Friday, December 29, 2006

An Ending Like No Other...Part 2 (Holy Land #14 of 14)

This blog entry is a continuation of yesterday’s entry. If you did not read yesterday’s entry you would do well to read it before continuing with today’s writing.

The Garden of Gethsemane is also a place of “intensity”. This is where the agony of Jesus started. The name of the garden meant “place of the press.” A large oil press would have been in the garden used to crush the olives to get out of them every drop of precious oil. How fitting that Jesus would choose this place to begin His passion. He would be in such agony that he would sweat drops of blood. The writer of Hebrews says that He prayed in this garden with great groanings and tears. Gethsemane should remind us of how our prayer lives should be today…times of intimacy and intensity with God.

I ended my devotional in the garden by speaking of how Jesus concluded His prayer. He knew what horror awaited Him both physically and spiritually, yet he prayed, “Not my will but Your will be done.” To me, that is the lesson of Gethsemane. We do not know the future. We do not know what pain and suffering might come into our lives. Yet, we must be willing to say, “Father, not my will but Your will be done.”

I told the group that I had really just one major goal in coming to Gethsemane. I wanted to kneel in the Garden of Gethsemane and recommit my life to seeking, finding and doing the will of God no matter what it might cost me and no matter how much it might hurt. As I knelt to do just that I gave the group the opportunity to do the same if that was their desire. This was a moment I had anticipated for quite some time. Following that special time of consecration we gathered in a circle, joined hands and sang:

When peace like a river attendeth my soul
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, It is well with my soul!

My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part but the whole
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord O my soul!

And Lord haste the day when my faith shall be sight
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend
Even so it is well with my soul!

If I never make it back to Israel in my lifetime I know that one day I will return to the Mt of Olives with the Kings of Kings and Lord of Lords! “Come quickly Lord Jesus!”

Thursday, December 28, 2006

An Ending Like No Other...Part 1 (Holy Land #13 of 14)

We ended our final day of touring in the Holy Land with a stop at the top of the Mt of Olives, the view was spectacular. Our guide pointed out the Eastern Gate which the Lord entered the city through on Palm Sunday. You could see the place of the lat supper; Solomon’s portico where so much Bible History took place; Caiphas’ house where Jesus was condemned; and so much more. The Dome of the Rock was paramount on the Temple Mount. It was here where the great temple once stood. No wonder Jesus spent so much time here on the Mt of Olives with His disciples.

This was also the place where Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days following His resurrection. His followers watched as He ascended upward into the clouds. Two angels dressed in white appeared asking why they stood gazing up into heaven. “This very same Jesus,” they said, “Will return just as you have seen him go!” To think that this is where Jesus left the earth and one day it is where He is going to return…Hallelujah!

We then walked down to the garden of Gethsemane. This was the spot I had been waiting for the entire trip. Back in March when I preached on this story from Mark 14, I made the statement that if there was just one place in Israel that I could visit that I would like it to be the Garden of Gethsemane. At that time I had no idea that this trip would take place. Now, 8 months later there I was in the garden…that is just like God, isn’t it?

We went inside the Church of All Nations. In there was a huge stone in front of the altar that tradition says is the stone where Jesus agonized in prayer in the garden. I had Laura take my picture as I knelt down and touched this stone. If this wasn’t the spot where Jesus prayed in agony…it was no doubt somewhere very nearby.

We then walked down to a quiet place in the Garden surrounded by the Olive Trees where I gave a devotional. Dan Travis had asked me one night when we were out to dinner weeks before our trip what place I was most excited about seeing. When I told him it was Gethsemane he asked me if I would give a devotional there. Our guide had already given the background to the agony of Jesus so I focused on two key words.

First, I focused on the word “intimacy.” This was a spot where Jesus had many times of intimacy with His disciples. John 18 tells us that Judas knew where to bring the men who were sent to arrest Jesus because he had been there many times before with Jesus and the disciples. You could just imagine Jesus and the 12 sitting around a fire in the garden talking, laughing and learning. This was a place of intimacy with His disciples. It was also a special place of intimacy between Jesus and His Father. Here he called God “Abba, Father.” Jews did not use this name to address God because it was too intimate. It was a word used by a small child to call his father. In the English we could call it, “Daddy” or “dada.” Yet, Paul teaches that all of us as believers today can call out to God, “Abba Father.” The garden was definitely a place of intimacy. In tomorrow’s blog entry I will speak of the second word that I focused on in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Communion at the Tomb (Holy Land #12 of 14)

How do I even begin to select what parts of my trip to Israel were the greatest highlights? Everything was educational and inspirational. But there was one 30 minute time period that seemed to escalate all others when it came to meaningfulness. It was communion at the Garden Tomb.

Our sight-seeing ended for the day, on our next to last day in Israel, at what is commonly called Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb. The guides at this location will argue that this is the location of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Both our tour guide and Pastor Dan Travis who was our group leader (Dan is a friend of mine who pastors our Palmyra Grace Brethren Church and has made many trips to Israel…in fact, I consider him to be one of the most well versed men I know on the Holy Land) agree that the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which we had visited earlier is the real sight of the crucifixion and resurrection.

