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Archive for March, 2013

The world is full of empty promises. Television ads tell us that in order to be happy, sexy, rich, or famous, all we have to do is to purchase a certain product. Politicians running for office make lots of promises, but following elections those promises are often forgotten. That is the way it is with many of the promises made in our world – they are empty. God’s promises, however, are different. This is never clearer or truer than during the Easter season.

Instead of promises full of emptiness, God gives us emptiness that is full of promise. The Easter message shines the spotlight on three tremendous promises that God has made, each of which is connected to something that was empty. There is the empty cross, the empty tomb, and the empty burial clothes. The very fact that these three things were empty on that first Easter morning assures us that God’s promises can be believed. Let us examine them:

The empty CROSS: Because the cross was empty, we have God’s promise of forgiven sin. At early dawn on that first Easter morning some women arrived at the tomb where Jesus had been buried. The events of the previous three days were still hard for them to believe. Their conversation was subdued. The task before them was a sad one. They had come, as was the custom in that day, to anoint His body. The prior day was a Sabbath, so the three crosses had not been removed. Take a good look at the middle cross, for it is the one on which Jesus was crucified.

The bloodstains at the top of the vertical beam were caused by the crown of thorns. The stains at the ends of the horizontal beam were caused by the nails that were driven through His wrists. The stains on the main beam came from the lashes on His back where He had been brutally beaten, from the spear that had pierced His side, and the nails that were driven through his feet. It was on this middle cross that Jesus died – but it was now empty – empty, but full of hope! Jesus paid the penalty for our sins. The word “sin” is not popular in today’s world. It is not even heard very often in many of our nation’s pulpits. But the simple fact is that we have all sinned (Romans 3:23). The wages for being a sinner is death – eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23).

The empty TOMB:  Twenty centuries have passed since that gray early dawn in Jerusalem when the women on that first Easter found the tomb of Jesus empty. Students of the Bible for twenty centuries have sought to learn the full meaning of that empty tomb. They have been impressed by the fact that Christ’s disciples were willing to die rather than renounce their faith in the fact that Christ died, was buried, and rose again.

As the result of their faith the young church developed and grew. It worshiped in a special way on the first day of the week in recognition of the fact that Christ had risen. The power of the gospel spread rapidly throughout the world, giving the final evidence that Christ was indeed raised from the grave. Belief in Christ’s resurrection totally transformed the lives of those first believers. They had seen Jesus alive, watched Him be buried, and then saw Him alive again.

At a time of God’s own choosing, perhaps very soon, other tombs will be empty. The church will rise triumphantly to meet the Lord in the air. Those living and remaining on the earth who have trusted in Christ will be caught up to meet Him and will be forever with Him. “If we believe that Christ died and rose again, even so them also who believe in Jesus will God bring with Him” (I Thessalonians 4:14). This is the tremendous promise of Christ’s empty tomb.

The empty BURIAL CLOTHES: After the angel had spoken to the women at the tomb of Jesus, they immediately went back to His disciples and reported what had happened. With this incredible news, Peter and John immediately raced back to the tomb to see for themselves. When they got there, John stopped just outside the tomb, but Peter ran right in. They discovered that what the women had told them was true. The cross was empty, and the tomb was also empty. But that is not all! They found the clothes in which Jesus had been buried were also empty. This could only mean one thing: Jesus was alive! If someone had stolen His body, they would not have removed His graves clothes, folded them neatly, and left them in orderly fashion where they lay. He had risen! He was alive!

The cross could not hold Him. The tomb had no power to contain Him. And the burial clothes were needed no more! An empty cross, an empty grave, and empty graves clothes – emptiness full of promise!

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Every Christian who travels to the Holy Land has the opportunity to walk the route along the streets of the old city in Jerusalem called The Via Dolorosa – Latin for “the way of sorrow.” It is the route traveled by Christ from Pilate’s Judgment Hall to Calvary.

There are 14 stations along the route that have significance. Station one is where Jesus was tried and condemned by Pilate. Station two is where He received the cross and was told to carry it on His back. Station five is where He fell under the heavy weight of the cross, and where Simon from Cyrenia was forced by the Roman centurion to help Him carry it.

