Why do we pray?

Why do we pray?

“What’s the point of prayer?”  I’ve been asked this question more times than I can remember.  Lately, I’ve asked it, myself.

People of faith pray.  It’s what we do.  Even people, claiming no faith, sometimes find themselves praying in difficult situations.

Often, we pray for wants or needs.  Often, we pray for the people we’re concerned about.  Sometimes, we ask others to pray for us.

But, what’s the point?  If God already knows what we need, why pray?  Does God need convincing?  And, why do we ask others to pray for us?  Do more, or other’s, prayers motivate God more?

What about when prayers go unanswered?  Did I pray the wrong prayer, or did I not pray long enough, or fervently enough, or say the right words, or ask enough others to pray with me?

These are hard questions.  But, these are questions many ask.  We pray.  But, why?

C.S. Lewis said, “I don’t pray to change God.  I pray to change me.”  Is that the point of prayer?  Maybe.

Sometimes, though not often enough, we offer prayers of thanks.  Sometimes, we pray to worship.  Sometimes, we pray to repent.  Sometimes, we pray just to be with God.  Sometimes, we pray to listen.

Sometimes, we lament.

Do I believe there’s value in prayer?  Yes, of course.  Do I believe God answers prayer?  Yes, but…  Do I believe there’s value to praying for others, or asking others to pray for me?  Yes, but not for the sake of ganging-up on God.

Increasingly, I’m thinking of prayer as connection, and less about the requests I may or may not make.  Just as an electronic device needs to be connected to an electrical outlet to function, I’m thinking of prayer as connection to the “Source.”

Sometimes the connection may lead to answers and outcomes.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, God might speak.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, I might feel something – peace, or forgiveness, or refreshment.  Sometimes, not.

But, regardless of the outcome, I need the connection anyway.  I need the connection, because I need God.

Maybe it’s like the conversations I have with my wife.  Though we certainly talk about all kinds of things – from basic information like the grocery list, to decisions we need to make, to sharing our hearts – the main reason for our talking is connection.  If we just need to pass information or make requests, we could leave each other notes, or send each other texts.  But, we need more than that.  We need to hear each other’s voices.  We need to look into each other’s eyes.  We need to see the joy or concern on each other’s faces.  We need to connect.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t bring our requests to God, or that we shouldn’t pray for others.  I’m not suggesting God doesn’t answer prayer.

I’m saying the specific outcomes of prayer aren’t the point, at least not to me.  Connection is the point – connection with the God who created the universe, the God who became human to redeem a fallen world, the God who is love, the God in whom I live, and move, and have my being.

The point is connection.

Pulling Weeds

Pulling Weeds

“Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self—in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart.”  C.S. Lewis

I grow bonsai trees – little trimmed trees in little pots.  Though I’m only an amateur, I confess I’m obsessed.  I have juniper, adenium, cypress, spruce, crepe myrtle, sea grape, rain tree, acacia, box wood, ficus, mandarin orange, bougainvillea, buttonwood, fukien tea, podocarpus, joboticaba, calliandra, holly, escombron, aralia, elm, and a few others, whose names are escaping me.

As Spring approaches, they’ve needed some extra care – pruning, trimming, repotting, fertilizing, etc.  But, the care I enjoy the least is the tedious work of weeding.

I don’t know where the weeds come from.  I mix the soil myself.  I keep them in a screened-in porch.  How do they get in there?

Wherever their origin, they spring up suddenly, and in abundance!  If I’m not careful to pay close attention, they can sprout up quickly, and become larger than the bonsai tree, itself!

Besides being unsightly (after all, with bonsai, aesthetics is the whole deal!), weeds can actually harm the tree.  Since the trees are growing in small pots, without much soil, the weeds compete with the tree for water and soil nutrients.  I actually have a tree in distress, because I hadn’t noticed some weeds that popped up out of nowhere, before they did their damage.

