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An Unlikely Cast of Characters

March 30, 2020

Figure 1. Photo by Diane C. Reagan at the site of Caiaphas’ Courtyard, Jerusalem (January 2020)

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Passion—the last week of Jesus’ life, beginning with his entry into Jerusalem and ending in his Crucifixion.  The events of the week are filled with high drama.  Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed by joyous people who lined the road greeting him with joy and enthusiasm.   It was just as the ancient texts described the Messiah’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9).  Then, after his final teachings came the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ arrest, the kangaroo court trials before Caiaphas and Pilate, and finally Jesus’ Crucifixion between two criminals.

This week’s gospel lesson picks up the story with the events that occurred after Jesus was arrested, taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest to appear before the religious leaders, who took him to Pilate, who referred him to Herod, who sent him back to Pilate for judgment.[1]  Many events are described in Sunday’s gospel text (Matthew 27:11-66): Pilate judges Jesus; Pilate finds him guilty of treason (for claiming to be a king, thereby causing civil unrest);  Pilate gives into the crowd’s demand that Jesus be crucified; Jesus is beaten and mocked before he is crucified; several people are converted; four miracles occur; one person outs himself; and enforcers were assigned to secure the tomb to prevent a “last deception” (v. 64).

I knew from my Bible studies that the events of that Friday occurred within a very short distance of each other in Jerusalem—basically the equivalent to a neighborhood.  But walking the streets in Jerusalem two months ago brought a new understanding of the proximity of the locations that played key roles in the story.  When Jesus was arrested at the Garden of Gethsemane, he was marched about a mile to the house of the high priest, Caiaphas—roughly the same distance from our house to our small village.  It was in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times as predicted by Jesus (See photo taken of the statue in the courtyard depicting Peter’s denials above; the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount is visible in the background).

Jesus was then taken to the Antonia Fortress[2], where Pilate was located—a little over half a mile or about the distance from our house to our church on Sunset Boulevard.  Pilate sent him to Herod’s Palace, about a half a mile away—who sent him back to Pilate at the Antonia Fortress.  He was bounced back and forth in that half mile between Herod’s Palace and the Antonia Fortress, in the space of a few hours, because neither Pilate nor Herod wanted to get involved in what was essentially a Jewish religious issue.  Jesus was mocked and beaten by Pilate’s soldiers at the Antonia Fortress before he was taken to Golgotha to be crucified.  The Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) is a winding street, about a half a mile long, starting near where the Antonia Fortress was located and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the last five stations of the cross are located, including the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion (Golgotha) and burial.

We will examine the events involving an unlikely cast of characters as they appear in Matthew’s narrative.

The Judge

The charge that the Sanhedrin lodged against Jesus for blasphemy was not a capital offense under Roman law, so they had to make it appear that Jesus posed a threat to Rome. They bound Jesus to give the impression that he was a dangerous criminal, and reported to Pilate that Jesus called himself the “king of the Jews” who posed a political threat to the Romans, whose “king” was the emperor—Tiberius Caesar.  Jesus did not deny the charge. Under Roman law, one who did not put on a defense was considered guilty.

Despite his own suspicion that Jesus was innocent and despite pleas from his wife, and his attempt to encourage the people to vote to release Jesus, Pilate went along with the crowd, found him guilty, and sentenced him to be crucified.

The basic statement of Christian beliefs found in the Apostles’ Creed, used by Christians for centuries, confirms that Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate because it was Pilate’s decision to find him guilty when he knew he wasn’t.  It was Pilate’s decision to cave into the crowd’s demand that he be crucified.  And it was soldiers under Pilate’s command who mocked and beat him before taking him to be crucified.

The Mockers

The crowd mocked Jesus: “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself. Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 27: 39-40).  Similarly, the head priests and elders mocked him; one of the criminals crucified with him also insulted him.  Why did those who had welcomed him into Jerusalem as their great hope a few days before now mock him?

One explanation is that the crowd around the cross were a different group of people than those who had witnessed Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead and other miracles in the days leading up to the confrontation.

Another possibility is that like mockers of our day, these people hadn’t grasped who Jesus was, despite what he told them, and despite the miracles he performed.  Instead of viewing the big picture from an eternal point of view, these folks expected the Messiah to be a great military leader who would lead Israel to victory.  They expected the Messiah to overthrow the Roman emperor, and when he didn’t even try, they rejected him as their long-awaited Messiah.  Also, the fact that Jesus was condemned by the religious leaders and favored by their oppressor, the Roman governor, may have partially accounted for the change of heart.

The Messiah

Jesus, who was fully man as well as fully God, expressed his extreme anguish just prior to his death, when he felt the full force of taking on the sins of the world, and the consequential separation from his Father: “‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabach-thani?”—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27: 46).  He had been on the cross for some six hours, from approximately 9:00 am until his death at approximately 3:00 pm.  Jesus wasn’t questioning the Father in his statement.  He was expressing the pain of his separation from the Father.  The physical pain was overwhelming, but the spiritual pain of separation from the Father was worse.  Jesus experienced this separation from the Father on the cross so that we will never have to endure it.   If you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your Savior, you will never be separated from God.  Jesus did it all for us.

