Lesser of two evils…

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Mark 15:6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7 Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8 So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9 Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14 Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Pilate is stuck between a rock and a hard place. V.10 tells us he realized Jesus had not done anything to deserve death, but was a victim of jealousy by the chief priests. Justice would dictate Jesus be set free. But then there were the crowds who had been stirred up to demand Jesus’ death (v.11). And as often happens even today, expediency trumped justice. Pilate chose what he viewed as the lesser of two evils, sacrificing Jesus to keep the peace.

We’re in the middle of awful riots breaking out across the country in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. It’s so sad because what began as peaceful demonstrations crying out for justice for the Floyd family (which I completely support) have devolved into general hooliganism and destruction of property – property often belonging to the very members of the African-American community rioters claim to support. It’s a terrible irony.

I can imagine being a police chief or other civil official deciding how best to respond to the situation. On one hand there is the responsibility to restore order when some rioters appear to be bent on violence and destruction of property. On the other is the awareness that restoring calm may require the use of force, which could get ugly. The optics would be terrible and could inflame further violence. What to do?

I’m grateful I’m not one of those who has to make these kinds of decisions. However, as a Christian I am called to do battle in the heavenly realm through prayer. Make no mistake, the problems we’re seeing unfold have spiritual roots. It’s as the apostle Paul wrote 2,000 years ago in his letter to the church at Ephesus:

Ephesians 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Heavenly Father it’s so difficult to watch awful events unfold and to feel powerless. But you have given all believers weapons of the Spirit with which we can pull down strongholds. Empower us to do battle in the heavenly realm, binding spirits of violence and death in Jesus’ name. By your mighty hand bring peace to our broken world. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

…he broke down and wept…

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Mark 14:66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. 69 And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” 72 At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Peter swore to Jesus he would always have Jesus’ back. Our passage today reveals Peter’s complete and utter failure to live up to that promise. The end of v.72 says it all. Peter “broke down and wept”.

Things are a mess. From the ongoing struggle with coronavirus, the continued rise in unemployment, and now the brutality of racial injustice – and the violence that has ensued. It’s like the world is coming apart at the seams.

And to be honest I have no words today. I feel like Peter. I know there is hope and things will get better, but right now I’m just experiencing a bit of despair, like I could break down and weep. And so I cry out to the Lord, “Come Lord Jesus”. Amen.

The cross… and new life

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Mark 14:53 They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. 54 Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. 55 Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. 56 For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. 57 Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” 59 But even on this point their testimony did not agree. 60 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” 61 But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62 Jesus said,

“I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ”

63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. 65 Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.

V.55 tells us that the religious authorities were looking for testimony against Jesus but it wasn’t going well. They couldn’t find two people who told the same story so they were stuck. And what did Jesus do? He helped them out in v.62 by saying “I am” – which is essentially saying “I am the Son of God”.

If it were me I’d prefer to argue for my release than give them more ammo to use against me. But Jesus isn’t interested in being released, he’s interested in getting on with what he knows must happen. He knew by this time he would endure the cross, but that the Father would raise him up.

There is a pattern in the New Testament of dying and rising, of losing one’s life to gain one’s life. The last few months have offered a lot of loss. We’ve lost connecting with our friends and family as we’re used to. We’ve lost some freedom of movement. Some have lost jobs and even lost loved ones to Covid-19. The church has lost its ability to meet in person though some of that is starting to come back. It’s still not the same with masks and distance and other safety protocols.

So as I experience grief and loss like everyone else I’m also anticipating new life. God is in the process of making a new me. A new us. A new church. A new world. But first is the cross. Lord give us grace to embrace what we must so that we too might be raised up to new life. Amen.

Another African-American man dies in police custody…

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Psalm 69: 22 Let their table be a trap for (evil ones), a snare for their allies. 23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. 24 Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. 25 May their camp be a desolation; let no one live in their tents. 26 For they persecute those whom you have struck down, and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more. 27 Add guilt to their guilt; may they have no acquittal from you.28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous. 29 But I am lowly and in pain; let your salvation, O God, protect me.

