On Choosing Barabbas – A Good Friday post

 

Pilate proposes a choice

One of the illuminating side stories of the passion of Jesus is the mini drama of the choice that Pilate proposes to the people of the crowd assembled at the trial of Jesus.   Pilate is looking for ways to avoid condemning someone he believes is innocent and he remembers that it is time for him to honor a custom of releasing a prisoner at the time of the Jewish feast (Matt. 27:15).   So he asks the crowd who they would like him to release, Barabbas or Jesus.  

Barabbas’ full name

There is an interesting historical fact that adds further drama to the narrative. Twice Pilate uses the phrase “Jesus who is called Christ” (vv 17, 21).   The reason for this becomes clear when we discover that in some of the very oldest manuscripts Barabbas is named Jesus Barabbas (Barclay p. 361).    This reading was known to Origen and Jerome, very early church scholars, who both thought it was correct.   Most modern translators agree and have included it in their translations (NIV, NRSV, TEV).    It makes Pilate’s choice of words make more sense.  He is asking the crowd for a choice between Jesus Barabbas, a rebel against the government, and a murderer, and Jesus who is called Christ.   Influenced by the Jewish leaders they shout for the release of Jesus Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus who is called Christ.   Pilate was hoping they would choose the good man over the murderer, but the chief priest’s contrary influence won out.

The irony of the choice

The irony of this choice is incredible.   First, the name, Jesus, comes from the idea of salvation (Matt. 1:21).   Jesus who is called Christ had said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

  • The first irony is this.  Barabbas means “Son of the father,” father being a term for a Jewish teacher and leader (Barclay).  So the name Barabbas itself speaks of the choice the people were making.  The people were choosing the influence of the Jewish teachers and leaders over that of the true Anointed One who came from the heavenly Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).  They listened to the Jewish teachers and choose Jesus Barabbas.   Jesus who is called the Christ had warned, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).
  • Second, being a rebel, perhaps even a Zealot (J. Sidlow Baxter in Explore the Book), Jesus Barabbas represents salvation by political and even violent means. This was the way the disciples mistakenly thought the Kingdom would come. On the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter drew his sword to start the battle.  But Jesus forbade him.   Earthly politics and military action was the way the Jews also thought they would be rescued from the Romans.  Their choice of Jesus Barabbas, the insurrectionist, was ironically consistent with that erroneous view.  In rejecting Jesus who is called Christ, they rejected God’s way to salvation, a salvation that changes hearts and transforms minds first.   Jesus who is called the Christ rules a heavenly kingdom as he answered Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).
  • In a third irony, Jesus Barabbas was a robber (John 18:40). Jesus who is called Christ accused the Jewish leaders of turning God’s house into a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17).   Jesus who is the Christ warned that the thief comes to “steal and kill and destroy.”   But in contrast “I am come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).  In choosing Jesus Barabbas, the people unwittingly choose allegiance to the Enemy of our souls, the one who steals from our lives and rejected the Anointed One who gives life.       

Our choices

This would all be very academic if it did not so accurately reflect the parallel choices that we make when we choose against Jesus who is called the Christ.  

  • We can also heed the wrong voices!   Sometimes we listen to the insistent and immediate voices of peer pressure, rationalization and other influencers.  We cast our lot with them even though we sense the opposing pull of the moral power of “Jesus who is called the Christ.”  
  • We sometimes choose the weapons of this world to fix things.  We can’t quite envision how a spiritual kingdom makes a difference so we indulge in hatred and succumb to the lure of seeking salvation for our world by political intrigue, or even by violent intervention.   We crucify anew the one who urged us to love our enemies, whose coming had been announced with “Peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), and who himself said, “Peace I leave with you”  (John 14:27). 
  • We unwittingly choose that which depletes our joy.   We give in to the siren call of habits that harm our health, relationships that are not God’s best plan, and we hate discipline.   Then we wonder who has robbed us of  health and peace and why our selfishness has also left us lonely.    It’s hard to admit that we have been influenced by the enemy and have little by little rejected the one who wants to make us truly alive  (Ephesians 2:1-5).   

This is why we need to celebrate Good Friday–to remember how much a part of wrong side of that frightful day we are.   In the words of a contemporary hymn,
“Behold the man upon a cross, 
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers” 
(by Stuart Townend in How Deep the Father’s Love for Us)

 

 

How to honor Jesus at Easter

Business as usual not an option

What will you do to honor Jesus this Easter?   Let’s be creative and look past traditional habits and token self-denials.  Are there other practical answers to that question?  Unfortunately, many people who answer to the label as Christians will do little or nothing to honor Jesus this Easter!  No one could guess from their Holy Week activities that they were a Christian at all.  That’s not the way it should be.

