Here in The Middle

I’m watching the dark earth wake up from its deep slumber all around me; the birds are fluttering and chirping in the bushes out front; and some preacher is talking about doing good deeds that can change the world during Lent; and it is as if the whole world is running headlong towards Easter morning. I know for many it is just another holiday, but underneath don’t we all have that wildly-winging hope for meaningful change? When the miracle unfolds right before our eyes of ice-cold days giving in to the warmth of the sun, of dead dry earth sprouting up new growth, it feels like anything could happen, and who knows what dry barren places left for dead might be renewed, called back to life. Here in the middle, between death and life, between where we’ve been and where we want to be, we wait and we count the days…all forty…through the six Sundays of Lent. And it’s like I can hear the Musician-King singing triumphantly, “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

Peter may have known more about the sea and its fish than he did about growing things in the damp earth, but he was used to waiting, had watched the darkness fade into dawn a hundred times over the Galilee; watched the sun catch the ripples of the water, and the shadows slide over the hills beyond; seen the cold of Winter melt into Spring every year of his life. He knew as well as any of us how it feels to be buried under the weight of guilt, carry your grief around and long for the light to come. And Peter may not have known much about philosophy and science, but he was dead-certain about one thing, that the cave-tomb where they left Jesus’ body was busted open that Sunday, and the light of day streamed in like glory on those neatly discarded clothes. Peter knew without a doubt that death can be the prelude to life, as surely as the seasons change every year, because the man he used to be was gone, and the Risen Christ who had walked out of that grave had resurrected him to new life too. He wrote to the scattered Christians to reassure them of what he had seen, remind them of what they were waiting for: “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but He died for sinners to bring you safely home to God.” (1 Peter 3:18)

Someone reminded me lately that in the space between the present circumstances and the future unknown, we are not alone, and if ever we thought we might get left in a really tough place, all we have to do is look up, to see the face of God who lives in the right-now of every moment. We may feel stuck, slowly counting through the days, but Jesus’ cross stands in the middle of everything, the unequivocal evidence that He is making all things new– the immovable promise that He is good, that He is standing beside us in the fire, as close as breath. Here in the middle of March, as Winter fades and turns toward Easter, we can see with our own eyes how Death is overcome by His Life, and the Darkness bowing down, all around. The Church-Planter Paul says it most eloquently: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

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O Lord my God, I cried to You for help, and You have healed me…You restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit….You turned my wailing into dancing; You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing Your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise You forever.”


Psalm 30: 2-3, 11-12

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My God is strong enough to raise me from the grave
Your love is great enough to take away my shame
Your mercy reigns
My God is making new the wreckage of my heart
Your hand is reaching down to pull me from the dark
Your mercy reigns

Mercy Reigns, Elevation Worship
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Resurrecting

We don’t really celebrate Easter as a family,” my friend told me with a shrug that seemed just a little bit regretful. I immediately stopped what I was doing and sat down to hear more. And as she recounted bits and pieces of her childhood, memories of fasting and rules that made little sense to a child, rituals “that probably had some symbolism to them,” readings to commemorate Jesus’ death…. it seemed pretty clear why she had left it behind long ago. “It was all a rather solemn affair,” she concluded, shaking her head.

But here in the middle of Passion Week, with fresh graves still crying out, and people we love fighting hard against this frail mortality, I wonder how a person can manage to  live without looking forward to that one gloriously empty Garden Tomb at the end of the week. Jesus crucified has shown Himself to be Lord and Savior resurrected, and what we think we know about the world suddenly rearranges itself. This is the crux of the Good News. As Paul wrote to the early believers, everything we believe and do hinges on the events of this one weekend. The Resurrection is a reality that blazes bright in the middle of all our darkness, the proof of who Jesus is and what He accomplished for us– a lighthouse pointing us toward Hope and Home. I always thought of Easter as a day to celebrate, I tell her, because Jesus rose again…

And Jesus told His followers that death is only the prelude to life: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” (John 12:24) We see it in gardens everywhere, and the Garden in the Beginning where death crept in was already looking forward to Life flooding from the Garden Tomb. So we come to Easter with hearts full of joy, for the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is changing us day by day, His power healing and restoring what was broken– new life springing up everywhere, with much more to come. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (2 Corinthians 2:9) Because Easter is not really a commemoration at all, but a victory celebration.

