Friday, August 26, 2016

The Prosecution Against Truth ...

In the work of condemnation, there is always certainty.  Isn’t it amazing how those two things always seem to go together, bound by the human glue of pride.  In our legal system, a jury is asked whether they believe the defendant is guilty beyond a “reasonable” doubt.  This means we look for convictions despite those nagging doubts that may linger, despite a casual doubt a jurist may have in the back of his mind.  The term “reasonable” must be interjected in our jury instructions, or nearly every defendant would be set free.  But the prosecution reflects NO doubts in the case they present.  The prosecution lays out a set of facts and puts together a narrative of what happened, who did it, and why they would do it.  If the only entirety of listening to the case was that of the prosecution, you would have no choice but to convict every time.  Because the prosecution does not present a case with any doubt in it.  They reflect only certainty, no matter what all the facts might reveal.  It is their job to convict no matter what, no matter what truth is.
When was the last time you heard a prosecutor (especially in a high profile case where America was watching), stop the trial and say … you know what, we got it wrong, this defendant is innocent and this case needs to be closed, we are dropping all charges.  Nearly never.  What happens instead is that trials continue despite truth, and the prosecution relies upon the defense to overwhelm them with truth, such that a jury must undo unjust prosecutions.  But then, this places the defense team in the position of striving for acquittal despite the truth as well.  Indeed, defense lawyers are not allowed to state that their clients are guilty and should be punished.  They must fight the prosecution every inch of the way, looking to let go murders, rapists, drug traffickers, simply because our prosecution must ignore truth and reflect certainty once a trial begins.  Our defense must then meet the prosecution’s certainty with certainty of its own.  Legal trickery then becomes the standard for talent once the fray begins.
And lost in our legal system becomes truth.  But it is worse, in the judicial proceedings of our religious bodies, of our churches.  Once a group of our religious leaders reaches unity in the ideas of casting someone out for their sins (perhaps now public), they are rarely if ever deterred.  And it may never get as far as a public ex-communication, it need only get as far as gossip in the mind of the religious leader.  The defendant in these cases can be subtly restricted from roles of leadership & service in the church, because the existing leadership simply thinks that they are “not right for that role”.  The existing leaders of the faith do not want upstarts, free thinkers, or revolutionary’s admitted into leadership roles alongside themselves.  People like “that” must be kept “in their place”.  In our modern age church leadership is not allowed to kill them for heresy (a procedure often used in our past for just such problems), instead we destroy reputations, and restrict service, until they “get the hint”, or have no choice but to move on.
But what happens when the prosecution is dead wrong?  What happens when the facts are contrived to look a certain way, because of the heart of the prosecutor?  What happens when those you personally state are condemned to the fires of hell for their grievous sins, are NOT actually so condemned?  What happens when your certainty is the problem all along?  Religious condemnation never occurs without certainty.  And in a belief system where God alone judges, and He judges based on the heart, and looks to redeem every soul no matter how “evil” they appear … how could any condemnation be so certain?  When mankind attempts to take the role of judge upon himself, when he attempts to dictate the religious standing of another human being, he looks to make himself equal to God.  This is what Satan did before us, and encourages us to do to this day.  It is what Satan inspired a former religious leadership to do.  After all, this Messiah named Jesus, did not conform.  He was not doing what scripture said He should do, according to the church.  He had to be stopped.  And since only death would stop him …
Peter recounts the prosecution of Truth, that is The Truth, from the first point of view that matters – from the religious leadership of the church, the true church.  Keep in mind, the right scriptures, that is the bible will be used in this prosecution.  This is not based on the Quran, or some ancient Hindu book of wisdom, it is based on the Biblical scriptures available in that day, held in Jerusalem where nearly all books would be present.  The prosecutors are not just lay people run amuck.  This is not some out-of-control deacon who thinks he knows best.  This is the pope.  This is the general conference leader.  These men are the esteemed leadership of the day, and they are united, acting in concert for the very first time, over one singular issue … to destroy this upstart Messiah wannabe named Jesus Christ.  A stark mantra emerges in the halls of the Pharisees … The Truth be damned; this prosecution must succeed.  That stark mantra echoes in the hearts of those who call themselves by His name today … The Truth be damned; we must condemn those still steeped in sin, instead of work for their redemption.
Peter begins his recollection to John Mark in his gospel in chapter fourteen picking up in verse 53 saying … “And they led Jesus away to the high priest: and with him were assembled all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes. [verse 54] And Peter followed him afar off, even into the palace of the high priest: and he sat with the servants, and warmed himself at the fire.”  This was a momentous trial.  This was not a matter that only 2 or 3 priests need deal with, everyone in power is here.  Chief Priests, Elders, Scribes, from every part of church leadership, all in power were there.  Peter too, has regained his courage enough to follow at a distance.  He has gone undercover, and now hangs out with the servants, warming themselves by the fire.
John Mark continues in verse 55 saying … “And the chief priests and all the council sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death; and found none. [verse 56] For many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together.”  In Jewish law, there must be at least two witnesses whose testimony agrees before a man can be put to death.  So the hunt for such men begins, but with no luck.  It is very hard to coordinate lies when the witnesses are kept separate.  Guessing at what the other guy said, becomes very difficult, and everybody that night was getting it wrong.  The Truth was hard to testify against.  What could be said against it but lies.  Certainty does not equal correctness.  One can be extremely certain, and extremely wrong.
Mark continues in verse 57 saying … “And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying, [verse 58] We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands. [verse 59] But neither so did their witness agree together.”  The subject of the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem came up.  But the liars could not get that story right either.  They had the jest of it, but again their testimonies stepped upon each other so badly, that facts were getting destroyed.  The prosecution was getting stumped, and this could not happen.  This Man must be found guilty no matter what, no matter how.  Finally, the high priest himself was getting angry.
