Friday, March 25, 2016

The Most Important Thing About Your Story

I love stories. Tell me your story, and I’ll tell you mine. Stories connect our hearts and intricately weave our lives together. Maybe you’ve heard the Easter story told hundreds and hundreds of times. Maybe you haven’t. Maybe you know a few details and understand that this story has nothing at all to do with pastel eggs or a giant bunny. Maybe you think it has absolutely nothing to do with you.

Every time I read this story, God shows me something brand new. It’s the beauty of the living Word at work.  I return to this story again and again because it holds life. It holds meaning. It holds everything I believe together.

Without this story, my story is incomplete.

Today, as I read familiar words and take note of chronological events, two names stand out to me: Simon of Cyrene and Joseph of Arimathea. With some digging, I find a couple of details about each man, but what captures my attention is how each played a crucial role in this story about Jesus. 

The cross is a popular symbol in our culture. Back in Jesus’ day it was anything but popular. It was a symbol of rejection, of shame, of brutality. The cross invoked fear. It represented death. After Jesus was beaten beyond recognition, He had to carry His thirty to forty pound cross to a place called Golgotha, which means “the place of the skull.” He would be hung there, disgracefully for all to see.

Meet Simon:
Mark’s account of that day tells us that somewhere along the way to Golgotha, a man named Simon was seized by the Roman soldiers. (See Mark 15:21) He was forced to carry the cross the rest of the way after Jesus’ strength gave out somewhere along that road. Simon was from a region in North Africa with a large Jewish population. Many believe he was traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover.

All we know about this man is where he came from and how he carried that cross behind Jesus. He is never mentioned again in scripture, though some think his son, Rufus, is the same man Paul mentions in Romans 10:13. We don’t even know if he knew who he was following as he carried that heavy, burdensome cross.  I wonder if he thought Jesus had nothing to do with him.

The rest of the story is found in the verses that follow. (See Mark 15:22-41) Jesus was nailed to the cross, ridiculed and mocked, then underneath a blackened sky, He gave up His spirit and died. Those with Him must have felt such incredible despair. Surely this wasn’t what they were expecting. Yet this one event would change eternity. Jesus died so we would never have to. Jesus paid the penalty on our behalf, and it cost Him everything.

Meet Joseph:
Our other guy appears in verse 43. Joseph was a wealthy man (according to Matthew) and an upstanding member of the Jewish council. Mark tells us that he was a follower of Jesus and did not consent to the decision to crucify Jesus, yet there isn’t a trace of his name during the trial. John reveals that he followed Jesus secretly, because he feared the Jewish leaders.

We can piece together that he had some influence with Pilate, because he approached him boldly to request that the body of Jesus be taken down from the cross. According to Jewish custom, the bodies of the deceased were taken down before evening, especially before the Sabbath, which began at sundown on Friday. After confirming that Jesus was dead, Pilate conceded, and Joseph, along with the help of Nicodemus, took down the body of Jesus, wrapped him in linen, and laid him in his own tomb. Afterwards, he rolled a stone in front of the tomb and went on his way. That is the last we hear of Joseph.

Why would God include these two men in this story?

The man who carried Jesus’ cross and the man who buried His body couldn’t have been more different. One was a foreigner, the other an upstanding member of the community. One was an outsider; one had inside privileges. One man knew Jesus, and the other probably didn’t. One was wealthy and prominent, known in the Jewish community. The other was an unknown, unrecognized, common man. Yet both were used by God to fulfill prophecies recorded centuries before.  Both were crucial to the telling of God’s story.

This story doesn’t end with a crucified body in a rich man’s tomb. Love drove Jesus to that cross Simon carried, and Love raised Him three days later to walk out of Joseph’s tomb alive and victorious. Hundreds of witnesses saw Him, spoke to Him, and some even touched the scars on His hands. The people were confused and frightened and overjoyed and overwhelmed, though it happened exactly the way Jesus said it would. This wasn’t a mistake in God’s story.

This story would begin to rewrite every story ever written.

Simon’s story and Joseph’s story were about a cross and an empty tomb. It’s no different for us. Every story comes down to the cross and the empty tomb. The cross will always represent death, and the rich man’s tomb will always be remembered as empty. But without the cross, there is no empty tomb. Without death, there is no new life. Without Jesus, every story is incomplete.

You might be accepted or left out, rich or poor, known or unknown, common or privileged. You might be influential and successful, or you might just find yourself at the right place at the right time. You might be a follower of Jesus or you might not know Him at all. These two men were hand picked by God and included in His story for two reasons: because God loved the world and He had a story to tell. Simon’s story told the very same story that Joseph’s story told.  Their stories were about God.

My story is a story about God. So is yours.

We live in a culture obsessed with ourselves- a “selfie society,” some call it. Simon’s story wasn’t about him, and Joseph’s story wasn’t about him either. Right there on the pages of scripture, I’m convicted and convinced that I don’t quite fully understand.

Earlier in Mark, before His arrest, Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (See Mark 8:34-35)

The most sinful part of us that cannot live in harmony with God, no matter how hard we try or how good we try to be, must die with Jesus. We deny ourselves when we acknowledge that our lives belong to Him, that our stories belong to God. We take up our crosses when we realize that our stories can only be told in the context of surrendering everything to Jesus.