This was still cool, though, because it allowed us to picture more vividly what it might have really looked like where Christ died and the tomb where He was buried and resurrected due to the fact that there are no elaborate churches built on these sites.

The best part of our visit at Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb was sharing in communion together at a beautiful site in the garden area. How precious it was for Pastor Whitie and myself to lead this special time of worship as we together as a group “proclaimed the Lord’s death” through the taking of the bread and the cup. As a group we had experienced so much together on this trip that to share in the ordinance of communion at this special location was more than inspiring. We ended our time of communion together by singing the old hymn, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood!” Together the area around Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb heard our voices sing:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains
They lose all their guilty stains
Lose all their guilty stains
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains

It was a very special communion for me…one that I will never forget. We even used communion cups made out of olive wood that we were then able to keep as a reminder of our visit. But as I left the site I was reminded that what makes any communion special is not the place, after all Christians have celebrated the Lord’s Supper from cathedrals to caves. What makes communion meaningful is realizing the fact that I am a sinner and it is the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, that cleanses me from all my unrighteousness.

Friday, December 22, 2006

My Favorite Christmas Story

It was Mrs. Johnson’s second graders turn to do the town’s Christmas play. Mrs. Johnson had just one problem. It was Wally. Wally was big for his age and he had been held back twice in school. As a result, he was larger then any other second grader and the clumsiest of them all. Wally had his heart set on being a shepherd in the Christmas play but Mrs. Johnson could not give such an important role to someone like Wally. So instead she came up with a brilliant idea.

Wally,” she said, “I have just the part for you. I would like you to be the innkeeper. All you have to do is open the door when Joseph knocks and respond firmly with the words, ‘no room…go away.’ Can you do that Wally?”

Wally practiced it a few times to Mrs. Johnson’s delight. Her planned seemed to be working perfectly. Wally would be involved but not in a critical role. For the next several weeks, Wally practiced his lines everywhere he went. You could see his lips constantly moving as he uttered his lines, ‘no room…go away.’

Finally the night of the big event came. As in past years, the entire town shut down and everyone piled into the school auditorium to watch the second graders put on their show. Mrs. Johnson was nervous but felt she had everything well under control.

At last, Wally’s big cue came. Joseph and Mary slowly and sadly walked up to the inn and Joseph knocked on the door.

No room…go away,’ Wally said as he answered the knock.

But sir,’ Joseph pleaded.

No room…go away,’ Wally firmly replied.

But my wife,’ Joseph continued, ‘She’s pregnant and going to have a baby any time?’

No room,’ Wally insisted, ‘Go away!’

Right on cue, Joseph and Mary began to walk away from the inn. Mrs. Johnson’s heart skipped a beat. Wally was supposed to close the door and he would be done. But Wally just stood there watching the homeless couple as they walked away from the inn.

What happened next changed the town’s Christmas play drastically. Some people say it was ruined. Others say it was the best Christmas pageant ever. With tears running down his cheeks, Wally cried out,

Joseph, Mary, wait! Come back! You can have my room!’

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Birthday in Bethlehem (Holy Land #11 of 14)

Where is the best place or most unique place you have ever been for your birthday? For my wife, Laura, it was Bethlehem (Israel, not Pennsylvania!). Imagine celebrating your birthday in the same city where Jesus was born! Even our guide sang “Happy Birthday” to her in Arabic.

Obviously, Bethlehem does not look anything today like it would have back then. Its population when Jesus was born was probably no more than 700 people. Due to the census, there were probably twice as many people packed into this small town when Mary and Joseph arrived after the long trip from Nazareth. All the guest rooms would have been filled. Each home was built on top of a grotto or cave that was used for storage and/or for animals. It was in one of these grottos, not a wooden stable as we think of in America, that someone allowed Joseph and the laboring Mary to stay for the night.

Today this site is marked with the Church of the Nativity built over it. There are several grottos underneath this church. We were in one grotto called Jerome’s grotto. It was in this very grotto that Jerome spent over 20 years of his life translating the Bible into the Latin Vulgate, the language of the people. Jerome is also buried in this special grotto.

As we entered down into another grotto we were able to see where tradition says the exact place is where Jesus was born and then wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in manger hewn out of rock. There is a 14 point star, called the Bethlehem star, which marks the location of His birth. This is from Matthew 1:17 that reads that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David…14 generations from David to the Exile…and 14 generations from the Exile to Jesus. With all of the gaudiness and glitter of the religion that surrounds this spot, it was almost impossible to really get an accurate feel as to what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph that night when Jesus was born. Yet, to be in the place were God was born was still special and significant.

We then went to the Shepherds Field. Here we went down into a grotto on the hillside where the Shepherds would have kept their sheep at night and stood watch over them outside the entrance. Here the angels would have appeared to these humble shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus and directing them into Bethlehem where they would find and worship the baby Jesus. This grotto was very much what the grotto Jesus was born in must have been like. Here we could all wrap our minds around the miracle of Christmas. What a thrill it was to stand in this grotto in Bethlehem as a group and sing together the carol, “O Come All Ye Faithful!” I will never look at Christmas (or Laura’s birthday for that matter) the same after this trip to Bethlehem.

