An Indecisive Faith

“Elijah approached all the people and said, 
‘How long will you hobble back and forth between two opinions? 
If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.’ The people gave no answer.”
I Kings 18:21 (Common English Bible)
            There are multitudes of people today who live with an indecisive faith. In their heart of hearts they want to believe that they are a people of belief. For Christians, they may belong to a local church, worship regularly and participate in the financial support of the church. They possess a Bible – perhaps several – and may read it regularly. But when opportunities are presented for them to take a stand for what they know is right, what they know is a Christian position, they become hesitant. They are afraid to publicly confess that they follow the Lord, Jesus Christ, and intend to honor Christ in each of their decisions. No one who knows them can be certain just where they stand.
            This spirit of hesitation is far removed from the heroism of first century Christianity. In the Book of Acts, we encounter another story, the story of Christians who are arrested and beaten for their faith. When they are at last released from prison they are given the express command never to speak of Christ again. This warning does not stop them. Their faith is not dubious, hesitant, or vacillating. Just the opposite is true. We read that daily in the temple and in every house, they never ceased to teach and preach Jesus Christ. They are followers of Jesus Christ who make their life and influence count in the struggle of right and wrong.
            Why should we hesitate to affirm our faith as these first century Christians? If we believe in God and are sincere in our desire to follow Jesus as Lord of our lives, why not say so? The conviction of the Christian faith is that the establishment of God’s Kingdom would bring a better world. Only a few hundred Christians with a faith as resolute and unwavering as these first century Christians would have the capacity to stir any local community to its foundations. But what happens often today is that people “hobble back and forth between two opinions.” Either they are uncertain or are ashamed of their convictions as followers of Jesus.
            Elijah challenged the people of Israel to take a stand, one way or another. We are similarly challenged by his words. Cease to “hobble back and forth” and, rather, take a stand for something, either for the God we know in the person of Jesus or for something else. Someone once said, “Show me a man’s checkbook and I will tell you the name of his god.” I am confident that Elijah wouldn’t need their checkbook. How we speak, the manner in which we treat one another and the decisions we make – particularly moral and business decisions – demonstrate who or what is Lord of our lives. What a pity that anyone who has ever named Jesus as Lord would be found by others as a person of indecisive faith.


The Weight of Guilt

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads,
and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me.
I’m gentle and humble. And you willfind rest for yourselves.”
Matthew 11: 28, 29 (Common English Bible)
     During my recent trip to the Holy Land I saw a donkey carrying a heavy load, with heaving sides and hanging its head, it’s strength almost spent. It appeared as though this animal was ready to sink. Certainly, Jesus saw something similar. A master teacher, Jesus would take what was familiar to the people of his day, point to it, and then make use of it as an object lesson for opening-up the great truths of God’s presence and work. A donkey, struggling hard under the weight of a heavy load, may be the object lesson here in these few sentences of Matthew’s Gospel.
     There are moments in our life when we know the burden of that donkey. We struggle hard, carry heavy loads and our bodies – and spirit – become weary. Our strength is not equal to the weight. We feel as though we will sink under it all. It is precisely at that moment, the moment we fear that we will collapse, that Jesus promises “rest.” There is an intense force and allure to this gracious promise.  When our own strength has been spent, Jesus shows-up. And our gigantic weight, whatever it may be, is made manageable once again.
     I am convinced that of the scattered army of things that weigh heavily upon the human heart, none is greater than guilt. There is no exhaustion like the exhaustion created by guilt. It marshals our best efforts to defeat it only to exact a terrible drain upon our energies, dragging many into hopelessness and despair. What I am now certain of is that there is only one hope for those sinking beneath the crushing weight of guilt. It is found in the infinite power of divine forgiveness, the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
     Jesus’ invitation is, “Come to me.” So rest is to be gained by finding Christ. Pay attention to Christ long enough and what will be discovered is that Christ himself found rest in his heavenly Father. What’s more, that rest he found was sought each day. Jesus never was content to live on stale grace from his Father. It was sought fresh each day. So that is our example. Christ wants his gift of “rest” to be a daily find; something we seek from him each day. And that is how it is to be retained, seeking it day after day. Christ’s desire is that life will be a prolonged spiritual quest, seeking Christ and knowing Christ more fully each day. It will be then that the weight of guilt is removed and rest is found.


Where to Begin

“Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Acts 1:8 (Common English Bible)
     When the king in Alice in Wonderland was asked where to begin, he said gravely, “Begin at the beginning… and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Begin at the beginning. Naturally, that guidance seems reasonable. That is, until you have to actually open your mouth, and speak. With thoughts racing from one place to another, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many fine places to begin. Jesus tells his disciples, here in Acts, “you will be my witnesses.” Where do the disciples begin? Where are we to begin? Sharing our faith in Jesus seems reasonable until we actually confront that moment – that moment when we are asked, “Who is Jesus?”
     That moment came to me one Easter morning. I was enjoying breakfast in a Doylestown, PA diner, looking over the message I would preach in just a few hours. Mary, the waitress assigned to the table where I was seated, approached with coffee and said, “I guess this is your big day, pastor!” “I guess so,” I remarked. Then Mary asked, “What is Easter all about anyway?” Initially, I dismissed her question, not thinking she was serious. But I was mistaken; Mary was very serious. It was then I took the time to really notice her, to look into her eyes and really see her. I will not forget those eyes – eyes that betrayed her silence; silence of considerable pain. “Where do I begin?” I thought. I began with her pain. “Easter means that you can stop beating yourself up. Whatever guilt you may have now, whatever mistakes you have made in life, Easter means that you are to stop immediately from beating yourself up. God has removed it all.”
     “But there is more,” I said to Mary. “Easter is an invitation to pay attention to Jesus.” I shared with Mary that as she paid attention to Jesus, by reading of him in the Bible, she will discover that she will want to be more than she is now. “Pay attention long enough to Jesus and you will experience a compulsion to be something more; you will begin to live differently.”  Mary needed to hear that Jesus doesn’t leave a life unchanged. Any significant time spent with Jesus always results in a desire to be made new. “Your whole world will appear different. You will want to be different.”
     “Finally, Mary, begin to follow Jesus as you learn about him.” I shared with her that what that means is to “do what he asks in his teaching.” Imagine Jesus as a mentor in life and do everything that is asked of you. Something inexplicable happens when someone commits to doing all that Jesus’ asks: they receive an uncommon power to do so. People who obey all that they understand of Jesus’ teachings receive a power from outside of themselves; a power that actually makes them something so much more than what they were. Mary began to cry and asked how to begin. That is when I knew I had come to the end. And there, in a diner in Doylestown, PA, Mary gave her life to Jesus.