If we really understood this, we’d acknowledge that we are in this together and that God is writing His story across each one of our hearts. We’d recognize that Jesus is the center of every story, that He is the thing our hearts crave. Deep within our marrow, we would realize that we are known by our Creator, whether we know Jesus or not. We could start to believe that our story is a good one. After all, it’s a story about God. We could put aside making a name for ourselves and instead work together to make His name known. And somewhere out along the road we travel, our stories might become less about us and more about giving away the love of God.

Jesus loves you,

Friday, March 4, 2016

When You Pray and Nothing Changes

Suspicion grows weighty and worry plagues my mind for months before the diagnosis finally confirms all my silent fears. My mom has cancer. An overwhelming sense of entitlement follows:  This isn’t what I asked for, God. No, this is the very thing I prayed against. God, you know I believe You can do anything, but God, I prayed and nothing changed.

My faith feels dead, but I know it isn’t. Dreams may be dying, but not my faith. Faith will move me from this raw and honest prayer of heartbreak to an entirely new prayer, eventually. Faith will move me to a prayer that sounds more like this:  I trust You, God, even in this. You are good even if the news isn’t. Whenever I seek You I always find You. Thank you that nothing changes You.

Faith is the vehicle that brings me back to gratitude, because faith isn’t based on my understanding. Faith has nothing to do with me and everything to do with God. Faith assures me that no matter how impossible the circumstances might seem I will find God.

I don’t need strong faith; I need faith in a strong God.

Daniel found God in an impossible situation. A Jewish exile who had been promoted to a very high station in the Medo-Persian Empire, Daniel’s reputation was spotless. The other officials became so jealous that they tried and tried to find ways to slander him, yet they could not. So they did what our enemy loves to do to us: they went after his relationship with God.

Appealing to King Darius’ ego, they concocted a brilliant plan to get the king to sign a new law stating that everyone in the kingdom must pray only to him for thirty days. Those who broke the law would be thrown into the lion’s den. The king agreed and the document was signed, making the law irrevocable, even by the king himself. Daniel’s enemies knew he’d never stop talking to God.

When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:10

When Daniel received bad news, he gave thanks. Daniel wasn’t thanking God for the bad news; he just knew there were plenty of reasons to give thanks based on God’s character rather than his circumstances. Gratitude prompted peace in his heart. Daniel knew nothing could change how God felt about him. Nothing.  Not being persecuted or slandered or mistreated or rejected or falsely accused. Not even being trapped in a den full of lions.

Nothing changes God’s love for us.

Then they said to the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, Your Majesty, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.” When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him. Daniel 6:13-14

King Darius was a powerful king. He tried and tried to change Daniel’s situation, but he could not. His rescue mission failed. He was too late. It had become an incredibly impossible situation. The king’s plan involved keeping Daniel from the lion’s den altogether, but God’s plan involved entering the lion’s den Himself. That’s always been God’s plan.

Jesus willingly entered the dark, sin-infested pit of this world to suffer and serve and confront the lion, so that we might live with God in an ongoing relationship forever and ever. Moved by a love that’s unchanging, God paid the price that we never could.

Nothing changes God’s plan to rescue and redeem.

So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. Daniel 6:16-17

Just as the king sealed the den so Daniel’s situation could not be changed, God has sealed us so that we are forever marked as His. To everyone who believes in Jesus, God has promised the gift of His Spirit as a deposit that cannot be revoked. His Spirit within us is proof of His promise. No matter how hard life gets, no matter how far we fall, God has promised He will never remove His Spirit. 

Nothing changes the power of God’s Spirit within us.

If we quit before the story’s over, it might go something like this: Daniel prayed and nothing changed. He had to spend the night with hungry lions. I don’t know what den you’re facing, but Daniel’s story isn’t over yet, and neither is yours. King Darius sprinted to the den the next morning, unsure of what he would find. When he heard Daniel’s voice, he had no choice but to believe in Daniel’s God as well.

Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions' mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.” Then the king was exceedingly glad, and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.  Daniel 6:21-23

I have a tendency to read through this story and forget it really happened. These were real lions- real hungry lions- that had their mouths shut by God. Scripture doesn’t say God filled their stomachs and satisfied their appetites. It only says their mouths were shut. These weren’t sweet cats purring all night long. They were angry and frustrated and confused. And still very, very hungry.

God didn’t remove the threat from Daniel’s life; He rendered the threat powerless over Daniels’ life. The lions remained a part of Daniel’s story, but the lions could never overpower God. 1 Peter 5:8 says that our “enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

Though we still encounter the lion, God has rendered him powerless over those who trust in Jesus.

Daniel’s faith in God did not change, because he understood that nothing changes God. Not addiction, not job loss, not failure, not slander, not divorce, not cancer, not even death can separate us from Him. We can have faith in God through the most impossible situations, because His love never changes, His plan cannot be revoked, and His Spirit will never depart from those who are His.

May we embrace the promise of a God who never changes even as we are dealt heartbreaking disappointments and harsh setbacks. May we give thanks at all times and in all circumstances, especially the unfavorable ones. May we cling to the God who holds in His hand the whole mess of our lives and every broken way we take. May we rest in the companionship of God, knowing that no matter what unfolds in the here and now His love will usher us into eternity blameless and unscathed.

Jesus loves you,