A Time To Remember

“Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember ….” (Ez. 16:63)

imageFor a Bible teacher, Easter always presents a special challenge. The story of Easter is essentially the central message whose thread binds God’s Word together. But it is such a familiar account that we struggle sometimes to present a lesson that brings a fresh perspective. One way that I tried to accomplish that as a teacher was to unravel the thread of the Easter message from whatever passage of Scripture our class was studying at the time, rather than turning to the more familiar passages from the gospels.

Never was that challenge greater for me than when my class was studying the Book of Ezekiel a few years ago. In fact, on that particular Easter Sunday we were in the 16th chapter of Ezekiel, an allegory which paints a graphic picture of unfaithful Israel. God portrays Jerusalem as an abandoned newborn baby left out in a field to die. He describes how he in essence married Jerusalem, and established her as his queen, only to see her prostitute herself, committing adultery with surrounding nations.

But even in this graphically vile and lengthy account, three words leap off the page which identify the thread of the Easter message: wrath, remember, and atonement. In Ez.16:37, God promises to bring upon Israel the vengeance of his wrath. The wrath of God is a topic we don’t hear preached much today, but it is a critical element of the Easter story. On that fateful Friday, the wrath of God that we deserve was poured out on the Lord Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite Christian songs is “In Christ Alone”. It was written in 2002 as a collaborative effort between Keith Getty and Stuart Townend with the expressed goal of encapsulating the gospel story in one song. The following verse stirred up a bit of controversy a couple of years ago. Till on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied; For every sin on Him was laid, Here in the death of Christ I live.”

In 2013 a hymn committee with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) wanted to add “In Christ Alone” to their new hymnal. But they requested they be allowed to change “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” When Getty and Townend rejected the proposed change, the hymn committee voted not to include “In Christ Alone” in their hymnal.

When asked why they would not allow the lyric to be altered, Townend responded, “We believe altering the lyric would remove an essential part of the gospel story as explained throughout Scripture. The main thread of what we see revealed throughout the Old and New Testament is the need for man to be made right with God. The provided path toward reconciliation came through Christ’s predetermined and perfect sacrifice on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all. The hymnal committee wanted to change the lyrics to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world. And indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill. Yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves – shedding His own perfect blood to atone for our sins.”

The wrath of God is clearly in evidence in the 16th chapter of Ezekiel. But in that chapter is also a glorious glimpse of the new covenant which was instituted at the cross of Calvary.  Verse 60 says “Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the day of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.” Chapter 16 then closes with these words, “Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (Verse 63)

Easter is a time to remember. But as we remember the atonement, let us also remember the price God paid for that atonement. The 16th chapter of Ezekiel is disturbingly graphic, but it needed to be graphic in order to have the emotional impact that God intended. Sin is ugly and offensive to God. How else can we explain the obscenity of the cross? An innocent man – the only truly innocent man who ever lived- is convicted in a rigged trial, mocked and spit upon, tuffs of his beard torn out, scourged with a leather whip tipped with sharp stones that tore into His flesh, a crown of thorns jammed onto his head, forced to carry His own cross on a back that had been flayed raw, nails hammered into his hands and his feet, and then jarred upright as his cross is allowed to fall into its place.

And then to hang there as the crowd continued to taunt him, until He had no more strength to push himself up against the nails in His feet, causing him to suffocate – the most cruel death one could ever experience. Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of The Christ” portrayed the horror of that scene perhaps more graphically than it has ever been done by any filmmaker. Remember how you felt when you watched that movie. Don’t celebrate the resurrection this year without remembering the crucifixion.

How could God permit such a death by anyone, much less One who had lived a perfect life, and who was His own beloved Son? Why did it have to be such a gruesome death? The answer is because our sin is so offensive to God that only such a death could serve to properly atone for it.

God says “When I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed.” His words through Ezekiel are designed to spark us to remember that we were once that abandoned baby – lost and without hope. But because of the price Christ paid at the cross, we are now a new creation, reconciled with God, and destined for eternal fellowship with the One who died that we might live eternally with Him.

But let us also remember that we are surrounded by lost souls who have not been released from the bondages of sin and are still destined for hell. This Easter, may remembering what we once were and celebrating what we are now by the grace of God have such an evangelistic impact on our lives that we are compelled to share the gospel message with those among us who have never met our Jesus.