The Newly Converted

Some of the mockers were paying attention to what was unfolding before their eyes, and became unlikely converts.   Four miracles are historically attributed to Jesus’ crucifixion.  The darkening of the sky from noon until his death at 3:00 pm was the first extraordinary event.   The earthquake was another extraordinary event that put into motion two other events.  The tearing of the curtain separating the Holy place from the Most Holy place in the temple symbolized the removal of the barrier between God and the people.  People are now free to approach God directly. The opening of the tombs may have also resulted from the earthquake.

The centurion and the other soldiers standing watch who had mocked Jesus just a few hours before, were aghast at these miracles and said “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54b).  Also, before Jesus died, one of the criminals repented, and Jesus promised that he would join him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).

 The Women

While all of the male followers of Jesus fled at the first sign of trouble (Matthew 26: 56b), the women stayed with Jesus: “There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” (Matthew 27: 55-56).  The women were undoubtedly the ones who gave the gospel writers the eyewitness accounts of what transpired during the hours that Jesus was on the cross.

The fact that the women were the key eyewitnesses not only to his death, but were also the first witnesses on the scene after the Resurrection was remarkable.  Women in Jesus’ day couldn’t even testify in court, because they were considered unreliable witnesses.  Yet God chose women to witness the most important events in human history.  That women were chosen as the key witnesses is a very strong proof of the authenticity of the truth of the gospel accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.  Anyone making up such a story would never have chosen women to report it.

The Outed

One man had been a secret follower of Jesus—a secret servant.  After Jesus’ death, he was even more convinced of his authenticity, and threw caution to the wind.  He outed himself.  He was Joseph of Arimathea, a highly respected member of the Sanhedrin who had been afraid to speak up against the religious leaders who condemned Jesus.  All of Jesus’ followers (except the women) had fled, but this brave Jewish leader went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body so that he could bury it.  In doing so he identified himself as a follower of Jesus—a very dangerous position to be in at that time.  It is highly unlikely that he would claim Jesus’ body for burial if he didn’t truly believe him to be God.

 The Enforcers

The religious leaders remembered Jesus’ teaching about his Resurrection, and were afraid of what would happen if it occurred, or if the disciples stole his body to make it appear that he was resurrected.  As they put it: “The last deception will be worse than the first” (Matthew 27: 64).  To avoid “this last deception,” Pilate told them to make the tomb as secure as possible.  “So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Matthew 27: 66).  Despite the best efforts of these guards, the tomb was opened, and the body was gone on Sunday morning, providing more proof of the Resurrection.

Where do you see yourself in this line-up?   Do you, like Pilate, ignore the truth to go along with the crowd?  Or are you a mocker, a loyal follower, a new convert, or blind enforcer of unbelief?  Wherever you are in this line-up of unlikely characters, the truth is that mockers became converts, followers were eyewitnesses, and we still have the naysayers among us.

We know the end of the story—that the death of Jesus on the cross was the beginning of our salvation, and a joyous event was to follow on Sunday morning.  As one preacher put it: “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”[3]  But even during the Passion, we see hope in the completion of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and in the conversion of the criminal and the guards upon Jesus’ death.  These are people who were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah before the Resurrection.

We even see hope in Peter’s denials and in the fear that caused the disciples to scatter, because we can identify with them.  We too have failed Jesus, yet Jesus died on the cross for their sins and omissions and ours as well.   We who have the benefit of all of the historical accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection have no excuse for unbelief.

Prayer:  Gracious Father, we are so grateful for the sacrifices that Jesus made for us on that long week-end so long ago in a small neighborhood in the Middle East, that transformed the world and that continue to transform us today.  As we make our way through Holy Week, many of us physically apart from our brothers and sisters in Christ due to the coronavirus, keep us ever aware of your suffering for us at Golgotha.  Be with us in our re-reading of the Passion Week Scriptures and during our private meditations and prayers.  Help us do what we can by staying at home whenever possible and praying for and helping our neighbors.  Keep our medical professionals fully supplied with the personal protection items and all equipment that they need to do their work, and send your Holy Spirit to strengthen all medical professionals and health care workers.  Inspire researchers to find new treatments, cures, and a vaccine.  Keep us ever aware of those around us who are in need at this time so that we may help them weather the storm.  In this time of difficulty for our country and for all around the world, we remember Christ’s suffering and death for us on the cross.  Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion are Psalm 31:9-16; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2: 5-11; Matthew 27:11-66.  Another version of this blog was published on this site in April 2017.