We then had lunch at a Lebanese sandwich shop humorously called “The Christmas Tree Restaurant.” At lunch our guide and bus driver surprised Laura and presented a cake to her which they had bought in Bethlehem and we all sang “Happy Birthday” to her again. Now folks, that’s a birthday to remember, wouldn’t you agree?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Israel and the Reliability of my Bible (Holy Land #10 of 14)

For someone like myself whose job involves spending great amounts of time in study of the Scripture, our recent trip to the Holy Land had several extra bonuses.

The Qumran Caves

Not far at all from the city of Jericho is the Qumran area where the Essenes lived. These individuals, mainly males, were very legalistic seeing themselves as right and everyone else as wrong. They even went by a different calendar than the Jewish calendar and celebrated Passover and the other feasts on a different day. They considered themselves the “children of light” and everyone else they called the “children of darkness.”

Yet, we owe a great deal of gratitude to these people. These folks spent much of their time meticulously copying the scrolls of the Old Testament. They took this so seriously that they would take a ritual bath involving their whole body being immersed before they started their scribal work. Every time they got to the name of God they would stop and take another ritual bath, again immersing their entire body, before writing this holy name.

They then put these copied parchments in pottery that they also made. When the Romans invaded, they hid these scrolls in the surrounding caves. Back in 1947, a shepherd found some of these scrolls as he threw stones trying to get the attention of one of his sheep that had wandered in a cave. He heard his stone break something and found some of these precious manuscripts still in tact. Excavations have revealed almost all of the Old Testament including the entire book of Isaiah which now gives us our oldest manuscripts which are reliable to our present Bibles. Yes! We can trust our English Bibles today. What a thrill for me to stand at these caves and realize that they bring a level of fact to my faith in the inspiration of Scripture. This may have been the most significant stop of our journey in the Holy Land.

We visited the Shrine of the Book where we saw the story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We were also able to see a couple of the very jars that these important manuscripts were found in. These manuscripts dated 10 centuries earlier to the oldest manuscripts we had and showed that the Bibles we are using today really are accurate. Our guide told us that the manuscripts we saw at the Shrine of the Book are exact copies of what the Dead Sea Scrolls look like but that the real Dead Sea Scrolls are hidden in an underground vault somewhere in Israel.

Jerome’s Grotto

In Bethlehem we were in the grotto called Jerome’s grotto. It was in this very grotto that Jerome spent over 20 years of his life translating the Bible into the Latin Vulgate, the language of the people. To be in that very place where such a huge part of how we got our Bibles today took place was astounding to me. Jerome is also buried in that place.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

My Best Attempt at Being a Movie Critic

Recently, my family went to see The Nativity Story down at the new cinemas in Lititz. At the risk of being accused of endorsing Hollywood’s attempt to make money off the church, I would highly recommend that you go see this motion picture this Christmas season. I would take the whole family. All ages will enjoy this movie.

Though the writer takes some artistic license, which is very understandable, the movie seems to be very historically accurate and overall, very Biblically accurate as well. The only major element I disagreed with was their bringing the Magi (Wise Men) to the manger where Jesus was born. A careful study of Scripture reveals that the Magi did not come to the manger the night of Jesus’ birth but rather arrived up to 2 years later when Jesus was more of a toddler. However, I’m not sure our western culture will ever allow us to keep those visitors from afar away from our American manger scenes.

In fact, even here at Grace Church one can find nativity scenes on tables or in programs in which the Wise Men are at the manger. I teased our staff and told them that I was thinking of fining staff members $500.00 per wise man that I see them put at any manger in our ministry. I’m the type of guy that wants to pull over every time I am driving and see Wise Men at a manger scene in a yard and have my kids run up and move those three guys to the other side of the yard. It’s just one of my Holiday pet peeves. At our house, we keep the wise men on the other side of the room from where the manger is.

And for the record, they also made it appear that the wise men came to the conclusion on their own that they should not report back to Herod as he requested regarding the location of this one born to be King. According to the Bible, the Kings were told this in a dream.

In spite of these minor discrepancies, it was at this part of the movie, as the Magi visited the manger, that the movie came to a climax. Here, one of the Magi made this statement, “This is God made into flesh!” I just wanted to stand and shout! “YES! That’s it! Did you catch it? That is what Christmas is all about! God became flesh!” What a thrill it was to watch a movie out of Hollywood communicating that Jesus was God in the flesh.

I also appreciated the way that they made Joseph and Mary out to be exactly who they were…normal yet poor Israelites who were devotedly following God during a time of terrible Roman oppression. I love the conversation that they have with each other on their way to Bethlehem as Mary is very pregnant with the Son of God. She asks Joseph when he thinks they will be able to notice that this baby is more than just a baby. Would it be a look in his eye or something he said? Joseph replies by saying, “I’m not sure I will be able to teach Him anything!” It made me wonder what these two individuals felt and what went through their minds. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be the earthly father of…God. The movie for me brought a sense of emotional joy. Yes it is true what the angels said on that very first Christmas, “For unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord!” Hallelujah!