And, the job of weeding is so tedious.  It’s critical to pull the weed out by the root, or the weed will grow back.  But the weed’s roots tend to intertwine with the roots of the tree, making weed eradication a challenge.  Weeding requires going slow and using tools to gently pull each individual weed.  Even then, it’s impossible to get them all.

Weeds are a pretty good metaphor for my life.  When I’m not paying attention, weeds can unexpectedly pop up, crowding into my life, sapping energy and vitality.  Sometimes weeds are bad habits.  Sometimes weeds are unhealthy emotions.  Sometimes weeds are negative, self-defeating thoughts.  Sometimes weeds are painful memories.  Sometimes weeds are sin.

If I’m not careful, weed roots can grow deep, and entangle my soul.

So, I have to pull my metaphorical weeds too.  And, I think the weeds growing in my soul are even more tedious and challenging, and sometimes more painful to pull, than the weeds growing with my bonsai.  But, if I don’t pull them, they’ll just keep growing and growing and growing.  They’ve got to go before that happens.

Pulled any weeds lately?

Two Essential Elements

Two Essential Elements

According to Scripture, humans are composed of two essential elements – carbon and spirit.  Carbon appears on the Elemental Table.  Spirit doesn’t.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  Genesis 2:7

Both the Hebrew and Greek words for “breath” translate as Spirit.

Carbon is earthly.  Dust is composed of carbon.  Ash is composed of carbon.  All living things on earth, when reduced to their essential elements, are basically carbon.

But, human life is generated by the Spirit of God breathed into us.  With the Spirit of God in us, we are fully alive, created to flourish in every way.  Without the animating Spirit of God breathed into us, we are just human forms, human-shaped containers composed of ash.

“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7

One of my favorite teachings of Jesus is John 15:1-17.  I’ve read it, taught it, and preached it so many times, I can nearly recite it from memory.  In John 15, Jesus describes himself as a grapevine, and his followers as the branches.  He teaches that if we “abide” in him, our lives will be abundantly fruitful.  We were created for fruitfulness!

But, then comes a stark warning, “Apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”  John 15:5-6

For years, I wrestled with this verse.  It can sound so harsh, threatening.  “Abide in me – or, else!”  But, over time, the threat has faded, gradually giving way to a more compassionate tone of voice.  Now, I can hear heartbreak in Jesus’ voice.

“If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”  John 15:5

Jesus is simply telling us the truth.  Connected to our life-source, as intended, we flourish.  Apart from it, we sadly wither and die.  Eventually, we return to only one of our essential elements – carbon, dust, ash.

We were made for more than ash.  We were made to abide, flourish and bear abundant fruit.

The unfortunate truth is that I’m often somewhere in between.  Thankfully, I’m not quite ready to be tossed on the fire – yet.  But, if I’m honest (and, Lent is a good time for honesty!), I regularly, habitually, carelessly neglect the most essential element for abundant living – the breath of God in me.  If I’m entirely honest, more of my days lean more toward ash than Spirit.  I function, nearly daily, as though I can handle life’s opportunities and challenges on my own.  I strive and strain, as though carbon is the only fuel I need.

Carbon, on fire, is a undeniably powerful force.  Think of a steam locomotive, or a forest fire!  Yet, at some point, the fire dies out, and the carbon turns to useless ash. “Apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”  John 15:5-6

One day, each year, to begin the season of Lent, Christians gather to have ashes smeared on their foreheads, as a pastor says, “Remember that from ashes you have come, to ashes you shall return.”  The forty-day season of Lent, leading to the Good Friday remembrance of Jesus’ sacrificial death, is a reminder that, apart from God, we are ash.  Lent is an opportunity to re-listen for the compassionate voice of Jesus, saying, “Return to me… apart from me you can do nothing… I am your life… remain in me… and, I will remain in you… and, you will floruish.”

Today, remember you are ash.  But, you are more than ash.  You were made for more than ash.  Your life is not ash.  Your life is the breath of God within you.

Reflections on Forty Days of Blogging

Reflections on Forty Days of Blogging

For Lent, I committed to write a blog, everyday, for forty days, plus Sundays.  I did it!  But, now Lent is over…

What now?

