10 Reasons Holy Week Can Become More Powerful during the Time of the Virus

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Holy Week is the pinnacle of our Lenten journey, drawing us into the Passion of Jesus. This year, our Holy Week journey finds us simultaneously facing into one of the worst crises of our lives with the COVID-19 pandemic. This past weekend I reflected on the significance of this intersection of Holy Week and COVID-19, leading me to write these ten reasons our Holy Week journey can become more powerful during the time of the virus.

  1. Stripped – In this time, our activities and lives feel stripped of so much that seems normal. We can fight against this, or we can enter into it with an openness to what God may want to do with us during this time. I think of the physical reality that Jesus was stripped of His garments (Matthew 27:28) speaking to His complete yielding to the Father’s will. May we, too, enter into this Holy Week with humble openness to God. This is no passivity nor resignation, but the living trust in God as our Good Shepherd these days.
  2. Helplessness – During this time, we encounter our helplessness more clearly than ever before. We are put in touch with one of the central realities of the Lenten journey, which is that we are helpless in life apart from God.  We can more deeply cry out to God, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).
  3. We all will face death – Lent teaches us about the fragility of life, and the truth that we will all face death. Death is unavoidable for all human beings, even if we do believe that there is hope of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ journey to the Cross brings into sharp focus this great reality, while also reminding us that “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
  4. Consolation removed – Because of public health considerations, we face the removal of many of our normal consolations in life, such as friendships, meals with others, and many of the normal pleasures of life. In Holy Week, we see Jesus stepping beyond the consolations of human experience into the place of desolation. He loses His dignity, His clothing, His friendships, and eventually His life. As we let go of many of our own consolations, it reminds us of everything that Jesus lost during His Passion.
  5. Forsakenness – The ultimate desolation is Jesus’ forsakenness from the Father, and the isolation that results. Some of us  may feel abandoned in this time, even forsaken by God. Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the Cross shows us how great the sense of abandonment was between Jesus and the Father as He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In our own forsakenness and isolation we experience some measure of the weight of Jesus’ forsakenness for us.
  6. Suffering surrounds – In the news and in our lives, we are suddenly surrounded by human suffering. We cannot shelter ourselves from it, as some of us have had the luxury of doing in times past. When insulated from the suffering, we often wonder why Jesus’ suffering should be necessary. However, when we face suffering so clearly, we are put in touch with the reality of Jesus’ suffering on the way to the Cross. This makes us more aware of the cost of Jesus’ Passion in Holy Week.
  7. Mental anguish – When praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said to God, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Luke tells us that Jesus experienced such anguish that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). As we wrestle with mental pressure and struggles with anxiety because of COVID-19, we are able to have some sense of the weight of the world pressing in upon Jesus during Holy Week.
  8. Tears for those in need – Because of the pandemic, we now see the suffering of others so clearly that it becomes heartbreaking to us. Often times our hearts are hardened to others, but this is softening us to the reality of human need. As Jesus looked at Jerusalem after the triumphal entry, He “saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41). Our tears meet with Jesus’ tears over those in need for humanity as we journey through this week.
  9. Hungry to belong – Our hunger for belonging is high in this time of physical distancing. We miss shaking hands or giving hugs. We miss having grandchildren sit on our laps to read a story or passing dishes around the table with friends. We want to experience relationship, and we can do that thanks to technology, but the barriers are high. This leads us into an encounter with our own needs and loneliness that we often try to avoid. We realize that underneath this is not just our longing for God, but also the God who longs for relationship with us. His longing is so high that He will suffer anything to bring reconciled relationship and belonging.
  10. Longing for hope – Our longing for hope – for life after this death – pulses like the beating of our hearts. We cannot wait for this to “be over,” so that we can return to “life as normal.” We all know that life will not be the same normal that we experienced before, but we still hope for it. How much more meaningful is the resurrection of Jesus Christ than in these days where the longing for hope rises up more sharply than ever before?