The Dust of Qumran (Location: Qumran)

“Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, 
for correcting, and for training character, 
so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.”
2 Timothy 3:16, 17 (Common English Bible)
     Overlooking the Dead Sea at a site not far from Jerusalem is a place that is widely considered as one of the most important archaeological finds of modern times. It is called Khirbet Qumran. Here in 1947, an Arab shepherd boy entered one of the numerous caves that dot the landscape looking for a lost sheep. Throwing a stone into a dark portion of the cave, hoping to frighten the sheep back out, he heard breaking pottery. Closer examination would reward the shepherd with the discovery of ancient scrolls that were over two thousand years old. After his discovery, archeologist conducted a search of other caves in the region. More than eight hundred ancient manuscripts were found, known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
     What is significant about this discovery is that included among the scrolls were the oldest copies of every Old Testament book, except the Book of Esther. Each manuscript was approximately a thousand years older than those used to translate the Bible from Hebrew into modern languages.  Perhaps even more remarkable was the discovery that, upon close examination of each book of the Old Testament, there was very little that had been altered during the thousand-year interval between these scrolls and those used to make the translations of the Bible we have now. This provides strong evidence that the manuscripts available today are extremely close to the original writing of these books.    
     Interestingly, it is precisely these Old Testament books to which Paul refers here, in his second letter to Timothy, since the New Testament had not yet been written when Timothy was a child (verse 15). Paul reminds Timothy that the chief aim of scripture is for both information and transformation. It is not enough to learn more about God. Through scripture, each person of faith experiences an encounter with God that tears out what is old and corrupt and refurbishes their life with what is new, holy and necessary for doing what is pleasing to God.  Becoming well formed spiritually is the essential function of God’s Word.
     My first visit to Qumran was the most meaningful portion of my trip to the Holy Land. It is here that an ancient faith community, the Essenes, labored carefully to preserve Holy Scripture for future generations. These scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls, are gone now, placed in a museum in Jerusalem for optimal preservation and enjoyment by the thousands who visit the museum each year. What remains in Qumran are empty caves, parched earth and dust. It is that dust, the dust of Qumran, that remains to remind the spiritual pilgrim of what life would be without the living waters of God’s Word.


Weekend Tomb (Location: The Garden Tomb)

“There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.”
John 19:41 (Common English Bible)
            Outside the city walls of Old Jerusalem, near the Damascus Gate, is The Garden Tomb, one of two tombs that are believed to be the burial place of Jesus. The Garden Tomb challenges a 1,600-year-old tradition that the site of Jesus’ burial is marked by an ancient church located within the walls of the Old City – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Those who argue in favor of The Garden Tomb as the burial place of Jesus point to its close proximity to a hill with a rocky face that bears a resemblance to a skull, a probable place of the crucifixion. This is a highly visible location to people traveling the main road north from the city, a place intentionally chosen for crucifixions to discourage challenges, or disobedience, to the religious or civil law of the day.
            The strongest argument against The Garden Tomb as the burial place of Jesus is archeological evidence that suggest that the tomb was used as a burial site in the period of the Old Testament. The witness of John’s Gospel is that Jesus was placed in “a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.” If The Garden Tomb is not actually the burial place of Jesus, it is most certainly what the tomb would have looked like – located in a lovely garden that dates back to Jesus’ day, a place of considerable calm and beauty. Jesus’ tomb was in a garden and this garden now provides spiritual pilgrims a meaningful center of quiet meditation, worship and devotion.
            There are still others who suggest that neither of these two tombs were the actual place of Jesus’ burial; that in all probability, the actual spot of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial are located several feet beneath the accumulated ruins of the city of Jerusalem. It is a fact of history that since the death and resurrection of Jesus, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. What all of this suggests to me is that, perhaps, we are struggling with matters that are unimportant. What is important to the Christian witness is that the tomb, regardless of its precise location, was in fact, simply a weekend tomb. It was only used for three days.
            The power of the Christian faith is not located in a specific place. The power of the Christian faith is located in a person, the person of Jesus Christ. Pinpointing the actual place of Jesus’ death and burial is less important than what followed those events – Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb, from death, and his continuing life today among those he loves. To stand in Jerusalem, that place where Jesus taught and worshiped, that place where Jesus was betrayed and crucified, that place where Jesus was buried and defeated death, is perhaps one of the most meaningful experiences available to a person of faith. But what is absolutely critical to the existence of a vital faith is the conviction that the tomb of Jesus, wherever it may be, is empty; that Jesus walks this day and each day with those who seek him.