CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE RESURRECTED LORD!

Christ has just risen. Whom do you expect him to see? How about showing up at the Sanhedrin? Or to Pilate? That isn’t the way Jesus operates. We learn about Jesus  by seeing the people he meets up with.

MARY MAGDALENE

Christ had cast seven demons out of Mary. Her devotion went beyond helping him in life–she and other women wanted to help him in death. Peter and John saw the empty tomb, and left in a hurry to report. Mary lingered. Jesus comes to her in her sorrow. Disillusioned, she does not even look up when asked why she is weeping. When the stranger calls her name, she knows. She is honored for her devotion by being the first to see the risen Christ. In her grief she is still giving to her Lord. In your sorrow, minister to your Lord even then. He will not disappoint you.

THE OTHER WOMEN

The first two groups to see Jesus are women, the less important of their day. The disciples showed how much they respected them, refusing to believe. They had come to pay homage to the dead–and they ended up worshiping the living Lord. Jesus had much more regard for them than the disciples. It is never in vain to silently serve our Lord.

PETER

Satan had sifted him and he was devastated. High hopes turned to failure. Now the words stung, “You will deny me three times.” And his own words, “I never knew the man.” No chance of recovery; his Lord was dead. He raced to the tomb when the women spoke of meeting angels in hope against hope. Perhaps on his way home the risen Christ appears. Jesus is caring for one of his soldiers, wounded in battle. There is a place for failures in God’s program. Jesus comes not to rebuke but to reinstate. Christ gives hope to this sifting sand–and he becomes a rock. Weeks later Peter boldly proclaims the resurrection against the threat of persecution. Have you failed the Lord? Believe that he comes to you. Angels told the women, “Go tell his disciples and Peter.” He has you on his mind.

EMMAUS DISCIPLES

For two men, the seven-mile trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus was the longest it had ever been. They told the stranger, “We had hoped…” Death buried their longings. Scripture had clearly pointed out the suffering and the glory, but they were conditioned only for the glory road. Guess who’s coming for dinner. They invite the well-informed visitor. At table he blesses the bread, their hearts begin to burn–and he’s gone. He comes–through Word, through sacrament–to chase away gloom and reveal his glory. Believe him in the mystery of his presence–and watch him lift your hopes.

THE DISCIPLES MINUS THOMAS

Evening of the first new day. Christ appeared to Mary, the other women, Peter, and the Emmaus disciples. Ten disciples are still cowering in darkness behind locked doors. They had probably heard that Jesus might be alive, but they did not believe. They were not expecting him, and they sure hoped no one else would show up. Guess who does, right through the locked door. What do you expect from the Lord who had been denied by his own, betrayed, forsaken? Instead of rejection they receive a blessing and a fresh commission: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21,22). How gracious of Jesus to call scared disciples who had lost their “sent.” No superstars on the Jesus team, only people like us, needy, fearful, doubtful–but now equipped to serve as powerful witnesses.

THE DISCIPLES INCLUDING THOMAS

One week later–same time, same house, same shut door. The still not too confident band gets another appearance from the Lord. This time he heads straight for Thomas. At the last meeting two were missing–one doubting, one dead. Thomas was a slow starter but loyal. Jesus did not commend his unbelief, but he converted it to faith, and Thomas declares powerfully, “My Lord and my God.” How kind of Jesus to pursue us in our darkness when clouds make it difficult to see. Thomas died as did all the disciples except John a martyr’s death.

SEVEN AT THE SEA

Guess who’s coming for breakfast, the third encounter with a group of disciples. They have had a miserable night of fishing. It’s morning. I would not recommend asking dismal fishermen, “Have you caught anything?” Jesus does. Instructions from shore bring a huge catch–153. John recognizes Jesus and Peter swims to shore, where a three-fold question erases the agony of denial. Jesus didn’t need to hear it–Peter did, and Jesus converted his loss to a gain–at the last breakfast!

FIVE HUNDRED

Paul, reviewing the encounters to establish the fact of the risen Christ, says that “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are alive, though some have fallen asleep” (I Cor.15:5). Marching orders. He will conduct a world-wide campaign from heaven. Either Jesus is dreaming, or this group is going to disciple the nations!

JAMES

Paul alone tells of an encounter between Jesus and the one he grew up with. They had lived under the same roof, “but his own received him not” (John 7:5). It took a personal appearance from Jesus, now a conqueror of death, to bring James to accepting the authority of the One he knew well. This pillar died a martyr’s death proclaiming his brother as his Lord!