Station eight is where some women beside the route were weeping, and Jesus said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). These are significant words, for the following reasons:

They are the rebuke of a realist. There is a teary kind of Christianity which is both questionable and repulsive because it is based upon a sentimentalism that is superficial. It may easily be aroused by playing upon the physical suffering of Jesus. But it knows little of the tears issuing from a deep godly sorrow of the soul that leads to repentance. Little wonder that Jesus, who generally was quick to respond to the faintest show of sympathy, should be so quick to rebuke these weepers along the sidelines of His journey toward Calvary. Jesus had no use for shams. He knew and distrusted the short-lived religion of sheer emotionalism. The Hosanna-shouters of Palm Sunday would turn into hostile condemners or weak weepers on Good Friday.

They are the words of a conqueror.  They are the strong words of One who was committed to a cause. In all that mass of humanity escorting Him to Calvary His was the only clear mind, for He knew what He was doing. He had said, “I am come to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10). His life was not being taken from Him; He was laying it down of His own accord. He was not a victim of circumstances.  On the contrary, He chose to die as He had lived: with an absolutely total commitment to the redemptive mission assigned to Him by our Heavenly Father.

All through His life, Jesus was the master of every situation, and He was never caught off guard. While there is a side to the life and death of Jesus that is tragic and blood stained, there is another side which is masterful and triumphant. He met the enemy immediately after His baptism; He met him again in the Garden of Gethsemane; and He met Him while on the cross – but He always triumphed! That is why the earliest creed of the Christian community was “Jesus is Lord!”

They are the words of a servant. Israel was God’s servant, nurtured to bless the nations of the world, and this “peculiar people” often had reason to wonder why they were so favored, for time and again they passed through the fiery furnace of trouble. How grand is that 53rd chapter of Isaiah which sets forth the theology of the Suffering Servant.

At the age of twelve Jesus said to His parents, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). He would later say to His followers that He had not come to be served, but to serve. A strong sense of mission filled the entire earthly life of Jesus. He had been sent into the world to accomplish a task, and He would not stop until He had accomplished it. It is with that same level of commitment that He said, “He who would gain his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will find it” (Luke 17:33).

The cross is the supreme expression of servanthood. Because Christ was obedient unto death, He has been given a name that is above every name, a name before which every knee shall ultimately bow to acknowledge that He is both Lord and King. Let us shed no tears for Jesus, for He is going on and on. The question is: “Will we follow in His train?”

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I grew up in central Georgia in a small town named Chester. According to the 1940 census it had a metropolitan population of 341. It may be even smaller than that today. As you can see, those who live there don’t have trouble trying to avoid getting run over by city busses or street cars. In the mid-1940’s there was not a single paved street in town or a paved road leading out of town in any direction. In middle Georgia there were a lot of red clay dirt roads that presented quite a challenge to drivers when they were wet. Every time it rained, our streets were a total mess. We used to joke, “If you will stick to Chester in dry weather, it will certainly stick to you when the weather is wet.”

We had a small theater that showed movies on Saturday afternoons only. Most of the movies were westerns, and the lead characters were always portrayed as heroes. Their primary job was to catch bad guys and put them in jail. The heroes always wore white hats; the bad guys always wore black hats. The heroes had names like Tex Ritter, Bob Steele, and Bob Boyd. Gene Autry movies were too classy to make it to our little town. They were usually in color, and were only shown in towns that were larger than ours. I could count on the fact that every Saturday the good guy, my hero, would come out on top and the bad guys would get what was coming to them.

All the stores in Chester were closed on Sunday, for this was the Lord’s Day. My father and mother, and my two brothers and I, attended Sunday school and worship every Sunday. Our parents didn’t send us to church; they took us to church. It was through the influence of the people in this small town family of faith that I learned that Jesus had time for small children, opened the eyes of the blind, healed those who were lame, fed those who were hungry, and forgave those who were sinners. He wasn’t just a hero; He was my ultimate hero. But I couldn’t understand why so many people opposed Him. It didn’t seem logical that the people He loved would crucify Him.