[2] According to Josephus, the Antonia Fortress located on the north side of the Temple Mount, was placed there to watch over and guard the Temple grounds to prevent civil unrest: “For if the Temple lay as a fortress over the city, Antonia dominated the Temple & the occupants of that post were the guards of all three.”

[3] Tony Campolo

CPR for the Spiritually Dead

March 23, 2020

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give you life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.”  Romans 8: 11

I grew up in the Coachella Valley desert in Rancho Mirage, California.  In 1959, when we moved to the desert, there were miles and miles of open sand dunes and flat desert.  Only the hardiest of animal and plant life can exist in that habitat.  When you hike in the desert, it is not unusual to come across dead animal bones, so I can imagine the valley of dry bones described in Ezekiel’s vision.

The dry bones were a metaphor for the spiritually dead souls in Ezekiel’s congregation.  The Lord asked him “Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3).   Can these people be restored to spiritual life?  Will God retrieve these lost, dead souls?  Ezekiel had faith that God would restore his spiritually dead flock to new life.   God told him to give his congregation CPR[1]: “Breathe on these slain bodies. Breathe life!’” So I prophesied, just as he commanded me. The breath entered them and they came alive! They stood up on their feet, a huge army” (Ezekiel 37: 9-10, The Message).[2]  God wasn’t telling Ezekiel to literally breathe into his spiritually dead congregation, but to breathe new spiritual life into them by communicating the word of God to them.

In that sense, CPR can mean:

Communicate with

People to

Revive/Restore them to new life.

Ezekiel “prophesied” as God had instructed him—he communicated to his people the word of God.  He restored them to new life.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit living in him, Ezekiel was able to breath new life into his spiritually dead congregation.

California is one of several states currently in “lockdown” on account of COVID-19, which is sweeping the globe.  As of this writing, there are 316,187 known confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 13, 592 deaths worldwide.  We are asked to stay in our homes, and when outside, to maintain a distance of 6’ to others.  In California, all but non-essential businesses and services are shuttered.  Churches are closed.  How does one communicate the Word of God in such an environment?   We have been using good old-fashioned American ingenuity coupled with modern communication tools at our disposal.  One priest offers drive-by confessions.  Everyone who has a computer or smart phone can make a video recording.  Our church posted a video-taped  service on our website at our usual  Sunday morning worship time, replete with greetings, music, Scripture readings, a sermon, and prayers—all recorded by the pastor and others in separate locations– joined together by the magic of modern technology.

God gives us the tools to communicate the message to others—whether it be in person, or through other means.  Faced with the current crisis, people are hungry to hear the promises of Christ.  Paul summarized the key message to be communicated: when you acknowledge that God lives within you–that the Spirit lives within you– you will be alive in Christ.  (Romans 8: 11).  But, as The Message version points out, “Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about.” If you don’t welcome Christ into your life, you will remain spiritually dead.

These verses bring to mind the first line of an old church hymn that speaks of the new life we are promised in Christ Jesus: “Breath on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew.”  When we ask God to perform CPR on our lost souls, he will.  He will send his Holy Spirit to restore us to new life.  Paul tells us that God will fill our souls with his Spirit of life: “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death . . .” (Romans 8: 1-2).  We need only come to Jesus and ask him to forgive our sins to be restored to new life.

The psalmist echoes that promise: “If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings, who would stand a chance?  As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped.” (Psalm 130: 3-4, The Message).  God forgives us whenever we come before him with a sincere and contrite heart, and fills us “with life anew.”

The theme of bringing the dead to life again is repeated in the gospel lesson when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  He had been dead for several days, and in the tomb for four days, when Jesus came to his tomb, wept, and told him to come out of the tomb. Many of these Jewish eyewitnesses, who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, believed and followed him, but others who were jealous of the attention he received plotted to kill him.

God gives us a choice, to ask him for forgiveness and be revived to a new joyful life with him, or to reject his offer and continue to live with our deadened souls.  Which will you choose?  Will you ask God to perform CPR on you so that you may live in joy and peace?  Or will you choose to continue moving through your earthly life in a living grave?  Choose life.  If you have acknowledged that the God of the universe loves you and lives within you, someone performed CPR on you to bring you to Christ.  Will you work with the Holy Spirit to help revive another lifeless soul to life?  God may be asking you to perform CPR on another to save a life.  Be ready.

Prayer: Lord, at times like this, we are acutely aware that despite all of the advances made in technology, science, and medicine, we are still susceptible to plagues that can sweep across the globe and kill thousands.  We thank and praise you for the tools you have given us to help contain the current plague of COVID-19.  We pray for all medical personnel, patients, public health officials, and other government officials as they seek to heal those who are battling the virus and struggling to contain the spread of the virus within communities.  Send your Holy Spirit to strengthen them so that they may continue to use their skills and resources to find effective treatments and a vaccine to promote and protect the health of their patients and communities.  Guide all government officials to promptly implement programs to protect and care for the homeless and for all of those in need of assistance.  Help us use all of the communication tools at our disposal to work with your Spirit to awaken those around us to the love and forgiveness you offer to all who come to you with an open heart.  In your Name we pray. Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] CPR is an abbreviation for cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

[2] The Scripture texts for the Fifth Sunday in Lent are Psalm 130; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45.  A similar version of this blog was published on this site on March 27, 2017.