Mark continues in verse 60 saying … “And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? [verse 61] But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”  The prosecution had counted on something they were not getting.  They expected for Jesus to argue with each false witness that came up.  They expected to get Jesus tripped up in His own words, and somehow break His own defense through argument and exaggeration.  But the strangest of all things was happening, Jesus the Lamb of God was remaining perfectly silent.  What should have enraged each of us if we were an innocent party, did nothing to get Jesus talking.  He just sat there and took it all in silence.
Here is the first distinction between The Truth, and those of us who claim truth is on our side.  The need to defend it.  The Truth will stand against all the lies of the evil one.  The Truth needs no defense, for it is The Truth.  We who claim the truth is with us, and bolster our claims in certainty, are rigorous to defend our positions.  We are happy to argue how we are right, and all others are wrong.  We are happy to prove it based in the interpretations of the scriptures we are certain are correct.  Just as these prosecutors of old.  We will fight for our truth to the point of death.  Not our own deaths mind you, but those who claim we are wrong, we are happy to fight with, all the way to the point of killing them to insure our truth lives on.  But this is not needed.  The Truth will live on no matter what the opposing argument comes up with.  It needs no help or defense or violence from us.  Rather it needs our testimony in how we live The Truth in silence, not how we speak about it.
Finally though, the high priest challenges the Superhuman to identify itself.  Strangely this same challenge works on angels of light, and angels of darkness.  It is as if God has setup a rule which cannot be broken.  If asked who they are, a superhuman being must answer in truth, to the human who asks it, whether it is demon, or it is God.  This challenge is meant to protect us.  If or when we encounter the superhuman, the entity that exists beyond our realm, we need only ask it … in the name of Jesus Christ, who are you?  And it will be compelled to answer.  Most of those who encounter the supernatural are not inclined to use this challenge.  They are told by the entity that it would represent a lack of faith.  They are told the encounters between them might stop after that.  They are lied to, and eagerly accept the lie, because most demons tell us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.  But God has no fear of this challenge.
Jesus answers in verse 62 saying … “And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”  Here is where OUR human nature takes over.  We read this text as a threat, as a condemnation to those conducting this trial.  We are absolutely certain of it.  But there is more to it than may first meet the eye.  The prophecy of Christ not long ago, predicted the denial of Peter of even knowing Jesus before the rooster crowed.  Yet that prophecy was not to condemn Peter forever for his sins.  The prophecy here lays out a coming of Christ to this world.  It could be His second coming to gather His redeemed, those who have repented of deeds even as terrible as the prosecution of The Truth unto death.  It could also represent His third coming when the Holy City descends to our earth and the wicked are raised for a final judgment one last time.  The words of Christ are true either way.  But which version of His return these men see, will be a function of their repentance, and acceptance of Jesus Christ as our only Messiah.  This was also true for Peter.  The sins were committed.  The question is only whether a repentance was sought.
The high priest was anxious to get this trial done with.  The story continues in verse 63 saying … “Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? [verse 64] Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.”  The religious leadership of the church prosecuted The Truth, and pronounced Him guilty because He spoke the Truth.  The mob joined in.  There was not one free thinker in that jury box, not one sympathetic ear who might have voiced an opposition to this farce of a trial.  Certainty overwhelmed the mob in that hall.  Certainty backed by Satan himself, that death was needed, blood was needed, an example must be made to keep the faith pure.  So Satan does with us nearly 2000 years later.  He tells us to expel those caught in sin in order to keep the faith pure, keep the leadership pure.  There is no forgiveness in the mind or heart of Satan, but there is overwhelming certainty, certainty steeped in pride.
Whose follower are we truly?  Then begins to happen what happens when Truth has been devalued and discarded; it is hated.  John Mark concludes this section in verse 65 saying … “And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, Prophesy: and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands.”  How we spit on The Truth.  When once we embark on the path of certainty, and when we add our voices to those of condemnation, we spit right on the face of Truth.  We ignore how often our own sins must have been cleansed by the sacrifice of Christ.  We ignore how much we too have earned the sentence of condemnation, and that but for the love and grace of Christ, we too were bound for the hell of separation from God.  So we spit in the face of God, in the face of Truth, with our hypocrisy, and our prosecution of others still steeped in sins (we too so often commit).
Then we torture Truth.  We contrive scriptures and interpretations to support our condemnations of others.  We mangle the Bible, and turn the image of God from one of Love to one of vengeance.  We put a bag over the head of Christ so that He can no longer see.  Then we bang upon His precious face, hitting Him with our palms, and our pretenses.  We take pride in our differences.  We consider only ourselves as right and all other Christian faiths as wrong.  We are absolutely certain of it.  And in our certainty we slap the face of Christ, telling Him He is unable to lead any other faith but ours to Truth, and to the Kingdom of God.  It is not those men, and those hands who remain stained, it is our own.  And still we continue, absolutely certain of our cause, certain of our faith, certain of our interpretation, certainty steeped in a pride of our forefathers and our faith.  We believe we must lead the fight against sin, certain this is our calling, ignoring the calls of Jesus to Love, instead leading a war against evil with the voice of our condemnation. 
This is not the trial against The Truth that happened in the days of Christ, it is the prosecution against The Truth that happens in the hearts of his modern day followers from every denomination.  But like the priests of old, there is still hope held out to us.  Hope that begins in repentance of our certainty.  Hope that grows in the transformation of our hearts by the power of Jesus alone, that leaves our hearts unable to condemn, but infinitely interested in redemption.  When love is our only motivation, we see our hearts brought into alignment with the God of Love, and vengeance has no part in it any longer.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Best Intentions; Deadly Consequences ...

