The power of the cross
John 8: When he put it in these terms, many people decided to believe.
The debate concerns the relationship of Jesus to his Father. His enemies listen for any misstatement, any slip of the tongue of our Lord, that they might pounce and score some debate points. Jesus tells them that they need to open their minds and stop thinking in such a small, earthly scale. Meanwhile, others are listening, considering and trying to decide for themselves about Jesus. Finally, Jesus says to his enemies, “When you raise me up, then you’ll know who I am.” The “raise me up” phrase is crystal clear to his listeners. Jesus is talking about crucifixion. In this culture, to be “raised up” is a very bad thing. Even as his enemies prepare for more debate and the crowd tries to digest what Jesus is saying, he continues. When he is “raised up,” as bad as that is, his Father won’t abandon him. Even to crucifixion Jesus will take joy in pleasing his Father. At this point, many in the crowd are convinced. If Jesus is willing to obey his Father even to a cross, and if he believes that even at such a terrible moment the Father will be faithful to him, they will believe in him. Such confidence and such a level of commitment is compelling. Once in a while I happen upon some profane, blasphemous use of the cross. The enemies of Christ are still among us and they think that the cross is silly or proof of weakness and defeat. For many, though, it’s convincing and compelling. In this passage, even before Jesus actually goes to the cross, it’s the cross that convinces them to follow. Never question the power of the cross.
Take Away: The cross convinces us of Christ and his ability to transform our lives.
Keeping a safe distance
Luke 22: Peter followed, but at a safe distance.
It’s the awful night before the crucifixion of Christ. Not long ago Peter and the other disciples promised their loyalty to Jesus. Now, though, he stands before the Chief Priest, alone. The disciples have fled in fear but Luke tells us Peter, under cover of darkness has followed. He’s close enough to see what’s going on but far enough back as to not be identified as a follower of Jesus. I fear that this describes many Christians and at certain times, maybe most of us. We’re following, but not “that” close. After all, sometimes being a follower of Jesus is just plain unhandy, not to mention possibly dangerous for some. For instance, someone who doesn’t smell very good needs some personal, up close attention. If I’m not careful, my revulsion will win out over my discipleship and I won’t even offer a cup of water in Jesus’ Name. Or, say someone at work isn’t a very nice person. People tend to give them a wide berth. Will I get close enough to show them Jesus? Because of the danger Peter follows, but at a safe distance. The thing is, before long he isn’t following at all.
Take Away: I want to follow Jesus closely enough that there’s no doubt that I’m with him.
At the cross
Mark 15: Jesus groaned out of the depths.
The Gospel writer takes us to cruel Golgotha, a place of torture and death. This is no well-intentioned passion play in which the special effects man tries to convince us of the pain and suffering while keeping in mind that some precious souls in the audience don’t want it to be too real. These are real nails being driven into real flesh. This is real blood, real suffering. Our Lord is not only being killed in this horrible way but he’s carrying a spiritual burden of sin and separation from his Father that’s beyond my understanding. Before Pilate he remained silent, but now, out of the depths of his suffering he groans under the weight of it all. I want to look away and think about other things but that groan draws me back and I look up into his face, into his eyes. He mouths the words, “I love you.” My eyes fill with tears as he breathes his last.
Take Away: For me he died.
The death of Ezekiel’s wife
Ezekiel 24: Get dressed as usual and go about your work — none of the usual funeral rituals.
The final part of Ezekiel 24 is one of the most painful passages one can read. The Lord tells his prophet that his wife is about to die but as an object lesson for the people he’s not to publicly mourn her death. By the time of this event Ezekiel is well known for his messages of God’s anger with his people. He’s also known for “acting out” some event as an object lesson. When his wife dies and Ezekiel just goes on with his preaching everyone knows there’s an object lesson in it. They gather round this broken man and ask him why he isn’t mourning the loss of the love of his life. It’s then that he warns them that even as his beloved has been taken from him their beloved city and Temple are going to be taken and, even as he’s not gone through a mourning process their enemies won’t give them even a moment to mourn the loss of it all. I can hardly imagine what it was like for Ezekiel that day as God’s message had to take precedence over his personal loss. Earlier in his ministry the Lord promised to stiffen Ezekiel that he could face all the rejection that was coming, so maybe that’s in play here. Another thing I can hardly imagine is how God could love these hard people so much as to keep reaching out to them, calling them to himself in such drastic ways. Finally, I don’t think Ezekiel’s situation can be viewed as typical of God’s servants. On one hand, I’m reminded of what it means to be surrendered to the Lord; that it can take us to places we never would go otherwise. On the other hand, I remember that this is a very unique situation in the Bible and can’t be viewed as how the Lord usually deals with us. Of course, the Lord asks noting of Ezekiel that he doesn’t require of himself. Even as God’s Only Begotten Son dies on the cross, he’ll have to turn his back on him.