THE APOSTLES AT ASCENSION DAY

In the final commissioning, Jesus reminds the apostles of the scope of the mission (the work), the nature of the call (be witnesses), and the promise of equipment (the Holy Spirit). Then he left. Read the book of Acts. They proclaimed the resurrection with authority. It worked. He was not a dead memory but a living, exalted Lord. His address changed from Nazareth to the Right Hand!

PAUL

After rehearsing Christ’s encounters as proof that he rose, Paul concluded, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am” (I Corinthians 15:8-10). Do you know any people for whom you pray but find it difficult to see them in the kingdom? God’s power is greater than our doubt. He can take the hardest pagan and make him or her the softest sheep on his flock.

ME

But I say, “Last of all, he appeared to me.” Without his grace, I would not be experiencing his love today. He has convinced me that he is alive and Lord over all. I live daily in the joy of his presence. I say with Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives.”

7 HABITS OF ONE SUPREMELY EFFECTIVE PERSON!

The way people die can sometimes tell us how they lived. Jesus died forgiving enemies, redeeming a thief, caring for his mother, overcoming the darkness, confessing human need, finishing His assignment, and trusting His Father in death.  What a way to die! What a way to live.

FATHER, FORGIVE THEM, FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO. 

“Yes they do, Jesus.  They’re killing you, an innocent man. Why aren’t you angry?”  It’s hard to forgive, especially when it’s unjust, like when a young man who was homeless and stayed at my home ripped me off when he left. Jesus really got ripped off!! 

When East Germany asked forgiveness of Israel, they responded, “The shame of the action cannot be removed.”  But Corrie ten Boom managed to forgive a guard who showed up at one of her meetings. She had gotten ripped–her sister Betsy died in prison. “Father, forgive them…” No more gracious words were ever uttered. They were given on behalf of His killers. They had heard foul messages coming from crucified ones—never like this. 

TODAY YOU SHALL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE.

Jesus was getting ridiculed from every direction. Even the two thieves joined in (Mark 15:32). But then one told the other, “We deserve what we are getting (conviction), but he has done nothing wrong” (revelation). First came the deep awareness of his own guilt. He was not a victim of Roman imperialism; he was a guilty sinner. He was getting what he deserved. How kind of Jesus to do evangelism in his darkest hour. Salvation is extended to a criminal, who has nothing to contribute before passing into eternity.  He will still shine with the stars of heaven, and he will praise the blood of the Lamb.  Better people will go to hell because of their refusal to do what he did.

Listen to his request: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In eight words he acknowledged that the Man next to him had the power to forgive, was a king, had a kingdom, and was going to defy death and go there. What revelation!  Imagine Peter asking him at the gate, “How can you come in?  You’re a thief.”  He would respond, “Jesus said I could.”  “Really? When?”  “A little while ago.”  At his dying moment he took more than he had ever taken as a criminal—eternal salvation.  We will meet him in heaven, thanks to Jesus.  One blasphemed–the other believed. What a difference for eternity. Wouldn’t you like to share the Good News with some unlikely person like that?  Such simple faith: “Remember me…” And what a response:  “Today…”

WOMAN, BEHOLD YOUR SON.  BEHOLD, YOUR MOTHER!

In times of pain, we tend to think of ourselves first. Jesus is thinking about the people who are killing him, the robber next to him,  the mother below him. The word of Simeon was being fulfilled; a sword was piercing her heart, even as a sword would soon pierce his side. The unique Son of God was also the son of Mary, her firstborn. That meant that in the absence of Joseph he took responsibility for her care. With younger brothers who were skeptics, Jesus put his mother into the capable hands of his beloved friend John! Such care!

MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?

Jesus was a reject from the get-go, a humiliating birth out back of a motel.The whole country knew he was illegitimate. His parents were on the poor side. He was an itinerant preacher, an embarrassment to his mother and brothers. The hometown folks sort of accepted him, until he preached his first sermon.  Then they tried to throw him over a cliff.  Hardly a welcome.  “He came to his own and his own did not receive him” (John 1:11).  “He was despised and rejected by men…” (Isaiah 53:3).  The rejection continued at the trials.  He knew it was going to happen. He had told the disciples that “the Son of man (would) suffer many things and be rejected by the elders…” (Matthew 16:21). But by far the worst had to be when God rejected him. He had never known even the slightest moment of separation.  Now he is condemned, even as scripture says:  “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23).  He had only known God’s favor.  Now he feels the curse. “He who knew no sin became sin for us…” (2 Cor. 5:21). Separated–that we who trust in Him would never be.