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“…let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies….
But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53,57-58)

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The fear that held us now gives way
To Him who is our peace;
His final breath upon the cross
Is now alive in me!
Your name, Your name
Is victory–
All praise, will rise
To Christ, our king.
By Your spirit I will rise
From the ashes of defeat;
The resurrected King, is resurrecting me.
In Your name I come alive
To declare Your victory:
The resurrected King, is resurrecting me.”
(Resurrecting, Elevation Worship)
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Up Abraham’s Mountain

When Big-Brother James lays it out like he does, it is as plain as any road sign, and we’re all shaking our heads over how easy it is for us to lose sight of the simple Truth: faith and actions are entwined the way body and spirit are, and together they make up the life of a Christ-follower. Ignore either, and you are as lifeless as a corpse. It’s sad how in our sincere desire to be good we can detour off the path into wanting to be good enough or better than, until we find ourselves halfway up a useless tower with a hammer in our hands. It’s as if we’d never even heard the words of the ancient song, ” Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain…” (Psalm 127:1) And it’s just as likely that we will veer into a careless swamp of familiarity with Grace that lets us indulge our emotions, our desires above obedience to God’s ways. James is warning us that both are the subtle bent of the Enemy. How tragically ironic that among the ranks of the gloriously Born Again there would be those who are walking dead and deceived.

No wonder Jesus can state unequivocally that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) That may sound narrow-minded to modern ears, but He is only stating the facts, that you can spout all kinds of knowledge about God and build ministries that impress people, and still be dead as a doornail inside. Obedience that springs from a trusting heart is the only proof-positive of genuine faith. It’s as simple as that, and the signs of Resurrection Life in a person are that obvious: “… every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit….Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:17, 20) Big-Brother James challenges us to recognize fruit for what it is, and keep a close watch on our lives and on the Family of God in which we live. He warns, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom…”(James 2:12)

We might not be so surprised at the way real faith manifests itself, if we think back to the Beginning. Eve looked long at the beautiful fruit, and listened to what the Enemy whispered about it… let the doubts grow in her mind that maybe God was taking something good away from her, and maybe He did not have her best interests at heart, and maybe if she wanted to get what she desired she should reach out and take initiative, show herself strong and intelligent and capable of plotting her own course in life. She let emotion and desire grow large, and when she acted she revealed what she truly believed. But just because you stake your life on something doesn’t make it true, and even a woman made with God’s own hands can lose sight of His love. We’ve been following in her footsteps ever since, captive to our ancestry in both our living and our dying.

So James holds up heroes for us as examples of real faith; Abraham and Rahab both faced the same tangle of emotions that Eve had– the same strength of desire, the same confusion about God’s intentions. And their choices also revealed what they truly believed, because they stepped out in blind obedience, trusting that His Words were true no matter what their circumstances were screaming. In their hearts, faith was both proven and strengthened by their choices to obey; in their actions, obedience was an offering of worship to God as Maker and Ruler. They declared Him powerful and just and righteous when they held onto His promises instead of their desires. They declared His glory when they valued Him over family and home and culture. They declared His right to rule by following when it didn’t make sense, by trusting the future to His plans. “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” (James 2:23)

And isn’t that what Jesus did for us in His suffering? He came to earth in order to obey God fully– in every confusing and painful circumstance, against every opposition, in spite of every human emotion He had. He trusted hard and said “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Mark 14:36) And He looked forward to our trusting obedience and the righteousness He was providing for us, and He called us friends who would follow His example. He proved once and for all that obedience is the best way– the only way– to demonstrate what we truly believe.

