he and Clavius play a high-stakes game of political chess with the equally cynical High Priest. We come away reminded of how quickly truth goes by the boards as the players manipulate the message in a never-ending battle to shape public opinion.

Risen does have a few weaknesses. One actor is glaringly amateurish in the two short scenes he inhabits. It wouldn’t matter if they weren’t so strategically placed. And those of us concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just prior to the ascension. But these things are minor and offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an otherwise excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar. That actor should win an Oscar.

Far more important however and ultimately more moving than any of these things is Fiennes’ Clavius. He is utterly convincing as a man’s man intimately acquainted with the brutal parts of life on a fallen planet. Every man who feels the cynicism of Pilate creeping up on him in mid-life will identify with Clavius’ quest for truth. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”