image_pdfimage_print

Grace is on a Family Tree

My friend loves Jesus.

That sounds commonplace, doesn’t it?

It becomes less pedestrian when I tell you that his Mom died a drug addict and his father was a devout atheist. My friend was gloriously saved at the age of 10 at a Vacation Bible School event and never looked back. This. Makes. No. Sense. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree but this apple fell off the tree rolled down the hill, was picked up by a pilot and flew across the ocean! (Figuratively speaking, of course.) And believe me, I don’t have enough white space here to chronicle the entire sordid tale. His story is a monument to the fact that God can save anybody He wants to save, no matter how messed up the family tree.

The New Testament begins with a family tree that had a number of ugly branches. Matthew 1 tells us that in Jesus’ lineage are a number shady characters including a prostitute, daughter of incest, an adulterer, a lying brother, lots of cautionary tales and ultimately an scandalous unwed pregnancy. It’s almost like God wanted to say from the start that this Gospel is all about grace and not about our upbringing. God isn’t as interested in your family history. He’s interested in what happens next. And when it comes to transformation, what happens next is glorious. He flips the script with grace. It’s His specialty. Never count yourself or your family out because of what happened yesterday. It’s an insult to the power of God when you do.


 

The Interrupter

Here’s a simple poem that works great as an ending to a sermon on the Healing of the Paralytic in Mark 2:1-12

Dust and shingles fall on the floor

Hypocrisy has blocked the door

A suffocating crowd around

And all of this distracting sound

These four guys had no building code

To renovate this small abode.

To see a beggar meet a king

Makes a roof a minor thing.

Religion always judges men.

Their patience now is wearing thin

But in the middle of the mess

A hopeless man meets holiness

And all the crowd could seem to say

was, “What a wild amazing day.”

~

And I don’t know your present state;

The things that cause your heart to break,

The people who have let you down,

The chaos swirling all around.

But this I know, one thing is true:

The God we trust makes all things new.

So take heart and learn to say

Each morning is a brand new day!

It is Friday

Jesus remains on the cross, suffering unimaginable traumas. He is deserted by fearful disciples, surrounded by tormentors, thieves, murderers, and religious provocateurs. Soldiers gaming over the final scant possessions of the Master of creation, ignore the darkening sky.

Jesus cries out: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”

On this holy day, God’s beloved Son embodies rage, infidelity, holocaust, slander, incest, pride, lust, greed, murder, abortion, hypocrisy, deceit, pornography, blasphemy, treachery, apathy, gossip, bribery, falsehood, child molestation, betrayal, false accusations, assault, vanity, witchcraft, bitterness, manipulation, drug abuse, seduction, false testimony, violence, threats, broken relationships, and a million other curses of man’s folly.

And during this bloody sacrifice, a Holy God turns His back.

“He who knew no sin has become sin.”

Jesus receives enough sour wine to moisten his tongue so that He could make one grand and final announcement. In the darkness of a cruel hill, Jesus shouts:

IT IS FINISHED!

This declaration is not a cry of defeat, despair and death. It is a glorious shout of victory! The masterpiece of redemption receives its final brushstroke. This is the pinnacle moment of grace that crushed the head of a conniving has-been and opened wide the passageway to salvation. The cross- once a vulgar, despicable symbol of shame, will soon top the roofs of churches and cathedrals. It will be displayed in homes and hospitals, bejeweled on necklaces and depicted in the greatest works of art and literature. And the three words Jesus shouted would now be the pronouncement of God’s greatest transaction.

IT IS FINISHED.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace.”
There is peace once again in midst of the exchange.
It is dark.
It is unspeakable.
It is mysterious.
It is ENOUGH.
It is Friday.

 

~

The Cradle and the Cross

Worship leaders start early with some creative tools to enhance your Christmas worship.  Here is a simple reading that contrasts the Christ’s Birth and Crucifixion. Works great as an introduction to a song.

Reader #1: Mankind had wrapped Him in swaddling clothes,

Reader #2: And now they stripped him.