Recovering the Wonder of Advent: Four pathways for preaching in Advent

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I had the privilege to write an article on preaching in Advent for Preaching Today, which was just recently released. You can read the entire article, “Recovering the Wonder of Advent: Four pathways for preaching in Advent,” at Preaching Today, but here’s a taste of what you will find there.

In my childhood, one of the greatest moments of anticipation was Christmas. I couldn’t wait for the chance to decorate, eat Christmas cookies, and, of course, open presents on Christmas Day. Every Christmas Eve I struggled to go to bed, and was usually the first one up to see what was waiting under the tree. The anticipation and wonder were like adrenaline coursing through my body.

As we grow older, most of us lose some of our wonder. The novelty of Christmas starts to wear off, at least a little bit. Along with that, our anticipation gets trampled down under the weight of responsibilities, the rush of preparations, and, at times, the heaviness that comes on those of us for whom the holidays bring sadness.

There is a remedy for lost wonder and trampled anticipation. That remedy is not getting more expensive presents, having flashier decorations, or inviting the right people to our parties. The remedy is stepping back enough to realize what we have lost it, and then going through a journey of recovery. Like a relationship that has lost its spark or a hobby that has lost our interest, we need to take time and effort to see what’s right in front of us with fresh eyes.

The church has a recovery program of sorts for lost wonder and trampled anticipation leading toward Christmas. That recovery program is called Advent, which means “appearing,” coming from the Latin word adventus. Advent looks back with wonder at Jesus’ birth over two-thousand years ago, while also looking forward with anticipation to his future return at the end of human history.

As preachers, we have a unique opportunity to help our congregations enter into that recovery of anticipation and wonder. My hope in this article is to offer four pathways for preaching in Advent so that our congregations both taste the longing that leads us to cry out, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and savor the joy that sings, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

Old Camel Knees: a brief reflection on the remarkable prayer life of James the Just

James_the_Just_(Novgorod,_16_c.)The fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, relates a story gathered from the lost works of Hegesippus during the second century about James “the Just,” who likely wrote the epistle of James and was the earthly brother of Jesus. In the midst of outlining the persecution of the church in his Ecclesiastical History , Eusebius details the death of James in Book II, Ch. XXIII:

3. The manner of James’ death has been already indicated by the above-quoted words of Clement, who records that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, and was beaten to death with a club. But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows:

4. “James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James.

5. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath.

6. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.

7. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the people’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him.

There is so much we could discuss here, but today I merely want to draw attention to point (6) above, which highlights James’ ongoing life of prayer, specifically his worship of God and petitions for forgiveness on behalf of others. His dedication to prayer is such that his physical body reflected it: “his knees became hard like those of a camel.” It is because of this phrase that James is often referred to as “camel knees.”

The idea of praying on our knees is mentioned frequently in Scripture (Psalm 95:6; Daniel 6:10; Luke 5:8; Ephesians 3:14). Praying on our knees conveys humility – an appropriate sense of who we are – and awe – an appropriate sense of who God is. Getting down on our knees tells us in a very tangible way – through the posture of our bodies – that something different is occurring in our experience that requires something different from our bodies. As one commentator writes, kneeling in prayer communicates something vitally important: “We recognize that God is everything for us and that without his merciful love, we are, literally, nothing.”

These days many of us, especially those within evangelical traditions, rarely get on our knees in prayer. In fact, it is so out of the ordinary that when I recently invited our church community to kneel, I had to take extra time to set it up ahead of time. Those in what would described as traditional churches likely find it more common to descend to a kneeler each week for the confessional prayer. Regardless of our worship tradition, I would like to suggest that all of us could learn quite a lot from the Apostle James in his example of dedicated, humble prayer through appropriate kneeling.

However, let me take it a step further, and say that pastors and ministers of all sorts should take a cue on prayer from “Old Camel Knees.” It would be an invaluable breakthrough in ministry practice if all of us serving in ministry left a legacy like James of dedication in prayerful worship of God and intercession before God on behalf of our people. May God give us grace that our bodies would be marked by our dedication in prayer.