“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him.” (1 Thess. 5:9-10)

Note: All Scripture references from the New International Version (NIV)

Fearfully And Wonderfully Made

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps. 139:14)

imageLast week our son emailed this photo of our newest grandson who is expected to be born around the middle of May. Upon receiving it, my first impression was amazement that the 3D ultrasound technology used to create this image allows us to see with such clarity what he is going to look like two months before he will be born.

But such thoughts were quickly overshadowed by reflections on the awesome wonder of the miracle of birth itself as it was so well articulated by David in Psalm 139:13-14, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

Psalm 139 is perhaps my favorite of all the psalms. I don’t know of a writing in all of Scripture which so well captures the wonder of God’s highest order of creation – a reflection of God himself, and the relationship of God with man.  It was written by David, a man whom God described as “a man after my own heart”. (Acts 13:22)  David’s passion for God comes through so clearly in all of his psalms, but his awe of God is perhaps best expressed in Psalm 139.

He begins with the words “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. … Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. … Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (V1-2,4,6)  David expresses an overwhelming sense of reverence and awareness of God’s all-encompassing personal interest in him. He acknowledges that the limitations of our mind’s capacity and our human experience prevent us from truly comprehending such truths.

In the next few verses, David marvels at the omnipresence of God, saying “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (V7)  David was certainly a man who exhibited and expressed a great passion for God – a passion that was rooted in his awareness of God’s presence. We have much to learn from David in that regard. Being continually aware of God’s presence is an essential spiritual discipline if we are to live a life that is pleasing to God and which brings glory to God – a life characterized by walking in the Spirit (Gal.5:16) and having our paths directed by the Lord. (Prov. 3:5-6)

In verses 13-16, David marvels at the wondrous way in which he was created. We certainly know enormously more today than David could ever have imagined about the process of procreation, how our bodies are formed in the womb, the mysteries of DNA that define so much about us individually, and that sets us apart from other living creatures.  And yet the more that we learn, the more I stand with David in awe, reverence, and wonder.

I marvel at the technology that allows us to view such vivid images of our grandson two months before he is born; technology created by man that allows my son to transmit that image to me; technology that allows me to transfer that image to this article; and that allows me to then post this article where it can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. But as amazing as all that is, it pales in comparison to the miracle of birth itself.

Biomedical engineers today are designing synthetic skin tissue, well-functioning artificial organs, and prosthetic body parts for victims of amputations that are allowing people to regain a wide range of function – even connecting those parts to nerves that allow them to be controlled by the brain. But as sophisticated as those parts have become, I’m confident that human intelligence and ability will never be able to replicate God’s original design and creation.

All those parts are created out of existing materials, but our bodies grew from a single egg fertilized by a single sperm cell. I read recently that all the eggs and sperm that resulted in the seven billion people who inhabit this planet could fit in two quart jars. Take a moment to ponder that!

But apart from the physical design of our bodies, David also recognized that what sets us apart from the rest of creation is our personal connection with the divine Creator who made us in His own image; a Creator with mysterious divine foreknowledge; a God who knows all our days before one of them came to be.  David says in V17, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

God’s greatest desire for each of us is that we know him as well as he knows us; that we connect with him more intimately than we connect with anyone; that we submit to him as our highest authority; and that we live our lives as he leads us.  David captures that so well in those closing verses, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (V23-24)

The greatest truths we need to grasp about creation are embodied in this beautiful psalm of awe and wonder, recognizing that we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made; that we were created for fellowship with God; that he desires to lead us in the way everlasting; and that he has defined that way clearly through the written Word and through the Living Word – the Lord Jesus Christ.

My newest grandson is to be named Phinehas (Phin for short) – a name which is synonymous with a passion for God.  Phinehas was the grandson of Aaron, Moses’ brother and the first priest of Israel. He was distinguished by the Lord as “zealous for the honor of his God”.  (Num. 25:13)  My hope is that Phin will exercise a passion for the Lord like David’s that makes him worthy of that name.