Monday, December 18, 2006

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Now that I have been to Bethlehem (Israel, not Pennsylvania), Micah 5:2-3 has taken on even greater meaning. This is the passage in which the prophet predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. What do we know about this wonderful city?

What does “Bethlehem” mean and where was it located?

The word literally means “House of Bread.” How fitting this is since Jesus is called the “Bread of Life” in John 6:35. Bethlehem was located 5 miles southwest of Jerusalem, 2550 feet above sea level, in the hill country of Judea

When was it called “Ephrathah” and what does it mean?

It was called this during Jacob’s lifetime. The word means “Fruitful.” Again, how fitting since Jesus is the “first fruits” of resurrection meaning that He we was the first to be resurrected never to die again. His resurrection guarantees that more will follow.

By what other names was this city known?

It was sometimes called “Bethlehem-Judah” to distinguish it from Bethlehem Zebulun which was located 7 miles northwest of Nazareth. It is also called the “City of David” due to it being the birthplace of King David. How fitting, since Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

What Old Testament individuals were associated with this city?

Rachel (Genesis 35:16, 19; 48:7) who was the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin was buried by her husband, Jacob, in Bethlehem; Ibzan (Judges 12:8-10) who was the 10th judge of Israel with 30 sons and 30 daughters was born in Bethlehem; Elimelech, Boaz and Naomi (Ruth 1:1, 2; 2:1, 4) were all born in Bethlehem. Elimelech and his two sons died in Moab. His wife, Naomi, and her daughter in law, Ruth, returned to Bethlehem where Boaz became Ruth’s Kinsmen Redeemer. How fitting is this since Jesus has become our Kinsmen Redeemer?

But notice how insignificant this city was. Micah calls it “little.” In fact, it is not even mentioned among the cities of Judah when mentioned in Joshua 15 and Nehemiah 17. In John 7:42 it is described as simply a village or a hamlet. Yet, out of this insignificant city came a very significant child. The “One” that Micah speaks of is the Christ, the Messiah. It is obvious from Matthew 2:4-6 that the Rabbi’s understood Bethlehem to be the birthplace of the Messiah. Luke specifically declared Christ as the Messiah (Luke 2:1-11). This Messiah came to carry out the purposes of God. The Messiah came in the will of the Father to accomplish the plan of the Father (John 5:30). And though His humble birth was in a cave in the insignificant city of Bethlehem, This Messiah existed long before Bethlehem.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie!”

Friday, December 15, 2006

And His Own Received Him Not (Holy Land #9 of 14)

One of the most intriguing sites I visited while in Jerusalem is the area that is famously called “The Wailing Wall.” It is here that Orthodox Jews come daily to pray and read Scripture. Nearly all of them are dressed in their orthodox clothing and are reciting their prayers out loud in Hebrew. It is truly an amazing site.

I put on my paper yamika that all men who visit the wall must wear and that Jews wear to show that they do not think they are greater than God. I then walked down to the Wailing Wall where I stood in utter amazement. There were dozens and dozens of Jewish men dressed in traditional garb standing, sitting, bowing, and weeping as they read and sang their prayers. They would have been praying for the peace of Jerusalem. They would have been praying for the rebuilding of the temple. And they would have been praying for the coming of the Messiah. This location is most holy to them because it is as close as they are allowed to get to the holy of holies where the presence of God dwelt in the temple on the Temple Mount which is now occupied by the Muslim Dome of the Rock.

As I stood and watched, my heart ached within me. Here were these lovely and loyal Jewish men praying for a Messiah to come who already did come and they had missed it. I’m not sure I have ever seen anything so spiritually sad. The verse from the first chapter of John kept running through my mind,

He came unto His own and His own received Him not.”

It will not be until the time of the tribulation that most of these dear Jewish people will realize the truth that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. I watched as a Jewish father sat teaching his son his religious ways. Generation after generation of Jewish people since Christ was on earth have prayed daily for the Messiah to come. With each passing day and with each passing conflict in their land filled with conflicts, their prayers get more earnest.

So is the case with we who worship Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Daily we pray for our Messiah to come…a second rapture us to glory! I have found that with each passing day of my life and with each conflict in my life that I must face, that prayer gets more and more earnest. As John the Revelator said, I agree with whole-heartedly,

Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

On a humorous note, our guide pointed out the uniqueness of seeing one of the men from our group standing down at the Wailing Wall. He was wearing a shirt he had bought while we were in Jordan that had a Jordanian flag on it and said, “I Love Jordan.” By the way, he got many comments that didn’t seem real good from many Jewish men who passed him and saw his shirt throughout the day. But our guide pointed out something he had never seen. Here at the Wailing Wall was an American Christian wearing a Jewish Yamika on his head and a shirt that said, “I Love Jordan!” Now that’s a priceless picture.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Disapointment of Golgotha (Holy Land #8 of 14)

While in Israel we walked what is called in the Catholic faith “The 14 Stages of the Cross.” Some of these stages have a Biblical basis but many of them are solely tradition. Even though we are not catholic, we stood in the area where Jesus would have been presented to Pilate and ultimately sentenced to death. We saw the stone floor where Roman Guards would throw pieces of bone to mockingly choose a prisoner to be “king for the day.” Jesus received this same treatment including the placing of a crown of thorns on his brow. Perhaps Jesus was taunted by these guards in this very spot.

