The Empty Tomb


We are living in dark days– days of death counts, and dire predictions; of fear and grief and chaos. Masks, social distancing, angry outbursts, collapsing economies, job loss, political unrest, disease, plague–we are in the grip of a global pandemic. “Bring out your dead.” It’s a phrase from hundreds of years ago, and the horrors of other plagues and other disasters. Tombs, graveyards, skulls and visions of death abound. And yet, as Christians, we celebrate an empty tomb…

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It’s been over a month since many Christians celebrated Easter (and almost a month for Orthodox Christians). How soon many of us forget the power of the resurrection. Our world is gripped with fear and anger. But we should be gripped with hope and healing. We celebrate an empty tomb– a testament to the victory of life over death, and hope over chaos!

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Even when we use the symbol of the cross, it is not about Christ’s death, but his ultimate victory that we celebrate. Jesus himself even referred to the cross in these terms in John 3:

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

John 3:14-15 NIV via http://www.Biblegateway.com

Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and religious teacher. He is referring to an historic incident in the wilderness, when the Israelites had rebelled (once again), and the Lord sent venomous snakes among them. Nicodemus would have known about this incident, but Jesus presented it as more than just history– it was a foreshadowing of God’s perfect plan of salvation! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+21%3A4-9&version=NIV God had Moses make a bronze snake to be lifted up on a pole. When the people looked up and saw the bronze snake, they could live. In just such a way, when Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, he didn’t just die. He battled death to bring life to anyone who “looks up” and believes.

That ancient symbol of a snake on a pole is used by physicians to represent healing. The ancient symbol of Christ on the cross is used to represent redemption and eternal life. Combined with the reality of an empty tomb, we can celebrate life in the midst of any circumstances.

These are difficult days–even with the hope of eternal life, we still have to face the sadness and grief of death, the confusion and hardship of economic chaos, and the uncertainty of what tomorrow will look like– socially, politically, economically, and physically. But we need only “look up” and beyond our circumstances to be reminded that this is not the whole story. There is an empty tomb– ours! There is victory–ours! Won for us by the perfect plan of God, and the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.

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Look up– and Live!

Resent, Relent, or Repent…

We’re getting ready to enter the Lenten season–six and a half weeks of reflection and preparation before Easter. Lent is not a celebration in the traditional sense– it is solemn and reflective, personal and, sometimes, painful. It is a time of getting “real” about our sinful condition. The Bible says we have all fallen short of the Glory and Holiness of God (Romans 3:10) and deserve God’s wrath. The natural consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and permanent separation from the goodness of God.

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There are many ways we can react to this reality. I know many people who resent God’s Holiness and His laws. They do not want to face God’s righteous judgment; they believe that God’s laws are cruel and unjust, and that they do not have to answer to anyone greater then themselves.

Others want to bargain with God. They feel that if they relent– if they set a goal to do more good than harm, if they strive to be better than “the next guy”–God will weigh their good deeds in the balance and judge them in comparison with how bad they “might have been.”

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But God doesn’t judge on a curve– He doesn’t judge us by our measure, but by His. And none of us “make the grade.”

If that were the final word– the end of the story– there would be no reason to relent, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we were resentful. But God, from the very beginning, designed a different outcome. His judgement is just, but it is not without hope or remedy. God Himself has given us the chance to change– to repent. Repentance is agreeing with (not resenting) God’s judgment, and responding (not bargaining) with changed behavior and a changed attitude.

Lent begins when we confront the great gulf between God’s Holiness and our sinfulness. It stretches through the realization that sin and its consequences surround us, hem us in, and poison our world. It is a time of sadness and gaping loss, when we long for healing, for hope, and for a home we’ve never seen. It is a time for reflecting on the cost involved–not just in human suffering, but in God’s suffering as a human. God, who could have, in His righteousness, destroyed even the memory of mankind, chose to share our sufferings– hunger, cold, exhaustion, rejection, heartbreak, betrayal, death– to that we could be delivered into everlasting life.

Lent ends as we remember Jesus’ death and burial– His ultimate sacrifice for our debt. It ends with a shattering trumpet-blast of hope and joy on Easter Morning. Our sadness and loss is NOT the end– Sin’s power and poison are illusory. They have no power over our Great God.

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It can be tempting to respond to our present circumstances with resentment. It can be tempting to relent in our rebellion– trying to bargain with God, and minimize the cost He had to pay, trying to pay the price ourselves with a show of good behavior and a superficial devotion.

