Autumn and the Beauty of Death for the Christian

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(Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash)

I am a pastor in New England, and let me tell you–there is a reason people come from all over the country to see the Fall foliage. Here in New England, we call them “leaf peepers.” During peak leaf season, our sleepy tourist town of 5,000 goes into traffic-jam mode on the weekends. And with good reason. In our part of Vermont, we are surrounded by the Green Mountains on either side of the large valley we live in. When Fall really hits, there are a couple of weeks when the Green Mountains become the Orange, Red, and Gold Mountains.

We are currently easing into leaf season. There are bright bursts of brilliant crimson and orange on certain trees, but there is still plenty of green foliage that will have the chlorophyll leaving soon. Many leaves, however, are already floating to the ground. When a leaf falls to the ground, it is dead. The beauty of Fall foliage is death.

The Beauty of Christian Death
As I have watched the breathtaking hues begin to appear this Fall, I keep thinking about the fact that sometimes death is beautiful. In fact, for those who belong to Jesus, for those who are “in Christ,” death is always beautiful. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). If the LORD calls the death of those he has saved “precious in his sight,” then it is beautiful.

I am a pastor. I am not naively saying that the death of those who are in Christ is without sorrow, or always happens painlessly in our sleep. Just this week I visited a member in a hospice home, suffering under the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I have sat and cried with spouses and children moments after their loved one has departed this earth, sometimes after a terrible battle with death. I have visited church members in the hospital who are in excruciating pain days before their death. Accidents happen to saints and sinners alike. Cancer can visit us all. The Apostle Paul calls death the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

No, I am not talking about Christian death being beautiful because it is somehow less physically painful or less final on this side of eternity than non-Christian death. I am talking about Christian death being beautiful because the gospel gives us God’s perspective on even our final enemy, death.

Going Home–The Joy of Jesus’ Presence
Last night in Prayer Meeting we sang, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Great gospel truths like this one from “How Great Thou Art” can become white noise to us if we don’t stop and think about the wonder of death being the door through which we are usually “taken home.” In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul reminds us of the joy of Jesus’ presence that awaits us by exclaiming, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Death for the Christian is beautiful because it brings us to the place we were made for. We are only pilgrims now. We will finally be home with the Lord either when Jesus returns, or on the day that we die. This is why there is beauty in Christian death.

But there’s more. Four verses earlier in 2 Corinthians 5 we are told why the day of our death is the day of our greatest joy: “…so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). We think that we are really living life here and that one day we will die, but one reason that the death of the LORD’s saints is precious in his sight is because he knows that our death day is the day that we pass from mortality to life. The beauty in Christian death is that it is when we begin to really live, with the One we were made to live with, our Savior–not to mention saved family and friends who will meet us there. In Jesus, it is not death to die. This is why King David can sing, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). It’s like arriving home to the family you love after a long trip–only a billion times better.

The Beauty of Fall and The Hope of Resurrection
Every time that I officiate a Memorial Service for a believer in Jesus, I feed my soul on 1 Corinthians 15 in the days leading up to the service. We need to weep as Jesus wept. We need to feel that death is so final on this side of eternity. But we need to remember that for the Christian, their death day was the most beautiful day they ever experienced.

And there is coming a day when Jesus will reveal that beauty to all of us. For on the day that he returns, the resurrection body given to each believer will be imperishable, glorious, and powerful (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)! “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The beauty in Christian death is hard to see sometimes. Winter can be long and bleak. After the leaves fall, our trees will be barren here for over 6 months.

But lift your heads, brothers and sisters, because Spring follows Winter. It may be Fall now, but Spring time–and Resurrection Morning–is coming.

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Four Things I Love About Jesus

Note: For a couple of months, I was preaching The Gospel of Mark in our Sunday Worship Service, then teaching Sunday School in the Gospels using The Gospel Project, and then teaching our Men’s Bible Study mid-week in The Gospel of John. Usually I am teaching from many different areas of the Bible. But rather than getting bored with Jesus, spending concentrated time in the Gospels has made me fall in love with Him deeper as I have had the privilege of looking to Jesus for hours each week. May a couple of things I have seen in a fresh way from gazing at Jesus, encourage you in your pursuit of looking to Jesus today (Hebrews 12:2)!
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1) His Unlimited Power
Jesus has power like no other. As I have watched him take 5 loaves and 2 fish and feed 20,000 people, I am reminded that He is the One who provides for my needs and the needs of my family and the needs of my church today. As I have watched him talk to a storm and have seen it obey him, I am reminded that even the weather answers to his command. As I have watched him deliver a man who under the possession of thousands of demons broke chains, cut himself, and lived in tombs–I am reminded of his sovereignty over even my spiritual enemies. As I have watched him speak to Lazarus’ stinking tomb, I am reminded that whenever Jesus goes toe to toe with death he always wins.

