ONE STEP CLOSER TO THE CROSS

It was always about this. From the very beginning, every moment, every journey, every sermon, every miracle was about this.

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There's a verse I stumbled across the other day as I was reflecting on these squares on the calendar that we call "holy week," and what that really means. When I say stumbled, it's because I found something I wasn't looking for, and I've been sort of stuck there ever since. 

The Message version of John 12:27-28 says:

"Right now I am storm-tossed.  And what am I going to say? 'Father, get me out of this'? No this is why I came in the first place.  I'll say, 'Father put your glory on display.' "  MSG

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I'm stuck because I can't get past what it must have been like. Surely He knew. Surely He knew what was about to happen. 

Of course He knew. He knew exactly what this week would bring.  Of course He was aware that with every step He took, He was one step closer to the reason He came. 

One step closer to the cross.

It's really interesting to watch closely to see what Jesus did during that week. To watch how He spent His time. To watch each step He took. The way He spent His time, the people He was with, the places He went. 

He came to Jerusalem knowing that He was a marked man. He came to Jerusalem knowing that the religious leaders were plotting to put Him on the cross. He had dinner with His closest friends, knowing that one of them would not only abandon Him, but betray Him, and another would deny - in His darkest of moments - that he never even knew Him.

And yet He kept moving one step closer to the cross.

I honestly can't imagine how you take that step, knowing it would bring you closer to what can only be described as perhaps the most agonizing way to die.

Paul says in Philippians 2 that "he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!"(v8)  It wasn't just that He submitted himself to death, He submitted himself to the most humiliating, shameful, painful death imaginable.

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A cross wasn't the easiest way to execute someone, and it wasn't the most efficient. It wasn't meant to kill - though it almost always did - it was meant to shame. It was meant to make an example. 

That it certainly did. Though maybe not the one they thought it would.

See, Jesus knew that this was what it was all about. This was the purpose that His entire life had pointed towards. The cross was why He came, and now - only days away - He was intimately aware of what was about to happen. He knew because it was always about this. 

I can't think of a greater example of the glory of God on display than when, "for the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross, scorning it's shame." (Hebrews 12:2 NIV).  You are that joy.  You are the reason He endured. 

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And as I wrestled with it this week, something occurred to be.  I used to think that He kept moving, taking step after step, despite the cross. As if, He knew what was coming, and kept moving forward even though it would lead to His death. But I don't think that's right. I think He took those steps BECAUSE of the cross. I think He moved closer to the cross BECAUSE of what it meant, not despite it.

You see, the cross wasn't a consequence of His mission.  The cross WAS His mission.

Nothing about the cross caught Jesus off guard. Nothing about it was a surprise. Nothing about it was beyond His control. He knew. 

And yet He kept moving one step closer to the cross. Who does that? Who but Jesus?

I think He moved closer to the cross because of you. And I think He moved closer to the cross because of the glory of God.  By the way, it wasn't the cross that declared the glory of God. Don't get me wrong, the cross is important. In fact, our theology tells us it's probably the most important moment in the history of the world, but I don't think that the glory of God is fully realized in the cross.

It's in the empty tomb. 

If it weren't for the empty tomb, the cross would simply be a tragedy. But because of that empty tomb, the cross is everything. He bore our shame on the cross, and defeated it with the empty tomb.

So, I think Jesus invites each of us to take one step closer to the cross - one step closer to Him. Because it's through the cross that we come to the empty tomb. It's through death on the cross that we experience the life that results from coming out of the tomb.

In every area of our lives, He invites us to take one more step closer to Himself, and one step further out of the tomb we've been trapped in by our shame and our sin and our brokenness.

It's starting to make more sense, how He could take each step closer to the cross. I still don't fully understand the magnitude of His willingness to endure, but I am beginning to understand His invitation this week.  To take one step closer to the cross, with Jesus.

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THE PLANS I HAVE

The thing about making plans, I’ve found, is that things rarely go according to plan.  At least not my plans.  Which is frustrating, because if I’ve gone through the trouble of making plans, I kinda feel like things should go accordingly.  I don’t think I’m particularly unreasonable - I just want things to go the way they’re supposed to. The way I planned. But they don’t.  I’d like to think I’m really good at making plans. I’m just apparently not that great at making good plans.

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I make plans for what I’m going to do today.  I make plans for my family and our future. I make plans for work.  I make plans for things like grocery lists, and vacations, and meals.  Every day, I plan what the day is going to look like, because I like a good plan, even if I’m not that good at making them.