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“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

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“As I walk into the days to come,
I will not forget what You have done,
For you have supplied my every need
And Your presence is enough for me.
Doesn’t matter what I feel,
Doesn’t matter what I see,
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.
Now I’m casting out all fear
For Your love has set me free;
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.”
(Your Promises, Elevation Worship)

 

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Not My Will, but Thine

In the middle of Lent, and thinking about the Savior’s face set toward the cross. And all these burdens we carry seem so small and yet still so heavy, for they are all part of the same weight of sin in this world– the weight He carried for us, to do away with once and for all. Can we not have patience to watch and wait with Him in these long night hours, carrying our small pieces of His great burden, knowing that the Resurrection Day is coming soon? Because He has promised that there is beauty in His plans, and the redemption of all things.

The writer of Hebrews urges us to keep our eyes on Jesus, to watch our Champion and follow His example in both living and dying. He says plainly that this is our pattern and our privilege: “Because of the joy awaiting Him, He endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now He is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility He endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.  After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin.” (Hebrews 12:2-3) Who are we then, to be reluctant to trust God with our own circumstances? As if they were somehow more difficult, or we were more unique in our experience so that we could not pray with Jesus, “Thy will be done.”

In writing about trust, and the way Jesus prayed, a well-known preacher observed that “If we can’t say ‘Thy will be done’ from the bottom of our hearts, we will never know any peace. We will feel compelled to try to control people and control our environment and make things the way we believe they ought to be. Yet to control life like this is beyond our abilities, and we will just dash ourselves upon the rocks….to pray ‘Thy will be done’ is to submit not only our wills to God but even our feelings, so that we do not become despondent, bitter, and hardened by the things that befall us.” (Prayer, Tim Keller)

May we follow in Your footsteps toward the cross, Lord, lifting our trusting hearts up to You, along with whatever circumstances we are carrying. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

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“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13)

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“Walking around these walls
I thought by now they’d fall
But You have never failed me yet
Waiting for change to come
Knowing the battle’s won
For You have never failed me yet….

I’ve seen You move, come move the mountains
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again
You made a way, where there was no way
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again

Your promise still stands
Great is Your faithfulness, faithfulness
I’m still in Your hands
This is my confidence, You’ve never failed me yet.”
(Do It Again, Elevation Worship)

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Sunday Is Coming

In this Passion week, with the all branches budding red towards the sky, and the flowers bursting forth from their Winter graves, we see for ourselves a tangible picture of the Savior making all things new with His suffering (passio in the Latin). And there is Hope in this Spring-time resurrecting. Not that we will find something to satisfy our hearts in this world after all, but that in Him we will have enough, and that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17) Life from death, joy from sorrow, reaping from our planting as surely as day follows the long night.

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“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:12-13)

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“Peace be still, You are near;
There’s nowhere we can go
That You won’t shine redemption’s light.
Our guilt withdrawn–
As You rise, we come alive;
The grave has lost, the old is gone,
And You’re making all things new…
And we are free;
Hope is found, You are here.
Our hearts forever sealed
By this love that came for us;
Now we are Yours.
As You rise, we come alive,
And You’re making all things new…”
(All Things New, Elevation Worship)

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Not my Will

Encouragement today from the precious reminder of our Savior’s wrestling in prayer with the emotions and limitations of His humanity as He approached the cross, and the gentle exhortation that all the Father requires is a willing heart. If we can pray through the pain, and continue to desire God’s will above our own, that is enough. We should not be too hard on ourselves for having either questions or weakness, as long as we are carrying them rightly to His feet. And He will pour out His own strength to carry us through whatever we are facing– even comfort us with His love, so that we do not lose hope.

The nineteenth-century British theologian E.B Pusey advised believers to have a one-prayer-fits-all approach to life. “Choose but the will of God, and thou willest with His wisdom, thou choosest with His all-perfect choice; thou enterest into His counsels; thou lovest with His love. Be this our watch-word, brethren, for the Church, for those we love, for our own souls….This shall hallow our hopes; this shall hush our fears; this shall ward off disquiet; this shall preserve our peace; this shall calm anxieties; this (if it must be) shall soothe our heart-aches; this shall give repose to our weariness…. ‘Lord, not what I will, but what Thou’; not what I, in my misery, and ignorance, and blindness, and sin, but what Thou, in Thy mercy, and holiness, and wisdom, and love.” It is the prayer that never fails.