Jesus knew when the fight escalated in intensity. God poured the sins of humanity into the body of the spotless Lamb of God. He became the trash dump of the human race. This is the cup He knew He had to drink. He was now bearing sin in his own body, the receptacle of unredeemed humanity’s bad choices. Putrifying. The foul stench of rebellion.  The sun acknowledged the battle and shut down. Hand-to-hand combat with the powers of darkness.  The Lord lays on Him the iniquity of us all, the most violent laying on of hands. Jesus is being “stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.”  The Father is beating up His own Son, who feels the agony and cries out, not to His Father, but to God.  No darker hour exists in human history.  No place is He more a representative of a fallen race.  His cry, “My God, my God, why…,” is the most wrenching prayer of the universe.  Unspeakable horror, undiminished shame.  Jesus paid a high price for our sin.  Consider it the next time you think Jesus doesn’t care, or when you feel the need to indulge yourself.  No one understands suffering like Jesus.  What great sorrow!  What extravagant love!

I THIRST.

It wasn’t until He looked to the needs of others that He said, “I am thirsty.”  He dealt with the thief’s thirst for salvation before He asked for a drink.  He drank when all things were accomplished. In the heat of battle, one does not yell, “Time out.”  That Jesus now confesses thirst is not only a sign of thirst.  It indicates that the battle is over.  And He said it in fulfillment of scripture.  At no point did Jesus ever lose control.  Caiaphas did—and tore his robes in anger.  Peter did—and swore his denial of having ever known Jesus.  Pilate did—and tried to wash a guilty conscience away with water.  The crowd did—and shouted, “Crucify him,” like bloodthirsty dogs tearing at their victim.  But Jesus, the victim, never lost it.  He knew what was happening all the time and what He needed to do.  History was on schedule.  The king was about to be crowned.  And He said, “I thirst.”  He was the Son of God and Son of Man.  His confession of need encourages me to be human, to be honest about my needs, and especially my desperate need for God.

The one who created Niagara Falls, who made the lakes high in the Rockies, is now dehydrated.  He had given a drink of living water to a guilt-ridden Samaritan woman. He had been preparing through suffering to give eternal water to the thirsty, and now He grows thirsty in the process.  He had poured out His soul to death.  He deserved to be thirsty. He had just cried out, “My God, my God.”  That was the most awful exposure to the elements of darkness without the help of God. But He was also facing physical exposure.  The soldier understood Him and gave Him some of the sour wine, cheap stuff given to soldiers as part of their rations.  Earlier it had been offered to Jesus and He had refused it.  Why now?  Because He was about to die and His work was over.  He did not want to be drugged earlier, because He chose to be in full awareness of what He was doing.  He needed to “taste death for everyone.”  Receiving the wine, He gained sufficient strength to say… 

IT IS FINISHED.

He didn’t say, “I am finished.”  He didn’t die a victim but a victor.  He completed it all.  That means that there is nothing left for you and me to do. Jesus plus…nothing! “There is therefore now no condemnation…” (Romans 8:1).  He accomplished it all single-handedly.  It had started at the dawn of creation.  Satan, who had led a mutiny in heaven, then convinced Adam and Eve to rebel.  The devil wounded the heel of Jesus, but Jesus stepped on his head.  Everything on the other side of the cross would be the mop-up campaign.  Heaven must be rejoicing. This is why He left—not to preach or to heal but to die. He had accomplished His mission. He was able to tell His Father in faith the eve before His death, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4). What do we add to the cross?  Our good efforts?  Our church attendance?  Our zeal?  Our devotions? Our tithe?  Nothing. Our salvation in Jesus Christ is the cross plus nothing. We have amassed a great debt, but it has been paid in full.  We too can say thankfully with Christ, “It is finished.”  

FATHER, IN YOUR HANDS I COMMIT MY SPIRIT.

He ended as He started, praying to His Father.  The Father must be so pleased.  The Son will soon be coming home. He has always rested in His Father.  Now He entrusts His spirit in death.  He believed the Father to raise Him up again.  Jesus chooses to die.  He yields up His Spirit, almost like a child praying tenderly. The 3lst Psalm was one of the first psalms Jewish children memorized.  Jesus was saying His closing prayer, quoting from that Psalm.  This was the third time He quoted Scripture from the cross, as He walked through the valley of the shadow of death, like a man on a mission. He came to die–and now He does. God is conforming His children into the image of Christ.  The Father would teach us to live–as Jesus died.