Children of Light

March 16, 2020

I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.” Isaiah 42:16

For you were once darkness but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light . . . and find out what pleases the Lord.” Ephesians 5: 8-10

One thing I do know that though I was blind, now I see.” John 9:25

Christians are people of hope, yet we find ourselves in the midst of despair as we read of the spread of the coronavirus/COVID-19 around the world every day.  Millions of people are isolated in a dark wilderness of the virus’ making during this Lenten season.  We are in a season of darkness.

This week’s psalm was written during the time that David was hiding from Saul and his men at En Gedi.   En Gedi is a box canyon, and David must have felt “boxed in” or imprisoned during the ten years that he hid in caves while he was on the run from Saul: “Set me free from my prison . . . “ (Psalm 142: 7).   The psalm is a desperate prayer for deliverance.   David was in a dark place, hiding from Saul and feeling very alone: “I cry aloud to the Lord, I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.  I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell him my trouble . . . No one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life . . . You are my refuge . . . Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me.”  Psalm 142: 1, 4-6).  David knew how it felt to be pursued by enemies who sought his downfall.   He knew how it felt to be isolated and alone.  He was as familiar with dark places in his life as we are with the dark places in our lives.

We can empathize with the loneliness and despair that David must have felt during the ten years he was hiding out from Saul.  Like David, we wonder when it will end.  When will our isolation end?  When will this pandemic end?  Like David, we live with uncertainty.  We wonder when our lives will return to a semblance of normalcy.

En Gedi met many of David’s requirements for a hide-out—including water and food sources.  In January we hiked to one of the large waterfalls in the canyon which sustains ample plant and animal life, including the ibex—a type of wild mountain goat.  But being provided with the basics of shelter, food, and water to sustain life does not ensure our well-being—particularly if we or someone we love is being pursued by foes, experiencing financial reverses, is isolated and fearful of being infected with a serious virus, or is suffering from a debilitating illness.

This week’s Scripture lessons[1] focus on moving from the dark places of pain and despair to places of light and hope.  These Scriptures acknowledge that despite our brave smiles and quick response of “Fine” to a friend’s “How are you?”–that we are all hurting at some level at any given time.  We are not always as fine as we let on.  We worry about our work, our health, our kids, our relationships, our finances, the world-wide pandemic, and a myriad of other things.  God knows that and he assures us that he is with us at all times–that when we seek him, he will lead us into the light.  He will bring us out of the darkness of the problems that haunt us, and light our way along the path he wants us to take.  Jesus is the hope, the light of the world.

Isaiah 42 describes how the Messiah will come and rescue us.  He will gently pick us up and carry us from dark places, our blind spots, and lead us to the truth that can withstand the scrutiny of sunshine: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them” (Isaiah 42:16).

John wrote: “One thing I do know that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). Though most of us are not literally blind, we are often blind to God’s presence in our lives. You can’t help but think of the first few lines of the hymn Amazing Grace when you read the Scripture texts for this week: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.”

The Epistle lesson continues the theme of living in Christ’s light by warning us to “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11). “Fruitless deeds of darkness” are activities that separate us from God–anything that cannot withstand the scrutiny of daylight, resulting in sin.

Pride is one blind spot that results in sin.  The gospel lesson recounts the story of the blind man whose sight was restored by Jesus.  But the Pharisees were too proud—too jealous and threatened by Jesus’ powers–to accept that Jesus had given sight to this man who had been blind since birth.  The blind man was cross-examined about it several times.  First, his neighbors questioned him. Second, the Pharisees grilled him.  Third, the Pharisees questioned the man’s parents, who told them to ask the man: “Ask him, he is of age. He will speak for himself” (John 9: 21).  Fourth, the Pharisees cross-examined the man again, and refused to believe him.  Why? Because of their own blindness to who Jesus was and their unwillingness to accept the truth.  They were threatened by Jesus’ power.  Have you been passed over and ignored because your hard work and good results made others jealous?  Jesus knows how you feel. You are not alone.

Amazing strides have been made in ophthalmology in recent years.  The “before and after” testimonials of people who have had cataract surgery are quite amazing.  Many years ago, when I was in private practice, I had a client in her 80’s who had very bad cataracts.  Her nephew finally convinced her to have cataract surgery.  I will never forget her exhilaration over her newfound sight.  She could see with such clarity and light! That is the exhilaration we feel when we let Jesus’ light guide us to the path he has set before us.  He leads us out of our caves of fear and darkness into the light of faith and blessed assurance.  Our journey to the light, to Jesus, is not always a straight and easy path.  There may be obstacles and setbacks along the way.  But we need to hold onto our hope in Christ Jesus.