Honor Jesus with action

During Holy Week true Christians remember the suffering of Jesus including his death on the cross.   Easter is the highest point of the church year, the time when we remember Jesus’ climactic victory over death.   Above all times, this is when Christians should be most active in celebrating their Savior.    And our celebration should not just be with words.  Words alone cannot honor one who taught us to put his sayings into action (Matthew 7:24-27).  But not everyone will want to honor Jesus in exactly the same way.  So here are five suggestions all of which will help us truly honor Jesus this Easter.

Five suggestions

  1. Give a gift of your time and love to help someone in need. This could range from random acts of kindness to strangers to volunteering at a nursing facility to visiting a disabled friend to doing outdoor work for an elderly neighbor to…    The more in-person the gift, the better for this one.   Jesus was always helping someone in need.   He told us he came to serve others and urged us to do the same (Matt. 20:25-28). 
  2. Give a gift of money to a cause that helps those who are among people who the OT would include among the “oppressed.” Such causes include aid to those suffering from natural disasters, aid to refugees, aid for victims of racial injustice, groups working against systemic poverty, food banks, etc.   If we are not willing to acknowledge God’s gifts to us and give of our finances to others, we have not yet caught the Spirit of Jesus. 
  3. Worship at church during Holy week. First of all, Jesus deserves to be honored by our presence in services in his honor.  Second, it is the upward look that sustains our outward focus and dims our self-centeredness.   At Copper Hill there are three opportunities from Palm Sunday through Easter.
  4. Speak to someone about your faith in Jesus. This conversation could be a short personal anecdote describing some way that your faith has helped you.  It could be an invitation to a friend to attend a service with you.  It could be an offer to pray for someone who is going through a tough time and would appreciate a prayer.   There’s no better time than Easter time to make Jesus a positive part of our conversation. 
  5. Read the story of Jesus’ last days again (Matthew 26-28 and/or John 13-20) or watch a video of it such as the Jesus Film with a friend. It is the most watched film in history and was digitally remastered for HD with a new sound track in 2014   http://www.jesusfilmstore.com/35th-Anniversary-JESUS-Film-Blu-Ray-Disc/productinfo/ZBRD-35TH-BLU-RAY/.    The original version is available on NETFLIX. 

 

 

How to Observe Lent

People always wonder, “What should I do to observe Lent?”  Here are three excellent suggestions I have printed in my bulletin for Ash Wednesday for the last two years.  They are strongly inspired by the 2015 Lenten Letter of Methodist Bishop Jane Allen Middleton to whom I give credit for these ideas. 

Give Up”  — Sacrifice of some kind is an honored Lenten tradition. The sacrifice of Jesus for us inspires us to discipline ourselves by meaningful sacrifice.   

Take Up”  — Jesus encouraged us to take up our cross and follow Him. Often this means tackling some project or ministry on His behalf. We are His hands and feet of love and caring. We are His influence working for justice and healing. So during Lent is an ideal time to take up a special ministry for Jesus. 

Look Up and Open Up to “Receive from Jesus.”  —  We live in the age of the Holy Spirit, and God does not expect us to live the Christian life in our own strength. So during Lent is an ideal time to draw on God’s strength. Another great way to observe Lent is to choose an additional way to draw close to God and allow His Spirit to fill you.   

Real faith Involves discipline

A gem from my favorite devotional

One of my favorite devotional books is a little volume titled, “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” by Ruben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, (The Upper Room, 1983).   A rich collection of readings for each week,  taken from various classic Christian authors always  provokes thought and provides inspiration.    This last week I discovered again a quote from Albert Edward Day taken from his book “Discipline and Discovery.”  I found it so amazingly relevant to our world today and to the state of the church today that I thought I would share it with my readers. 

True faith calls us to disciplines of discipleship

True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored.  Real sainthood is a phenomenon to which even the world laying pays tribute.  The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and holy uninterested in mere churchman ship.

We have talked much of salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline.  Faith is not a blithe “turning it all over to Jesus.” Faith is such a confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery.  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.”  People working out, God working in – that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle – hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no discipline cooperation, is a heartbreaking spectacle – a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not lift his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines.  Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ.  Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.    

                                               –Albert Edward Day

 

Both historical knowledge and spiritual experience are needed for faith

We need both personal spiritual experience and knowledge of the Bible

About a week ago I was very impressed by a quote that I found in my devotional book.   The focus for the week was on the supremacy of Christ and how we get to know him. In today’s world it is popular to emphasize the spiritual in an almost mystic sense. But it is much less popular to do the hard work of reading Scripture and studying it to learn more about the historical figure of Jesus who inspires our Christian faith.    The  quote points out that both the spiritual response often associated with prayer  and meditation and the historical underpinning from study are needed in order for us to truly know what Jesus is about and how  his Spirit lives in and through us.  I pass it on to you.

