Showing posts from April, 2017

The God of Angel-Armies Is On Your Side

Among the many places we'll be visiting today in our Holy Land pilgrimage, we'll be spending some time at Jericho.  Jericho is now officially under the governance of the Palestinian Authority, so our guide won't be able to guide us in an official capacity.  

When you visit Jericho, you'll get the opportunity to see Elisha's Spring, a spring that once flowed with bitter water, until it was healed by the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2:21), and you'll probably want to take a photo by the mosaic fountain that is emblazoned with the words, "The Oldest City In The World."  

But it's the "Tel" that will take up most of your visit--a large hill with thousands of years of civilization buried beneath it.  The story that captures our imagination the most, however, is the one we find in the Hebrew Scriptures in Joshua chapters 5 & 6.  

This is of course the story of how Joshua and the Hebrew people conquered the great walled city of Jericho without a si…

On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand

Today our pilgrimage in the Holy Land will take us to the Jordan River and the Yardenit baptismal site.  

The site we'll be visiting is far from the traditional site where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, which is to the south, near Jericho.  This site also happens to be the spot where the Israelites miraculously crossed the Jordan River on their way to enter and take the Promised Land.  

Some scholars also believe that it's also the site where the river miraculously parted when Elijah struck the river with his cloak so that he and his apprentice Elisha could walk over on dry land.  Elisha in turn struck the river with Elisha's cloak when he returned from seeing his master taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. 

So the baptismal site of Jesus (the traditional one) is pretty important.  

Mark's Gospel notes the baptism of Jesus with these words: 

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up…

Blessed Be

Today our Holy Land pilgrimage will take us to the Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site where Jesus is believed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount.  The Beatitudes are found in the first few verses of Matthew chapter 5: 

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for i…

The Gates Of Hell Are Shattered

Today our pilgrimage to the Holy Land will take us to the ruins of Caesarea Philippi.

Ancient Canaanites worshipped there thousands of years before Christ.  These Canaanites engaged in barbaric forms of worship, including the sacrifice of infant children, which were thrown into the deep spring that pooled inside the massive cave at the back of the site. 

This cave was often referred to as the "Gates of Hades."  More on that in a bit. 

By the time Jesus and his disciples made the trek north from the Galilee to Caesarea Philippi, it had been shaped by Greek and then Roman influences, and was the site of the debauched worship of a variety of gods, including the Greek god Pan.  There was even a temple erected for the worship of Caesar Augustus.  

In Matthew chapter 16, Jesus stands in front of the ancient temples with his disciples and asks them a question:  "Who do people say that I am?"  

The disciples responded by saying: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; an…

Jesus On The Edge of A Cliff

For the next couple of weeks my daily devotions will be drawing inspiration from the Holy Land, which is where I will be during that time frame--leading a group of 33 pilgrims.  

Today our band of Holy Land pilgrims will be visiting (among many other sites) the Mount of Precipice, a cliff just outside the city of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up.  

After Jesus is baptized by John, and then tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, according to Luke, he returns to Nazareth and is invited to read Scripture and teach in the synagogue.  

Jesus reads a prophecy from the prophet Isaiah: 

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,

19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

In a stunning claim, Jesus tells the crowd that this messianic prophecy was fulfilled through him.  Then when they begin grumbli…

The View From The Mountain

For the next couple of weeks my daily devotions will be drawing inspiration from the Holy Land, which is where I will be during that time frame--leading a group of 33 pilgrims.  

At some point today our group of Holy Land pilgrims will be landing in Tel Aviv, Israel and will begin the arduous process of going through customs, retrieving our bags and somehow getting all 34 people in our group to the bus that will carry us to the Sea of Galilee.  

It's possible that on the way we will be able to make a stop at Mt. Arbel, a cliff that rises sharply on the west side of the Sea of Galilee to a height of nearly a thousand feet above the lake itself.  

Did I mention that the Sea of Galilee is not actually a "sea?" It's a freshwater lake that is essentially seven-and-a-half miles wide and thirteen miles long.  It's known in the Bible as the Sea of Galilee, but also the Sea of Tiberias and Lake Gennesaret (a word that means 'garden of riches').  

As you stand on top o…

Hearts Set On Pilgrimage

For the next nearly two weeks I will be leading another tour group to the Holy Land (my fourth such group and my fifth overall trip to Israel), and my  daily devotions during that time will be using some of the highlights of this journey as inspiration.  I hope you enjoy.

"Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage." - Psalm 84:5

Today I will be leaving Austin to join 33 other pilgrims from all over the United States on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  You might be asking at this point, "Why are you using the word 'pilgrimage' rather than 'tour?'  Aren't you just leading a tour?"  

Technically, I suppose you could call what we will be participating in a "tour."  We will be riding on a tour bus to particular sites and we will be led by a tour guide once we get to these sites.  Additionally, the name badge I have been issued by the tour company indicates I am a tour host... so, there's that.  

But th…

Easter Isn't Over!

Today is officially the second day of the season of Easter in the traditional Church calendar.  There are fifty days in the season of Easter, in case you were wondering, which begins on Resurrection Sunday and ends on the Day of Pentecost. 

Why is this important?  Why should we care about Church traditions?  To begin with, this reminder about the season of Easter helps us to remember that the Resurrection isn't just something that we celebrate one day a year.  How great it is it that Easter lasts almost two months?

Secondly, it reminds us that there is an alternative rhythm to life--one that enables us to break free from the breakneck pace, stress and oppression of the rhythms of our culture.  

I was at a pharmacy today and they were already tearing down all of the Easter decor to make way for summer advertisements. It was a harsh reminder of how we build up excitement for important celebrations, and then we can hardly wait to move on once they're over.  