I don’t plan to continue blogging daily – I think we would all get a little sick of that.  Instead, I’m thinking that I will continue to post my sermons/messages every Sunday, and write a blog about once-a-week.  Possibly more, if something really excites me. (And, you know how excited I can get!)

Thanks to everyone who has been reading and sharing my blogs.  You have been very kind and encouraging, and affirming of my writing.

Now that Lent 20217 is finally over, I thought it might be appropriate to reflect on what I’ve learned from forty-plus days of writing…

  • It hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be.  I wondered if I would be able to think of something to write about – every day!  Surprise, surprise – the preacher never ran out of things to say!
  • Blogging made me more observant.  Needing something to write about – every day – made me more observant of life.  My eyes and ears were more open and receptive than usual, as I was always looking for inspiration.  I hope that continues.
  • Everything is theological.  Though I wrote about silly things – ranging from my motorcycle to bonsai trees to the Bible – I found that there are countless ways to reflect on who God is and what God does.  God isn’t just found in Scripture or theology books or sermons.  God is everywhere, at work in everything.
  • Blogging is cathartic.  As an introvert, and a fairly private person – in a very public profession – I have a tendency to bottle up my thoughts and feelings.  It was surprisingly easy to be surprisingly honest in this medium.  And, helpful.  And, healthy.  Sorry if you found out more about me than you really wanted to know.
  • I love to write.  Who knew?
  • I can be really, really long-winded.  Again, who knew?
  • Blogging forces me to think and reflect more deeply.  Frankly, it is pretty easy to be shallow.  But, putting your thoughts, theology, opinions, and the like, out for public consumption, requires a bit more care and attention – a bit more depth.  “Is this true?  Is this worth sharing?  Am I being clear?  Can I say this better?”
  • I have a fixation with “-“s, I can’t keep my verb tenses straight, and I’m a terrible proof-reader.  Shouldn’t I have acquired a mastery of basic English grammar by now?
  • Stats are a trap!  When you blog, you have access to stats regarding how many people have read your blog, and from what countries, and what days you have had the most hits, and which blogs have been most liked and shared, etc.  I wrote my blog for me, just hoping it my be helpful or interesting to others.  I didn’t write for the purpose of gaining a following.  But, I was seduced into looking at my stats every day!  My vanity soared on “good” days, and self-esteem plummeted on “bad” days.  How ironic – my Lenten discipline was an opportunity for my pride and vanity to raise their ugly, demonic heads!
  • “Snarky” is not a word in common parlance.  Apparently, some of you weren’t too sure what I meant when I said I was being “snarky.”  According to Miriam-Webster, “snarky” means,  “crotchity, snappish, impertinent or irreverent in tone.”   Who?  Me?
  • Restoration is a process.  As my sermons, and many of my blogs, were focused on the theme of “Restoration,” I’ve been reflecting on my own need for restoration.  More than anything else, I found myself asking, “Do I really believe this?  Do I really believe that God restores – me?”  Yes – I believe it.  But, I am painfully aware that restoration is a process – a painfully slow process.  Thankfully, God is not done with me yet.  But, I wish he would pick up the pace!

Whelp.  That’s about all I can think of, for now.  I’m currently on the road, riding my motorcycle, alone, northward-bound on A1A, along the Atlantic coast.  I’m sure I may have some things to share when I complete my journey.

(And, yes, the bike is running great!)

A Strange Saturday…

A Strange Saturday…

I woke up this morning, feeling relieved.  It has been a busy, hectic Holy Week.  My church had three different services – one on Maundy Thursday, and two on Good Friday – each requiring a different sermon.  Beyond the sermons, there were also numerous other details of the worship services to prepare.  And, of course, just because it is Holy Week doesn’t mean that there aren’t still all of the other pastoral tasks, duties and responsibilities of every other week of the year.

So, this morning, I did not set an alarm.  I slept in – a little.  I took my time, drinking my coffee, chatting with my wife, and easing into this Holy Saturday.