Historical Christianity is dry and formal when it lacks the immediate and inward response to our Great Companion; but our spirits are trained to know him, to appreciate him, by the mediation of historical revelation.  A person’s spiritual life is always dwarfed when cut apart from history. Mysticism is empty unless it is enriched by outward and historical revelation. The supreme education of the soul comes through an intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ of history.    (The Double Search by Rufus M. Jones)

Scripture speaks of both essentials

I think both ends of this balance are easily seen in the words of Scripture as well.  The Apostle Paul spoke of the spiritual side of our relationship to God:   

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  Eph. 3:16-17  NIV 2011

David wrote eloquently of the need to keep in touch with God’s written record and allow it to form us. 

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.    Ps 119:105

 

Help with coping after this election – especially for millennials

White House

 

 

As I was meditating this morning, thoughts came to me concerning further helpful ways to cope with this election.

 

Grieve the losses

 

Grief is a process given to us to help us navigate loss. Today we are more insulated from grief and the associated natural process of recovery because death is much less with us, thankfully, than in previous generations.  But there are times, like now, that we need to understand grief better.  We also need to know that we grieve for all types of losses, including the kinds associated with this election.   For example; there is no doubt as evidenced by the news every day that there’s been a loss in respect for minorities among some because of the election.   Also, the principle of respect for women has suffered a loss by the elevation of one who has disrespected women.   How do we react?    Feelings of denial, sadness, anger (both focused and projected), and second-guessing ourselves and others are normal parts of grieving.  Learning to handle our grief in healthy ways is part of the human experience.

 

Look for the balanced perspective

 

For those on the Democratic side, remember that anytime a candidate wins the popular vote while losing the Electoral College, it is a sign that the election was very close. Any time a candidate wins as strongly among younger people as Clinton did, it is a strong sign for future elections.  Democrats have some things to feel good about too.  For Republicans, to gloat is arrogant and counter-productive.  A strong majority of urban Americans voted against you and they live in the most influential centers of the country.  The Bible urges humility.  Humility is a lost virtue today and suffered further loss in this election.  But humility helps immensely in human relations.   Unfortunately, on-screen it is usually wrongly mistaken for weakness.  I would caution us to look for the balanced perspective in our circumstances.

 

Do not return evil for evil

 

One of the Bible’s most famous sayings is, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Rom 12:17).   Just because the election featured rude, crude, and obnoxious conversation, is no excuse for us to join that party.   “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).   While Hillary Clinton’s embrace of the “nasty woman” epithet may have been a shrewd debate move, “nasty” is not exactly a winsome characteristic.  But kindness is.  Donald Trump’s past behavior and attitudes are a problem, not something to be emulated.    But if we copy the worst elements of leaders, we magnify the difficulties.  If we repay evil for evil we become part of the problem, not part of the healing solution.  Instead, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11).  

 

Be thankful for what is good

 

I, for one, am very glad that Thanksgiving follows this election. It will be very healthy for us all if we can get our minds off the divisions and contentious issues of the election and step back and be genuinely thankful for the blessings that we have.   It will lessen our stress, it will lower our collective blood pressure, and will help us to have a better emotional and mental foundation for the cooperation in daily life and in government that the people of this land desire and deserve.    

All Scriptures from Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2001 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved.

How to react to a disturbing election

White House

 

 

In the wake of a disturbing election how do we cope?  Here are a few suggestions from a long-time pastor. 

Do not live in fear. 

 

One of the most prominent messages from God to his people in the Bible is simply yet powerfully this; “Do not be afraid!”  These exact words occur 74 times in the current NIV translation.  The words were spoken in times more uncertain than ours.  While this election has elicited fear on all sides for multiple reasons, it is the heritage of believers in all times to “trust and not be afraid” (Isa. 12:2).  As Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  Our hope is always in God, not a person or a political process.  And when we feel threatened, we look to God for our hope and strength to overcome.

 

Do something fun 

Jesus himself recognized that we needed times to get away from the stress of thinking about things like elections (Mark 6:31).   Sabbath rests and time of exercise or recreation help us to keep our perspectives wholesome and they lift our emotions too.   Personally, I like to take a long walk in the nearby forest preserve. 

 

Stand firm in your own life for what is good. 

 

One of the most disturbing things to me about this election cycle has been that it has seemed to further legitimize the rude, the crude and the divisive in America.  Both parties set new lows in negative advertising.  So all of us face a challenge afterwards as to what our vison is for our country and what our behavior will be.  Will we be part of the decline or part of the recovery?   For Christians, our course is clear.  “Show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17).  “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).   This is a high calling that affects how we use language to emphasize a point or express anger, what movies we approve, what jokes we tell, how we speak about those with whom we disagree, who we choose as heroes and stars, and how we treat those different from us.   Let us be “eager to do what is good” (Tit. 2:14). 

 

Pray! 