We make plans.  We spend time considering possibilities, evaluating finances, and hoping for outcomes; and then we plan.  In my life, I cannot tell you that my plans could have ever been more considered, more wise, and yet completely unable to reach fruition.  It is not as if every conceivable impact is not considered or taken into account.  Yet somehow, some way, the unforeseen infects the reality of your execution.  What was planned is no longer possible.  Something new must occur, or perhaps nothing will occur.  Yet despite a vivid history of plans that went awry, we continue to make plans.  If this insanity were constricted to our personal lives, to our vacation planning perhaps, then perhaps the impact of our repeated attempts at forestalling the variety of life would not be so dangerous.  But the thinking, the mindset of planning, happens in our religious lives as well.
As planning collides with our spirituality, we decide we will pray for “x” amount of time, on these three days, at 5:00am before our routines begin.  But when the day arrives, the time slips by.  Or when the prayers begin, our desire to sleep overwhelms us, and we find ourselves hitting a snooze alarm rather than in deep conversation with our Lord.  So we decide to change our plans.  Morning prayers must now become evening prayers.  We forecast new days and times for prayer.  At first our new routine seems to work and then subtly, with barely a notice, something else changes.  Our ability to pray for as long as we wanted gets reduced.  For Christians who believe they are saved by the amount of time they spend on their knees, this creates a crisis.  Their continued failures either results in guilt they can scarcely live with, or an acceptance that perhaps prayer is not needed at all.  Yet through all of this, we continue to make plans.
Our ministries at church are far from immune from our desires to make plans.  We decide to raise “x” dollars, to send “x” people, to participate in “x” ministry.  And so we set out to accomplish in our corporate life what we have failed at so miserably at in our personal lives.  And similar results ensue.  Perhaps the finances we intended to raise is just not meeting the timeline we had laid out.  Perhaps the people who initially volunteered to participate in the ministry just do not show up.  Perhaps the ministry we initially envisioned is not the one truly needed for the community we wanted to serve.  What is different in our corporate spiritual lives than in our personal ones, is our ability to compromise with our compatriots.  In so doing, our plans become flexible.  And in our flexibility, God is able to work His will, most often, in spite of, and in direct conflict with, our original plans.  Yet even in church, we continue to make plans.
The most dangerous spiritual plans however, are not the ones made in response to the call of God, but are the ones made to position God with “no other choice” than support what we have planned to do.  It would be as if Noah built an ark on his own, according to his own thoughts about how big it needed to be.  Hunted and gathered only the animals Noah thought were worthy, and stocked his ark, with his crew, and his spoils.  And then begged God to send a flood to wipe out his neighbors for their lack of following God, never having preached a single sermon, to invite them to escape the disaster that was on the horizon, Noah believed would come.  This kind of presumption would not have been a story about the patience of God, or the love of God in repeatedly trying to reach a people who hated Him.  It would have been a story about Noah, who took it on himself to do what he thought should be done.  And it would have failed, even if rain had descended.
Had Abraham taken Isaac up that mountain alone, without the call of God, to sacrifice his son.  There would have been no Israel, only another dead human sacrifice, slain to the spiritual pride of a man who did what he thought was right to do.  Both Noah, and Abraham, followed the plans created by God, the calling laid out by God.  They did not invent these plans.  They did not actually want to follow these plans.  But they laid aside human desire, and did what God had called them to do, regardless of what they wanted.  This should have been the lesson for Judas to learn.  For Judas made plans as well.  Judas knew the stories of Noah, and of Abraham, and Judas knew many of the rest of scriptures as well.  Judas knew what the Messiah was supposed to do.  And Judas saw that the Messiah was clearly not living up to what scriptures had foretold, at least not according to what the Pharisees, and scribes said, that the Messiah was supposed to do.
Judas, like us, had the right religion.  Judas, like us, had the right scriptures, which he believed he interpreted correctly.  The leadership of the faith, agreed with Judas, NOT with Jesus Christ.  So what was to be done to reconcile this discrepancy between what Jesus actually did, and what Jesus (or God) was supposed to be doing?  Judas, like us, made a plan.  Those who make plans ahead of the calling of God have the very best intentions.  They are also completely blind to the idea that they have put themselves in a leadership position that belongs only to God.  God is no longer in the driver’s seat.  He is now a passenger in the planning machine of the Christian who decides what is to come, and how it will be handled. But our plans cannot foresee what only God can foresee.  And sometimes as much as we want God to do something for us, what we want, is not what is best for us, or for our world.  Judas wanted Jesus to become the King that Judas knew He could be.  If Jesus had done this, the Israelite world would have been better for a time, but our ability to be better would have been crushed by the greed-of-the-moment hatched in the plans of Judas.
No matter what, Judas had a plan.  He did not betray Jesus from a random whim.  He did it to force a reconciliation between scripture (or his interpretation of it), and the actions of Jesus.  Judas reasoned, that once the life of Jesus was truly in jeopardy, Jesus would use His true power to escape the traps set for Him, and rise to become the King He was meant to be.  No one with the power to fix something, with the power to save themselves, would ever not use it.  Nobody, who could save themselves, would choose not to, and endure what was coming.  That had never happened before Jesus, so there was no reason to think it would be any different now.  Judas thought his plan was near perfect.  Jesus would rise to become King and thank Judas for helping Him see the light and wisdom of this plan.  Judas had it all worked out in his plan and in his mind.  Just like we do, as we set out to make plans that do not follow God, but attempt to lead Him.