As you walked through the streets you could see it just as you imagined it would have looked in Bible times. Just seeing these narrow streets and imagining the crowds that would be around Jesus everywhere He went in His ministry was amazing. No wonder when the woman with the issue of blood touched Jesus in Capernaum and He stopped and said, “Who touched me,” His disciples responded with a, “What do you mean who touched you? There are hundreds of people around you! Everyone is touching you!” But Jesus knew that somebody had touched him with a touch of faith. He had felt the power go out of His body. The Bible definitely makes more sense after being here.

We walked what is called the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering in Jerusalem, where Jesus carried His cross through the windy streets and then outside the city gate. These streets are very narrow. It is estimated that up to a million people may have filled Jerusalem for feasts like the Passover. It would have been throngs and throngs of people watching…many of them yelling at Him, spitting on Him and mocking Him.

We then ended up at Golgotha. I have to be honest. For me this was a downer. I wanted to see a hill and to be able to picture Jesus hanging on a cross for my sin. Instead, we were inside churches. You had no idea that you were even on a hill. There were two churches within 10 feet of each other who both claim to be the place where the cross stood. One of them had a hole in the ground that you could stick your hand in and feel what might have been the very bedrock where the cross was placed. I thought that Golgotha would be an emotional place for me but frankly I could not get beyond the gaudy religious shrines that are in this holy location. Though it was not what I expected, I am just glad that I know for a fact that Jesus died on Golgotha for my sins!

From there we walked a little further and saw what is believed to be the stone where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial and then we went inside the church of the holy sepulcher. Again, it is gaudy…not at all what you would imagine the tomb to look like. However, our guide believes it is 99% likely that this was the location of the actual tomb where Jesus was laid. I was able to push aside the externals around me as I walked in and looked at what could have been the area where Jesus body was buried and where He was raised. I commented as I stood there that everything our faith rests on is right there in front of me…the empty tomb. I guess we cannot know for sure if this is the actual tomb or if it was another, but we can be sure of something far more important…Jesus rose from teh dead and He is alive!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A City Unlike Any Other (Holy Land #7 of 14)

As we journeyed through the Holy Land it was finally time to make our way up to the city of Jerusalem where we would spend our last 4 days. I had waited our whole trip to see this great city. I thought my first glimpse of it would be one of simple awe. Never would I have imagined that such emotion would rise within me as I caught my first sight and our tour guide played the old song, “Jerusalem.” This was it.

It was just outside this city on the Mt of Olives where Jesus spent many nights with His disciples and where He prayed in the garden before His resurrection.

This was the city where the great temple stood where Jesus was tempted by Satan.

This was the city where Jesus cleansed the temple.

This was the city where Jesus and His disciples had their last supper.

This was the city where He rode in on a donkey while the people waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna.”

This was the city where he was tried before Caiphas, Pilot and Herod.

This was the city where He was beaten, scourged and had a crown of thorns placed on His brow.

This was the city where He heard the crowds cry “Crucify Him.”

This was the city where my Lord carried His cross down the narrow street and up a hill outside the city gate to be crucified.

It was just outside this city that Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected.

This was the city where the women ran to the upper room to tell the disciples the news of the empty tomb.

This was the city where the resurrected Savior appeared to His disciples who were locked in an upper room.

As all of these thoughts raced through my mind I was overwhelmed by what a special city Jerusalem is. So special was this city that according to the book of Revelation one day we will live in what Scripture calls the New Jerusalem…A city so beautiful that John can only describe it as a bride adorned for her husband. A city where there is no more pain and no more tears. As much as I have anticipated seeing the city of Jerusalem, my real longing is to see that New Jerusalem…and one day I will!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Mud and Salt...Just Add Water (Holy Land #6 of 14)

I have already written about my love for the Sea of Galilee while in Israel, but there are two other bodies of water that will now hold special meaning for me the rest of my life as well. The first is the Jordan River. We went down to the Jordan from the Jordanian side of the border to the place which is most probably the vicinity where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. As we walked from the parking area through the wilderness to the Jordan River, I could just imagine John the Baptist living in among the brush wearing his camel hair clothing and feasting on locust and wild honey.

We finally came down upon the river itself. It was muddier than any water I have ever seen. In fact, by the time I was done being baptized and baptizing others, my white shirt that I was wearing was as brown as could be. I can hardly describe what it was like to let my mind go and try to visualize the Baptist in the water proclaiming, “Repent! Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Then he baptizes a Nazarene who before this time was virtually unknown among men. As He is baptized, a light from heaven shines down on Him and a dove descends on Him as a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, Follow Him!” John the Baptist now knew that this was the long awaited One. In fact, later he would point Jesus out to two of his own disciples and say, “There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” These 2 disciples would then follow Jesus instead of John.