Desmond Tutu said “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Jesus is your hope.  Hold on.  He’s coming for you.

Prayer: “Lord, I rejoice that nothing can come between me and your love, even when I feel alone or in difficulty, when in sickness or am troubled.  Even if attacked or afraid, no abyss of mine is so deep that your love is not deeper still.  Lord, you have experienced many hells of this world but descended so that you can lift us up.  Be always near.”  Corrie ten Boom (WWII survivor of Ravensbruck concentration camp).

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday in Lent are Psalm 142; Isaiah 42: 14-21; Ephesians 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41.  A similar version of this blog was published on March 20, 2017.

 

Is God MIA?

March 9, 2020

“Is God here with us or not?” Exodus 17:7 (The Message)

As we continue our Lenten journey into mid-March, my thoughts turn to St. Patrick for two reasons: first, our youngest child, Peter, was born on St. Patrick’s Day; and second, like many of us,  Patrick went through a time of spiritual dryness before he connected in a personal way to God.  Catholics and Protestants alike celebrate the festival of St. Patrick on March 17th, the traditional date of his death.

Patrick was taken captive in Britain in about 405 A.D. when he was almost 16 years of age.  He was taken to pagan Ireland where he was kept as a slave for six years before he escaped. Even though Patrick was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest in Britain, he did not know God in a personal way.   In his Confessions, he admitted “I was ignorant of the true God, and was brought to Ireland in captivity, with so many thousand persons . . .”  Patrick had to be taken as a slave to a foreign land and to suffer through a period of spiritual dryness and separation from all that was dear to him before his faith was awakened and became meaningful to him.

We all go through times of spiritual dryness in our lives when God seems to be MIA–missing in action.  During these times, we feel spiritually empty. We don’t sense God’s presence. We don’t hear his voice.  God feels distant, and we wonder about whether he is there.  We can’t seem to connect with him in our prayer life.  We thirst for God, but don’t feel his presence.  We ask, “Are you there, God?”

The theme of spiritual dryness runs through this week’s Scripture texts.[1]  Like Patrick, at times we need to suffer through difficult periods in our lives in order to be awakened to an authentic faith.  God often uses such times to draw us closer to him.

In the Old Testament reading we see the Israelites testing God by asking with impunity whether he is even there: “Is God here with us or not?” (Exodus 17:7).  They had been ragging on Moses for bringing them into the wilderness only to die of thirst.  Like a father frustrated with an ungrateful and unruly brood, Moses cries out to God: “What can I do with these people? Any minute now they’ll kill me!” (Exodus 17: 4, The Message).  God rescued Moses and led him to a rock water fountain.  The Israelites were going through a period of spiritual dryness; they lost their faith at the first sign of trouble.  But God came through and led Moses to water.

The psalmist reminds the Israelites of that bit of history: “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. (Psalm 95: 8-9).

Hold On

All people of faith go through periods of spiritual dryness and periods of suffering.  Even Mother Teresa was not exempted from the “dark night of the soul.”  In her private letters she reveals that she suffered from terrible doubts and feelings of spiritual dryness and loneliness that plagued her much of her adult life.  But Paul reminds us that our suffering can ultimately bring about joy: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5).  Mother Teresa healed many people physically and spiritually with the love of God that shone through her, even in her darkest hours.

You need to hold on. God is here with you, even if you don’t “feel” his presence. He is with you in your pain.  He feels your pain.  He feels your emptiness.  He feels your despair. He is sitting next to you, even though you can’t see him. Turn to him in prayer and be assured that he hears you.

Living Water

Jesus brings all of the Scriptures together in his discussion with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar.  He compares the water from the well to the water he offers: “Jesus answered her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water [in the well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’”  (John 4: 13-14).  The fact that Jesus even spoke to her was shocking because Jewish men did not speak to Samaritan women of ill repute.  By speaking to her, Jesus was broadcasting that the gospel message, his message of hope and truth, is for everyone—not just for a select few.

The words of Scripture provide assurance that God is always with us, even in times of despair and when he seems to be missing in action from our lives.  He encourages us to hang on, to drink from the well of his amazing love as revealed to us in Scripture.   Patrick wrote that during his six years of slavery “Every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed . . . I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me—as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.”

When we pray, we lower our buckets into the bottomless well of God’s love for us and receive his living water.  We receive encouragement to go on. We receive guidance from his Word.  He puts people in our lives to assist us in our faith journey and in our struggles. We grow in faith and are assured that he will keep his promises and that he will be with us forever.

Prayer: “May the strength of God pilot me.  May the power of God preserve me.  May the wisdom of God instruct me.  May the hand of God protect me.  May the way of God direct me.  May the shield of God defend me.” Saint Patrick

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Third Sunday in Lent are Psalm 95:1-7; Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-8; John 4: 5-26.  A similar version of this blog was published on this website in 2017.