Interestingly, I’ve also found that despite my frustration, sometimes things are better when they don’t go according to plan - or at least according to my plan.  Sometimes the plans I come up with are really bad. Of course, no one ever comes up with a bad plan on purpose.  They almost always seems like good plans at the time, but honestly, sometimes they really aren’t.  

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Sometimes they don’t work.  Sometimes someone gets hurt.  Sometimes things break. Like the time when I was 5 and my younger brother and I thought it’d be fun to see if we could “fly” off the back of an armchair in the basement, onto a pillow on the concrete floor.  It was a really bad plan. I broke my arm.  

Or the time when I was leading a mission trip in the mountains of West Virginia, and had a great plan to get up early and hike up the mountain alone in my flip-flops and take a photo of the sunrise. I broke my leg.  True story. 

Sometimes my plans do work, and it turns out to be worse than if they hadn’t.  Sometimes they don’t work, and it turns out I’m far better off than if they had.  Recently I started noticing that more and more often that's the case, and I actually think that’s one of the ways God shows His grace.

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Proverbs 16:25

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One of my biggest struggles is that I’m not all that interested in letting go of my plans - even when I know there’s something better.  I suppose it’s a part of the human condition - this pride and stubbornness.  I guess it’s not all that uncommon, but it’s not holy.  It might be normal, but it’s not healthy.  The author of the book of Proverbs describes the result as “death.”  

Here’s the thing that gets me. We choose to go our own way, which we know isn’t going to end well, and then get mad when it doesn’t work out.  The more I think about it, the more I think that maybe the reason we get so upset is that we’re not big fans of anyone who isn’t following our plans - even when it’s God.  We make plans, and have expectations, based on God’s promises, and get disappointed that He isn’t following our plans.

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Look, you and I aren’t the first people to feel this way. The Israelites had the very same struggle - and it made them bitter.  It caused them to turn away from God, because God wasn’t acting according to their plans. This actually happened a lot. In fact, they’d get really close to God when some great thing happened, but over time, when the excitement of their “God-encounter” wore off, they’d drift back to doing their own thing.  To be honest, I can relate.

This happened over and over, and it made God angry. Usually when God gets angry, He sends someone to warn His people that bad stuff is about to happen if they don’t get it together and keep their end of the deal. One of those people was Jeremiah. 

Jeremiah had a really lousy job, as you can imagine. Basically, the God sent Him to let the people know all the bad things that were common because of their disobedience and idolatry. No one wants to be that guy. No one likes that guy. They definitely didn’t like Jeremiah, because most of his message was pretty gloomy. 

But after a while, he writes a letter to “the surviving elders among the exiles… in Babylon.” (Jeremiah 29:1)  It’s a pretty well known letter, especially the part in the middle - the part about God wanting to prosper us and make our lives perfect, and give us everything we could ever imagine. The part where it’s gonna be beautiful and life's greatest treasure is just right there for the taking.

Okay, that’s not exactly what it says, but I’ve definitely heard it preached that way before.  And it’s certainly tempting to expect it that way.  And when it doesn’t work exactly that way, I don’t know about you, but I find myself getting pretty frustrated with God.

The popular verse in the middle, the one everyone likes to quote actually says this: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

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But what if that’s not even the most important part.  In fact, in order to actually understand what God is telling His people right here through Jeremiah, you have to back up. Anyone know off hand what verse 10 says?  Go ahead, look it up.  I’ll wait. 

Okay, it says “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.”  Did you get that? Seventy years. Um, I start to get pretty impatient when Netflix takes longer than 3 seconds to load the half hour show I planned for my kids to watch so I can get some brief work done.  It didn’t even take seventy years back when Netflix actually sent you the movies in the mail.

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Seventy Years!

That’s how long God told them they were going to be in exile.  In fact, starting in verse 5, he gives them pretty specific instructions, to among other things, build houses, settle down, plant gardens, get married, have kids, and get your kids married. Yeah, they’re gonna be there a while. This was not what they had in mind. This was not their plan, and they weren’t happy because God was most definitely doing a different thing.

In fact, it’s only after He tells them to “get comfortable, you’re gonna be there a while,” that He then says the other part - the part we like.  In fact, you can’t really understand verse 11 without the verses that come before it, especially verse 10.  Basically, God is telling them, “listen, I know what I’m doing. I have a plan. It’s not going to make sense to you right now, and it goes against your every desire and fiber of your being, but I know what I’m doing.  I have your best interest in mind, and I always, always keep my promises.  