Reader #3: Wise men had sought Him, to worship Him at His birth.

Reader #2: 
Now men of earthly wisdom sought only to kill Him.

Reader #1: And the shepherds who left their sheep in the fields that night to see Him as a baby . . .

Reader #2: Now? Now they saw Him as a man who was like a lamb led to the slaughter.

Reader #3: They had bowed to worship Him in that humble manger,

Reader #1: And now they spit upon Him and mocked Him as King of the Jews.

Reader #2: Mankind had seen the glorious presence of angels, heard our music and joy,

Reader #3: And now they turned their backs on Him.

Reader #1: This same Jesus, once lavished with gold, frankincense, and myrrh was now shamed by a crown of thorns and a wooden reed.

Reader #2: The Bethlehem star seemed to be only a distant memory as Jesus hung on that cross.

Reader #3: The angels wept to see the King of kings and the Lord of lords mocked and betrayed and unjustly slain for the sins of man. And as He said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” He was looking through the hall of eternity where time is of no significance and He saw you. He came down for you.

It’s Monday

It’s Monday evening. The chaos and collision of grace and law appeared in the violent light of day. Those who sought to turn worship into a business met the displeasure of the only One worthy of worship. The crash of coins and cages… Today the Son of Man personified the voice of the ancient prophetic song: “Away with your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Away with them!” Guards, numerous and powerful failed to arrest Him before a host of witnesses. What army could lay a hand on the Creator of galaxies? This was not His day to die. There was bread to be broken, assurances to be offered, and it was only Monday. The government would soon be on His shoulders- as would the weight of my sin. This would happen soon but not today.

It’s Monday evening.


 

It’s Sunday Evening

It’s Sunday evening. The road is scattered with green branches quickly turning brown, trampled by a festival of triumph. The darkness settles in as shadows fall on the city sky. It seems as if the shouts still echo through its gates. His feet drenched in alabaster and tears. He begins his walk toward the torment of a world’s curse. Mary senses things only a mother could feel. The week begins. Jesus weeping alone. No one else was less deserving of Friday. But in a transcendent, eternal sense there was no one else in the history of the universe qualified for Friday. A deep and unfathomable dichotomy of grace and truth, joy and sorrow, pain and bliss. It’s Sunday evening.

Mary’s Little Boy

And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart–

This phrase has arrested me for years, because pondering to me in a sense is a form of worship. To ponder, in a sense is to daydream about God. A time when the world stands still in quiet moments. There is very little pondering that goes on these days. Lots of scurrying, entertaining, playing, eating, arguing, and obsessing but pondering is a rare commodity.

“All these things”

What things? The adventure of this teenage new mother towers over the likes of kings, rulers and presidents. Generals, celebrities, and artists. She was the hailed by an archangel, the one and only virgin to be impregnated. That would be enough to lift her into the stratosphere of history. But that’s not half the story. The Baby she carried was the Son of God.

And after all was done. Mary pondered.

What would she ponder: Fears, hopes, wonder,and a tapestry of memories.

“Mary . . .”

“Father?”

“Mary . . .”

“Who are you? What do you want?”

You can imagine the fear that accompanies every angelic visitation.

“Don’t be afraid, Mary.”

With those words, Mary knew that this wasn’t Joseph in her bedroom. It wasn’t her Father. An uncle, or a grandpa. The vocal chords the reverberated into her room were not of earthly origin.

“Did I die? I don’t want to die.”

“No, Mary, you’re not dead. I have a message for you.”

“A message for me? Are you sure you have the right Mary?”

“This is good news–you are favored by God. God is going to bless you in a wonderful and miraculous way. You will give birth to a Son. And you will call His name Jesus.”

You can imagine the questions because millions of pregnant teens have had to grapple with the fears, the worry, the reputation, the explanations that accompany an unexpected pregnancy.

But there is no record in scripture that Mary did anything other than believe God. It was a strange time for her. Mary took the challenge and faced the gossip and rejection, but she wasn’t alone. Love and companionship are miracle cures.