Peter recalls to John Mark, the boldness of Judas’ plan.  Picking up in the Gospel of Mark, chapter fourteen, beginning in verse 43 saying … “And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.”  It was a small army sent to capture one Man.  Judas reasoned these first armed men could be converted into the first army of Christ.  It was sure to happen.  For how could Jesus allow Himself to be captured and face death, that He could easily preach His way out of?  The Temple had emptied its guard, to come to capture the owner of this building, the author of this faith, the inspiration behind every word of scripture, and the central player in every story.
John Mark continues in verse 44 saying … “And he that betrayed him had given them a token, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he; take him, and lead him away safely.”  Notice the direction of Judas.  Judas will kiss Jesus just in case in the night lighting they mistake who their target is.  The kiss will be a sign of respect and of betrayal or identification.  This mini-army must not become confused in the dust up.  They must capture Jesus, and in the event they are successful, they are to lead Jesus away safely.  The safety of Jesus is still uppermost in the mind of Judas.  The plan of Judas is not actually to kill Jesus, or hurt Him in any way.  The plan of Judas is to force Jesus to do what He is supposed to do, according to scripture.  How like us.
How often do our interpretations of scripture lead us to make plans that are as far from God as night is from day.  The Westboro Baptist church comes to mind.  In a zealous effort to warn sinners of their ignorant participation in sin, they spend tedious hours creating posters and banners that carry only the words of hate and condemnation to those in need of salvation.  The members of this singular church do not sit quietly and pray for Lord of love to make changes in the hearts that need it.  No, they would rather lead the charge in the fight against evil, never for a moment recognizing the evil that infects each one of them.  Hate banners proudly displayed in times and places where love is needed even more so.  Slogans of hate and condemnation screamed at those in need of love, until their voices and the voices of demons are indistinguishable.  But they have scripture on their side, don’t they?  They have the history of the Old Testament on their side, don’t they?  They certainly have their own interpretation of it, that somehow allows them to carry out their plans.  So did Judas.  So do we, anytime our interpretations lead us to think we can lead God.
John Mark continues in verse 45 saying … “And as soon as he was come, he goeth straightway to him, and saith, Master, master; and kissed him.”  Judas executed his plan.  He did not pray over it, or at least listen for the response of the Lord.  The plan of Judas involved betrayal, it risked violence, and Judas put those risks and realities aside to execute his plan.  The plans of Christian organizations and members, who would espouse condemnation as their method of salvation are no different than the plans of Judas.  Hate in any form is still hate.  Calling attention to the pain of sin, does not redeem the sinner, it only states the reality of his pain once again.  Redemption begins with forgiveness.  Redemption begins with God loving us in spite of our denial of who He is, and His love for us, that happens in spite of the choices we have made and are making.  Love that reaches out to us, even in our state of sin, is the only love that can draw us out of our sin.  Quiet testimony of how Jesus did this for you, would do more to redeem another who is still struggling with the pain Jesus brought you out of.  Any other words are meaningless.  A lack of love is meaningless and will accomplish nothing in someone else.
John Mark continues in verse 46 saying … “And they laid their hands on him, and took him. [verse 47] And one of them that stood by drew a sword, and smote a servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear.”  Peter witnesses these events from a different perspective than John, and so his recollection comes from a different perspective.  The small army sent to capture Jesus does exactly that as Jesus submits.  But while Jesus is willing to be taken, the violence Judas has started will not end with him.  Peter responds by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant.  An inch to the left and he might have split the head of the high priest’s servant in two.  Violence has come to Jesus, and violence will be used to stop it.  Peter has not thought through the odds, or the numbers.  The guards greatly outnumber him, but he is undeterred.  Peter need only make a distraction so that Jesus can escape.  Peter is ready for blood.  At this point Peter is ready for the blood of Judas most of all.
And so Christians who incorporate violence into their planning, find that violence is ready to be used against them.  Peter could argue that others drew the sword first, that others came with violent intent first.  So do we.  We argue that the world, under the watchful eye of Satan, has drawn the sword first against us, and against our faith.  We are not wrong.  The world is not above using violence against the faith.  But what does it say, when we are willing to take violence to them, when we initiate it.  The people who Westboro protests against, did not first come and protest against them.  The women who in their desperation find themselves at an abortion clinic did not come to our churches before they were pregnant to hurl stones and accusations against the faithful for their hypocrisy and their spite.  It was before they were pregnant that our love to them might have altered the course of their lives.  It is now in their time of greatest need when ONLY our love might still have a chance to alter it, to redeem it, to provide a consistency of love no matter what course they choose.  Will they meet that love from us, or will they meet something else?
The response of Jesus to Peter is not recorded here.  Nor is the miracle of Jesus restoring to the servant of the high priest the ear that was just cut off.  Perhaps Peter did not see or hear this.  Or more likely perhaps the rebuke of Jesus to Peter for using that sword still stings in the ears of Peter as it should in ours.  Peter does however, hear the rebuke of Jesus to this small army intent on his capture as John Mark continues in verse 48 saying … “And Jesus answered and said unto them, Are ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and with staves to take me? [verse 49] I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and ye took me not: but the scriptures must be fulfilled.”  Jesus points out that He carries no sword or spear.  Jesus has not been calling an army to Himself, He has been here to redeem all men and women instead.  Jesus points out that He was in the Temple very recently teaching, if they wanted Him, they could have taken Him there very easily.  But then, scriptures must be fulfilled.
It is with this, that the vows of men are recorded in the gospel.  John Mark states in verse 50 saying … “And they all forsook him, and fled.”  This includes John.  This includes Peter.  Even Judas may not have had the stomach to see where the best of intentions is now going to lead.  But there was another witness.  In the strangest of epitaphs, Peter recalls to John Mark beginning in verse 51 saying … “And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: [verse 52] And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.”  Who was this?  Scripture does not record, nor would it seem that Peter knew him by name.  Why was he there?  Could this person have been there all the while Jesus was in agony?  Could he have been staring through the mists watching the Son of Man become separated from the Father God?