This was a special time. Pastor Dan Travis, a friend of mine who was our group leader and did a tremendous job, baptized a couple of ladies who were not from our church and then I asked him to baptize me. The water was pretty cold so he really wasn’t taking people all the way under the water. I told him that I wanted to go all the way down…and I did all three times. What an honor to publicly proclaim Christ through baptism in the same area where Jesus was baptized and the Father revealed Him as His Son.

Even more special that that was being able to then baptize my wife, Laura, and have Dan pray for the two of us. Dan then baptized Pastor Whitie, who is from our church, and who in turn baptized his wife. After that, Whitie and I took turns baptizing those from our church who also desired to be baptized in the Jordan River. For one couple, this was their first baptism since becoming Christians. How wonderful was that! That was by far the icing on the cake for our Jordan River baptismal service. This time the emotion I felt was not one of tears but rather one of celebration. I just wanted to shout!

We then went back to the Dead Sea Spa and headed down to this large body of water that is 33% salt content. All you do is sit back as if you were sitting on a chair and you bob right up. There is absolutely no way you can go under the water. You just float until your heart is content. What a thrill for all of us to be out there as a group floating and laughing. What an incredible shared experience. But the best part was seeing the brilliant red sunset behind the mountains. I do not believe that I have ever seen such a gorgeous sunset in all of my life. From the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, the waters of the Holy Land are beautiful, naturally and spiritually.

Monday, December 11, 2006

I've Been to the Gates of Hell (Holy Land #5 of 14)

How many times have I read, heard, or even preached on Matthew 16 when Jesus asks His disciples the question, “Who do men say that I am?” Their answers were the common Jewish thoughts of the day. Some say you are Elijah. Some say John the Baptist. Others say you are a prophet. Then Jesus asked the all-important question, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon wasted no time in answering, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Literally, he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of God, the living One!" Jesus then commended Peter stating that flesh and blood did not reveal that to him but rather God did. He then changed Simon’s name to Peter and said that upon this rock He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

I always thought I understood that passage but after visiting Caesarea Philippi where these events took place, I realized how much comprehension of this passage I was missing. I knew the theological significance to this but once I saw the history of this location, my whole perspective changed. Caesarea Philippi was an unbelievable sight of pagan worship and idolatry. It was believed to be the place where the gods came to play and have their orgies. Temples were built to Pan (who was believed to be half-man and half goat) and Zeus and statues of many other multiple gods were all erected and worshiped. How significant that Jesus would take his disciples here to ask this all important question. Now Peter’s answer takes on even more meaning…“You are the Christ, the Son of God, the living One!”

Then there was Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession as He said, “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Knowing the history here brings this statement to life. There was there a large and deep water source that was very powerful in its force. People would be thrown into this water as a sacrifice to the gods. Some lived but most died. This entrance to this area was called the “gates of hell” because it was so deep that it was believed to have been the entrance to hell. This is why Jesus used this term. When we stand on the fact that Jesus is the Messiah…the living God, no force of paganism can ever stand against us. I could have spent all day here meditating on this truth but with so much to see this tour keeps us moving.

This was the center of idolatry in that day. When Jesus asked his question, “Who do men say that I am,” He asked it of His disciples as they looked around at the ornate temples and multitudes of people who were making sacrifices and kneeling before these idols that could not hear, see or speak. Jesus wanted to know if His disciples truly understood that He was more than a reincarnated Elijah or Moses. He was more than a prophet. Who was He? He was the Christ…the chosen one…the Messiah. And against the backdrop of such dead worship, He wanted them to see and realize once and for all that He was in fact the Son of God. He, in contrast to all the dead idols around Him, was the living God!

Suddenly this story that I had heard since my childhood flannel graph days came to life. It now had new meaning. My Bible College professor was right. You will never really understand the Bible theologically unless you first understand it historically!

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Anointing Service

When I am requested to lead an anointing service based on James 5, I usually go through the following steps. Prior to the anointing service I meet with the person requesting the anointing service and any of their immediate family that they would like to be part of this service to explain James 5 to them and to be sure that they understand it’s teaching. We then use this meeting to set up a time and location for the anointing service.

I then contact all of the Elders of the church informing them of the service that has been requested and inviting them to be part. I ask them to do two things. First, I ask them to read James 5 again to be reminded of the Biblical principles regarding the anointing service. Second, I ask them to be sure to spend considerable time alone with God prior to coming to the anointing service to be sure that they are clean before God. I also spend time alone with God myself to be sure that I am clean before Him

At the anointing service with the Elders and the individual who is sick, along with any of their family members that that they have requested to be present, I began by having one of the Elders read James 5:13-18 and I review the principles being taught. I remind them that the sickness being spoken of is a serious sickness. According to the passage the sick person is to call for the Elders of the church to be anointed with oil and prayed for. I also emphasize that in the passage there is a direct connection between this sickness and confessing our sin. Of course, not all sickness is due to sin, but some is. God promises that if the sickness is due to sin and we confess our sin and pray for healing, He will heal us. If this sickness is not due to sin, then we are choosing through this anointing service to trust God who may chose to either:

· Heal us
· Give us the grace to endure the illness
· Use the sickness to take us home (ultimate healing)

I then ask each person out loud the following question beginning with the person who is sick, then each family member they may have invited to be with them for this service, and finally each Elder…“Are you sure that you have spent time with the Lord and that there is no hidden or unconfessed sin in your life?” I ask each person to answer out loud. Following this, I anoint them with oil (I use olive oil) by rubbing some on their forehead three times (in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit). I have the Elders gather around this person who I have sitting on a chair in the middle of the room with his or her spouse (if they are present) and we lay our hands on their heads, shoulders, or arms. Each Elder then takes a turn praying out loud for this person and I close the time in prayer.