Until next time, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. (Eccl. 11:5)

Note: All Scripture verses taken from the New International Version (NIV)

In The Garden

image

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
Refrain:
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice,
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.
(Refrain)

I’d stay in the garden with Him
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.
(Refrain)

Words: Charles Austin Miles (1912)

This classic old hymn has always been a favorite of mine for a number of reasons, but recently it has taken on an even deeper meaning for me personally. My sister Paulette loved it and requested that it be sung at her funeral. More recently, it was presented by my cousin Sandra and her husband at my Aunt Carolyn’s funeral. In preparation for that message, I reviewed the lyrics to develop an introduction to my remarks and discovered the story behind the song.

When reflecting on those lyrics in the past, I have always envisioned someone like Paulette or Carolyn rising early in the morning and strolling through their garden in a time of quiet meditation and communion with the Lord. But what I discovered is that Charles Austin Miles actually wrote those lyrics with Mary Magdalene in mind.

John 20 describes how she came to the garden tomb on that first Easter morning and discovered that her Lord, who against all hope had been crucified on Friday, had gloriously and miraculously risen from the dead. Here is the account of the composing of that hymn in the words of the writer himself, Charles Austin Miles:

“One day in April, 1912, I was seated in the dark room, where I kept my photographic equipment and organ. I drew my Bible toward me; it opened at my favorite chapter, John 20 – whether by chance or inspiration let each reader decide. That meeting of Jesus and Mary had lost none of its power and charm. As I read it that day, I seemed to be part of the scene. I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, Rabboni!

My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall. As the light faded, I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches. A woman in white, with head bowed, hand clasping her throat, as if to choke back her sobs, walked slowly into the shadows. it was Mary. As she came to the tomb, upon which she placed her hand, she bent over to look in, and hurried away.

John, in flowing robe, appeared, looking at the tomb; then came Peter, who entered the tomb, followed slowly by John. As they departed, Mary reappeared; leaning her head upon her arm at the tomb, she wept. Turning herself, she saw Jesus standing, so did I.  I knew it was He. She knelt before Him, with arms outstretched and looking into His face cried, Rabboni!

I awakened in sunlight, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating. Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed the poem exactly as it has since appeared. That same evening I wrote the music.”

While I have always loved this song, knowing its background has given me a whole new perspective and has caused its words to take on an even deeper meaning. How fitting that it was sung at Paulette and Carolyn’s funeral, as we celebrated the living hope that they had in the resurrected Christ and the new birth that they are now experiencing.

Whenever I hear it in the future, my mind will now take me to that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene discovered the risen Lord! In that brief moment, Mary’s profound grief was turned into unbridled joy. I’m sure she wanted nothing more than to stay at her Master’s side. But Jesus had other plans, telling her, “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)  And so in obedience, “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’” (John 20:18)

This Easter, as you reflect on that first Easter morning, take that imaginary journey to the empty tomb, be filled with the joy that Mary surely felt, think of loved ones who are basking in the presence of our Lord, and then go and tell everyone you meet that we serve a living Savior!

Until next time, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

Note: All Scripture verses taken from the New International Version (NIV)

 

Glimpses Of Heaven

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)

Recently I have found myself reflecting on the realities of heaven as I have prepared messages for my brother Ronnie’s funeral in January, followed by my Aunt Carolyn in February. One of the most encouraging aspect of such messages is reflecting on the present reality of a loved one whose destiny is heaven. And yet, while God’s Word is very clear about the certainty of death and the reality of heaven, there is much that remains a mystery.

And so that leaves us with a natural curiosity about what heaven will be like – what will it look like, what will we do there, will we know our loved ones who have gone there before us? As I sat at my brother’s bedside on the night before he passed, I browsed through his iPad and noted the books that he had downloaded. As best I could tell, there was only one that he had actually completed – Randy Alcorn’s book titled “Heaven”.

God’s Word gives us glimpses of heaven, but it leaves us thirsting for more. But I don’t believe there is any experience or sight here on earth that would give anyone the ability to adequately describe heaven. As Paul said in the verse above, our eyes have not seen, our ears have not heard, nor has our mind even conceived what it will be like. In 2 Cor. 12:4, Paul talks about being “caught up to paradise” and hearing “inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell”. The apostle John makes his best effort to describe his visions of heaven in Revelation, but I believe we’ll discover one day that his words fall woefully short when we experience it for ourselves.