Did you catch that last part? He doesn’t just have the power to feed a multitude from a little boy’s lunch, he doesn’t just have the power to stop a storm with his voice, he doesn’t just have ultimate power over spiritual darkness, he actually has power over our greatest and final enemy, death itself. We literally have the antidote for death. His name is Jesus. His power is unlimited! 

2) His Unbounded Compassion
If Jesus were all power without compassion, he might not be worthy of worship. After all, Hitler had a lot of power, but he used it to destroy. But Jesus’ unlimited power is wed with his unlimited compassion. And how thankful I am that these two characteristics of Jesus will never be divorced from each other. I need an all-powerful Savior who can conquer Satan, and sin, and death. But I need an all-compassionate Savior who cares about my helpless situation and acts on my behalf.

The same Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ grave is the same Jesus who sees each of my tears. The same Jesus who raised a little girl from her death bed, is the same Jesus who moments earlier stopped in the middle of the road to seek out a suffering and shame-stricken woman. His compassion is unbounded!

3) His Unrestrained Truth
A true friend will tell you if you have broccoli in your teeth. “Friends” who tell us what we want to hear are a dime a dozen. But friends who care about us so much that they tell us what we need to hear are a rare jewel. We tend to remember the resolution to Jesus calming the storm with warm fuzzies. But after Jesus rebuked the wind (!) and spoke to the sea (!), he said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). It was an uncomfortable moment–but one the disciples never forgot–as the Creator looked them in the eyes with water dripping off his beard and asked them why they did not trust in him.

If we read all of Jesus’ words in the Gospels, not just the ones that we want to read, we will be confronted with truths like Hell that we need him to speak unreservedly about. I won’t trust my doctor if he doesn’t want to use the word cancer because it makes me uncomfortable. Jesus not only tells us the truth about our hearts and eternity and our need for him, he IS the truth (John 14:6). In a world of compromise, his truth is unrestrained!

4) His Unmatched Grace
Just as Jesus is both all-powerful and all-compassionate, only Jesus can be all grace and all truth at the same time. This is because this is who the living God is. This is because Jesus is God with skin on. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14).” It is no accident that one of the few “calling stories” that the Gospel of Mark goes into detail about is Jesus calling Levi, a tax collector, to follow him. And then Jesus has a leisurely meal at Levi’s house along with many tax collectors and sinners. I am so thankful that Jesus eats with sinners. I remember this every time I come to the Table during the Lord’s Supper.

When a deaf and mute man was brought to Jesus, this man who had always been a spectacle was taken aside, one-on-one, so that he could understand Jesus’ simple sign language and read Jesus’ lips without distraction. The Savior who taught the multitudes showed grace to one man who needed it. This grace is yours today because this Jesus is yours today. Through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, you have the grace of forgiven sins, the grace of strength for today, and the grace of bright hope for tomorrow. His grace is unmatched!

If you have been bored with Jesus recently, maybe it’s time to read the Gospels with fresh eyes again. May you be in awe of Jesus. More than that, may you be in love with him.  

The Congregation

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Note:  This is part of an on-going series as I blog through D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ “Preaching and Preachers.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones turns to the congregation in Chapter 7 of Preaching and Preachers.  Considering that this book was originally published in 1972, it has amazing relevance to today.  In talking about modern men and women and how the “pew” too often now tries to dictate to the “pulpit,” Lloyd-Jones defends the idea of a pastor opening the Bible and preaching from the text.

We are told that today they cannot think and follow reasoned statements, that they are so accustomed to the kind of outlook and mentality produced by newspapers, television and films, that they are incapable of following a reasoned, argued statement…

…Another form which it takes is to say that these people cannot understand the biblical terminology, that to talk about Justification and Sanctification and Glorification is meaningless to them… (135)

Lloyd-Jones explains that although people in the congregation at different levels of maturity (and even different ages) will be able to comprehend biblical truths on different levels, that there should be a simplicity to our preaching that all can understand: “There is no greater fallacy than to think that you need a gospel for special types of people.” (141)

I praise God that I serve a congregation who hungers for God’s Word.  We are a local body that ranges from men with Master of Divinity degrees to stay at home moms to university professors to little children.  We have union workers and high-level programmers and custodians all sitting in our pews on Sunday.  We have believers who have walked with God for over 60 years and others who are still asking questions about who Jesus is.  My job is to tie myself to God’s Word and proclaim Christ Jesus and Him crucified.

