Despair and Hope

When your soul’s in despair, change your focus.

In light of what’s going on in culture there are times I feel a sense of despair as did the author of Psalm 42 which I just read.

In these times of frustration, fear or despair – I remember whose I am and who I am and focus on God who is my hope.

When I thank Him it builds my trust. When I praise Him it changes my perspective.

Declaring God’s goodness helps dispel my despair.

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HE’S NOT HERE – HE IS RISEN

Reviewing some photos from our trips to Israel caused me to reflect on the things that took place as Jesus was arrested, falsely tried, crucified and raised from the dead.

Of course, one of the most significant places we visited was the Garden Tomb which is believed by most to be the tomb where Jesus was buried after His crucifixion.  The photos below are of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.

As Matthew writes in Matthew 28:1-10 – “Early on Sunday morning, as the new day was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went out to visit the tomb.Suddenly there was a great earthquake! For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled aside the stone, and sat on it. His face shone like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. The guards shook with fear when they saw him, and they fell into a dead faint.Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying. And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.”The women ran quickly from the tomb. They were very frightened but also filled with great joy, and they rushed to give the disciples the angel’s message. And as they went, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they ran to him, grasped his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid! Go tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there.”

The Resurrection is one of the most documented events in human history and is the key to the faith and growth of the early church.  Christianity is based on the resurrection of Jesus. 

Paul, who hated the name of Jesus and violently persecuted Christians in the first century, later became a Christian because he had a personal encounter with Jesus after Jesus’ resurrection.  He realized Jesus was legit; Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.  Before Paul was martyred for his faith in Jesus, he wrote much of what is preserved in the New Testament for us including these words about the resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15.

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this Good News that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.13 For if there is no resurrection

13 For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. 15 And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 

16 And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 18 In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! 19 And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.20 But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.21 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 

Garden Tomb Sign
Garden Tomb Entrance
Garden Tomb Inside
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LOVE LETTERS

Actual love letters may not be used much today, but when I was in a serious dating relationship with Janet (now my wife of nearly 44 years) we wrote love letters to each other one summer. We wrote these letters because we were serving as summer missionaries approximately 1300 miles apart. Yeah, I guess I’m a little of a romantic, because I still have a bundle of the letters she wrote me!

I was located in Sarasota, Florida, and every day I’d go to the mailbox of the church where I was serving with the expectation of a letter from Janet. When I got the mail, I quickly sorted through everything to hopefully find a letter from Janet and loved the fact that I got one almost every day.

I didn’t even wait to get back to my small apartment to read her letter; I opened it right there at the mailbox and began reading on my way back down the long drive to my apartment. Once I got in the apartment, I read it again and usually read it at least one more time that night. I ACTIVELY LISTENED to what she said because I wanted to get and understand everything she wrote. I knew she loved me (even though our love was/is imperfect) and she had something of great value to share with me!

This weekend if you attend an Easter service at a church, you’ll hear from someone who is going to share a portion of God’s Love Letter with you, so I hope you’ll engage in ACTIVE LISTENING! In fact, if you got a handwritten letter addressed to you from God, or a text or email that came directly from God, I hope you’d give that communication your utmost attention.

If you attend an Easter service at a local church or connect with a church online, your best choice is to ACTIVELY LISTEN to what God has to say to you! He loves you and His love letter (found in what’s preserved in Scripture for us) is the greatest love letter of all time. If you’ll ACTIVELY LISTEN you’ll discover something about the One who loves you most – the One who loves you with a perfect and unconditional love – Jesus!

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TRIALS, ABANDONMENT & ABUSE

Reviewing some photos from our trips to Israel caused me to reflect on the things that took place as Jesus was arrested, falsely tried, crucified and raised from the dead.

Late Thursday night Jesus was betrayed and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He was then taken to the house of the High Priest Caiaphas where He endured several false trials, was abused and held until they could take Him to Pilate early Friday morning.

The photo below with the hole in the floor and the deep pit in the rock is believed by most scholars to be the place where Jesus was held between trials during the night.  This location is beneath the house of Caiaphas and was used to hold prisoners for various reasons.  It is pitch dark when the lights are turned out.  On a stand in this pit is a folder containing printed sheets of Psalm 88 written in many languages of the world.   Psalm 88 is considered a prophetic Psalm related to the night Jesus was arrested and held.  This is one of the most heart-wrenching places for me in the Holy Land.   When we take groups, I always try to read Psalm 88 with the group before we sing and pray; I’ve yet to get through it without breaking down.   Please read Psalm 88 and reflect on the weight Jesus was carrying as He was abandoned by His friends and realized the sin of the world was about to be placed on Him.