Somehow the termination of the life of Jesus seemed tragically out of character for a young boy who had learned to respect and appreciate heroes. I secretly wanted Jesus to suddenly turn on His persecutors – those stupid, ungrateful, blind, religious and political leaders! They constantly hounded Him. They even criticized Him for healing a man on the Sabbath. He often went out of His way to avoid His enemies until He completed His mission. I would have taken great joy in God demolishing them all with a lightning bolt out of the blue – but that never happened. He who was determined to go to Jerusalem finally arrived in the Holy City. It was here that His miracle-working ministry of love was terminated on a Roman cross. As a young boy accustomed to my heroes always winning, it seemed that Jesus had lost.

Of course, as I continued to grow spiritually, I began to understand. I came to see that if I had been living in those days, and had I been influenced by the religious leaders of that day, I would have also been in that jeering crowd calling for His crucifixion. I had to admit that had I been one of His disciples, I would have been like the others who ran for the hills because they were frightened. Yes, as a song that I love expresses it, “I was there when they crucified my Lord.”

Why, O God, did You let us kill Your Son?” It is a question that haunts many Christians. God’s answer might go something like this: “How else could I get through to you? How else could I convince you that I loved you? I am holy, so I could not ignore your sin. There was no other way to deal with your selfishness and rebelliousness. It broke my heart to see my Son die. In His suffering I suffered too. When He died, something in me died also. This is the only way that I could prove how much I loved you. I created mankind with the freedom to believe or to doubt, to obey or to disobey, to love or to hate, to build up or to tear down, to give life or to destroy it. You had to have this freedom in order to know the meaning of love. You chose to abuse my love, to ignore my will, and to walk a self-chosen path in life. And you do these things even now. If I had sent My Son to visibly live in your world today, you would probably crucify Him again.”

In my heart I know that this is true. It is a sobering experience to realize how often I have failed my Lord, and how often I still do. I bow my head in shame and pray: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Amen”

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Megan McKenna, in Parables, tells the story of a woman who wanted peace in the world and peace in her heart and all sorts of good things, but she was frustrated. The world seemed to be falling apart. Just reading the newspapers depressed her.

One day she decided to go shopping, and she went into a mall and picked a store at random. She walked in and was surprised to see Jesus standing behind the counter. She knew it was Jesus, because He looked just like the pictures she had seen of Him painted by artists.

She finally got up the nerve and asked, “Excuse me, but are you Jesus?”

“I am!”

“Do you work here?”

“No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.”

“Oh, what do you sell?”

“Just about anything!”

“Anything?”

“Yes, anything! What do you want?”

“I don’t know,” She replied.

“Well,” Jesus said, “feel free to walk up and down the aisles, make a list of the things you want, and then come back and bring me your list.”

So, she walked up and down the aisles. She saw displayed peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources, and many other wonderful things. She wrote furiously. By the time she got back to the counter, she had a long list.

Jesus took the list, skimmed through it, looked up at her and smiled. “No problem,” He said. He then bent down behind the counter and picked out the things she requested, stood up, and laid out some packets.

When she asked what these were, Jesus replied, “Seed packets. This is a catalog store.”

“You mean I don’t get the finished product?”

“No, this is a place of dreams. You come here to see what you need looks like, and I give you the seeds so you can plant them. Then you nurture the seeds and help them to grow. Later, someone else reaps the harvest of what you have sown.”

“Oh!” she said, disappointed. Then she left the store without buying anything.

This beautiful parable describes the way Christians sometimes pray. All the resources in heaven’s storehouse are available to us. God, the Son, said so. God, the Father, guarantees it. We, however, want our blessings to come as finished products. And we want them immediately – if not sooner!

We ask God for: a loving family, a witnessing church, a specific neighbor or co-worker to become a Christian, healing in our relationships, and many other positive and wonderful things.  He gives us seeds to plant that will bring these things to pass. Not being willing to plant the seeds that will make possible that for which we pray, we walk away unblessed, wondering why God didn’t answer our prayer.