We need to take our celeb…

Risen - Easter 2017

Hope is what you get when you realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich and the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word.- N. T. Wright.

Several years ago, I went to the Holy Land Experience amusement park in Orlando--which I think is now closing down.  It's a strange place, to be honest.  I'm not sure just how much of the amusement park itself is representative of the Holy Land... but it's an experience, so there's that. 

At the Holy Land Experience amusement park there is a replica of the Empty Tomb of Jesus.  This is a photo of the inside of the tomb:

Yes. That is a door in the back of the Empty Tomb.  I have used this before in a sermon, but it's just too good to not use again.  I can't tell you how many deep theological problems this back door to the Empty Tomb creates.  But there it is. 

I've had the opportunity to go on three different pilgrimages to the actual Holy Land in Israel, and am prep…

God's Friday

It is Good Friday---the day that Christians commemorate the death of Jesus on the Cross.  I read years ago that it was once called "God's Friday," but that "God's" eventually morphed into "Good" over the centuries. 

Regardless, Christian now call this Friday "Good" because through the death of Christ we believe that our old self with all of its baggage is crucified, put to death and buried with Him, which is definitely good news.  

Last night at the powerful Maundy Thursday service we held at my church, we stripped the sanctuary of all of its decorations as we concluded worship.  One of the other pastors and I took the large cross that hangs on the wall of the sanctuary down and carried it out.

When I looked back at the bare wall, I felt my emotions well up inside of me.  It was a helpless kind of feeling that I felt.  The loss of that familiar symbol hit me harder than I thought it would.    

Kathleen Morris once wrote, "Good Friday is…

A New Command

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day that Christians all around the world will be commemorating the Last Supper, the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before he was betrayed.  

"Maundy" is derived from the Latin word "mandatum," which means commandment.  This reflects the "new commandment" that Jesus gave to his disciples when he told them: "Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another."  

On this Maundy Thursday, I am reflecting on something that has long haunted me about the Last Supper, and it has to do with Judas, the Betrayer.  When they sat down to share the Passover that first Maundy Thursday evening, Judas had already made up his mind to betray Jesus, and had already taken money to do so.  The plan was in place, the die was set.  

Perhaps Judas wanted something more from Jesus--a revolution or an armed rebellion against the Romans.  His nickname "Iscariot" has led some to believe he was connected…

Painting Yourself Into The Scene

Many years ago, I saw a painting by Rembrandt that has been cemented in my imagination. The painting is entitled The Raising of the Cross, and it was completed by Rembrandt in 1633.  The interesting thing about the painting is that the artist painted himself into it, not once but twice.  

If you look closely, you will see Rembrandt's self portrait in a beret-wearing workman at the foot of the Cross (which Jesus is nailed to), working with soldiers to lift it. You will also see his face in the figure of a foreman of sorts wearing a turban, directing the entire scene.  

Rembrandt's imagery forces us to admit that unless we are willing to place ourselves at the scene of Christ's death, we'll never be able to fully imagine ourselves standing in awe outside the Empty Tomb.  

In other words, if we are to live in to the hope of the Resurrection on the other side of Crucifixion, we need to confront the truth about who we are, and where we find ourselves at the foot of the Cross.�…

When Your Eyes Grow Heavy & Your Sight Grows Dim

It's Tuesday of Holy Week, and my daily readings are filled with the stories of Jesus' Passion, most notably his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane right before Judas betrayed him and he was taken. 
When he went to Gethsemane to pray that night, Jesus brought three of his disciples with him:  Peter, James and John.  
These same three were with Jesus on top of a mountain when the glory of God shone through him and he was transfigured in front of them.  The disciples were astonished to see a transformed Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, and hear God's voice exhorting them to listen to His Beloved Son. 
At Gethsemane, when Jesus commanded the three to stand watch and pray, they failed to listen to him.  Whatever zeal they experienced because of Jesus revealed glory gave way to weariness and frailty. 
"Couldn't you keep watch with me for a single hour?" Jesus asks them when he found them asleep.  
In that moment we get a glimpse of the pain Jesus felt in his time…

An Earth Shattering Encounter With Jesus

When I was preparing yesterday's Palm Sunday sermon, I uncovered something in my study of Matthew 21:1-11 that was incredibly interesting, and I wanted to find a way to fit it into my sermon.  

But I realized pretty quickly that adding it in would mean several minutes of teaching that really didn't support my main point. As much as I wouldn't mind preaching for forty five minutes, I decided against it.  After all, a wise person once said, "The mind can only absorb what the posterior can endure."

The passage of Scripture from yesterday's reading that struck me was this one from Matthew 21:10 that went something like this: "When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, 'Who is this?'"

The key word there is "stirred," which is also translated as "the whole trembled shuddered" or "trembled."  The Greek word is seio, which is the root word for words like seismic or seismology.  

So, in other words, …

Palm Sunday - "Save Us Now!"

Today is Palm Sunday---the beginning of Holy Week, and the day we celebrate Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  

We celebrate in an unusual kind of way:  Unleash a bunch of kids waving palms into the sanctuary, while we belt out celebratory songs at the top of our lungs--all the while trying to keep from having some over-exuberant, palm-waving kid poke our eyes out... or at the very least give us a nice lashing on the cheek.  

Can you imagine if someone walked into a church for the very first time in their life on Palm Sunday?  What do you think they would make of all of this?  I imagine that they would have a few questions, don't you? 

The first one would be, "What in the world is this????"  

And then the second one would be: 

"Is this some sort of cult?  Am I going to be forced to wear robes, sell my house and live in a commune of some kind if I start hanging out with these people?  I mean, they seem normal enough outside of the crazy palm waving and the singin…