To be naked in front of others is considered a high sin in the days of Peter.  It is clear in this exchange that the man had few clothes on to begin with and is clearly willing to leave them behind in the escape.  Perhaps this was yet another demoniac who stays in silent witness.  Perhaps this was the devil himself in human form.  Or perhaps this was a silent disciple awakened from his bed in the night, who has come to the garden in nothing but his pajamas.  We may never know until we reach that infinite kingdom of our Lord.  But what this man saw, what they all saw, was the results of a very finely crafted plan reaching its unintended fruition.  Judas crafted a plan he reasoned had only one outcome, when in reality the outcome was something completely different.
When we plan, when we consider possible outcomes, we must ask ourselves the only question that matters … do we plan in response to the call of God, or ahead of it?  It is far better to follow the plans of God, even when they make little or no sense to us, then to craft our own plans with the best of intentions and the deadliest results.  When we include violence, or the risk of violence in our planning, we step away from the path of our God, and enter ground we were never meant to tread.  For it is love alone that redeems, love alone that can change the course of a person’s life.  Violence cannot accomplish this feat, but love can.  Perhaps our best course of action is to be willing to be led, instead of constantly thinking it is our job to lead. 
The fight over sin happens in the heart of man, where only the Love of God can transform and give us hope.  Banners that state our condemnation, offer us no reason to escape this fate other than fear.  They do not picture a loving God, but only a vengeful one who delights in our time in the flames.  This is not the God I serve, nor the picture I find in these scriptures of Jesus who would rather suffer torture and death than to see us have to do it.  Perhaps the better poster to construct would look something like those old weight loss ones of a few years back … “End sin and pain now, ask me how”.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Pulling the All-Nighter of Your Life ...

Nearly all of us have done it.  Whether making a road trip, or in school, or due to work, or because of the birth of child, or perhaps death in the family; we have all pulled an all-nighter at some point in our life.  Doing this is generally unnatural to us.  Our bodies are wired with a natural wake / sleep routine that can be stretched, but when it is completely upset, it disrupts the chemicals in our brains and the capabilities in our bodies.  Needless to say, as the clock for how long we have been awake begins to exceed 24 hours, our reflexes, our instincts begin to be impaired.  We are not at our best.  Endorphins may keep us stimulated to do what needs to be done, but the expression “there is nothing like a good night’s sleep” takes on new meaning after an All-Nighter. 
In fact, we use similar language to describe the difference between a clean conscience and one that has clearly violated a moral code.  The expression “how do you sleep at night?” is intended to be a challenge to see if the conscience is clear, or guilty of a crime that should bring us a perpetual state of stress from our wrong doing.  Sleep is something we need.  But sleep is something that can be postponed, or interrupted by noise, by events, by stress, or in those rare cases we cannot avoid, by pulling an All-Nighter.  That is the common thread though, it is need.  When driving across country, while on the road, we need to stay awake.  The alternative risks death.  When pulling a work shift at night, we need to be alert and doing our jobs, lives may depend on it, our job certainly does.  That perception of “need” drives us to disrupt our normal wake / sleep patterns to accomplish the goal we set for it.
Peter was to know one of these nights.  It was during the greatest crisis that has ever been or will ever be.  It was at a time when the literal fate of the universe hung in the balance.  Peter would not face this crisis alone, he was in fact to bear witness to it with a few close friends, and the Savior of our world.  It would require an All-Nighter, where to sleep was to invite a disaster such as cannot be imagined.  We know his actions, but do we really understand what he and the others risked?  To set context, this event would occur only moments after Peter and the other disciples had promised Jesus that no matter what, they would follow Him, never deny Him, and if it came to it, they would die with Him.  They had all just made a solemn vow, a vow based in the certainty of their own strength and faith.  This was a vow they intended to forever honor, and now was to be put to the test only moments after making it.
So begins the recollections of Peter to John Mark in his gospel in chapter fourteen, picking up in verse 32 saying … “And they came to a place which was named Gethsemane: and he saith to his disciples, Sit ye here, while I shall pray.”  This night was different.  Normally when Jesus needed it, or wanted it, which was many nights, He would simply disappear into the nearby mountains and pray to His Father.  His strength was always renewed by this action.  Pulling an all-nighter by Jesus was common place, and His close proximity to God while in prayer, gave Him direction from God, and renewed His strength by miraculous means.  He did not need or take the disciples with Him on these events.  He let them sleep.  They could not know everything He and His Father would share on these nights anyway.  But this night was different.  He took them with Him, and only went as far as the garden in Gethsemane to pray.
Peter continues describing the events to John Mark in verse 33 saying … “And he taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy;”  After leaving the main group of His disciples nearby, Jesus selects Peter, James, and John to go a little further with Him.  It is then, that the need for this all-nighter begins to show itself.  Jesus who is usually so benevolent and confident in the will of His Father, so connected with God the Father, begins to lose this connection.  The effect on Him is immediate and profound.  His entire demeanor is changed.  And He looks as if He carries the weight of the world upon His shoulders, for He does.  More than just our world, the risk is becoming clearer to Jesus.  If He allows Himself, to be stained with our sins, in so doing, He may never rejoin the Fathers company once again, forever alone, forever isolated from God.  That dear friends, is the very definition of hell.  It is not just the events of a nighttime that are at stake, these events may lead to eternal results, and without His connection with His Father, He cannot see what the results may be.