The two photos which follow are of an actual stone that was uncovered near the place where Pilate tried Jesus (the Praetorium) and where Jesus was abused by the Roman Soldiers.   The stone is a game board for an ancient game called the Game of the Kings.  Roman soldiers would throw dice on the stone and the winner of each round would get to choose different ways to torture the prisoner in their charge.  Often it included dressing the prisoner up as a king while mocking and abusing them prior to their execution (Matthew 27:27-31).   Some scholars believe this was used to help de-sensitize Romans soldiers to the cruelty involved with crucifixion.

The final photos are not great quality, but were shared by one of the historians near the Empty Tomb.  An area not far from the Empty Tomb was known as the Place of the Skull (Golgotha – Mt. 27:33) and was near a well-traveled road before it was covered by current buildings and other structures.  The photos show what the area looked like in the early 1900’s and you can see the part of the rock wall that looks like a skull near the top of the hill. This was a well traveled area which the Romans would most likely use when they wanted the masses to see those who were crucified.

Pit Under Caiaphas’ House
Psalm 88 in Pit

Game of Kings Playing Stone

Place of the Skull
Place of the Skull
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Gethsemane and Blood Clover

Reviewing some photos from our trips to Israel caused me to reflect on the things that took place as Jesus was arrested, falsely tried, crucified and raised from the dead.

On Thursday, Jesus gathered with His disciples in an upper room for the Passover meal.   During this “Last Supper” He gave them an example of how they are to serve others in humility when He washed the disciples’ feet.  He also instituted the “Lord’s Supper” during this meal as He told them about His betrayal.  It was during this time Jesus said to Peter, “before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.”

Following this Jesus shared some amazing truths with His disciples which I’d encourage you to read in John 14-16, and John gives us an eyewitness account of Jesus’ prayer for the disciples and for us in John 17.

Jesus led His disciples from the upper room, across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane where He prayed in agony as He anticipated His betrayal and crucifixion (Matthew 26:36-56).

While in Israel, we got to spend some additional time in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  It was humbling and an incredible blessing to be in the place where Jesus prayed just prior to His arrest.

One of the amazing things our tour guide shared with us is the “blood clover” that grows in the Garden of Gethsemane. The clover has tiny red spots in the leaves that look like droplets of blood. He explained that it only grows naturally in three places; in the Garden where Jesus’ sweat was mingled with blood as He prayed, by the house of Caiaphas where Jesus was tried and beaten and near the Empty Tomb!

Garden of Gethsemane
Blood Clover
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Lawlessness Destroys Love

As I was preparing for my men’s small group yesterday, I reviewed a portion of Chapter One of The Good And Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith. He said Paul showed us how to ruin our lives without even trying in Romans 1:18-32, and outlined the path like this…(my words not his)…

1. We turn away from God (for whatever reason)

2. Our minds are darkened (we don’t discern truth)

3. Idolatry (we create a god, or gods, of our own)

4. God allows us to make our own choices

5. Our priority becomes pursuing pleasure (in the wrong way)

6. Sin becomes the norm in our life and culture (we call evil good, and good evil)

In my time alone with God last week, I was reading Matthew 24 where Jesus said as we get closer to the end times, the following things will happen…

“…you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness (sin) will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” Matthew 24:9-12 ESV

Matthew 24:12 really caught my attention because I see this happening all around us. As lawlessness and sin is increasing, the love of many is already growing cold. When people show disdain and hatred for anyone who has a view that doesn’t align with their view (or their idolatry) their love has grown, or is growing, cold. Some who would paint “the other guys” as haters actually demonstrate a loss of love and their own version of hate. As Rick Warren said years ago: “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

Hopefully, followers of Jesus, will set an example of God’s love for all people regardless of what happens in the days to come.

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The Importance of Stepping Out Of The Traffic

After sharing some closing thoughts with our staff this past week, one of our newer staff members, Dee Mathis, stopped me and asked: “What’s the one thing you’d say is most important as a staff member?”  She said she’d watched people who served for a long time with joy and impact, and wanted to know what they thought was most important.

I’d just shared a few things at our staff lunch I believed were important for our staff going forward.   I’m stepping down from the role as Lead Pastor this Sunday and am excited to present Chris Hurst to our church as our new Lead Pastor.  (Note: This has been a 5 year process initiated by me and covered with prayer by me and our Board.)

I thought for just a moment as Dee asked this question and said something along the lines of – “Make sure you maintain an authentic relationship with Jesus.”   In the busyness of ministry, don’t get so busy you miss the importance of abiding in and staying vitally connected with Jesus.  (John 15, Luke 10:38-42).  

I think I added, SLOW DOWN, take time to be with Jesus; listen and talk with Him.  One of my favorite verses is Psalm 46:10 in the Message paraphrase which says:  “Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God,  above politics, above everything.”   I’m still learning how to slow down and listen.

Without this kind of connection to Jesus/God we are actually powerless to do anything with eternal significance.   In addition, staying connected to Jesus daily helps us keep our focus on what He said was most important: loving God and loving people as He did.   When you love God and people as Jesus did, you’ll be reminded daily of the purpose of Jesus and be encouraged to live in a way that will inspire people to trust and follow Jesus and grow in their relationship with Him.