But God’s great Love and Mercy should draw us to worship and true devotion. As we reflect on the great gulf between sin and holiness, it should cause us to gladly repent– to lay on the altar all the substitutes and lesser things that keep us from full communion with the Lover of Our Souls.

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Our prayers during this season may be difficult. They may be filled with grief, loss, and pain. But they may also be filled with hope and joy as we anticipate the gift of Grace. And they should be filled with praise. After all, Lent is a season; a season to reflect, a season to repent, a season to mourn, but a season with a beginning and an end; a season that gives way to celebration and a sure hope of resurrection!

The Truth Hurts

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NLT

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.

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There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.

Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.

These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.

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God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.”  Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow!  Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel.  Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure.  But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth!  And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.

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Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths.  They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death!  As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!

Why Do the Wicked Prosper?

There is no way I can give a definitive answer to the above question. In a thousand blog posts or three volumes of analysis, I could never cover all the issues this question brings up. I offer the question today for two reasons:

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  1. This question is raised in the Bible. Asaph raised it in Psalm 73 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+73&version=ASV; Habakkuk and other prophets also asked it. Solomon pondered it in Ecclesiastes, and Job cried out against it. God is not afraid of such questions, but He doesn’t give glib answers, either. The psalmist received no immediate answer directly from God, but when he entered the sanctuary of the Most High, and considered the eternal destination of the wicked, his attitude changed. His envy, anger, and bitterness melted in a flood of awe and worship. God does not want us to be bitter, angry, or envious of the wicked; nor does He want us to be apathetic toward injustice, abuse, and inequality. There is something profoundly disturbing when we see the wicked prospering at the expense of the righteous and innocent. It should cause us to turn to God and seek His help.
  2. That brings me to the second reason I want to grapple with this topic today. I need to! I have the tendency to want an immediate answer, and to see the wicked suffer– until I am in the presence of a Holy God. There is no wickedness that is outside of God’s justice, or of His grace. God WILL bring complete justice– in HIS time. But His primary goal is to bring redemption, restoration, healing, hope, and salvation– even to the wicked; even to ME. God’s justice is not just reserved for those I deem to be wicked and prosperous. God’s ways are not my ways. What if, in my eagerness to condemn the wicked, I miss God’s plan to change the heart of a Zacchaeus, or an Ebenezer Scrooge, or a sinful King David or arrogant King Nebuchadnezzar? No amount of wickedness can overwhelm God’s love and mercy, or His ability to make “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) for those who love Him and are called to serve Him.
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When tempted to dwell on this question, there are some wonderful alternatives. See some of the links below.

https://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/march-2013/when-the-wicked-flourish/

https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-7-what-do-when-evil-prevails-malachi-217-36

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/job-the-revelation-of-god-in-suffering

https://www.ou.org/torah/machshava/the-god-papers/righteous-suffer-wicked-prosper/

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-stories/bible-story-of-zacchaeus.html

Lord God, today I pray for eyes that see Your face, even in this broken and fallen world. May I look to see Your patience, Your mercy and Your grace, as well as Your Holiness and Justice. May I be an instrument of all these aspects of Your character as I live in Your grace today. Thank You for Your great mercy toward me, and to the promise of Eternal Life with You. Amen.

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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,
For Christ is here; His Spirit near
Brings peace on earth, good will to men.”
*When men repent and turn from sin
The Prince of Peace then enters in,
And grace imparts within their hearts
His peace on earth, good will to men.
O souls amid earth’s busy strife,
The Word of God is light and life;
Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice,
Hail peace on earth, good will to men.
Then happy, singing on your way,
Your world will change from night to day;
Your heart will feel the message real,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with alterations and *additional text by Harlan D. Sorrell.

Some Christmas Carols are the joyous outpouring of Christmas cheer, filled with the laughter of wonder of the season.  Others are forged in pain and doubt that has been turned to the light of hope and renewal.  Such is the story behind this hymn. http://suvcw.org/mollus/art005.ht

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The famous American poet, H. W. Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire just three years before he nearly lost his son in the horrors of the Civil War.  When his son was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow went to the military hospital, and, when he could, he transported his son home, knowing the journey would be painful and the outcome might not be a happy one.  (His son lived, but never recovered fully– see the article above.)
As he sat with his wounded son over the Christmas season, he could hear the bustle and chatter, and the bells ringing from the church steeples, announcing the good news of Christmas.  As his pain and bitterness churned, he wrote about it, and about how his heart was turned from bitterness to hope. (See the original poem here:   https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmas_bells.htm

Photo of C. A. Longfellow

Christmas is a time of warmth and good cheer for many–the ringing of bells, the singing of merry tunes, the tinsel and glitter of decorations–but for others, it is a time of deep soul-searching.  “My life is a mess.  I have suffered greatly.  There is no Peace On Earth!”  Yet, the hope and promise of Christmas rings out greater than the darkness and the blast of gunfire, the angry outcries and the weeping of those in grief.