Take Away: The Lord loves lost people so much that he’ll act in extreme ways to redeem them.
Looking back and looking forward
Isaiah 64: Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend.
Isaiah longs for God to move and bring salvation to his people. He envisions the sky splitting apart as the Lord comes in dramatic, powerful fashion bringing hope to their hopelessness and healing to their brokenness. Hundreds of years later when that coming takes place its earthshaking indeed. The Gospels tell us of that powerful event, especially at the crucifixion and the resurrection of our Lord. However, this passage causes me to look forward as much as it causes me to look back to the first Easter. Even as Isaiah anticipates the coming salvation of the Lord, I anticipate his Second Coming. What an event it will be as Jesus splits the eastern sky and causes the mountains to tremble. “What a day that will be, when my Jesus I shall see.”
Take Away: Never doubt it – Jesus is coming back.
Preview of the crucifixion
Isaiah 53: It was our sins that did that to him.
The prophet’s description of future events is as powerful a passage as there is in the Bible. His words are so clear that we tend to just “blend” them in with the contemporary accounts from the Gospels of the crucifixion of Jesus as though Isaiah is another Gospel writer. This, though, is an amazing description of an event hundreds of years before it happens. What a picture it is: God’s chosen one, the Savior, being brutalized; ripped and torn and crushed. Isaiah’s description causes us to wince and maybe to turn the page to something else. However, if the picture of horror he paints for us is greatly disturbing, the reason for it is even more disturbing. The Messiah, our Hope, is suffering in this horrible way for our sins: for my sins. As hymn writer John S. B. Monsell put it, “My sins, my sins…oh how sad on Thee they fall.” Isaiah saw it in all its terribleness. He also recognized it for what it was. Our sins, my sins, are the reason for it all.
Take Away: Why did Jesus suffer as he did? For an answer, look in a mirror.
A strange way to save the world
Isaiah 53: Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?
If the pages leading up to this portion of Isaiah contain “dual prophecy” — that is, messages that apply to Isaiah’s current situation but will also speak to some future event as well — this portion of his writings abandon all but the future. It’s the Messiah who’s clearly before the prophet now. What he sees amazes him. He knows God is showing him the promised Savior but in this vision the Savior looks nothing like anyone thinks he should look. The Man he sees writhes in agony and suffers a horrible death. Knowing the hearts of sinful man, the Lord shows Isaiah how a perfectly holy Man will be rejected and mistreated. Even with that knowledge, the Messiah will be sent to save us, not by crushing our enemies, but by allowing himself to be crushed. The words of Mark Lowry’s Christmas classic echo the words of Isaiah, “this is such a strange way to save the world.”
Take Away: Christ conquers sin, not by crushing enemies, but by being crushed.
Two prophecies for the price of one
Isaiah 52: He didn’t even look human.
I think this is another of those “dual prophecies” in which the prophet speaks of something close at hand, but, maybe without realizing it, speaks words that resonate into the future. On one hand, he’s talking about the restoration of his people. They’re broken, almost to the point of extinction. If their condition is described as though they are one person, we would say that individual has been beaten to the point that he or she is unrecognizable. God’s salvation is coming but at this point things don’t look very good. It makes perfect sense to us that the writers of the New Testament are reminded of this passage as they see what happens to Jesus. The Jews are God’s people and Jesus is God’s Man. Its sin that nearly destroys the Jews and it’s the burden of our sins that takes Jesus to Calvary. Physically, God’s people are practically destroyed and the same can be said of Jesus. Yes, it’s easy enough for us to see the connection. However, we don’t have to walk away from this passage with a vision of “a ruined face, disfigured past recognition” on our minds. We do need to spend time gazing at that face, absorbing the full impact of what happens at the cross. Then, we can move on. Isaiah describes an amazing transformation saying, “Just watch my servant blossom!” That’s exactly what we see at the garden tomb that first Easter morning. Israel is to be restored by the grace of God. Jesus rises from the grave, victor over sin and death. Praise His Name!
Take Away: The story of salvation doesn’t end at the cross.
A song of praise
Psalm 138: Thank you! Everything in me says, “Thank you!”
In this psalm David immerses himself in thanksgiving. God is good to him and he’s filled to overflowing with thanks. He imagines the angels of heaven stepping aside and stilling their voices to hear his song of thanks. That grateful spirit drives his worship and gives him strength. If David, without the story of Good Friday, who lives hundreds of years before some unknown person dreams up doing the horror of doing executions on a cross; if David can be overwhelmed with thanksgiving then I ought to at least be ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in this song of praise. So today, David’s song of thanks becomes mine. Thank you, Lord — thank you from the depth of my being — thank you with all my strength. Angels step back. Listen as I call out to God my song of thanks.
Take Away: Praise the Lord – he’s worthy!