Nic at Night

March 2, 2020

Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again . . . No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit . . . You must be born again . . . So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3,5,8).

Nicodemus was a Pharisee who was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious council, most of whom were jealous of Jesus because he undermined their authority.  But Nic was a seeker who believed that Jesus had the answers he so desperately sought. He came to Jesus to learn under the cover of darkness, so as not to be discovered by his colleagues.  He was puzzled when Jesus told him that in order to enter the kingdom of God, one must be born again.  Jesus explained that entering God’s kingdom requires a do-over—a new start.  He was explaining the concept of spiritual rebirth—and that the Holy Spirit is the instrument of spiritual rebirth: “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).[1]

Inspired by Nicodemus’ nighttime exchange with Jesus (John 3:1-17), I pulled my 30 plus year-old yellowed paperback copy of Born Again, down from the shelf.  The book is Chuck Colson’s 1972 account of his conversion.  Colson describes how he was reborn in the Spirit.

Colson was familiar with “religion” when he visited a friend, Tom Phillips one night, but unfamiliar with the concept of having a personal relationship with God.  Tom gave him a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and prayed for him.  He was moved by Tom’s prayer, and after he left Tom’s house and climbed into his car he “prayed his first real prayer. ‘God, I don’t know how I’m going to find You, but I’m going to try!  I’m not much the way I am now, but somehow I want to give myself to You.’ I didn’t know how to say more, so I repeated over and over the words: ‘Take me’.  .  .”[2]

A once Special Counsel to the President, Colson was known as Nixon’s “hatchet man”—a moniker he claimed because of his willingness to do just about anything to destroy a political opponent.  During the aftermath of Watergate, Colson had the conversion experience described above, compelling him to enter a guilty plea to something he hadn’t been charged with–obstruction of justice for attempting to defame Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg.

Colson recognized the necessity to start over once he was “born again” through the Holy Spirit.  He took the first step in his new life with his plea.  He served his time in prison, and afterwards founded Prison Fellowship, an international ministry that has helped millions of prisoners and their families over the last 44 years.

Abraham left his country and family to follow God’s call and promise that he would bless him greatly:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12: 2).  Paul confirmed that the “promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” (Romans 4:13).  After his conversion, Colson was also blessed greatly by God, even though he went to prison.

Step out in faith.  This is the message of this week’s Scripture lessons.  Psalm 121 is a one of the “Pilgrim Psalms” or “Songs of Ascent,” (Psalms 120-134) that were sung by pilgrims on their way up the hill to Jerusalem for the three pilgrim feasts—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.  Each of the psalms is a “step” along the way. Psalm 121 assures us that God will be with us every step of the way.  We can depend on him for help: “I lift my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber . . . the Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore”  (Psalm 121:1-3. 7-8).

Abraham stepped out in faith when he left his country and family to start a new nation.  Nicodemus stepped out in faith when came to Jesus in the cover of night to learn that he must be born again.  Chuck Colson stepped out in faith and was born again, leading him on a journey that would help millions of people.  It’s not always easy, but God will open doors along the way for you when you step out in faith.

At the end of his interaction with Nic, Jesus reminded him and us, that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16-17).  Jesus reminded us that he was sent to save us and that we will be with him for eternity.

Remember Nic’s nighttime courage to seek answers from Jesus when you are trying to summon the courage to follow the Jesus who loves you more than you will ever know.  God is asking you to step out in faith and embark on the journey that he has in store for you. And he promises to watch over you all your life and forever. God delivered this message to Jeremiah over 2500 years ago:  “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). Jeremiah was not “successful” during his lifetime by any worldly standard, but he has had a tremendous impact on believers through the centuries.  You may not see the impact that you have on others throughout your life, but God sees.  Stay the course.

Prayer:  Father, we thank and praise you for who you are and for being there for us at all times—whether we know it or not—whether we sense your presence or not.  We thank and praise you for loving us so much that you sent your Son to save us from ourselves.  Guide and comfort us as we journey through life’s dark tunnels.  Give us the courage to step out in faith and to walk through the doors you open for us.  Keep us ever mindful of others who are in need of our help and encouragement.  In your name we pray, Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture lessons for the Second Sunday in Lent are Psalm 121; Genesis 12:1-9; Romans 4:1-8, 13-17; John 3: 1-17. A similar version of this blog was originally published on March 6, 2017.

[2] Colson, Born Again (1972) Baker Book House, p. 117.

 

Resist

February 24, 2020

Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.” (Psalm 32:1-2).