How can this be?

Christmas reminds us that our circumstances, though very real and very painful, are confined to this time and space.  They are temporary– not in the sense that we will forget our pain or loss– but that we can still experience hope and joy  and healing in their midst.  “The Wrong shall fail”–there will still be evil in the world, injustice, hunger, abuse, sickness–wrong will still exist, but it does not have the power to define us, to enslave us and take away our ability to do good.  “The Right, prevail”–God’s promise of Messiah (among several hundred other prophetic promises!) has been fulfilled.  God is Faithful.  God’s word endures.  God’s Justice Will Be Done, and there will be “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”

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Christmas also reminds us that it is just in those very small things– the tolling of bells, being able to hug your child,  to share memories of loved ones who are no longer here, being grateful for small gifts, giving a word of encouragement–that hope and joy are spread like ripples of water and echoes of sound.  Christ’s birth was humble, but it was heralded with the hosts of angels from the highest heavens. 

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My prayer today is that we would listen for the true message of Christmas, and that we would echo and repeat the message– even if it seems that we are being drowned out by sirens and protests, or silenced by those who are hurting and cannot hear the sweetness in the music of the season.

The Just and the Unjust

“God isn’t Fair!”  I hear this often from angry and bitter people who have suffered losses or disappointments in life.  Some of their losses are heavy and come with great pain– loss of a child, loss of a home, loss of health…these are legitimate losses, and there are no conclusive, comprehensive or comforting answers.  In fact, in many ways, God is NOT “fair”– as we usually define “fair.”  God sends life, health, happiness, sunshine and rain to both the “just” and the “unjust”; to both rich and poor, tall and short, ugly and good looking, gracious and annoying, kind and cruel…  Tragedy strikes at random, some are touched by it, others seem to be plagued by it, and still others skate through life unscathed.

God may not seem “fair”, but let’s look at it from another angle.  God sends rain and sunshine on the just and the unjust.  He sends gifts, and we use, abuse, accept, or reject them.  Circumstances and outcomes are not always pleasant, but does this mean they are “bad?”  And when they are easy, and comfortable, does this always make them “good?” Good people have to endure tragedy– this is usually what we focus on when we talk about God being “unfair.”  And we generally put ourselves in the “good” category.  Why should we have hardship and pain, while “bad” people seem to get a “pass?”    Shouldn’t bad things only happen to bad people, while good people enjoy only good things?  Sounds “fair”, doesn’t it?

But what happens when the world operates on that principle?  If “bad” people are the only ones who get sick, then they deserve to be sick– not healed.  If “bad” people are the only ones to experience poverty, then we don’t need to help the poor or the needy.  Good people should be rich and healthy.  But what if we are sometimes good, and sometimes selfish?  Do we deserve to keep all that’s good if we misuse it, or lose all that’s good if we go astray and then repent?  Is that fair?!  Where is the motivation to cure diseases, share resources, or enforce laws?  Who decides whether your “good” idea is “good” for everyone around you?  Who can ascend to heaven and tell God what is “fair?”

God created us in His image, and that means that we have a spirit that longs for justice and fairness.  It’s how we recognize evil and injustice.  But sin clouds our eyes, and poisons our world–pollution doesn’t just hurt the people who pollute; arson doesn’t just burn the arsonist; drunk drivers don’t just hurt themselves; and so on.  We don’t look at the evil or thoughtless or “unfair” things we have done or said that went unpunished or unnoticed.  And we discount all the unmerited blessings that have come our way– God is often “unfair” in our favor!  We don’t complain about that.

God is not the author of “unfairness”, though He allows it.  And, while I can’t explain away pain and suffering when they occur, I know two things:

God is Gracious– If God’s justice were not tempered by mercy, every mistake, every sin, would be unforgivable and eternally ours to bear.  Every random thoughtless action, and all its consequences, would weigh us down forever.