Times will change.  Times have changed since Lloyd-Jones wrote Preaching and Preachers.  Education level and careers and technology and even spiritual maturity will be in a constant state of flux in our world.  But there are several constants that I thank Lloyd-Jones for reminding me of: people are sinners, Jesus is a great Savior, and the Holy Spirit speaks powerfully to people through His preached Word!

With the Apostle Paul I declare, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24)  The Spirit of God takes the Word of God and points to the Lamb of God to bring people to God.  That will never change.

Source:  Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn.  Preaching & Preachers: 40th Anniversay Edition.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

“Who Will Roll Away the Stone for Us?”

The Empty TombHindsight is always 20/20.  Over 2,000 years ago the pressing question for a group of Jesus-worshiping ladies Sunday morning was, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:3)  It was a great question.  They wanted to anoint Jesus with spices to show honor and respect to Him but they didn’t know how they were going to get to Him.

If you have ever seen a rolling stone tomb from the first century (picture to the left), you can immediately feel their anxiety.  Joseph of Arimathea had rolled the “great stone” to the entrance of the tomb (Matt. 27:60), and they had watched him do it (Matt. 27:61).  The flat stone blocking the entrance would have been on a sort of rough “track” so it could be rolled back and forth as needed, as most of these expensive tombs would have entire families buried there.  But it was a large stone–probably even with a mechanism to make it harder to open than it was to close, as was common–and these women, going alone early in the morning, were not sure they could budge it.

However, there was an even more daunting problem that they may have been unaware of.  On the Sabbath, the day after Jesus had died and was buried, chief priests and Pharisees had received permission from Pilate to use Roman soldiers to not only guard the tomb, but also to seal it (Matt. 27:66).

The religious leaders were concerned with somebody stealing the body and lying that Jesus had risen.  Those leaders were preoccupied with somebody going into the tomb, when they should have been preoccupied with Somebody coming out.

Meanwhile, for the women the question remained as they walked there together that morning: “Who will roll away the stone for us?”  But then it happened.  There was a great earthquake.  An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone for them–and us–to see that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead!  This rolling away of the stone was so powerful and dramatic, and the appearance of the angel was so radiant, that the soldiers commissioned with guarding the tomb fainted (Matt. 28:3-4).

Large stones are heavy.  Guarded, sealed tombs are impenetrable.  But they can’t contain the risen Christ!

If you will allow me to help you apply this without being overly metaphorical, what is the stone in your heart right now?  What is it that is getting in the way of your saving belief in the risen Christ?  Assuming that you know Him as your Savior and Lord, what is it that is currently getting in the way of you living like your King truly is the risen and reigning Jesus?  Ask the Holy Spirit right now to help you see past the large stone and into the empty tomb.  For Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!

Our King is Humble Yet All-Powerful

One of the things that I love about Jesus are the truthful paradoxes that I see in Him as I read the Gospels.  He is full of grace, yet truth.  He is fully God, yet fully man.  He is gentle, yet bold.  He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, yet He is the Lamb of God.

tissot-the-guards-falling-backwards-746x560Jesus’ closest disciples got a front-row seat to another seeming paradox the night that He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is one of my favorite accounts in Jesus’ Passion Week because it reminds us of Jesus’ humility and submission to the Father’s will as an obedient man, yet of His sovereignty and power as God (I have posted more extensively about John 18:3-6 here).

The beloved Apostle, moved by the Holy Spirit, remembered that night: “So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.  Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to Him, came forward and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’  They answered Him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’  Jesus said to them, ‘I am He.’  Judas, who betrayed Him, was standing with them.  When Jesus said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.” (John 18:3-6)

Judas showed up to betray Jesus with a kiss, by bringing a “cohort” of Roman soldiers along with officers, chief priests, and Pharisees.  They had lanterns, torches, and weapons including clubs–and no doubt the regular weapons that Roman soldiers would carry.  These were not only angry religious leaders who were boldly breathing murder, these were also highly trained soldiers in an army that had battled the most powerful armies on earth and won.