In the current vernacular the word “resist” is the battle cry of those who seek to foil the actions of the Trump administration. There have been countless resistance movements throughout the ages.  In the last century, many resistance movements sprung up around the world to resist Hitler and other tyrants during World War II.  One proponent of the current resist movement, Symone D. Sanders, former national press secretary for the Bernie Sanders campaign and currently a member of the Biden campaign, offered this definition: “We have to resist the urge to roll over and go with the flow.” [1]

Ms. Sanders’ definition is a good working definition of what our Scripture texts[2] are telling us this week: Resist the urge to roll over and go with the flow. “Going with the flow” means to do what other people are doing or to agree with other people because it is the easy thing to do.

Take Eve and Adam.  Eve went along with what the serpent told her because it was the easy way out. It didn’t require critical thinking: “’You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman.  ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:4-5).  There are several lessons embedded in this text:

First, obey God. Obey the clear commands of God. Resist the temptation to ignore God. Second, consider the source.  Resist the urge to go along with what an unproven source tells you to do. Eve didn’t know the serpent from Adam, yet she listened to him over God, a trustworthy authority.  Third, use your God-given powers of critical thinking when faced with a situation that screams that it is wrong.  Resist taking the easy way out and letting someone else do your thinking for you.

There are more lessons to be learned from Sunday’s Old Testament lesson.

 Fourth, resist the temptation to rationalize actions that will lead you down a destructive path: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it“ (Genesis 3:6).  Again, Eve went with the flow, and took the easy way out.

Fifth, if you do succumb to temptation, don’t take someone else down with you. Misery loves company.  Eve assuaged her conscience by rationalizing that it was okay if someone did it with her.  It was not enough that Eve failed to follow God’s instructions—she had to take Adam with her to keep her company. If someone else does it too– it must be okay, right?

Sixth, resist the temptation to hide the truth:  ”Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3: 8).  As difficult as it is, come clean.  How many times have we seen that it is not the original wrong-doing that is someone’s downfall, but the cover-up?  Resist the temptation to lie.

Seventh, resist the temptation to blame others for your own shortcomings, as both Eve and Adam did: “The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’” (Genesis 3: 12-13).  Failing to take responsibility for your own mistakes is a sign of weakness.  Hiding behind someone else is cowardice. Be strong. Own up to your mistakes.

Because of their inability to resist temptation, Adam and Eve bought into a world of hurt. If they had just resisted one or two of the temptations, it is likely that God, who is merciful and just, would have forgiven them.  But they were arrogant and stiff-necked in their disobedience.  These are all good lessons for us. Own up to your failures.  Talk to God about them. Ask for his help in resisting temptation.  Ask for his forgiveness. Fall on his infinite mercy and love for you.

David, who knew firsthand how temptation can get the best of us, reminds us that even when we succumb to temptation, God will forgive us when we come to him without deceit: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.” (Psalm 32:1-2).  David, and all of the other great heroes and heroines of the Bible were tested—including Jesus himself.  One would think that Satan would know better than to test God—but we need to remember that Jesus was also fully human, so he felt pain, hunger, etcetera—and he was tempted.

Jesus’ resistance to Satan’s three efforts to tempt him into doing his bidding stands in direct contrast to Adam and Eve’s failures to resist and is a model of resistance for us. Matthew records, “Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.[3] “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4: 5-7).

It is not known exactly where the second temptation took place on the Temple grounds. The most accepted location is the southeastern corner of the wall overlooking the Kidron Valley.  Another theory is that it took place where the trumpeters were located on the southwestern corner of the Temple.  When we visited the Israel museum in January, both sites could be seen in the 1/50 scale model of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.  At any rate, it happened at a very high pinnacle of the temple.

And why did Satan take him to the temple to tempt him? Was it to try to entice Jesus to disobey God in that holy place—to snub his nose at God?  And isn’t that what we are tempted to do from time to time?  We tell ourselves that we are in charge of our own destinies. We crave autonomy.  We say to God, as my four-year old daughter once said to me, “You are not the boss of me!”  Yet, God wants only what is best for us, and he encourages us to resist the temptation to ignore God, to follow others blindly, to succumb to the many temptations around us.

God has given us many tools to help us resist temptation—several of which he used himself to resist Satan’s temptations during his 40 days in the wilderness: mediation, prayer, fasting, simplicity, solitude, and submission.  These are several of the disciplines that God has provided to help us resist temptation and to grow spiritually stronger and more Christ-like.  Our pastors developed a series of mid-week services for this Lenten season, entitled Disciplines for Disciples.  The series is loosely based on Richard Foster’s now classic book, Celebration of Discipline.  This series will remind us of the disciplines that Christians have practiced for over 2000 years to resist worldly temptations and to receive God’s grace.

Resist. Resist following others blindly. Resist the temptation to lie.  Own up to your failures.  Talk to God about them. Ask for his help.  Ask for his forgiveness. Fall on his infinite mercy and love for you.  Practice the ancient disciplines that will help you grow in your faith.