FATHER, FORGIVE THEM (part 2)

The Father is speaking to the dying thief.  A transaction is about to take place. He then says, “Jesus (calling him by name), remember me when you come into your kingdom” (42). The words of forgiveness from Jesus broke through his hard heart and softened him and opened the door to revelation. Not only is this man innocent, but he is truly a king, and he will overcome death and take his kingdom as royalty. He asks Jesus to remember him when that happens. He is about to experience salvation in the last hours of his life. There is no time to change his ways and order his steps rightly. Still he is bypassing hell and going straight to paradise, where he will again meet up with Jesus this same day!  A phenomenal interaction a few hours before the two men die. His eternal destiny just took a massive change!

Neither one will be struggling before long. Jesus will have won a glorious and absolutely astounding victory, and a former thief is tasting of it just before he steps over into eternity. No chance for reformation of his character on this side. No opportunity to return what he had stolen. Hardly even a chance to say, “I will never do it again–I promise.”  But the Judge of all the earth declares him not guilty, and we will meet him in the new earth, along with millions of other forgiven sinners who were marked with the atoning blood of Christ, the blood that flowed from his arms, his head, his face, his back, his feet. Jesus is going to die with no bitterness, no hatred, no regret, no unforgiveness, and he is going to take a former thief with him to paradise.

Because the first word, “Father, forgive,” was heard and took root in a criminal’s softened soul, Jesus followed with a second word: “Today…”, . The thief could no longer argue his defense or lie about all he stole. He said a simple prayer to the Son of God that revealed a broken heart and an awareness of who was dying next to him. I look forward to talking with that thief, who was reformed a few hours before he transitioned from the end of life to eternal life. He met up with Jesus later that day! Sounds like a great place to connect after dying next to each other on a Roman cross.  Remarkable! Jesus said, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” A despicable thief was washed clean by the blood of Jesus and saw him soon after death.

Allow it to take root in your heart as well. Let what Jesus did to give you courage to do two things: confess your sins with honesty before God and those close to you, and forgive others who don’t deserve it, who recklessly hurt you without offering a word of explanation, who even forget that they did anything wrong to you, who made excuses and alibis instead of repentance. If Jesus can do that under excruciating pain and spiritual anguish, you and I can be given grace to do it for issues with far less injustice, far less hatred, far less cruelty. What would dare hold us back when we see the Lamb of God beaten to a bloody pulp freely forgiving those who brought him to a terribly painful death one beating at a time? What an atrocity! An unsurpassed crime!  What love! What powerful forgiveness. It turned a guilty thief into a heaven-bound saint–in moments. Such is the power of forgiveness. Let no one look at the travesty of the cross, the absolute worst crime of all history, then choose not to forgive someone for an infinitely less offense. It is the difference between two cents and two million dollars. Hear it once again, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Thank you Jesus for your forgiveness. In receiving it, I am given the strength to forgive others–fully, unconditionally.

Two supremely kind words from the cross, first blanket forgiveness to people who do not deserve it and won’t accept it, and second, a promise to a hardened criminal whose heart was transformed by Christ’s offer of forgiveness. His first word did nothing for the religious leaders or hardened soldiers, who continued their assault, but it broke into the heart of a convicted criminal just before death.

THE HEALING POWER OF THE CROSS!

The world views strength as conquest.  God’s power is shown in surrender.  Jesus said, “I have power to lay down my life.” Nowhere is God’s power shown more clearly than in the cross, portrayed graphically by Isaiah seven hundred years before. The prophet writes that “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:2,3).  Far from being attractive or domineering, he was an insignificant “root out of dry ground” (2).  The prophet shows us three ways that the slain Lamb demonstrates might, the kind the world knows nothing about.

THE CROSS BRINGS HEALING FROM SIN.  Some may say, “We don’t need healing; we need forgiveness.” Jesus said to the Pharisees:  “They that are well have no need of a physician but they that are sick.”  Sin is a sickness. But “there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul,” like the song goes. For “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).  Thankfully, the cross brings healing not only from the penalty of sin but also from the power. Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” In those words she experienced the acceptance of grace.  It gave her power to receive the truth:  “Go and sin no more.”  “He breaks the power of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free.”  That power is found in the cross.