This psalm is attributed to King David who cries out to God when he is under attack, persecuted by those around him. There are a number of psalms written by David with this sort of theme, which is a bit confusing to me. After all, David was a king. He held the levers of power in his hands, armies at his disposal, wealth in his possession. So it’s not clear to me how someone with this sort of privilege and high station was so frequently attacked.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to understand the outrage around the death of George Floyd in Minnesota – an African-American man who died in police custody. We don’t know all the details around the encounter, but watching the video it’s hard to understand why a police officer would ignore the man’s pleas for relief – lasting several minutes – when he was having trouble breathing and then went unconscious.

In these kinds of encounters the police have all of the agency: the authority, the badge, the weapon, backup support, and so on. The officers on the scene have all been fired, but a man is dead and there’s no coming back from that. So as I read this passage I imagine George Floyd as the writer – crying out for relief and justice from the violent world around him.

Heavenly Father, receive Mr. Floyd as one of your own, for Jesus’ sake. Bring your peace in the midst of needless violence. Amen.

Surely not I Lord!

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Mark 14:17 When it was evening, (Jesus) came with the twelve. 18 And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19 They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” 20 He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. 21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” 22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

This passage describes what has been called the “Last Supper”. Before breaking the bread Jesus revealed that one of the 12 disciples would betray him. As you might expect the disciples became “distressed” (v.19) and wondered which of them it might be. Jesus only said it is “one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me” (v.20). They’d all been dipping bread with Jesus so that didn’t tell them much.

What I find interesting is that they didn’t press the matter more than they did. If I were at the table I expect I would be like a dog on a bone – not letting go of the question until Jesus revealed the betrayer. Unless, of course, I didn’t want to know the answer. Unless I feared I might be the one who would betray Jesus and just didn’t know it. In that case I might let the question pass – which is what they did. In v.26 of this chapter Jesus revealed that all of the disciples would desert him in the end. Ugh.

When I was a younger man I would often think, “Well, I’d never do (fill in the blank)!” But the truth is, when we’re under intense pressure, we are liable to do any number of things we would not do under normal circumstances. I’ve disappointed myself many times, so I’m grateful for the grace Jesus also extends in this passage. It ends with Jesus breaking bread with his betrayers/deserters, loving them even in their weakness.

Thank you for your grace Lord Jesus. Strengthen us in our times of trial and deliver us from evil. Amen.

 

Over-riding fear…

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Numbers 14:26 And the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: 27 How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me. 28 Say to them, “As I live,” says the LORD, “I will do to you the very things I heard you say: 29 your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me, 30 not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31 But your little ones, who you said would become booty, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have despised. 32 But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. 33 And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” 35 I the LORD have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die. 

Ever wonder why it took the Israelites 40 years to arrive in the Promised Land? It was a long journey, for sure, but it should never have taken that long. It started when a scouting party, sent by Moses to recon the Promised Land, returned with a good news/bad news report. The good news? The land was indeed “flowing with milk and honey”. In other words, it was a rich land filled with good things to sustain a nation of people. The bad news? The people inhabiting the land were numerous, strong/fierce, and well-protected in fortified cities. They would not leave easily. Of 12 Israelite warriors sent to recon the area, only 2 (Caleb and Joshua) encouraged moving into the land as instructed by God. The other 10 were filled with fear and advised against it. The crowd aligned with the fearful and refused to enter the land – which made God very angry.

Fear. It’s a tricky thing. God gave us fear because fear can keep us alive. I remember years ago going on a skydiving trip with some people from church. You know what the hardest part of skydiving is? It’s not the free-fall, or the landing. It’s forcing yourself out the door. Every instinct you have is saying “NO!!!” even though your mind knows you have a parachute. Your mind has to override fear to make a successful jump.

Our economy is opening up some. People clearly have varying tolerances for risk. Some are moving about as if the pandemic never happened. Others are still locked away in their homes, usually because they are among those more susceptible to the virus than average. Others of us are in the middle somewhere.

As we all figure out how to move forward during this pandemic my hope and prayer for us is that we will allow “caution” to drive us rather than “fear”. Fear is an emotional response that can paralyze us unnecessarily. Caution is a more thoughtful response that overrides fear and lets information drive our decisions. In any case, we all need God’s wisdom and discernment right now.

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

(Fun fact: 40 is an important symbolic number in scripture. V.30 tells us that none of the adults who left Egypt would enter the Promised Land – hence they wandered for “40 years”. Was it actually 40 years? We don’t know, but the number 40 represents an adequate amount of time to accomplish God’s purpose. The rains that came for Noah and the ark fell for “40 days”. Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness for “40 days and night”. See what I mean?)