Prayer:  Jesus, you know the temptations that we face in our everyday lives. You overcame Satan’s temptations. We need your help in our battles to resist temptations to ignore your commandments, to lie, to hide, to bring others down with us, and to stumble in our walk in so many ways.  Give us the strength of spirit to practice the spiritual disciplines that have helped Christians withstand temptation and grow in faith over the past 2000 years.  Fill us with the power of your Holy Spirit; we cannot make it without you.  In your name we pray.  Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] “‘Resist’ Is a Battle Cry, but What Does It Mean?,” February 14, 2017, New York Times.

[2] The Scripture texts for the First Sunday in Lent are: Genesis 3:1-21; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11.

[3] Robert H. Gundry,  A Survey of the New Testament, (1994, 4th Edition 2009), Zondervan, p. 199: “The highest point of the temple may refer to the southeast corner of the temple courts dropping off into the Kidron Valley, to the lintel atop the temple gate, or to the roof of the temple proper.”

King of Hearts: God’s Transforming Love

February 17, 2020

Do ordinary things with extraordinary love.”  Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Next Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday when we remember Jesus’ hike up a mountain with three of his disciples where an extraordinary event took place: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:1-3).  The Scripture texts[1] describe events that occurred on high mountains where God’s glory was revealed. Moses is present in both the Old and New Testament texts.

The word transfigured comes from the Greek word metamorhoo, which does not mean a superficial change of appearance, but instead a transformation of Christ’s essential form.  We get our word, metamorphosis, from this Greek word.  Jesus’ human form was transformed or glorified to reflect his divinity.  God’s love for us is so deep and great that he gave these three disciples, and others through the ages, glimpses of his glory.  These glimpses of God’s glory assure us of Jesus’ divinity, and that we can believe what he said. The disciples actually heard the Father’s voice: “While he [Jesus] was still speaking a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!’” (Matthew 17: 5).  Hearing God speak directly to them, the three disciples “fell facedown to the ground,” overcome with fear.  Jesus was quick to reassure them: “’Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid’” (Matthew 17: 7).

About 34 years after Jesus was crucified, Peter recounted this experience: “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1: 16-18).  Peter told us flat out that they didn’t make this up.  It happened—and he and James and John were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ divinity, and that they heard the Father speak to them. It was an experience that they never forgot.  I suspect that they thought about it almost every day the rest of their lives.  When they were discouraged, when they doubted, when they were afraid—they could go back to that experience and be reassured that Jesus is the Christ.  God revealed himself to Peter and to many others, who lived to provide their eyewitness accounts to us.

In addition to the eyewitness accounts, God reveals his love for us in every page of the Bible, and Sunday’s texts are no exception. As I write this on Valentine’s Day, I am reminded of a Sunday School lesson I taught 30 years ago to my class that included our two oldest children, ages four and six at the time: the Bible is God’s Valentine to us. God reveals his love for us and his plan for salvation in a linear narrative that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation.

In the Old Testament text, God invited Moses to a meeting where he would be given the law: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and the commandments I have written for their instruction. . . When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai.” (Exodus 24:12, 15).  Because of his incomprehensible love for us, God gave humankind one of the most important gifts we have ever received: the law.  It was the law that help put order to the human tendency toward chaos.  It was a key part of the Torah—the first installment of God’s love letters to his people.

God loves each and every one of us with an incomprehensible love.  His love is transforming.  Jesus commanded us to love others as he has loved us (John 15:12).  We have all heard stories of how love turned a person’s life around.  My husband was transformed from a tentative father-to-be to a fiercely loving and protective father within a few hours after our first child was born.

God’s love is powerfully transformational.  Mother Teresa’s life is an example of the impact that God’s transformational love can have through one humble servant. She told us to “Do ordinary things with extraordinary love.”  She encouraged us to go about our daily lives showing extraordinary love to everyone we encounter—our family, co-workers, salespeople, sisters and brothers in Christ—everyone we encounter on a daily basis in the course of our ordinary lives.

In Psalm 2 David wrote, “Kiss the Son” (Psalm 2: 12).  In the context of his generation, it was a reference to surrendering oneself to God.  But it was also a foreshadowing of Christ—that we are to surrender our hearts to Christ. Christ is the king of our hearts.  When we open our hearts to Jesus, the Spirit takes hold of our souls and transforms us little by little into what he wants us to be. It is not a superficial transformation in appearance, but rather one that occurs deep within our souls as we seek to do God’s will to love others as he loves us.

Are you ready to be transfigured? Refigured? Remolded? Remade? Transformed?

Surrender your heart to God’s transforming love.  God’s love for us is the source of our love for others; it is a deep well that will never run dry.

Prayer: Father, you are the King of our hearts.  Thank you for giving us eyewitnesses to your glory. Thank you for revealing yourself to the three disciples and to many others throughout the ages, so that we can be assured of your love for us and your plan of salvation.  Help us open our hearts to you each day with a willingness to be transformed by the power of your love for us. Help us to go about our ordinary tasks with extraordinary love.  Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for Transfiguration Sunday are Exodus 24:8-18; Psalm 2:6-12; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9.