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God ALWAYS keeps His promises.  That’s faith, by the way.  Believing that God keeps His promises.  It doesn’t always make sense, and it almost never happens on our timeframe, but He never fails.  In fact, when He describes Himself in Exodus chapter 34, He tells Moses He is “abounding in love and faithfulness.”

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Faithfulness.  He is faithful all the time. Even when we can’t figure out the plan, we can know that He is faithful. Even when it takes longer than we thought, or expected, He is faithful. Even when it doesn’t look like what we were expecting, He is faithful. 

Let’s be honest, God’s promises rarely look like what we were expecting.  But when that happens, the problem isn’t with the promise, it’s with the expectation. In fact, when God doesn’t do what you expected, or what you thought He should, it’s because He’s probably doing something far greater than what you imagined.  You just can’t see it yet. He is always working out all things for your good, if you’ve put your faith in Jesus, so if it doesn’t look like what you expected, that just means God has something better for you than you expected. (Romans 8:38)

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He hasn’t forgotten you. Just like He hadn’t forgotten the Israelites in exile in Babylon. He hadn’t given up on His plan, or gone off to do something else. He was busy working out everything detail of His plan according to His purpose. He’s doing the same for you right now. 

“In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” Proverbs 16:9

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Right this moment, He’s working out His purpose in your life in whatever situation you’re in. Right now He’s moving the pieces around you, ordering the steps in front of you, and inviting you to walk along with Him as His plan unfolds. It won’t look like what you expected, and He’s not likely to act according to your plan.  But if you can get past that, and let go, He really does have a plan for you.  And it’s a really good one.

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WIDE OPEN

I have a question.  But first, I have a theory.  My theory is this: Far too many of us, far too often, are living lives that are far too small.  

What do I mean? Well, let’s unpack this together. To do that, I’m want to share with you one of the uglier parts of my story. Well, actually I don’t. To be honest, I’d rather never talk about it, or think about it again. But it’s a part of my story, and I believe God can, and is, using it to bring a little hope and redemption to the world around me. So, even though I don’t really want to share, I’m going to invite you in to my story.

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I spent 34 months in prison, and 5 months in a county jail before that, but the reality is that I was a prisoner long before I walked through the gate at the Reception and Guidance Center in Jackson, MI. In truth, the only difference was that there was no denying the reality that I was no longer free. 

The thing is, I hadn’t been free for a while.  I was a prisoner of my own pride, shame, selfishness, fear and insecurity.  I was a prisoner of an identity that depended on what the world thought of me. I was a prisoner of all of the lies and deceit that I had built my life around. I was a prisoner of the need to be successful, so much so that I gave up on actual success, and chased after the appearance of success. 

The result was simple, if not tragic. My life was small. The walls of the world I had created for myself were suffocating, and over time they would have crushed me. My theory is that many of us - for a variety of of reasons - are living in this small version of life, as a prisoner of all of the lies that world tells us to keep us from hearing the whisper of God’s promises in our life. Which, if you think about it, is kind of crazy because His promises are big and He always keeps His promises.

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Often, the problem is that we measure God’s promises by our current circumstances. When they don’t seem to fit our expectations, we make other arrangements. (Let’s be honest. We do.)  But God measures His promises by His purpose.

Think about that for a minute. God’s promises are fulfilled and measured according to His purpose - a purpose we barely understand even a glimpse of. Yet, when they don’t match our expectations, we start to do our own thing. The problem is, we’ll never be able to do what God can do, and we never see the full picture that God see. 

In the middle of John’s Gospel, there’s a story about Jesus’ best friend Lazarus, who is sick. In fact, that’s exactly what it says in John 11 verse 1.  “Now a man named Lazarus was sick.”  

In reality, that verse is kind of a dramatic understatement. As we read, it turns out that his sisters Mary and Martha had done really everything they could. The doctors had come, and there was nothing more that could be done but make him comfortable.  He was literally on his death bed. Like, he was laying on his bed waiting to die. That’s what it means to be on your death bed.  

Now, remember, Lazarus and his sisters were some of Jesus’ closest friends. He had dined in their home, spent time with them, and probably stayed with them frequently. On this day, the sisters had sent word to Jesus, and Jesus’ response is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible.  

In verse 4, Jesus says “this sickness will not end in death. No it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 

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I love this verse for 2 reasons. The first is the promise. It’s right there. “This sickness will not end in death.” Did you catch that? Jesus is making a declarative statement about a future event. That’s a promise.  But don’t miss what comes next. He explains the purpose - “for God’s glory.” The the second reason. He lets us in on the plan and explains the purpose behind the promise.