THE CROSS BRINGS HEALING FROM SORROW.   We have sinned, and we have been sinned against.  The devastating work of sin has brought untold sorrow.  A man abandons his family, leaving a wife and children to cope. Another hopes for a promotion and is terminated unjustly after thirty years of service. Jesus heals shattered hearts.  His hometown sermon was taken from Isaiah 61:  “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted…” (1).  He did that through the cross:  “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…” (Isaiah 53:4a).  He can give us a “crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3). People who have walked with deep grief may say, “Impossible.”  But that power comes from the cross.

THE CROSS BRINGS HEALING FROM SICKNESS.  Matthew was a reject like Jesus, but of a different kind; he collected taxes. Jesus made the right choice in calling him. Years later, Matthew painted one of the most beautiful portraits of Christ ever penned.  When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, Matthew thought back on the day, adding these words:  “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:  ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases’” (Matthew 8:17). I find no greater reason to pray for the sick than this, that when Jesus died, He carried not only our sins and sorrows but our sicknesses as well. May you know the power of the cross in your life—today!

MARKS OF A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP

On a scale of ten to one, how would you rate your relationships?  I once asked church leaders in California how they’d rate their church.  Most elders gave it a seven; I would have said four. I am sometimes humored when I ask couples how it’s going.  He says, “Fine;” she answers, “Struggling.”  She’s not smiling.  Doctors diagnose to determine physical health.  Here are clues to relational wholeness:

SPEAKING TRUTH TO ONE ANOTHER.  

Dysfunctional systems major in pretense.  “Honesty is the best policy,” but insecure people don’t want it. Pretending overshadows facing hard truth. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” but fragile relationships can’t handle it. Can you?  Can others risk speaking truthfully with you? Not if you’re unhealthy. Have you grown to the place where the truth (light) is not a threat but a promise. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7). Satan says that if we are honest about our failures, we will be shamed and rejected. John said that we will be loved and forgiven. 

CONFRONTING AND RESOLVING PROBLEMS.  

The Bible lays out processes for peaceful resolution. Some have neither the desire nor the know-how to close books by making the columns balance.  They would rather build up a deficit in the emotional bank account. Tension doesn’t mean that something is wrong; it means that something is happening. But if we learned to treat tension as threatening, we react instead of saying, “My relationship with you is not up for grabs. How can we deal with this misunderstanding?” The light on the dashboard is our friend. It tells us that something is happening in the engine that needs our attention. When a friend in a difficult marriage went to in-law gatherings, he listened to people staying on the surface rather than dealing with painful issues. Unhealthy people avoid confrontation or do it recklessly. You need to have made investments into the relationship if you plan to make a big withdrawal, such as lovingly confronting someone. Otherwise the check bounces.

RESPONDING WITHOUT REACTING.  

People who live by principles more than by the Spirit will tend to return evil for evil.  They want to be even-handed.  People of grace are radical. They return the opposite spirit, responding to God rather than reacting to people.  A Spirit-empowered life is required to overcome evil with good.  Our sense of justice kicks in when insulted, and we may choose to nurse the offense rather than forgiving the offender. Wounded people who hold onto injuries keep getting wounded. Like a sick person with no immune system, they catch everything that comes along. Healthy people have emotional immunity; resentment doesn’t stick to their soul. They don’t have emotional baggage buried deep inside, like hostility or resentment, so they don’t operate out of past hurts. Unhealthy people don’t even know why they are reacting. Healing of the past could free them in the present and enable them to respond  to a spouse rather than continuing in reaction mode. 

SHARPENING EACH OTHER.  

Healthy relationships combine grace and truth in a way that builds us up.  Unhealthy relationships are often filled with sarcasm, dumping, complaining, innuendos.  No investment is being made for the future.  If anything, money is drawn out without new deposits being made. Bankruptcy is not far away.

I once mentioned in the hearing of my daughter Karis, then six, that I was short on money.  She encouraged me to write out a check for some easy cash.  I explained that I had to put money in to draw money out.  Unhealthy people will overdraw and go from crisis to crisis.  They must learn to make good deposits in the lives of others. 

How are you at making good deposits into the account of your spouse? Can you be positive simply for the reason that it builds up your spouse? I did it recently when I thought a suggestion might be more appropriate. Thank God I had a good moment and poured on a few compliments when I considered a correction. Am I glad I did? Karen first texted me a wonderful response, then came into the room choked up by love. If you don’t know what to do, love is probably the answer. Like a great man once said, “Love never fails!” I have failed too many times with good advice. This time I succeeded–with love. I think I’ll try it again!