Jesus continues speaking in verse 34 saying … “And saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch.”  The essence of life of Jesus is defined by love, and connection to love.  God is love.  And on this night beginning right here and right now, the Father must turn away from His Son.  The lamb must now carry the sins of the world.  The day of Atonement is literally to be fulfilled.  And the connection between Father and Son that has gone on uninterrupted since before there was time or space, has now reached an artificial end.  It is the choice of Jesus to carry our sins, and with that choice must come a separation that neither Father or Son has ever seen.  The weight of it could destroy the universe as we know it.  What now hangs in the balance is more than our world.  Heaven, the unfallen worlds, everything that has been known since the beginning is now at risk with the separation between Father and Son.
It will not be whips, thorns, or nails in a cross that will kill the author of Life.  It will only be a separation from God He has never felt, could not imagine, and now is beginning to experience such as never before.  His very soul, His own essence, is sorrowful unto death.  Jesus is entering what is truly hell.  Not the flames, but the separation.  Not the physical torture, the only torture that counts, that cutting off from the source of all Love, of all Life.  Jesus cannot see past this disconnection.  It could indeed be permanent.  In this state, He turns to His three closest companions, and friends.  He turns to the men who only moments before had vowed their very lives to Him.  And He asks them to watch, and stand guard over Him.  He needs them to pray for Him for a change.  The One who usually needs no prayer from us, now needs all of them.  Surely these men who moments before were willing to die for Jesus, could not stand and pray, to help ward off the devil in His greatest hour of need.
Jesus continues in verse 35 saying … “And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. [verse 36] And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.”  Here is where you die when you crave life.  Here is where your prayer to be healed goes unanswered.  Here is where the author of life itself for us cries out to His Father screaming in the cold night … “Daddy”.  Every human father or mother who has ever heard that scream of desperation from their small child comes immediately running to fix it.  No earthly parent can ignore the REAL need of their child who screams for them, saying daddy or mommy.  The connection between earthly parent and loved child is just too strong.  We cannot sit back.  We cannot remain silent.  It is too much for us.  But this is what our salvation requires of our Father God to do.
Jesus continues saying … take it from Me, I KNOW You can do it, because You can do everything.  And God can do everything.  Jesus is absolutely confident His Dad can do anything.  He can save all his earthly children from the choice to break trust with Him and embrace the addiction of sin and slavery to it.  But His method of saving us, must cost this price.  The Father must sit back on His throne and ignore the pleas of His only child when He screams out … “Daddy”.  If the Father breaks His silence and ends this separation neither of them have ever experienced, if He ends this pain, we must face what we have earned, and all of us must know an eternal separation from God.  All of us must know that hell. 
So because there is a greater good here, a greater love here, that sees beyond the perspective of what we see while we suffer, He must remain silent.  His own son’s prayers must go unanswered when He needs them the most.  The Father must have enough love NOT to act, to remain silent, and let what is going to happen, happen.  Sometimes our prayers must go unanswered or answered with no when we believe our need is greatest.  It is not because our need is not real, but it may be because our perspective is limited to the finite, and God is working an eternal benefit we cannot see at the moment.  Sometimes we die, but our death is not the end of our story, because the Father God has love enough to work for the eternal even when the short term pain is real and extreme.  Love must suffer this much, to see us saved.
Jesus prays for what He wants.  He wants relief.  He wants another plan.  He is beginning to consider changing His mind, not because His body is being tortured.  That physical pain will follow these hours later.  But because the separation of Son from Father is killing Him.  His pain is so extreme over this, that He is driven to scream out for His Daddy, and look for Him to fix it.  But while the separation is crushing Him, He asks His Father to do as He wills, not as Jesus wills.  This is where the love of the Father God of the universe is put to the test.  This is where His silence against the pleas of His son, stand as a testament to how much He must love us.  We who are not worth it.  We who do not deserve it.  The price of His grace is not cheap indeed, it is the greatest price ever paid.  It is His silence against His own Son, that is our assurance of His love.  We who consider silence, apathy.  We who consider silence, a testament of non-existence.  Nothing could be farther from reality.  God the Father is doing, what must be done, to save us, no matter how painful that is in the shorter term.  Eternity rests on what He does.
The pain, the exhaustion of Christ are written on Him in tears of blood.  Not a human hand has been laid upon Him yet He looks emaciated, and beaten.  In this state, in this condition of absolute need, He returns to His friends, picking up in verse 37 saying … “And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour? [verse 38] Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.”  They are not pulling the all-nighter of the century, or of the millennia, or of all time.  They are asleep.  They are watching nothing, guarding nothing, comforting nothing.  They are asleep.  This is the vow they made in action.  This is where the first request was made, and where their devotion could be measured when it means something.  And a task as simple as caring, went unanswered, in favor of sleep. 
Jesus asks could they not keep watch for merely one hour?  Other nights, they have fished all night.  On this one, the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.  Their own lives and salvations hang in the balance.  Jesus tells them that His mind or His spirit is ready for what is occurring.  But His body, or His flesh begins to dread the pain and death it knows is coming.  Fear, that infects all humanity, clouds reason, and causes us to make poor decisions, begins to infect One who has never known it.  Fear that comes from a separation from God, and fear that it might be forever.  Fear of a painful death that will mean nothing, accomplish nothing, except getting Him kicked out of heaven, because He can no longer be in the presence of purity after having been tarnished with all our sins, with each of our sins, with yours, with mine.  In this hour of greatest need, Jesus has woken His disciples and asked them once more to remain vigilant, to help Him through this.