But when Jesus spoke a word–when Jesus said His Name, the Name of God, “I am”–hundreds of skilled soldiers and fuming Pharisees fell to the ground.

Jesus didn’t exclaim, “See?  I am God’s Son!  I am the Messiah!  I just knocked you to the ground with my all-powerful voice, the same voice that created the world!”  Jesus was on a rescue mission.  He had just begged His omnipotent Father to remove the cup from Him.  To not place the sin of the world upon Him, to not be separated from His Father for the first and only time in all of eternity, to not be beaten and placed on the cross as an innocent man who would experience Hell in a sense for three hours.  The Father had said no, and the Son had said yes.  Jesus had declared through sweat drops of blood, “…not my will, but yours, be done.”  Nothing would deter Jesus from redeeming His people.  He would allow Himself to be arrested and the chain of events that He could already see to begin (John 18:4).

Jesus effortlessly knocked hundreds to the ground with His voice, reminding them and us of His power, but then moments later He humbly allowed them to arrest Him, reminding them and us of His saving purpose.

As we approach Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday, will you gaze at Jesus with me?  Oh, that we would not have hard hearts and go through the motions during another Easter season!  The soldiers and religious leaders that night not only saw Jesus’ power, they felt it like cold hard ground.  But their hearts didn’t melt before the King.  Oh Jesus, just as You later saved some of those same religious leaders and soldiers, warm our hearts to You, and help us to see You for who You really are!

Don’t Cover Up the Manger

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My wife and I had the joy of teaching Children’s Church on Sunday, and I loved the opening illustration.  As the children came into the room they took turns writing what they do to get ready for Christmas on the whiteboard.  As could be expected 10 days before Christmas, most of it had to do with presents.

Then Melanie read a list of some of the things we often do to prepare for Christmas and a prop was placed into a manger on top of a doll for each activity.  There was a cookie sheet, a little Christmas tree, a camera to represent the family photo, stationery, and of course several presents.

The point was not that doing activities to celebrate Christmas is bad, but rather that we can get so busy getting ready to celebrate Jesus’ birthday that we forget about Jesus.  He can get covered up by all of the details or traditions and be completely missed.

Isn’t this what the chief priests and scribes did in Matthew chapter 2?  They were so concerned with their traditions that even though they knew a lot about Christ’s birth, they didn’t go to see Him or worship Him.

All of those things in the manger in that Children’s Church room should have been outside the manger.  They should have pointed to Jesus rather than take His place!

This Christmas, don’t cover up the manger, but point to it. Because pointing to the manger points us to the cross. “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21)

It is too much!

As followers of Christ, we often forget all that God has planned for us–we have a hopeful future so glorious that we cannot take it all in now.  “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” (1 Corinthians 1sunrise with tree3:12)  This is one reason that we need God’s Word to not only inform our minds, but also to warm our hearts.  We need God’s truth to not only instruct us now, but also to point us forward through our present to what God is preparing us for.  This is what 1 John 3:2 has done for me recently:  “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.”

Today, fellow believer in our resurrected King Jesus, you are God’s child.  If you are in Christ you will never more be God’s child than you already are now.

But God went even further, even beyond bringing us into an intimate family relationship as His child.  He wants us to be near Him.  He has completely reconciled us to Himself through what Christ did on the cross, and that includes our future hope of glorification!  When people see the resurrected Christ in the Bible, they fall down out of fear because they are overwhelmed at His majesty, and at His holiness and their sinfulness (Revelation 1:17).  We may fall before Jesus’ feet when He appears at His Second Coming just out of sheer worship and praise and adoration and love and awe–but it will not be out of fear–because He will change us.

The Apostle John lovingly reminds us that although we cannot fully comprehend what we will be when Christ comes back at His Second Coming, we can know this: “we shall be like Him.”  We will finally be sinless, and we will have transformed, glorified resurrection bodies!

A missionary was working with a tribe that had received the gospel fairly recently, and as he was translating 1 John a scribe was making a copy.  When the missionary told him to write, “…we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is,” the scribe threw down his pen and exclaimed, “No!  It is too much!  Let us write, ‘when He appears we shall kiss His feet.'”  He was right.  It is too much.  Our God lavishes His grace on us in Christ.  Are you overwhelmed with praise at these precious promises?