 

 

Striking the balance…

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Numbers 13:25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large… 30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” 32 So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size…”

This scene happened fairly early in the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land. Likely no more than a year or two after they had left Egypt. The Lord had given them the land, but the voices of fear prevailed against Caleb’s voice of faith. And so it would be 40 years before the Israelites occupied the Promised Land, enough years for most of the original adults to die and for a new generation to be born who had not been slaves.

“Fear” drives us to focus on the “mountain” that is in our way. “Faith” focuses on the One who can move the mountain. This is not to say that all fear is bad. It’s not. But when fear prevents us from doing the will of God it can be devastating.

There’s lots of fear going around these days. The coronavirus can be deadly, even lethal, so caution is warranted – especially in large metropolitan areas like Dallas/Ft. Worth where I live. That said, we have to be careful not to let fear take root. Fear is drive by emotion, which can lead to over-reaction. Caution is driven by thoughtful consideration based on facts. The facts are still not in our favor at the moment. There are more people carrying the virus now than ever in my community. But this will not last forever.

Lord give us grace to persevere in a time of crisis. Help us to know when we can gather again in-person to enjoy the shaking of hands, the singing of songs, the warm embraces, the coming to the altar for Holy Communion. In the meantime, thank you for the new doors you are opening for us virtually. Help us to be good stewards of the people we are getting to know, inviting them into life-changing relationship with You. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

God’s revenge!

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Psalm 68:19 Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. 20 Our God is a God of salvation, and to GOD, the Lord, belongs escape from death. 21 But God will shatter the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of those who walk in their guilty ways. 22 The Lord said, “I will bring them back from Bashan, I will bring them back from the depths of the sea, 23 so that you may bathe your feet in blood, so that the tongues of your dogs may have their share from the foe.”

There is real blood-lust in this psalm attributed to King David. Then V.23 quotes God himself, who appears to take delight in bringing death to the enemies of Israel, perhaps even more so than King David! It’s passages like this one which challenge our narrow understanding of God reflected in the saying “God is love”. Yes, God is love – and many other things. Like revenge.

Heavenly Father give us grace to embrace all the parts of you. Even the parts which don’t line up with who we think you should be. For you are God and we are not. Amen.

The discipline of gratitude…

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Numbers 11:4 The rabble among (the Israelites in the wilderness) had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” 

This did not go over well with God. If you read the rest of the chapter you’ll see that God sent to the people an abundance of quail to consume as meat. But then God sent a plague among the people to punish them for their ingratitude and complaining.

Gratitude is not listed in Galatians chapter 5 as one of the “fruits of the spirit”, but I believe it should be. This is particularly true for Americans as we live in a culture that tends to emphasize lack rather than abundance. In a consumer culture it’s important for people to desire what we don’t have, even when we have a lot. The quest for “more/better/new” drives the economy.

But I’m afraid it also breeds a sense of entitlement and want. So this morning I’m taking some time to thank the Lord for what IS, even in the midst of a pandemic. Things may not be as I would prefer, but I have much to be thankful for. As do you.

Lord give us grateful hearts. Amen.

Embracing dependence on God…

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Mark 12:38 As (Jesus) taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Mark offers two back-to-back stories as a vehicle of comparison. First there are the scribes who seek public recognition. Then we have a poor widow who would have been practically invisible to others. She gives to the Lord all she has, prompting Jesus to comment, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”

It’s obvious Jesus isn’t talking about a financial reality because others gave much more than the poor widow. Jesus is talking about the currency of the Kingdom of God – which is faith, not money. In the Kingdom of God it is faith that moves mountains, not money. It is faith that heals the sick, not money. It is faith that casts out demons, not money. It is faith in Jesus that yields eternal life, not money. When the widow put in all she had she made herself completely dependent on God’s provision, trusting that God would give her “daily bread”. God would not let her down.

I don’t like being dependent, do you? I’ll bet not. Dependency is scary. We’re taught from an early age to prepare for contingencies so we can avoid dependence. But Jesus regularly invites people to choose dependence and follow after him. And when we trust in the Lord, having no other options but the Lord, his faithfulness shines through.

I’m wondering where the Lord may be inviting me to choose dependence. What about you? Lord you are worthy to be trusted. Give us grace to embrace you with all our hearts. Amen.