By the way, this is a freebie: God’s purpose is always “for His glory.” It may not sound deeply theological, or even spiritual, but it’s true.  Find me a passage in the scriptures that isn’t about God ultimately bringing about His eternal glory.

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This is a pretty important point, because without it, that’s how we end up measuring God’s purpose by our circumstances, instead of His purpose. That’s how we end up a captive to our own version of how the story should go. The sisters did this.  

It turns out Lazarus does die, and everyone is really upset. Especially the sisters. They even tell Jesus “if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (verses 21 & 32)  Both of them say the exact same thing. It’s like they had been sitting around, angry that Jesus hadn’t done what they thought He said He would do and were grumbling about it to each other. I’ve done that. A lot. I’ll admit it. I don’t think I’m alone in getting upset that Jesus didn’t do what I think He should have done.

Jesus says two things to both the disciples, and to the sisters, that I think are worth noticing. First, He tells the disciples, upon hearing that Lazarus had died, that “for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” Second, He tells the sisters, did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  (verse 40)

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You see, everyone thought that Jesus had promised that Lazarus wouldn’t die. That’s sort of the logical interpretation of “this sickness will not end in death.” Here’s the thing, that's not what Jesus promised at all. Jesus had something bigger in mind - the glory of God. What Jesus was really saying is that, no matter what happens in the meantime, "I got this. Lazarus might even die, but I promise that this sickness won’t end in death, so when he does, that’s not the end of the story.”

Did you catch that?  No matter what you’re going through, this isn’t the end. And just like Lazarus, with Jesus, your story doesn’t have to end in death. This “sickness” whatever it is, doesn’t end in death with Jesus, because He defeated death. Just watch what happens next.

Jesus goes to the tomb, where Lazarus had been laying for four days. There’s a lot of reasons that matters, but just know this - it’s significant because he was really dead. He was dead enough that it started to stink, but Jesus orders them to remove the stone. Remember what He says in verse 40 that “if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” It turns out this isn’t a story about healing a sick man. It’s about raising a dead man to life.  With Jesus, that’s what it’s always been about.  

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Jesus did not come to fix you, He came to free you. He did not come to make you better, He came to make you whole. He did not come to change your circumstances, He came to change your heart.

Just look at what He says in Luke chapter 4, verse 18:  “I have come to set the captives free, to give sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed."

See, a lot of us, whether literally, or figuratively, are a lot like Lazarus in the grave. We’re captives. We’re captives to our own pride, our own sin, our own plans, our own selfishness.

But there is good news. The stone has been removed, and we are free.  

Jesus calls out to Lazarus, “Come out!” You see, though Lazarus had been raised to life with the sound of Jesus’ voice, Jesus didn’t do it only to leave him in the tomb.

And now the same voice that called Lazarus out of that tomb is calling your name.  Come out of that tomb of addiction. Come out of the captivity of brokenness. Come out of the tomb of anger or depression. Come out of the captivity of sexual immorality or deceit or pride, or whatever it is that is keeping you prisoner.

The last thing Jesus did was tell the others to “take off the grave clothes and let him go.”  You see, just because we’ve been raised from the penalty of death, a lot of us are still walking around in grave clothes. We walk around carrying the identity of our sin, our shame, and our failure. A lot of us are carrying the labels of our past, but Jesus invites each of us to be free. He invites us to take off those clothes, because a man raised from the dead has no business in a tomb, and no use for grave clothes. 

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So, I told you I had a question.  Remember the theory I have - that far too often, far too many of us are living a life that’s far too small. Far too many of us are still standing in an open tomb.  Too many are walking around in grave clothes, as if we've never been brought out from death and captivity.

For me, it meant letting go of the pride, selfishness and fear that had driven me to live such a small life. It meant getting real, and getting honest with myself, and those around me, about the brokenness I had lived with inside for far too long.  It meant turning over to God the areas of my life I had decided I would be in control of. It meant letting God reshape my heart, and help me become the man, husband and father He created me to be. It was then that I finally began to experience freedom.  The kind of freedom that truly sets you free (Gal 5:1)

So, my question is, how are you living?  Are you living as a prisoner? As a captive? Are you measuring God’s promises by your own circumstances, and as a result, living as a prisoner in your own life?

Or, are you living the kind of wide open, abundant life that is available through Jesus Christ? 

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