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And [Jesus] withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.’ And there appeared to Him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:41-44)

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“Oh how I need Your grace,
More than my words can say;
Jesus I come, Jesus I come
In all my weaknesses,
You are my confidence;
Jesus I come, Jesus I come.”
(Jesus I Come, Elevation Worship)

 

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Hunting for the Right Things

Talking about the discipline of thankfulness and teaching our hearts to sing God’s praise, this morning in the car, and was reminded of past Easter seasons, when our small group intentionally focused on God’s good gifts.  Offering up this post from two years ago, with humble thanks to the Giver of all good things….

Here in this season of Lent, instead of fasting and acts of self-denial, we are counting our thanks out on paper, feasting on Grace. We are looking ahead to Easter and the resurrection, and rejoicing in the Giver of life.

And I find this to be true, that when eyes are wide open to see “Every good and perfect gift…from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17), there is joy welling up that has little to do with visible circumstances. The Musician-King’s song echoes here: “You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11) Maybe not that we get some unspecified list of treats, as if we were spending the weekend with grandparents, but that the more we live in His presence, the more we experience the depths of grace and the more we can see glory all around. No wonder the saints of long ago wrote down that the primary purpose of man was to glorify God and enjoy Him forever…relating to an Eternal Almighty Being is liable to take forever, and the psalm writer says it is all joy.

And you can tell, when you spend time with people, the ones who get this mystery of thankfulness, because the daily choice to recognize Grace– when you name it in every little manifestation and offer your praise back up to the Giver– has a way of changing you on the inside. Thankfulness is courage and hope and faith held high, a shield against the Darkness all around. The daily discipline of humble thanks-giving stocks my Thought Closet with more of Him and less of me. Thankfulness chases away resentment and discontent, calms the spirit, focuses my thoughts on the things that are true and honorable and lovely, just like the Apostle Paul advised. He made that same connection between rejoicing and thanksgiving– said it should shape our lives and our prayers, promised good results: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) 

So as we prepare for Easter and look forward to new life springing out of the ground into green, we go on hunting for His blessings, day by day, tuning our hearts to see Grace, to sing God’s praises– and it’s like we are setting the cross of Christ in the middle of all our days. Because these many little blessings are only glimmers of that one rugged signpost to Grace, where God’s Passion made all things new.

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“He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

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“This is amazing grace,
This is unfailing love,
That You would take my place,
That You would bear my cross.
You would lay down Your life,
That I would be set free.
Jesus, I sing for all that You’ve done for me.”
(This Is Amazing Grace, Phil Wickham)

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Of Eggs and Lambs and Waiting for Easter

I almost missed what the preacher said, right there in the middle of the music and the Lord’s Supper and my fingers already moving to play the next notes. “We don’t know how broken we are. And we don’t know how loved we are.”  It wasn’t until the next day that it sank in deep enough to feel…right through into the Humpty-Dumpty heart of me.

Here in the middle of Lent, with the cross set before us, we are taking time to face our own sin. Our self-indulgence, our lack of love, our pride, our vain ambition for things that are passing away. And maybe the worst part of our sorrow, in the most honest quiet moments, is the dim realization that no matter how much we can look at our brokenness, God sees more. Not just a matter of what we can know, but a matter of moral capacity…how much we are able to fathom, to feel, to bear in our spirits. He is the only One who understands just how diseased we are– the bone-deep fragility of men and women afflicted with sin. We are without excuse, without remedy, without hope even on our best days, although most of us have learned to cover up nicely, or at least distract ourselves from what we cannot put together again.

The Prophet Isaiah puts it out there in livestock terms: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way…” (Isaiah 53:6) We may not have much personal experience with sheep, but anyone who has ever tried to shepherd a group of more than five children on an outing can grasp the general idea. I think it’s safe to assume that sheep are never fully aware of their path, or where it is leading them, or just how dangerous it is for them to be out there alone. I heard someone say once that “It’s not that sheep are stupid…it’s just that they are completely defenseless.” Indeed.