Like Noah surrounded by laughing neighbors, like Moses being mocked in Pharaoh’s court, like Elijah before the prophets of Baal, Mary stood strong. In truth, her faith was challenged even more than those men because she had not miraculous rod-snake to throw at the feet of unbelievers. She had no fire from heaven, she had no storm clouds or thunder. She only had the private promise on an angel and the certainty that she was pure and purely blessed. She lived in an ordinary quiet little town, much smaller than Tioga and much less regarded by outsiders.

However their were some small private confirmations. They included a very old aunt who probably could have been a great grandmother, named Elizabeth. Pregnant for the first time, she was escorted by a husband who seemed to all to be at a loss for words. Life the lions on Daniel, God shut his mouth.

Certainly Mary and Joseph had their unheavenly moments. The 70 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Just imagine this possible scenario. Mary begins to have contractions before the Bethlehem city lights are in view.

“Mary, are you okay?”

“I don’t think I can ride another mile on this donkey!” Mary cries out.

“Mary, we’re almost there. Before you know it, we’ll pay for a room and I’ll find a doctor.”

“You don’t have enough money for a doctor,” Mary reminds the Nazareth Home Improvement employee.

Joseph moves away from Mary a little and whispers into the night air,”Lord, I’d like to speak to that angel again. Do You think that’s possible?”

They were selected by God, but rejected by people.

“Sorry, no room”

“The room isn’t available.”

“Maybe tomorrow, but not tonight.”

“No vacancy.”

“Didn’t you read the sign?”

“We’re booked solid.”

God, in His infinite love, passed over the rich and elite to touch the common. He chose the shepherds, street people, lepers, and the unwanted of the world. He could have created a palace that would make Buckingham look like a cheap hotel, but He passed on the palace and made a reservation for His Son at a stable. And there in that stable, Jesus Christ began His task, His do-or-die mission to save the world. But time stood still that night. That holy night. Woman: There was a glimmer of divine hope in this evil world. Mary and Joseph, I’m sure, were exhilarated, but certainly exhausted. Mary,in a barn full of visiting animals: horses, mules, stray dogs, and perhaps a camel; splinters, hay; Joseph snoring; and those shepherds loudly recounting angelic visitations woke the Baby three times! But now, just before dawn, with all asleep except Mary and a mule, she gathers from the hope chest of the near past a tapestry of memories.

What would be a few of those memories that she would ponder.

the beautiful colors of Gabriel’s clothes,
the look on the face of Elizabeth when she turned and saw Mary,
the clamor of packing for the dreaded tax appointment,
no-vacancy signs
and a nervous, frustrated father,
the incarnate kicks,
the looming grief,
the tiny hands that would pierce her heart.
She wept and smiled
an orchestra of emotions in concert with the breeze
that swept through the Bethlehem hills like a Spirit newly released.
And Mary pondered.

What could she say. This this complex and mysterious supersede words. They are moments to ponder. I like to call them “selah moments” Moments where we can only say “God did it.” Anything else, any extra words would only taint the experience. These are moments to ponder. The mystery of the Christian experience is that we all are invited to enter into the dance of the divine. We are all offered an experience that will turn our Narareths into Bethlehems.

Holy moments to ponder… if we stop and listen and realize that God did it.

When we see a baby born on a bright and beautiful morning we can say God did it.
When a rebel son is seen on the western horizon of home, we can say God did it. 
When a woman in her eighties experiences a touch from God in the midst of her grief, we can say, “God did it!”
When a minor symptom is investigated, and a hidden, deadly, ailment is discovered and repaired we can say, God did it.

Luke 11:11-13 says this: “You fathers–if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

This is the how much more-ness of the gospel. It’s realizing that God’s Son is the prince of Peace- not the prince of revenge. That he didn’t come to heap more laws, or guilt, or curses upon the land. He came to introduce us to the word and the concept of grace.

St. Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians at the close of his letter reflects my conclusion as I ponder this extravagant grace:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

She was there and Mary watched her son’s breathing on that cross- the final moments of agony-  as she looked at him there, we can imagine her mind racing back to those moments as a two year old- Jesus sleeping on his tummy, the back rising and falling with each breath he took.