God hears every prayer, but He answers in accordance with his will. Sometimes He says “Yes,” sometimes He says “No,” and sometimes He says “Not Now!” When God doesn’t answer our prayer in the WAY we request and on the SCHEDULE we assign to Him, we think He hasn’t answered at all. Our problem is that we simply aren’t willing to participate with Him in making that for which we pray become a reality.

Prayer is more than asking God to run errands for us; it is, in its finest sense, our reporting for duty. If we fail to understand that, our prayers become like the one prayed by an elderly deacon who bowed his head, closed his eyes and said, “Use me, Lord, in the work of Your Kingdom – but only in an advisory capacity.”

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A few years ago a survey asked people who were ninety-five years old and beyond what they would do differently if they could live their lives over. Both men and women who have passed their ninety-fifth birthday have had enough experience facing life’s challenges to answer that question capably.  One senior citizen announced that he had reached the “metallic age” – gold in his teeth, silver in his hair, and lead in his pants.

Since I am a lot closer to being ninety-five years of age than I used to be, this senior citizen survey grabbed my attention big time. Here are the top three changes the ninety-five-year-olds said they would make if they could live their lives over:

They Would Reflect More. In other words, they would spend more time getting away from the daily grind in order to thoughtfully examine the direction and meaning of their lives. In doing so, they would make certain the energy they were expending was going toward worthwhile causes.

When we are young we find it easy to become so involved with the regular and necessary daily responsibilities of life – family duties, job, relationships, civic involvements, etc. – that we fail to take time for evaluation and reflection. The result of doing this is that we become reactive rather than proactive.

Without regular reflection on where we are, what we are doing and why, and on where we are going, life tends to lock us into a rut. One of my college professors at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia sixty years ago defined a rut as “a grave with both ends knocked out.” This is a fairly accurate definition, wouldn’t you say? Life lived in a rut, by necessity, becomes both monotonous and devoid of joy.

They Would Risk More. Given another chance, the ninety-five year-olds in the survey said they would be more courageous about stepping out of their comfort zones. They would take more risks in order to raise their accomplishment level. This would make their lives more interesting. Christopher Columbus would never have discovered the western world if he had not taken the risk of sailing across the broad Atlantic Ocean.

There are lots of worthwhile adventures waiting for anyone who is willing to step out on faith. I read recently of an elderly bachelor in Kentucky who fell in love. He asked his doctor to give him a shot of cortisone so he could propose on bended knee. At his age, proposing to a lady was a totally new challenge. It involved a risk, but look what he would have missed if he had not been willing to take it.

Accepting new challenges is good advice for anyone – no matter how young or old they may be. So, what about you? Why not decide to become more committed to serving God through the doors that are daily open to you? This life offers you the only opportunity you will ever have to do that.

There is only one way you will be able to experience the exciting adventures that are currently available – you must choose to accept them. Nobody can choose for you.  Even though it will be easy for you to remain in your comfort zone, you must climb out on the limb of faith. It is the only way God can fulfill His promises to guide, protect, and use you in the building of His kingdom on the earth. Staying in a rocking chair will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.

They Would Do More Things that Would Outlive Them. How many of the things to which you are currently committed, and which consume a sizeable proportion of your time, will live on beyond your lifetime to bless other people? Whatever your age may currently be, you would do well to give some thought to this question.

The impact of the investments you make in the lives of those who follow you is important. But think also of the impact in heaven. Will there be anyone in heaven whose presence there resulted from the influence you had on their lives? If not, you need to make some changes in your priorities. Imagine the joy of one day meeting friends in heaven who wouldn’t be there were it not for your influence.

One of the best things about growing old is that it takes a long time. Even if you are a young whippersnapper, old age will arrive more quickly than you expect. All you have to do is wake up one morning and you’ve got it. But know this: The only thing worse than growing old is to be denied the privilege.

There is a way to grow old and enjoy every day of it – keep taking on new thoughts and throwing off old habits. People who say you can’t teach old dogs new tricks have apparently forgotten that they are human beings, not members of the canine family.

Do you like the three suggestions given by the senior citizens in the above-mentioned survey?  If so, please don’t wait until you are in your nineties to adopt them. If you start now, life will provide you with twenty-four hours of joy every day until you are a hundred – should you live that long!

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