IF I PERISH, I PERISH!

                                            

King Ahasuerus reigned from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces. He gave a feast that lasted 180 days. That’s a lot of food. It was followed by another feast lasting a week.  On the 7th day he ordered his seven eunuchs to bring in Queen Vashti, who was giving a feast for the women. She refused. The king burned with anger and asked his seven wise men what should be done. One of them said that she should be forever banished from his presence and the king should choose someone else. Esther, adopted by Mordecai when her parents died, was one of those chosen to be beautified for twelve months. Mordecai checked up on her daily. She won the contest and was made queen in place of Va

One day Mordecai heard about a plan of two eunuchs of the king to assassinate him. He told this to Esther, who passed the plot along to the king. He investigated the matter, found it to be true, and had the men hanged. Meanwhile, a man named Haman rose to a place of prominence next to the king, and people bowed down to him, all except Mordecai, because he was a Jew. Haman in anger decided that all the Jews of the empire should be destroyed. He lied to the king about the Jewish people and said they should be exterminated. He promised to give the king money to help in the destruction. This decree went out to every province. When Mordecai heard of it, he tore his clothes and cried bitterly, as did Jews throughout the kingdom.

Esther sent clothes for Mordecai through one of the eunuchs, but he would not put them on. He sent word back to Esther, showing her the written decree, and telling her that she had to go before the king on behalf of her people. She sent word back that it had been thirty days since she had been before the king, and if she went without being called, her life was in danger. Mordecai sent this message back to her: “Don’t think that because you are in the palace you will escape. If you keep silent, deliverance will come from another place, but you and your house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Esther replied to Mordecai, “Gather all the Jews in Susa and hold a three-day fast. Don’t eat or drink. I and my young women will do the same. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (15,16).

On the third day, Esther put on her royal robes and stood in front of the king’s quarter. When the king saw her, he held out his golden scepter. She approached him and touched the end of the scepter. He asked her what she requested and promised up to half of his kingdom. She requested that the king and Haman come to a feast that day that she has prepared. At the feast the king repeated his promise. She requested that the king come the next day to a feast and she would let him know. Haman left, passed by Mordecai, and despised him for not bowing. He went home rejoicing for the favor he was being shown by Queen Esther two days in a row. But he told his wife, “It means nothing as long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate” (5:13). She said, “Prepare a gallows 75 feet high and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged on it,” which Haman did. 

That night the king couldn’t sleep. He read through the book of memorable deeds and found how Mordecai had uncovered a plot on his life. He found out that nothing had been done to honor him. It was morning by now, and Haman was coming up the court. So the king asked him, “What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” Thinking he was the hero, he recommended lavish acclamation through the square with someone proclaiming praises. The king said, “Good. Do this for Mordecai.” Haman had to be the town crier for his enemy, after which he hurried home in shame. His wife said, “Doesn’t look good for you now.”

At that moment the eunuchs arrived to bring him to Esther’s feast. As they were dining, the king again asked the queen about her request. She told him the grief she felt concerning the decree regarding the annihilation of her people. The king asked, “Who has dared to do this?” and she replied, “This wicked Haman!” While the king stepped out to the garden in anger, Haman fell on the couch with Esther, pleading for mercy. The king returned, and it appeared that Haman was assaulting her. He commanded that the gallows prepared for Mordecai be used for him. And the authority that Haman had enjoyed was now given to Mordecai along with a crown and a royal blue robe. He was received in Susa the capital with great cheers.

Esther then pleaded with the king on behalf of her people, the Jews. The king could not reverse his edict but allowed the Jews to arm and defend themself against all who wanted to destroy them. The Jews gained mastery over their enemies and defeated them. The ten sons of Haman were hanged on his gallows. The day that the Jews were to be annihilated that they reversed was turned into a feast day–the Feast of Purim. “Pur” means to cast lots. Lots were cast to crush them, and the reverse took place. Purim this year is March 16! Rejoice with your Jewish friends!

FATHER, FORGIVE THEM…

Imagine the torture Jesus experienced at the trial, then at the cross. Multiple beatings by the religious leaders, who said mockingly, “Prophesy. Who struck you?” They laughed as they assaulted him. Pilate knew he was innocent. Then his wife sent a message to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, because I have suffered much because of him in a dream today” (Matthew 27:19). He is going to hear about his cowardice for years to come from that woman. Pilate ordered him scourged before sending him to the cross. Jesus probably no longer looked like a human being. Pilate to turn him over to killers and released a true murderer. Then he had to carry his cross, but he couldn’t manage it. Way too weak! 