When we are done praying I lead the Elders by example in showing love to this person and their family by hugging them, telling them I love them, and assuring them that I will continue to pray for them. These are very beautiful, intimate and worshipful times.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sickness and Sinning...Part 2

Be sure to read part 1 of Sickness and Sinning posted yesterday.

Consider lessons that we can learn from the miracle of healing seen in Acts 3:1-10 involving Peter and John. They came across a man who was lame from birth (over 40 years...Acts 4:22). He was taken daily to the gate of the Temple to beg for alms. It was the 9th hour (3pm) which was the busiest time at the temple as people came to give. He was not part of the early church at this time. As you read the book of Acts you will find that healing in Acts almost always occurs in the crowd, not in the church.

This man is asking for alms with no thought of being healed. This tells me that, contrary to much popular teaching today, healing is not based solely on our faith, but it is always based on the sovereignty of God. The Apostles have no money to give this lame man. Instead, they command him to walk in the name of Jesus. He not only gets strength in his legs, but he receives perfect coordination. This shows us that healing in the Bible was instantaneous and complete. Progressive healing is not seen in Acts.

Let me emphasize again that healing in the book of Acts was not based solely on the power of an individual or the faith of a sick person, but rather on the sovereignty of God. In the story of the lame man in Acts 3, we see the sovereignty of God in two ways. First, Jesus would have without doubt walked past this same lame man numerous times on His way in and out of the temple but He never chose to heal him. Second, though many other people with infirmities would have been present, no other beggar is recorded as also being healed. Divine healing is based on the sovereignty of God.

Back to James 5, James now makes a specific connection between the sickness and sin. He states that if the sick person has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Since we all have sinned, this must refer to a specific sin which has caused the illness. Please understand that all illness is not due to sin, but some can be. In the Jewish mind of that day it was believed, as it is in many circles today, that all sickness was due to sin. You see this in the question of the disciples when they passed the man born blind and asked Jesus who sinned, the blind man or his parents resulting in his being born without vision. Remember Jesus’ answer? He said that neither the blind man nor his parents sinned but rather he was born with this infirmity so that God would be glorified. James is speaking in this passage of sickness that is the result of sin. He says that if the illness is due to sin and prayer and confession takes place, God promises to heal and to forgive.

The bottom line to the whole passage is that of TRUST. When we are seriously ill we should call for the leaders of the church to anoint us and pray for us. When we are seriously ill we should examine our lives and confess any sin that God reveals to us. When we are seriously ill we should trust God’s will. God will do one of three things and whatever it is that is His will can be trusted to be perfect in purpose and timing. He may choose to heal us. However, as in the case with Paul’s thorn in the flesh, He may choose to give us the grace to endure the sickness. He also may use the sickness to take us home to heaven, which after all, is the ultimate healing.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sickness and Sinning...Part 1

As James wraps up his very practical book, he ends with the topic of sickness in James 5:13-20. He begins by describing 3 circumstances of life. First, he speaks of when we are suffering (v13). The word for suffering used by James is broader than just physical sickness. It is also used referring to various other hardships (mental, emotional, etc.). It literally means “to suffer misfortune” as in the example of the imprisonment of Paul in 2 Timothy 2:9 or the example of Timothy’s hardships in ministry as seen in 2 Timothy 4:5. According to James, in these times of our lives, we are to pray

Second, James addresses the times in our lives when we are cheerful (v13). This is the contrast to the first example of suffering. This is when life is smooth. In these times we are to sing praise to God. James is driving home the point that whether we are suffering or cheerful, proper communion with God is needed in all of life’s situations.

Now James gets to his main point. He now speaks of those who are physically sick (v14-16). This is not a word describing minor sicknesses such as the flu or a cold. This word described a serious condition, one that was beyond human ability to treat. This word was used to describe the royal officer’s son who was about to die in John 4:46-47. It was used to describe Lazarus who shortly after did die in John 11:1-3, 6. It was used to describe Dorcas in Acts 9:37, who also died. And it was used to describe Epaphroditus who Paul described as being close to death (Philippians 2:26-27).

What are we to do when faith and life collide leaving us in a serious physical condition? James says that first we have a need to CALL (v14). It is the sick person who is to take the initiative to call for the Elders of the church. Notice that it is the church leaders who are called, not a person with special gifts of healing. The gift of healing was one of the sign gifts given to the early church to validate that the message of these Apostles was truly from God. As the Word of God became more and more complete, it, rather than signs gifts, became the validation that a message was from God (2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:3-4). The Elders are to anoint the sick person with oil and pray for them. This was not medicinal but rather a symbol of the Holy Spirit (James 4:5).