It’s like those photos we take that never truly capture the wondrous beauty of God’s creation here on earth. Traveling around the country, I have had the privilege of seeing some of the most beautiful sites imaginable. I have had my breath taken away standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, gazing on fresh fallen snow at the top of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park against the backdrop of a crystal imageclear blue sky, spending a day on a perimeter island just outside Nassau with the whitest sand and bluest water I’ve ever laid eyes on, and taking in a sunset at Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks here in North Carolina, surrounded by a flood of lavender and pink hues. These also serve as glimpses of heaven here on earth. But as awe-inspiring as those scenes were, I know they are poor reflections of the reality of heaven.

In recent years there has been a flood of books written by people who have had near-death experiences, claiming to have gone to heaven and returned. One of those books, “Heaven Is For Real” was even made into a movie. I have read a number of them and enjoyed the movie. But while I am intrigued by the experiences they attempt to describe and encouraged by the similarities between their accounts, I must confess to a certain skepticism over their claims. We’re drawn to them because we want more detail about what heaven will be like. For many of us, perhaps we want eyewitness assurance that heaven truly is “for real”. But the only truth we can count on concerning heaven is the truth found in the pages of God’s Word. And that reality as described by God’s appointed eyewitnesses is indescribable, inexpressible, and even unimaginable.

A very common concern people express about heaven is whether or not we will recognize each other there. There is Biblical evidence to support my belief that we will know each other, in spite of the fact that Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:44 that our bodies will be “raised a spiritual body”. Many people recognized Jesus after His resurrection. At the Transfiguration, Christ’s disciples recognized Moses and Elijah, even though they could not possibly have known what they looked like in their earthly bodies. A great source of comfort when we are grieving over the death of a loved one is the assumption that we will join them there one day in a great family reunion. And I firmly believe the glimpse of an afterlife reunion as described by Paul in 1 Thess. 4:14-18 justifies that assumption.

Shortly before my mother died, several of us were sitting with her in her hospital room before she was moved to hospice. She kept pointing at invisible people she claimed to see there in the room with us and calling them out by name, seemingly incredulous that we couldn’t see them as well. This went on for a couple of days. I’ve since learned that this is a more common experience than I realized at the time. Many believe these experiences are nothing more than hallucinations caused by certain medications. But I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t “hallucinate” seeing anyone who was still living!  I believe loved ones were already starting to welcome her home.

From our perspective here on earth, the thoughts of being reunited one day with our loved ones is surely our greatest source of comfort in our grief. But I believe when the Lord calls us home, that perspective will change immediately. Some may debate whether we will know each other in heaven, but there should be no debate that we will know our Savior. To comfort His disciples on the night before His death, Jesus told them that He was going to His Father’s house to prepare a place for them, that where He would be, there they may be also. (John 14:1-3)

While John no doubt struggled with words to adequately convey the beauty of heaven and the exhilaration of being there, he was very clear about the overwhelming presence of our Lord in Rev. 22:1-5, saying that we will see His face, His name will be on our foreheads, and the Lord Himself will be our light. Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:8 that he “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” In his letter to the Philippians, Paul proclaimed that “to die is gain” because to depart and be with Christ is “better by far”. (Phil. 1:21,23)

I’ll close with one last illustration involving my mother. A few years after her death, I dreamed of her one night. It remains the only time I’ve dreamed about her since she went home to be with the Lord ten years ago. In that dream she was in her spiritual body – she looked nothing liked she had looked in life. And yet I knew her instantly. I often have trouble remembering the details of dreams, but that one was very short and her words to me were very clear and memorable. She said “Wait till you see Jesus! You won’t believe His eyes!”

As I’ve pondered that experience through the years, I’m increasingly convinced that it was no dream at all. I believe the Lord allowed her to visit me briefly and deliver that poignant message- a message that I have often shared with others who are grieving. It was not lost on me that she said nothing about how beautiful heaven was or who else was with her there. Being with Jesus overshadowed everything else. It is perhaps the most memorable glimpse of heaven I have ever experienced. What a blessing it is to know that because of her faith in Christ, she is basking in the presence of our Lord. The comfort of His grace she now knows face to face.

Until next time, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Cor. 4:17)

Note: All Scripture references are taken from the New International Version (NIV)