These are just a few of my thoughts this morning as I prepare for tomorrow as my last day as Lead Pastor of Grace Fellowship! They don’t just apply to someone serving on a church staff; they apply to anyone who is a follower of Jesus.

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Pharisees and Prostitutes

In Luke 7, there’s an amazing historical account of Jesus visiting with a Pharisee named Simon, and while in Simon’s home a prostitute enters.  She washes Jesus’ feet with her tears & dries them with her hair. She kisses his feet and then anoints them with perfume.

As Luke received this story from eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus he wrote:  In the neighborhood there was an immoral woman of the streets, known to all to be a prostitute. When she heard about Jesus being in Simon’s house, she took an exquisite flask made from alabaster, filled it with the most expensive perfume, went right into the home of the Jewish religious leader, and knelt at the feet of Jesus in front of all the guests. Broken and weeping, she covered his feet with the tears that fell from her face. She kept crying and drying his feet with her long hair. Over and over she kissed Jesus’ feet. Then she opened her flask and anointed his feet with her costly perfume as an act of worship.  Luke 7:37-38 NET

This sounds quite strange to us in our Western culture, but it was common for someone to great a guest with a kiss and wash or offer to have someone wash their feet.

While that’s interesting, what’s more interesting is what Jesus says to the women and to Simon about the event. 

Jesus, knowing the heart of this woman and why she was doing what she did said: (verses 48 & 50) “All your sins are forgiven…Your faith in me has given you life…Now you may leave and walk in the way of peace.”

Jesus, knowing the heart of Simon and others who were gathered explained to them WHY.    She has been forgiven of all her many sins. This is why she has shown me such extravagant love. But those who assume they have very little to be forgiven will love me very little.”  Luke 7:47 NET

I wonder if the reason so many who claim to follow Jesus rarely show such extravagant love for him in the way we serve, give or love others is because we’ve forgotten or never really realized how much we’ve been forgiven?   Talking about sin is not very popular, but until we realize the magnitude of our sin and the extraordinary price paid by Jesus to purchase our forgiveness, I’m afraid we may be missing one of the most significant elements of God’s love.

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We Want The Miracle But…

I was reading Luke 1 recently about the birth of Jesus being foretold to Mary. Luke 1:37-38 says: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Note: A bondslave is someone who is willing to give up their own desires and serve the cause of someone else; someone willing to disregard their own interests to be devoted to someone else’s interests.

I keep Luke 1:37 in front of me in my office, but as I read Luke 1:38, Mary’s statement jumped off the page and grabbed my attention. “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary knew the potential cost and scandal of something like this in her culture. The Jewish laws could demand that she be stoned to death.  There would all be always be whispers and ridicule.  And what about Joseph; what would he think or do?  There was no guarantee Joseph would remain with her as her husband.

In spite of this, Mary’s declaration was simple and significant.  She had a humble and submissive attitude to God and His Word and was willing to do whatever He asked in order to fulfill His purpose.

In Radical Mentoring we memorized this definition of character by Andy Stanley.  “Character is the will to do what is right, as defined by God, regardless of personal cost.”   We need more followers of Jesus today who are persons of character like Mary.  We may believe nothing is impossible with God and want to see Him do miracles on our behalf, we just don’t want to be a bondslave or servant of God in order to be a part of the miracle.  Maybe that needs to change.

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RESPECT and IDENTITY

I recently did a very informal social media poll asking what are the values you see disappearing in our culture today.  The overwhelming majority of responses included the word RESPECT.   Merriam-Webster defines RESPECT as worthy of high regard, or to esteem.

I’m not surprised by this response.  I see a growing lack of basic respect and civility in our culture, but am troubled because it seems this is also increasing among those of us who claim to follow Jesus.  We are to honor and respect all people because they are made in the image of God and because they are people for whom Jesus died.  We can and should show respect and be civil to people, including those we disagree with.  As followers of Jesus we can do this because God gives us the power and ability to do so (Ephesians 1:19-20, 2 Peter 1:3-4).

I believe far too many of us who follow Jesus are basing our identity on something other than Jesus.  Instead of clothing ourselves with Christ and basing our identity in Him (Gal. 3:27-28) we align more with a political party, race, gender, socio-economic group or personal orientation.  As a result, we fail to surrender to Jesus first and ignore the commands central to our faith that should permeate our lives; love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34-40).  I understand that none of do this with perfection, but it should be the central trait and direction of our lives.

And for some of us who claim to follow Jesus, we may need to follow the admonition of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5 where he said: “Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine…”   I believe there are several tests of genuine faith found in the First Epistle of the Apostle John (1 John).  One of those I read this morning in 1 John 2:7-11 where John wrote:

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

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