John Mark records in verse 39 saying … “And again he went away, and prayed, and spake the same words.”  The test is not over.  Again He has called out to His Daddy in agony.  A tone of voice that has never been heard in all of time and space from Jesus to His Father.  This is the siren call of a toddler in pain and agony who wants it to stop.  They do not understand why you the parent cannot fix it.  It is not a random scream.  It is a scream to the one that has always, ever fixed everything they needed, it is a call to daddy.  The heartbreak that wells up in the heart of daddy, as he realizes he cannot fix what is causing His Son this pain.  He would gladly trade His own pain or life for that of His Son.  This is the breaking of the heart of Father God.  For indeed He could fix the pain of His Son.  But He must not.  With all the power, He must not use it.  Or we will be lost in the balance.  There will be no cheap grace here, purchased with nothing.  It will cost Him everything He loves.  It will force Father God to watch pain, hear those calls from His Son, and remain silent and separate.
John Mark continues in verse 40 saying … “And when he returned, he found them asleep again, (for their eyes were heavy,) neither wist they what to answer him.”  Jesus again turns for consolation and comfort from those He is saving through the pain of this sacrifice.  He turns to those who claim to love Him the most, His servants.  He finds them sleeping once again.  They have no words of excuse now.  They have no explanation for why they have failed again.  These men have vowed unto death, yet cannot pray for even an hour.  This is the value of our promises.  This is the value of our vows.  They can be undone by a simple urge to sleep.  And before we become too self-righteous in our condemnation of the disciples for sleeping, perhaps we should look in the mirror, and realize our entire generation has been sleeping for too long.  Our entire gospel, both in message, but also in transformation of who we are, goes unsaid, and undone, for our sleep.
John Mark continues in verse 41 saying … “And he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. [verse 42] Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.”  The answer was no.  The answer to the most desperate plea ever offered was no.  There was no other way.  There would be no other outcome.  Jesus had screamed for His Father, but was told no by inaction.  Jesus for the third time comes back to His disciples, but this time, He looks no more for our comfort or consolation.  He is now resigned that a no means no, and He must do what He does NOT want to do.  He must face a separation from God He may never recover from.  It is love for us that drives Him to risk this fate anyway.  He wakes His disciples now only to face His own betrayer.
What might have been?  What if instead of trusting to self, and to the strength of self, the disciples had rooted their language and promises in the will and love of God.  Perhaps that all-nighter might have come out differently.  While God the Father must remain silent to the pain of His Son.  We did not need to be so.  The arms of Peter, James, and John, might have reached out to hold Him up.  To help Him bear His burden in His hour of greatest need.  Imagine the beauty of that gift from them to Him.  Imagine the difference that might have made to Him. 
But He did it alone.  He faced it alone.  Not because there was no one around, but because there was no one awake.  They vowed and then did nothing but sleep.  We vow and what do we do afterwards?  Do we truly submit and be transformed, or do we prefer the sleep of ignorance and forgiveness?  There must come a time in the life of every Christian where forgiveness is not enough, where perfection is what is sought and desired.  Are you there yet, am I, or do we both sit sound asleep, fully unaware of what could be, what might be, and what a waste our sleep creates.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Broken Wedding Vows ...

There is a promise we intend to make only once.  There are vows we take before God and each other.  It is because of this that we call our promises sacred, and what we say, the very foundation of our honor.  To see our vows broken, is to see our humanity broken alongside them.  Should someone else betray their vow to us, that betrayal leaves a scar that seldom heals in full.  Its mark is carried with us, making us apprehensive to trust again, making us apprehensive to commit again.  In point of fact these are only words.  But the context of these words, the circumstances in which they are spoken, the witnesses to them … add up to a vow that becomes part of who we are.  And what happens to us when we are the one who breaks them?
Humans have no control.  We know we live at the whims of fate.  A tornado or extreme weather event could hit and radically change our perspective.  Cancer, AIDs, or heart disease can seem to come upon us out of the blue, and radically change our perspective.  Love itself can overwhelm us and make our lives something new, something entirely different.  So humanity must reduce its expectations of control to only the things we believe we can control, our words, and perhaps our actions.  We make promises.  We intend to keep them.  Should control not be lifted us, from circumstances that prevent it, we do keep them.  But if scripture teaches us anything, it teaches us that our promises founded in our strength are worth nothing.
This was to be the most painful lesson in the life of Peter.  It left a mark on him that colored his perspective, even many years later while recalling his gospel through his friend and transcriptionist John Mark.  Peter too had made a vow.  It was a vow taken before God, and a promise to God.  It was made in the company of witnesses, not just strangers mind you, but witnesses who lived with him day and night for a little more than three years.  These men knew Peter.  Jesus knew Peter.  And with this context, in a circumstance that was the most important setting he would ever face.  Peter made a vow.  It was more important that his wedding vow.  It was the most important one he would ever make, and strangely, it is the most important one you or I will ever make.
Peter begins his recollection to John Mark in his gospel picking up in chapter fourteen and verse 27 saying … “And Jesus saith unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered. [verse 28] But after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee.”  Jesus declares an ominous truth.  He prophesies again what is about to happen, not with conditions, but with clarity.  He predicts His own death, and He predicts it will happen beginning tonight.  He also predicts His own resurrection, and gives directions about where they will find Him once He is risen.  They can find Him again in Galilee, a place they remember fondly from mission work, and a home that offered them fishing on the sea there.  If Peter, like us, could have focused on the aftermath, on the reunion in Galilee perhaps all might have been well.  But he, like us, could not.