Then they nailed him to the cross. People who passed by mocked. Same for the religious leaders. This was happening near a public thoroughfare. And Matthew says that the robbers on each side of him also reviled him. Non-stop ridicule for the man on the cross, the one said to be the King of the Jews. Jesus had prayed in the garden, “Is there any other way?” But he concluded, “Not my will but yours be done.” Hard to imagine this is the glorious Son of God. The prophet Isaiah had written accurately, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10).  The Father is allowing all this. Why? So you and I could be forgiven and be received into His family.

Then Jesus did something that no one anticipated. They were his first words from the cross. With all the bloodshed and beating, it was very hard to talk. But he prayed out loud, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When most people would be full of bitter anguish, animosity toward the killers, a desire for revenge, Jesus forgives them, the rowdy religious leaders who are below him mocking him even as he prays, the thieves who deserve to die railing against him, one on each side of him, the soldiers making fun of the pretend king. How merciful can you get! He is dying of the torture, and yet he forgives his assailants as the first order of business on the cross. No one expected it, because no one would have done it. 

Then something happened to one of the thieves. When his partner on the other side continued the assault, he rebuked him and said, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” How did he know that? God chose to reveal it to him. The words, “Father, forgive them…” must have broken through. He was convicted of his own sin and of the man’s righteousness who was dying between them. He then says, “This man has done nothing wrong” (v. 41).  What revelation! Conviction of his own sin turns to understanding of the true character of Jesus. God is speaking to the dying thief.  A transaction is about to take place. (Part 2 coming).

PEOPLE AREN’T THE ENEMY…

…your spouse, boss, competitor, relative, neighbor. May seem like it. If they have skin on, they aren’t. “We wrestle NOT against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). Feels like it when they come against us or stand in our way of happiness or success. They may be used by the devil, but they are not the devil. The real adversary is the prince of darkness, the deceiver, the accuser, the temptor, intimidator. He uses people to do his work. If you fight with them, thinking that they are the reason for your misery, you lose big. We often wrestle against flesh and blood. Sad!. 

We are commanded to love those who make life difficult for us, those who persecute us or come against us. We are never commanded to love Satan. People may act like the devil, but they are not the devil. We fight against “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (12b). If we can thank God that He is using our boss, our neighbor, our spouse to accomplish His purposes in our life, we just won. And we will turn a test into a testimony.  It was Jesus who said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27,28). Wow! Not an easy assignment.

Doing the opposite of our natural response brings the high favor of heaven. It moves us into the realm of the miraculous. When Paul chose to worship when he was unjustly thrown into prison, he knew that his real enemy was not the people who beat him up and put him in a dungeon, and agreement with heaven brought a new church into existence and salvation to an entire family– and beyond. If we obey when it is not our first inclination but our final answer, we are coming powerfully against the forces of darkness and defeating them.

Are you tired of tangling with the people you live with, work with, even worship with? Are you losing more than you are winning? Change your battle strategy. Start loving them and hating the one who is using them for his purposes. Don’t be fooled by his plan. Learn to “stand against the schemes (“methodia”) of the devil” (11). There is a method to his madness. It is to trick you into fighting the wrong enemy so you lose every time.

As Jesus approached the cross, he knew his real enemy: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31,32). So he was able to forgive the soldiers who crucified him and the thieves who railed against him. He even led one of them into paradise, because he wasn’t fighting flesh and blood. Did he win? “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15). He publicly embarrassed the powers of darkness by fooling them. They thought they were winning. They were dead wrong!

When you love those who feel like your opposition, you are dying to yourself as Jesus died on the cross, and you are fulfilling the admonition of the apostle: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). It is fighting smart and well. Try it next time you feel like swinging at flesh and blood–and win big!

5 TRUTHS ABOUT TESTS!

WE EMBRACE TESTS WITH JOY.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). That is not our normal response. We either want to avoid trials or, if they come, get through them quickly. If we learn to come with a positive spirit, it will change the process AND the outcome.That’s why we respond with joy when we face them, not finish them. Tests reveal the attitude of our heart.  You know me in pain better than in pleasure. A response of joy indicates that we are believing in God more than our circumstances. We are expressing confidence that trials serve His purpose, not the devil’s. Joy says that the trial won’t take us under; God will take us higher. Joy says that we are expecting a good outcome out of a potentially bad situation.