 

A pastor friend of mine referred to this verse this morning in a post. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps 127:1).  No matter who is in charge on this earth, peace and blessing are ultimately God’s gifts.  This November is also a good time to remember one of our basic prayer verses, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7).   Pray especially for our president elect whether we like him or not.  If you like him, pray that God will use his strengths to benefit all.  If you don’t like him, pray that God will protect the country from his weaknesses.  (The same prayers could be prayed for every public servant.)  Pray for the government transition in the US as well.

 

There is a time for everything  

For younger voters especially, I would encourage a little of the perspective of Solomon.  “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).  I recall a conversation eight years ago after Obama’s first victory.  It was a chat between a fervent Republican and a strong Democrat.  The Democrat said pointedly to the Republican, “Well, if we can survive eight years of George H. W. Bush, you can survive eight years of Obama.”  I thought of that comment again last night as one of the commentators mentioned that it is extremely rare in American history for a party to hold the presidency more than eight years running.  There seems to be a cycle that occurs regularly in our sturdy democracy.   The pendulum swings repeatedly.  I have seen enough elections now to have observed that swing multiple times and I agree.  This is why parties in America go back to work and start thinking about next time, like sports teams planning for the next season.    

 

 

All verses from Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2001 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

God Has Taken the Spiritual Initiative; Faith is Our Response

God reaches out to us through the Bible

“The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to him” (2 Chronicles. 16:9).

“All throughout the Bible this is one of the certain ways of God. He takes the initiative! And what he initiates, he completes! (Henry T. Blackaby)

Most of us can look into our own personal history and see examples of God’s gracious hand.   Maybe it is times when God protected us. Perhaps it is an incident in family history where God helped someone in your family circle through a very difficult time.  Maybe we are simply filled with a conscious thankfulness for all the material blessings that God has given.  Perhaps there is an awareness already of God speaking, of God’s presence, whether through Christian services, the reading of Scripture, or in personal devotional time.  All of these are witnesses for us that God is reaching out to us personally.

Christians firmly believe that God takes the initiative to reach out to us. That initiative began in the Garden of Eden when God came looking for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:8, 9). In history, that initiative continued in the selection of Abraham and continued with God working through the nation of Israel down through the centuries to help us learn about holiness and about the character of God.  God’s initiative reached a climactic event in the coming and the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that was not the end of God’s initiatives.  Through the Holy Spirit, God’s initiative continues in the lives of each and every one of us by inner impressions and outer circumstances that guide us to follow Jesus.  These initiatives are the prevenient* grace of God in our lives. Our faith then is simply a response to the divine initiatives of God.

*If this is a new word to you, it is actually an old English word used in this context by John Wesley which means ‘going before.’

 

Praying Deeply

Lady at prayer
Praying with our whole lives

 

A Devotional Challenge

This year I’ve been reading from one of my favorite devotional books, A Guide To Prayer For Ministers And Other Servants. Each week, there are some readings to prod one’s thinking. Today the readings were about prayer that goes so much deeper than words. In our troubled world today, we must learn again that our religious life cannot be separate from our daily actions if we expect society to change for the better. I was meditating on the following quotes.

“Love to pray. Feel often during the day the need for prayer, and take trouble to pray. Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself” (from A Gift for God by Mother Teresa).

Today we feel so inadequate to the task of changing our world. Yet it is through prayer that God enlarges our capacity and magnifies our spiritual strength so that we are able to do the good works that he has planned for us. Through prayer the “immeasurably more” of God works through us (Eph. 3:20).

Prayer at Work Everyday

“If when we plunge our hand into a bowl of water, or stir up the fire with the bellows or tabulate interminable columns of figures on our bookkeeping table, or, burned by the sun, we are plunged in the mud of the rice field, or standing by the smelter’s furnace, we do not fulfill the same religious life as if in prayer in a monastery, the world will never be saved” (quoted from Gandhi by Carlo Carretto in Letters From The Desert).

How can we save our nation from violence? It will only happen as the hearts of people are filled with nonviolence. Through prayer God changes our hearts. Continuing in prayer makes us uncomfortable with any hypocrisy that remains in our attitudes and actions because ultimately they hinder our prayers.

“[Jesus] lived his message before he spoke it. He preached it by his life before explaining it in words. This was Jesus’ method and we too easily forget it. In many cases catechesis is reduced to words rather than to ‘life,’ to discussions rather than to the pursuit of Christian living. And here, perhaps, is the reason for the poor results” (Carlo Carretto in Letters From The Desert).

Jesus admonished us that those who are wise would not only hear his words but put them into practice. In so doing, they would build a strong and durable foundation for their lives.

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” –Jesus  (Matthew 7:24).

A prayer for today

Oh Lord of life, teach me to pray deeply–with my everyday life, with my whole heart and also with my words of devotion.