We see only the part of the text our minds are drawn too.  Peter is drawn to the circumstances Jesus’ prophecy will create.  That “all shall be offended” this night, and because of Him.  Jesus states in absolute clarity, that finally, the hopes of each one of the disciples that He would become the earthly king they surely thought would happen, will be dashed upon the rocks.  Each one of them will lose hope.  Each one of them will question their faith.  Did they really get it right?  After all, this Jesus will NOT be fulfilling the scriptures as defined by the leaders of the faith, or as hoped for in their own hearts.  This means the Jewish people will still be crucified.  This means the Jewish people will still be over taxed.  They will continue to suffer with not an ounce of relief.  How could a real Messiah allow that to happen, when He had the power to change it?
But to be offended by Him.  After all this time, to wind up offended by the Master he had left everything for, had left everything to follow.  No.  Not Peter.  His memory continues in verse 29 stating … “But Peter said unto him, Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.”  There it is.  There is boast of certainty.  There is the vow of a wedding.  There is the most sacred promise a human could make.  But the scary part, is that we make it too, almost exactly the same way, in almost exactly the same circumstances.  Peter says to his Lord, that while everyone else may get it wrong, he will not.  He declares that his brothers in Christ are not as mature as he is.  They may be offended, they may not understand scriptures as well as Peter, they may flee because of it.  But not Peter.  Not you or I.  We know more.  We know better.  We will stand with our God no matter what comes, or who is offended.  And we mean this vow too.
Jesus responds to his vow in verse 30 saying … “And Jesus saith unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.”  Jesus does not condemn his arrogance.  Jesus does not judge him as unworthy, or forever damned, or forever separated from Him because of what will come.  Jesus calmly explains to Peter, and to us, what his vow is worth.  In this day, in fact even in this night (the next 12 hours for Peter), Peter will fail at his vow not only once, but three times.  There it is.  There is the reality of our vow not to sin, of our vow to follow God.  We make it.  Then our sins, our weakness, break the vow we make multiple times in the same day our words are uttered.  What good is a wedding vow?  What good is a promise we make to love God, when it can be broken by us in heart, mind, and mouth, multiple times in a single day?
How can the Lord take our promise seriously?  Why should He?  Our problem, was Peter’s problem, separated by more than 2,000 years and yet identical in nature.  We promise something based on the strength of our will.  We then find that strength is nothing.  We then find only a short passage of time, leads to a dulling of our commitments, and a lure or “need” to forego them.  We state in front of others that we will be a follower of Jesus, then find ourselves sinning against Jesus multiple times just a bit later.  It is not a onetime event.  We do it repeatedly.  We then beg for forgiveness.  And perhaps come to a point, where we think “God” made me this way.  So it’s His fault.  It’s His fault I fail, so He must know it, and accept me in spite of my failures.  Maybe my failures are OK with Him after all.  His grace then becomes cheap to us.
But a vow is not so easily discarded.  For with a vow comes pride in who we are.  If we are going to break it, at least give us the courtesy of not thinking our words are so cheap they can be done away with in a single day, and multiple times in that day.  So thought Peter as he responds in verse 31 saying … “But he spake the more vehemently, If I should die with thee, I will not deny thee in any wise. Likewise also said they all.”  Peter ups the ante.  He does not accept what Jesus is saying.  He disputes it.  He disputes truth, the Truth.  So he raises his voice, deepens his tone, and makes his commitment even more fiercely.  He now adds to his vow, that even unto death he will honor it.  He will follow his Lord unto death no matter what.  His words now sound in our ears, for haven’t we said the same things, if not to God, then to other Christians so that they will “know” how holy we are.
At this point, mob thinking takes over.  The other disciples are not going to be shamed into letting Peter make so vehement a declaration, so meaningful a wedding vow, and them remain silent.  They join Peter’s vow themselves.  They add their own voice to it.  And mimic the words of it.  So do we.  One of our friends declares their voice or promise to follow God, and so do we.  Particularly if it is a group of our friends.  We do not want to be left out in the cold, alone.  We want to be part of the “team”.  So we add our voices to whatever vow is offered, for better or for worse.  Our passion is weaker, but present. 
We either do not want to be outdone by another, or do not want to be the only guy afraid of commitment at all.  So we all make the vow.  And even more important than what words we will say to our spouse in our wedding, we are making our vow right to the face of God.  Whether in our prayers, or as Peter did in front of Jesus, we are vowing ourselves to Jesus Christ.  And how often does Jesus know the sad truth?  He knows it every time.  For so far, our records remain imperfect every time.  Human strength is worth nothing, yet we continue to rely upon it.  Constantly making and breaking vows to God, destroys us inside, it hardens us until we have no more words to speak, or intentions to underlie them.  These actions hollow us, as they did Peter.
We should not be making vows.  Counsel was given us to simply let our yes mean yes, and our no mean no.  That counsel was insurance against the pride that comes when a vow is made.  It is insurance against the linking of honor to vows.  For once vows have been broken over and over again, our honor is destroyed when it need not be.  Better to recognize we have no honor in the first place.  Our honor, like our strength is reflected through us by Jesus Christ.  Our promises have no strength or longevity, if not maintained by Jesus Christ.  Our faith, and its condition, its strength, is a product of how much we humble ourselves and submit to Jesus Christ.  Christ can do all things in me, is not a testament about how much I help Jesus accomplish His work.  It is a testament about how little I can do, effectively nothing, and how Jesus does all things through me, because I can do none of them.
It is our illusion of control that gives way to making a solemn vow before God.  But if our vows to God are broken with such regularity, then how can anything we promise each other in front of God stand any better chance?  We must ground our commitments in the will and love of God, or make no commitments at all.  We must not promise anything, but ground our language in the will and love of God.  To learn to submit our responses, and our intentions through Jesus, is to trust Jesus to run our lives, our marriages, and our salvation.  Our transformations do not occur because we will them, but because we submit to them. 
But if we needed any proof of this, the recollections of Peter would provide ample examples as the story continues …