I felt relieved that a crazy week was over.

I finally got moving, later than I should have, and immediately felt anxiety about tomorrow – Easter Sunday.  I needed to go to church to make sure the sanctuary is ready.  I started fretting about details like my clothes, my vestments, and even what I will eat before the sunrise service.  And, there’s that little detail of a sermon that I haven’t had time to think about.

Relief and stress, intermingled.  Strange.

At church, we had an “Easterfest” for the young families with children, including Easter egg hunts and bounce houses.  It was great to see the fun and excitement.  But, also strange.  Is it ok to celebrate Easter while Jesus is still, symbolically, in the grave?

Liturgically, that’s what today represents.  This is Holy Saturday, the day Jesus lay in his tomb – dead.

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about Holy Saturday.  We know it was the Jewish Sabbath, so no work was allowed.  Matthew says that the religious leaders requested that Roman guards be placed at Jesus’ tomb, for fear of Jesus’ followers stealing his body and claiming that he had risen from the dead.

And, there was that – Jesus, dead, in his tomb.

We assume that Jesus’ followers were mostly in hiding that Saturday.  Surely, they were in the deepest mourning anyone can imagine.  But, I also wonder if there was some sense of relief that the ordeal of Thursday night and Friday were over.  I know that sounds terribly morbid.  But, watching him tortured and suffering, and destined to die, had to be worse than knowing at least his terrible trial was over.

And, because it was the Sabbath, there was no pressure to “DO” anything.  I wonder if they all just collapsed from the emotional exhaustion of all they had just been through.

Then again, I also wonder if they also were fearful, worried, stressed?  The Jewish and Roman guards might be hunting for them.  And, now, what were they supposed to do?  Go home?  Go back to their old lives?

I have to imagine the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday was a strange day.  Relief and stress, co-mingled.  Today feels strange to me, and I know how the story ends!

Now, I still need to write that sermon.

 

“Mountains of Books” – a Second Good Friday Sermon, Preached on April 14th, 2017, in the Evening at First Church of Coral Springs

“Mountains of Books” – a Second Good Friday Sermon, Preached on April 14th, 2017, in the Evening at First Church of Coral Springs

Revelation 20 says that there are books in heaven that contain the records of everything that every human has ever said or done.  Imagine that.  A book that contains every sin you have ever committed.  Every evil thought.  Every unkind word.  Every selfishness.  Every disobedience.  Every unfaithfulness.  Every missed opportunity to serve and share in Jesus name.  Every prideful moment.  Every sin in our lives, recorded in detail.

How many books would it take it to record the sinfulness of a single life?  Your life?  My life?

How many books would it take to record the misdeeds of every human who has ever lived?

How many volumes would be required to record the endless list of human atrocities throughout the centuries?

Page upon page, chapter upon chapter, book upon book, stacks upon stacks upon stacks upon stacks – written records of my sins and yours, alongside the sins of humanity’s best and worse – all of the Hitlers and all of the Mother Theresas.  All have sinned.

“All have sinned and fall short of the God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23)

            “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us… If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”  (I John 1:8-10)

Scriptures say that Jesus was crucified on top of a skull-shaped hill called Golgotha.  Imagine Golgotha as a giant mountain, but instead of stones, it is was an enormous pile of the books recording the sins of the world – books stacked upon books stacked upon books – with a cross on the top, and crucified savior hanging there, dying for the sins of the world, recorded at his feet.

Imagine your book, containing the record of your sin, laying at the foot of the cross.

Colossians 2:13-14 says, “You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross.”

            Of course, no one was thinking any of that the day Jesus died.  All they could see was a man dying…

  • To some, a heretic.
  • To some, a criminal.
  • To some, an enemy of the state.
  • To some, a pathetic joke.
  • To some, a friend, rabbi, and leader.
  • To some, lost hope.
  • To one, a son.