Notes on Church Growth

These notes came from my preparation for my message on Ephesians 4, “A Crash Course in Church Growth,” from a few weeks ago.

Church growth is founded upon the unity we receive from God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Church growth is something that happens to us over time and by God’s good grace, but not without intention and yielding to God.

Church growth involved God and other people, for it is the church who grow toward Christlikeness together, and not ideally alone.

Church growth is not all that much about building, budgets, and bodies in seats, but more about growth toward maturity in Jesus Christ.

Church growth involves those who Christ has appointed – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – who actively equip, serve, and build up the church in solid faith and overarching love.

Church growth has a goal, and it is not some utopian human ideal but Christ, the Head, who descended and ascended, and who is the Highest Name.

Church growth lives in the “already, but not yet” of lived human existence. We live in Christ as His people and yet are growing through Christ to be more truly His people.

Peter: God’s restoration in failure

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This past weekend in my message, “The Good News of New Beginnings,” I didn’t make my way into all the detail I had planned in the new beginning of Peter from his failure. Here are my sermon notes from that section, exploring Jesus’ restoration of Peter from the failure of his denials. I hope this encourages you in the midst of your own failures.


 

Now turn with me to one final story of new beginning, found in the next chapter of John’s Gospel. Here, we find the disciples have returned to their home area in Galilee to fish, but haven’t caught anything. Are they trying to de-stress after all that happened to them in Jerusalem? Are they forsaking all they learned from Jesus and just returning to their old lives?

We don’t know for sure, but something dramatic happens when Jesus Himself appears on the lakeshore to give them fishing advice. Jesus’ advice to throw their nets over the other side leads to a miraculously huge haul of fish, which makes them realize they are dealing with Jesus.

Peter, in His excitement, jumps into the water and swims all the way to shore ahead of the others. Jesus makes them breakfast, and they all know it is Him. In the midst of that breakfast, Jesus has a direct conversation with Peter in four parts.

Part 1 – Peter’s failed boldness (John 21:15)
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (21:15)

This first question brings us back to Peter’s failure, when He denied Jesus three times.
Earlier in John’s Gospel before Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus had warned His disciples about the challenges about to come.

Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

Which is exactly what Peter did. Jesus is resurrecting Peter’s failure so that He can directly deal with it. Suppressing our failures does not bring life; instead it eats away at us from the inside out.

Part 2 – Peter’s failed love (John 21:16)
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter’s painful response: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

But earlier in the upper room, Jesus had addressed all the disciples, showing them what real love looks like, when he said: “If you love me, keep my commands” (14:15).

Peter had a failure of nerve, but also a failure of love. Jesus draws this out into the light so that Peter might not be trapped within his failure but move into a new beginning.

Part 3 – Peter’s pain revealed (John 21:17)
But Jesus is not done yet.

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (21:17)

Just notice this phrase: “the third time.” Jesus is intentionally paralleling Peter’s three denials with three questions.

Peter’s pained response is “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Again, Jesus is calling all of the failure out into the light so that it might not be hidden or suppressed, but release, healed, and turned into a new beginning. What is that new beginning?

Part 4 – Peter’s calling (John 21:18-22)
After the three-fold “Feed my sheep” (21:17) Jesus speaks the ultimate: “Follow me!” (21:19). This echoes Jesus’ first invitation for Peter to follow Him. He is returned to a new beginning of discipleship that will lead him into a new beginning of ministry.

Jesus does not leave Peter to linger in failure, whether hiding it or brooding over it. Instead, Jesus addresses Peter’s failure by bringing it into the light, then healing it, and finally restoring him to a meaningful calling.

For us, too, failure can box us in. We hold it in the back room of our lives, afraid for anyone to know about it. We brood over it when no one is around, like it is something we cannot stand but something we cannot live without. This is not life, but less than living. Jesus comes to us, in the power of the resurrection, to say that what seems like the end in our failure does not have to be the end.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, our failures can be the doorways to a new beginning of restoration in Him.