“Whenever”—not “if ever”. We are all going to have tests. (I Peter 5:9; I Cor. 10:13)). “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you” (I Peter 4:12). It’s not strange; it is common. Face it with joy!

TESTS ARE OF MANY KINDS.

Why? “…that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (4) We do different exercises for different muscles. Why? To be fully developed. Same with tests.

TESTS DEVELOP CHARACTER.

“You know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (3). It is what we know that enables us to embrace tests instead of trying to avoid them. Paul agrees with James: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character…” (Rom. 5:3). The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. People who have developed perseverance live with hope, with eternity in view. They hit the tape running, knowing that the end is not the end. 

TESTS CAN CONFUSE. ASK FOR WISDOM.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (5).  “…so that no one would be unsettled by these trials” (I Thess. 3:3). Here are some distorted but common messages that we sometimes hear in testing:

God is angry with me. God isn’t listening. God did this to teach me some kind of lesson, but I don’t know what. God is getting even with me for something I did years ago. God is not as good as I thought He was. God causes everything (He doesn’t), and everything is given for a purpose.

Suffering can paralyze us or turn us into victims. Attitude is 90% of the struggle. What if Satan tries to wear you down as he did Job?  In all things resist the devil and submit to God. Anchor yourself in His goodness. Tests tempt us to change our picture of God (James 1:13-18). It is not so much what we experience but how we interpret what we experience. Joseph said to unkind brothers,  “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”`

TESTS PASSED BRING A REWARD.

“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). Crowns speak of victory and authority, an upgrade and a new revelation of God. Pass a test in finances and know better the God of provision.  Am I saying to rejoice when trials come? No. God is!! It works. Have at it!

FORGIVENESS–3 GENERATIONS WORTH!

Karen was taking Karis to church twelve years ago. She backed out carefully, but did not see Gabriel’s car parked behind the other van. The small Nissan was no match for the Suburban that we had named “Big Red,” and the front right bumper was messed up pretty bad. Karen used her cell phone to call inside. She was crying. I came out, surveyed the damage, and told Karen to head for church. “What about Gabriel’s car?” she asked. “We’ll be home before he sees it. I will explain it to him,” I assured her.

Wrong. Erikka saw the damage and asked Gabriel what happened. When he looked, he was angry and kicked the garage in disgust. He prided himself in keeping the car clean and looking good. Maybe he liked it a little too much. I walked into the study to find Gabriel sitting silently. “Sorry, Gabriel,” I said. “Get an estimate and I will pay for it.” Mom then found Gabriel as he was on the way out and added her apology, which he accepted quietly. 

About a minute later, after Gabriel had left, he called and said to Mom, “It’s okay; it’s only a car.” Then a minute after that he called me and said, “Would you pray for me? I don’t know what’s happening?” He was sobbing. He had to pull over and stop the car because he couldn’t see to drive. I responded, “I know what’s happening. You just passed your test, and God’s presence filled your car.” He answered, “Just last night at the meeting Kyle said that the devil would go after us at our weakest point. My weakest point has been my relationship with Mom.” “And you won the fight,” I said. “Way to go.”

Then Gabriel added, “Thanks for not getting mad at me when I messed up your car.” He was leaving church about five years before on a wintry Minnesota day with icy conditions. He tried to turn in the parking lot to miss the oncoming car, but the old wagon wouldn’t cooperate. Totaled our car and thoroughly aggravated the passenger in the other car–a lady pulling up for a wedding.

I reminded Gabriel that when I was sixteen I borrowed another wagon, a 1960 Chevrolet. When dropping friends off, I pulled into their driveway and scraped one whole side on a metal picket fence. My friend Johnny jumped out and said, “Doesn’t look good, Paul.” I responded, “Thanks, Johnny.” When I walked into the kitchen and handed my father the keys, I said, “I messed up the side of the car.”  My dad’s response was, “It’s bound to happen sooner or later.” He didn’t even go outside to check it out. His response made me feel more important to him than metal.

He gave me forgiveness. I was able to pass on forgiveness to Gabriel, and Gabriel gave it to his mother. It started with a kind and understanding father, whose godly response bore fruit forty-four years later in his grandson. In fact, it started long before that, with a kind Father who loves to forgive, who grants forgiveness with ease.  Two lessons: granting forgiveness releases power and presence. One of the ways God expresses His holiness is in His forgiveness. Forgiveness is a great gift to give to someone who has hurt you!