For centuries, God’s people had believed, and hoped, and prayed, and waited and waited and waited for God to send a Messiah, who would deliver them from all of their troubles.  Of course, they, like us, had mostly a worldly perspective.  This is where their problems were.  This is where they needed a savior – so, they thought – to deal with these material, worldly problems, here.

Many believed that Jesus was that man.  Some – the disciples, and others – had left home, and career, and family to follow him.  They trusted him.  They had put all of their hope in him.  They believed God was going to do something big through him.  God was, of course.  They just didn’t know what it was.  The scope of their hopes in this Jesus were just too small.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, all of their hopes and dreams seemed to be confirmed.  Jesus publically announced that he was the Messiah, the King of the Jews.  The crowds welcomed him as their new king.  Everything was coming together, just as they had hoped and believed it would.

Imagine their confusion in the upper room as Jesus talked about his death.  Imagine their dismay as Jesus was arrested.  Imagine their devastation as Jesus was condemned and crucified.  Imagine their fear as they hid in the shadows.  Imagine their grief when they heard Jesus was dead – not just grief for the death of their friend and leader.  Imagine the grief for the loss of all of their hopes and dreams – for themselves, and for their nation. Now, seemingly lost forever.

What would they do now?

If the Messiah could be defeated, now what?

Or, if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, who was he?

Jesus, of course had always been clear that his life would come to a violent, sacrificial end.  But, the disciples never seemed to understand…

As Jesus began his ministry, his cousin John pointed to him saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”  Lambs, we know, are sacrificed.

            From the beginning Jesus defined discipleship, saying, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  No one understood crosses symbolically, or metaphorically.  Everyone had seen crosses lining the highways, with corpses of condemned criminals hanging from them.  Why didn’t they understand that Jesus was speaking literally?

            Almost as soon as the disciples figured out that Jesus was the Messiah, he told them, “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”   

The disciples never seemed to grasp any of it.  When Jesus died, it seems like it was the last thing they could have possibly expected.  They had no idea that he was accomplishing something far greater than anything they could image, hope, or dream.  This was bigger than a single moment in history, or a single nation.  Jesus was carrying upon his shoulders the weight of the sin and brokenness of the entire history of the world – every single act of hatred, selfishness, apathy, pride, prejudice, violence, greed, etc. – since Adam and Eve, to this very moment.

All they could see, on that first Good Friday was a defeated man – and the end of their hopes.

Makoto Fujimura writes, “If we care to know how deep the suffering of Christ goes – and how vast and even violent is the restoration process through Christ’s suffering – then we had better start with knowing the dark, cruel reality of the fallen world.  If we care to embrace hope despite what encompasses us, the impossibility of life and the inevitability of death, then we must embrace a vision that will endure beyond our failures…  The stench of death all around us will remind us that it is despite ourselves that grace and restoration can take place.” 

Undeniably, Jesus died a cruel death at the hands of evil people.  But, look closer.  There, at the cross, was the world’s greatest horrors – all of the wars, all of the acts of terror, all of the crimes, all of the famines, all of the disasters, all of the diseases, all of the genocides, all of the betrayals, all of the brokenness, all of the senseless and meaningless suffering and deaths, all of the greed and corruption, all of the loss of innocence, all of the victimization and subjugation and enslavement of peoples, all of prejudices and injustices, all of the displacement of innocent peoples, all of the addiction, all of the ruthless dictators and corrupt governments – ISIS, Heroshima and Nagasaki, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Ponsey schemes, the porn industry, the Cambodian Killing Fields, Chernobyl, 9/11, organized crime, the Holocaust, the Crusades, Allepo – all of it.

There, at the base of the cross, imagine mounds of swords and spears no one has ever bothered to beat into plowshares; tanker trucks filled with toxic waste; stockpiles of banned chemical weapons; the cargo of druglords; the Mother of All Bombs; crates of last year’s fashions, that are “so last year”; truckloads of porn; tonnage of the chains and shackles of the enslaved; stacks and stacks of false testimonies; piles of cash wasted on frivolities that could have been used to help the poor.  Picture the mount of Golgotha surrounded by billboards displaying for the world your deepest and darkest secrets and fantasies.