God is Just–Jesus’s death was about redemption and restoration– He didn’t just die to “save” you from hell– He died to restore you to the person and position for which you were created– whole, pure, unstained and uncorrupted.  This wasn’t “Plan B”– this was His eternal plan, and it includes perfect justice and perfect restoration.

cross jesus summit cross
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Knowing these things does not take away the pain of the present.  It does not make suffering easy; it does not erase the loss.  But it can allow us to take the next step, and the next, on our journey.  Rain or shine.

 

 

…Cry With the Saints

Several years ago, singer and songwriter Billy Joel created some controversy with a song he wrote, called “Only the Good Die Young.”  The song was about a young man trying to convince a young catholic girl to give up her virginity.  Many were offended by some of the lyrics, and by the general tone of the song, which was sacrilegious; sneering at the notion of sexual purity and waiting for marriage.  One of the lines in the song says, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints..The sinners are much more fun.”

Full lyrics here

It may seem that way to many– Christians (along with many Jews, Muslims, and others who are sincere and spiritually-minded) seem stern and sober in comparison to free-living, fun-loving heathens.  Why should this be so?  Shouldn’t those who are closer to God experience more Joy and happiness than those who do not know Him?  Why are saints and prophets so often shown crying, wailing, and weeping bitter tears?

man wearing gray sweater in selective focus photography
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The author of Ecclesiastes (assumed to be King Solomon) writes:

Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 (Revised Standard Version)

A good name is better than precious ointment;
    and the day of death, than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting;
for this is the end of all men,
    and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
    but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
    than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
    so is the laughter of the fools;
    this also is vanity.

This doesn’t mean that God wants His people to be depressed, hopeless, and constantly weeping.  But God DOES want us to be aware and to see the world as it really is– fallen, chaotic, filled with needless suffering and injustice.  Why?  Because He calls us to think about the consequences of our actions, and also to have compassion for those who are hurting.  It may be more “fun” to ignore the consequences of sin and to “live it up” if you are young and healthy, but it is not at all true that “only the good die young.”  Death comes unexpectedly and randomly– taking both good and evil, both wise and foolish.  The difference is that fools get cut off and caught off-guard.  The consequences of their actions find them unprepared and filled with regret or bitterness and pain– all of which might have been prevented if they had not ignored reality.

silhouette of graves
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I think the song DOES have a message to Christians–while we shouldn’t be fools chasing after fleeting pleasures that leave a large wake of pain and regret and filling our lives with empty laughter, we should not “die young” in the way of the Pharisees of old.  Jesus called them “white-washed tombs” for good reason.  Their “goodness” came from self-righteousness and piety.  They shunned sinners, and chased others away with their long lists of rules and disdain for anyone who didn’t keep up appearances.  Such “saints” never cry– they are more likely to crow about their own “goodness” with dry eyes and closed fists.  Jesus attended feasts and parties with the sinners– but his heart was not for the “fun”  they were having.  It was for them– for their lost souls.  Jesus wept!  Jesus wept for the loss of his friend Lazarus; he wept over Jerusalem; he even wept tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane!

ancient art black and white close up
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The “Good” have many reasons to cry– millions of innocents suffer needlessly every day–abuse, slavery, genocide, abortion, bigotry, war, starvation, murder, theft, addiction, homelessness, disease, natural disasters, man-made disasters, and more fill our world.  People waste time angrily shaking their fists at Heaven or at governments, but so much of the suffering is a direct result of sinful actions on the parts of individuals.  In my own country, in my own lifetime, over 50,000,000 babies have been aborted–without legal consequence, but with a terrible consequence on the soul of our nation.  If we could shed one tear for each life lost it would equal over 660 gallons of water (here’s how I got that number  )– just one tear for each life, and those are only the abortions that have been recorded in the past 45 years in the U.S.  If we were to shed a tear for every broken marriage, every rape, every life lost to addiction, suicide, murder, or war, every violent assault, every broken promise, every lie, or every corrupt deed in our world over the past 50 years, we could fill an ocean!  The power of tears, or of any running/falling water is so great, it could generate electricity to light the nations! ( Here’s an interesting article on the power of a drop of water!)

waterfalls near gray paved road surrounded by green leaf trees during daytime
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I would far rather “cry with the saints.”  But more than that, I would rather pray with the saints, and arise from both to work with the saints–the power of tears pales in comparison with the power of God’s mercy and grace!

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