We understand this dangerous truth:  That the choices we make are given meaning by the things we give up.

And those words-  Woman behold your son- Son behold your mother.

And then he died.

I can only imagine the grief.  As they took his broken, lifeless body down from the cross. The anger of her son destroyed, mocked, rejected, a felon called Barabbas was preferred over her boy.

No doubt Mary went through the grief any mother would experience.  Like a scene from Steel Magnolias…

I’m fine! I can jog all the way to Bethlehem and back and back, but my son can’t! Oh God! I am so mad I don’t know what to do! I wanna know why! I wanna know *why* Oh *God* I wanna know *why*? *Why*? Lord, I wish I could understand!

No! No! No! It’s not supposed to happen this way! I’m supposed to go first. I’ve always been ready to go first!

Jesus

creator

King of every king

and yet this was Mary’s boy.

blood spilled grace on me

and still Mary’s boy

piercing your heart Mary

to save me

forsaking you

and his kingdom

for me.

What a terrible loss

you suffered

to watch this one you feed, changed, embraced

carried, protected, and nourished

now condemned to bear nails and thones

whips and shame

so that we could all come to the table.

and face the gethsemane of every broken generation

he cried for his Daddy as the sunset brought shadows

on the edge of town.

You had others

but that night He was your only Boy.

The Price

This reading could be used during the Easter season or for a Lord’s Supper service. The voice-over part could be a recorded voice, an offstage voice, or readers onstage.

Scripture Reader 1: “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.”

Scripture Reader 2: “The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying,”

Scripture Reader 1: “‘Hail, king of the Jews!’”

Scripture Reader 2: “And they struck him in the face.”

Voice-over: Christianity is the laughingstock of our society! It’s for weak-minded people who can’t live their own lives.

Scripture Reader 1: “When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’”

Voice-over: If there is a God, He has a lot of explaining to do. We are the product of evolution. Jesus was simply an insane leader glorified by the masses. People back then believed in anything.

Scripture Reader 2: “Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.”

Scripture Reader 1: “Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha).”

Voice-over: It’s your body. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have a right to terminate the pregnancy. Take charge of your life. It can all be reversed.

Scripture Reader 2: “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.”

Voice-over: We really ought to live together before we even think about marriage.

Voice-over: Did you hear what I heard about Martha? She is the lowest!

Voice-over: You’ve got to be there. The party is going to be wild: free booze, ecstasy, ludes, you name it!

Voice-over: Come on. Take it! The cashier’s busy. She’ll never know.

Scripture Reader 1: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”

Voice-over: (as to a child) When will you ever grow up! You come here right now. I’m gonna give you a beating you’ll never forget.

Scripture Reader 1: “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.”

Scripture Reader 2: Forgive them

Whispered Voice-over: Hate

Scripture Reader 1: Forgive them

Whispered Voice-over: Murder

Scripture Reader 1: Forgive them

Whispered Voice-over: Apathy

Scripture Reader 1: Forgive them

Whispered Voice-over: Pride

Scripture Reader 1: Forgive them

Whispered Voice-over: Witchcraft

Scripture Reader 1: Forgive them

Whispered Voice-over: Tyranny

Scripture Reader 1: Forgive them

Scripture Reader 2: “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Transition with a song or prayer.

Scripture: John 19:1-3,5-6,16-17,23,25-27,30Luke 23:34

Jesus is the Author

…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:2 NKJV

 

Jesus writes a book. Though many debate the genre, it is a love story from cover to cover. Christ is at the center. No other personality shines brighter that the Hero of the Gospel. Often the bride is unfaithful, choosing other personalities and recreations but His voice has never been stronger as He calls out to anyone who is weary of all the noise and chaos.

Grace- the subtext.

Selfishness and fear- the crises

The Fall- the setting

The Spirit- our wise sage.

The Climax- He is coming soon.

Why this story?  Joy

What is the price of such a novel? The blood of the Son.