And, all of your sin and brokenness.  And, all of mine.

Makoto Fujimura writes, “Our own acts of terrorism toward God drove Jesus to the cross.  Jesus’ slain body absorbed our anger and defiance, but more important, it absorbed God’s just anger toward us.  In that moment, all that was fair and beautiful in Christ became the hideous stench of a dying beast.  Beauty was literally pulverized, destroyed, and the Eternal experienced the decay of death.”

As horrific as the scene must have been for those watching it, it was far worse than anyone could have imagined.  Jesus wasn’t only dying an unfair, excruciating form of death.  He was bearing horrors too great to imagine.  And…  And…  In his very own flesh a work of restoration for the very worst of humanity – including yours and mine – had begun.

2 Corinthians 5:21 says, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

            Romans 5:17-19 says, “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone.  Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.”

Calvary was not just a place of crucifixion – it was the birth place of your transformation and mine.  Calvary is the fertile soil where God planted a seed of transformation.  Jesus said, Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  (John 12:24)

            Long before I knew what Good Friday meant, I worked, during my High School years, at a farm supply, feed and seed store.  According to the old Farmer’s Almanac, Good Friday is the best day to plant your Spring garden.  Holy Week was our busiest week of the year.  Long before I knew anything about Jesus and the cross, I knew that Good Friday is a day for planting seeds, and waiting for something new to be produced.

Yes, there is a record of your sin.  It laid there among the rubble of Calvary, keeping Jesus’ cross firmly in place.  But, it has been completely covered in the precious blood of Christ, as it flowed down from his cross, fertilizing the ground of the new creation.  Whatever you have done, and whatever has been done you; whatever you have broken, and whatever has been broken in you; whatever disasters you have caused, or have endured; all of your shortcomings; all of your selfishness; all of your sin; all of it; all of it was there on Calvary; and, all of it, every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every page, every chapter, and every book has been completely covered in the sacrificial blood of Jesus.

No matter how good, how special, how holy you think you are, before Jesus died on the cross, all of us would have been devastated to see the record of our sins.  But, now, when the books are opened, the record of your sin, and mine, has been completely erased – washed whiter than snow.  All that once was recorded in our books, has planted in the soil of Calvary, waiting to blossom into something new.

 

“Into your hands I commit my spirit” – A Good Friday Sermon Preached on April 14, 2017 at First Church of Coral Springs

“Into your hands I commit my spirit” – A Good Friday Sermon Preached on April 14, 2017 at First Church of Coral Springs

Undeniably, the ordeal Jesus endured was horrific.  Starting with an arrest; then a long night without sleep – full of hate, ugliness, condemnation and abuse; dragged from the Temple to Pilate, to Herod, and then back to Pilate; abuse and mockery at the hands of cruel Roman soldiers; rejection from the crowds who shouted, “crucify him!”; a severe beating, that likely nearly killed him; a crown of thorns shoved down on his head; and then a long walk to Golgotha, carrying his own cross on shoulders that had already been flayed open by the soldier’s whip.  All of that before he was even nailed to the cross.

When they got to Golgotha, long nails were driven through Jesus’ hands and feet, affixing him to the cross, and then his cross was raised to vertical, leaving Jesus dangling from just three nails, driven through his flesh.  For six, long, excruciating hours, he would suffer unspeakable agony, as life was slowly drained from his body.  Few deaths are as gruesome or humiliating as crucifixion.

And, while he hung upon his cross, his disciples had abandoned him and the leaders of his own religion mocked him.

As we have heard, we know he thirst.

As darkness covered the land, we know that he may have wondered if even God had abandoned him.

But, as Jesus’ final moments came, Jesus appeared to have been at peace and in control.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:26)

            Fred Craddock writes, “There is nothing here of anger or doubt or thrashing about in the throes of death.  Rather, Luke writes of serenity, acceptance, and trust.”