I have no defenses against the selfishness and death that eat away at my life, nor any defense in the face of the standards that I can’t measure up to. But Isaiah finishes his thought...”and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”  My sin-disease and personal culpability laid fully on Someone Else big enough to bear both– on Jesus, the One Isaiah said was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” (Isaiah 53:7)

In this middle-gray land of March, halfway between death and life, there is also time to hear the Love that calls us. And isn’t that what we all need here, when we are looking death in the face?…To see beyond its wretched ugliness and finality, into the eyes of the Beloved One, who carries our death on His own shoulders, lays it into the ground, and leaves it there? “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…” (Isaiah 53:4) Here in the middle of Lent, the only way we will even be able to face the rubble inside, is if we can also see Love’s glorious broken body standing in the middle of it.  “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

And I have no defense against Love like this.

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“We are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes–
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
So heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest.
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
when I think about the way
He loves us…
Oh how He loves us.”
(How He Loves, John Mark McMillan)

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“Forty days, I am reflecting on my cross, my sins….Looking hard for release from this messy body of death. And there is Jesus. Jesus with a crown of thorns. Jesus bent low, God carrying my rotting mess, Grace doing what I cannot do, and I cannot ascend to God but He will descend to me….

Jesus will have to do everything. He will have to accomplish it all. I am ashes and I am dust and I am in dire need and Lent has given me clear eyes to see my sin and I am the one broken under all this skin.” (Ann VosKamp)

 

 

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Take Heart

As the sun warms and life quickens, here in early Spring…as the icy hold of death is cracked loose, slips away like a dark dream in the face of bright dawn arising…as we turn our faces toward Resurrection Day, there is this Word for all those holding onto hope:

“Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of His great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing….how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?…how can you say God ignores your rights? Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of His understanding….He will feed His flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in His arms, holding them close to His heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.” (Isaiah 40:26-28, 11)

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“Courage is what is elemental to living — composed of two parts fierce hope, and one part wild believing.
It’s hope that can create a quake that cracks all despair.
It’s hope that stands in your dark with a lamp lit with prayers.
And it isn’t the likelihood of your hope that sustains you, but the object of your hope that sustains you.
We lay our hope, full and tender, into the depths of Him.”
(Ann Voskamp)

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“All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust”
(Beautiful Things, Gungor)

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The Most Important Holiday

Here at the brink of Easter the world teeters on the brink between death and life: fuzzy baby animals and pastel colors rioting everywhere against the matted brown remnants of Winter. And a person could feel overwhelmed at the rubble of brokenness, at all the things that don’t work right in this world. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t felt the weight of Adam’s curse in ways large and small, and maybe that’s why we plunge so eagerly into the glut of the calendar holidays,  to forget just for awhile the aches and pains, the way relationships can get so tricky, the masks we wear and the walls we hide behind, all the little distractions that tangle around the feet of those who run. But here just before Easter Sunday, if you have eyes to see, life and death hang in the balance.

And here at Easter is the crux of the matter– all the Earth’s history and future summed up, condensed into one wrenching weekend. The world that was spoken into existence by God’s Word and broken by man’s rebellion lives in feverish denial of its sickness and in dread of death to come. The eternal living Word that entered our world dies at its hands (carrying all of its brokenness on His shoulders), and then just walks out of it again. And God’s creation groans and heaves in the cataclysm. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Here at the cross, life and death lay at Jesus’ feet. Jesus is living proof that there is nothing that God’s love and forgiveness cannot accomplish for us.

Easter is the one holiday we need to remember all year. Death is not the same terrible enemy. And Life is not the same futile effort. Now all of God’s promises to us are coming true in Jesus. Now there is always Hope. “I…pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 1:19-20)

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“‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” (Ezekiel 37:4-6)

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“Great is Your faithfulness, oh God;
You wrestle with the sinner’s heart.
You lead us by still waters and to mercy,
And nothing can keep us apart.
So remember Your people,
Remember Your children,
Remember Your promise, oh God…
Your grace is enough for me.”
(Matt Maher)

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