John Stott writes, “It is not men who finished their brutal deed; it is he who has accomplished what he came into the world to do.  He has procured salvation for us, and made available the chief covenant blessing, the forgiveness of sins.  At once the curtain of the temple, which for centuries had symbolized the alienation of sinners from God, was torn in two from top to bottom, in order to demonstrate that the sin-barrier had been thrown down by god, and the way into his presence was open.”

As Jesus died, it is abundantly clear that he was in control.  While he was clearly the casualty of terrible human cruelty, Jesus was no victim.  He was on the cross because he had chosen to give his life for us, sacrificially.  He was satisfied that he had accomplished what he came to do.

It would seem that Jesus had always known that his life would end this way.

As Jesus began his ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, pointed to him saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” 

            From the beginning, Jesus defined discipleship, saying, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  No one understood crosses symbolically, or metaphorically.  Everyone had seen crosses lining the highways, with the corpses of condemned criminals hanging from them.

            Almost as soon as the disciples figured out that Jesus was the Messiah, he told them, “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” 

            Even as he prayed the night before his death, in the Garden of Gethsemane -throwing himself to the ground, sweating drops of blood in distress, and pleading for God to “let this cup pass” – we see Jesus calmly leaving the Garden and handing himself over to the Temple guards, trusting that in God’s will to be done.

Again, John Stott writes, No-one took his life from him, he insisted; he was going to lay it down of his own accord.”

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The Message version says, “Father, I place my life in your hands!”

            Isn’t that what we are called to do?  To place the totality of our lives in the hands of God, just as Jesus did?

            Scripture says that Jesus said these words “into your hands I commit my spirit,” in a “loud voice.”  They weren’t an embarrassed whisper, or a pathetic whimper.  They weren’t mumbled in weakness.  In his strongest voice, Jesus loudly projected, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”; words spoken in strength and confidence in the one who was about to receive his Spirit.  Even has his physical strength came to its end, his strength of faith in God was unwavering. As he was betrayed, abused, abandoned and killed by everyone else, he knew, HE KNEW he could trust his spirit, in that vulnerable moment, in the faithful hands of his heavenly father.  He surrendered his spirit to God, and he breathed his last.

Over and over in the Old Testament, the phrase, “into your hands,” refers to when God put the destiny of foreign rulers and armies – enemies – into the hands of Israel’s leaders.  In other words, God gave them control over their enemy’s destinies and their lives.  But, in this case, placing his spirit in God’s hands was nothing to fear.

It would seem that as Jesus knew death was near, Psalm 31 came to mind…

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

Jesus spoke those words, and then breathed his last breath.

There’s something profound in this statement.  “He breathed his last.”  The word for breath, in Greek, is the same word for “spirit.”  The word is “pneuma.”  Its Hebrew counterpart is “ruach.”  When God created the first human, from the dust of the ground, God breathed his breath, his ruach, his spirit, into the human to give it life.  The life within every human being, including Jesus, is the life-giving Spirit of God.

Let’s take that even further.  Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, by the same Holy Spirit.  At Jesus baptism, he was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Early in his ministry, at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”

            Though we all have the gift of the spirit in us, Jesus uniquely knew what it means to be alive in the spirit.  For thirty-three years, he lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in complete trust in his heavenly Father.  And, now, now that his work was done, as his human life was ebbing, he knew that he could safely return his spirit to his Father.

And he breathed his last.

It occurred to me, this week, that most images of Jesus on the cross, show him with his head lowered, and eyes closed.  In other words, most crucifixes portray a dead Jesus.  But, for the vast majority of the time that Jesus hung on the cross, he was alive.  I’m sure he was in agony.  I’m sure he was too weak to hold his head up.  I’m sure his eye-lids drooped after that long sleepless night, and as weakness overcame him.

But, Jesus faced his destiny with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his accusers with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his cross with eyes wide open.

And, in his final moments, Jesus embraced his death, with eyes wide open.

Moments, later, he would open his eyes again, and behold the face of his Father.

            Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.