Second, James says that when we are in this type of sickness, we also have a need to CONFESS (v15-16a). According to James, the prayer offered in faith by the church leaders will restore the sick one and the Lord will raise him up. It is obvious from this passage that even without the spiritual gift of healing being active, God still does heal. However, it is very important to properly interpret Scripture with Scripture in this case and realize that our prayers being answered are conditional on our requests being in God’s will (1 John 5:4). It is obvious from Scripture that it is not always God’s will to heal. Paul had a thorn in the flesh which was most likely a physical ailment that God did not heal (2 Corinthians 12:7). Timothy had a stomach problem that was not healed (1 Timothy 5:23). On one of Paul’s journeys he had to leave Trophimus in the city of Miletus sick (2 Timothy 4:20). He did not simply heal Trophimus and bring him along on the trip.

Be sure to read tomorrow's blog entry for part 2 of Sickness and Sinning.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Seashore Marked by Forgiveness (Holy Land #4 of 14)

Imagine with me that you are Peter. It is now just a few days after the horrible events of the crucifixion of Jesus. Over the past 3 years you have been the most vocal of all Jesus’ disciples. You are the one that emphatically answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with the words, “You are the Christ, the Son of God, the living One!” You are the one who dared to step out of the boat in the midst of a storm and walked for a few steps on the water. You were the one who boldly claimed that you would die for Jesus and demonstrated your resolve by cutting off the ear of one who came to arrest Jesus in the Garden.

But now you have returned to your simple Galilean life of fishing. You are defeated and lonely. In the end, hours before His death, you have denied the Lord you thought you loved…not once…not twice, but three very distinct times, just as Jesus had predicted. It is early in the morning and you are bringing your boat back in from fishing. You should be hungry, but you haven’t had much appetite since all of these events occurred. You are still trying to figure it out. You went to the tomb of Jesus and it was empty. You saw Him appear alive in the upper room. But what now?

As you make your way into shore and get within about 100 yards of land, you see a small fire on the shore. Someone is making their breakfast. You strain to see who it might be. Is it? It can’t be! Yes, it is! It is Jesus! You leap into the water and as fast as you can move, you combine swimming and running to get to land as soon as you can. Jesus invites you to sit and enjoy some fresh tilapia that He has cooked for breakfast. As you eat He asks you this question, “Peter, do you love me?” Though your answer is far from convincing you reply affirmatively. Jesus asks you three times. Each time he responds to your weakened reply with the words, “Feed my sheep!” In the weeks, months and years to come, that is exactly what you will do with great power as God uses you to expand His church which He told you before that the gates of hell could not prevail against.

While in Israel I stood on this shore. I could almost see Peter jumping out of his boat. I could almost smell the aroma of fish cooking on the fire. This was when the first wave of real emotion hit me on my Holy Land trip. Pastor Dan Travis (our group leader who is a friend of mine that pastors the Palmyra Grace Brethren Church), in tears, challenged us that even though we, like Peter, have failed Jesus many times, we can still let go of our past guilt and shame and because of Christ’s forgiveness, we can focus and recommit ourselves to doing the work that God has called us to do…reaching and teaching people.

That is my calling! But like, Peter, I have also failed my Lord many times, in fact, more times than I care to admit. To think that I was standing on that very shore where the power of Christ’s forgiveness gave Peter a new start was overwhelming. The tears flowed as I looked out onto the Sea and then reached down and picked up a pebble from the beach to keep as a reminder of the power of Christ’s forgiveness. Like Peter I desire to jump out of the boat and run to Jesus! Yes, Lord I love you! I will feed your sheep!

Monday, December 04, 2006

What To Do When You've Been Done Wrong

When was the last time you got done wrong? How did you respond? In chapter 5 of his Epistle, James gives 4 reminders for anytime we get the short end of the proverbial stick.

First, we are to be patient (v7-8). The word “patient” stresses the idea of non-retaliation. It literally means to hold one’s spirit in check. The idea is to “restrain your temper.” We must never allow mistreatment to drive us to hatred or bitterness. James says that we are to be patient “until the coming of the Lord.” We are to respond with patience until the coming of the Lord. This is referring to the return of Christ that James saw as occurring at any time. When the time comes that He does return, Jesus will right all wrongs.

James illustrates this need in our lives by using a farmer which would be widely known to his readers from Palestinian agricultural. The farmer plants a seed into ground which has received little rain all year. He patiently waits for the fall rains that come around October and November and to the spring showers of April and May. In the same way, we too must sow our seed of obedience waiting patiently for the promise of the Lord’s return. With this promise in mind, we must strengthen our hearts and be patient

Second we are not to complain (v9). The word “complain” speaks of a sigh or groan and is used of inward sighing more than outward complaints. James warns that to groan inwardly with complaints against others is the sort of judging that he has warned us against previously (4:11-12). We will be judged even for our inward feelings of bitterness and criticism that may not be outwardly expressed. When James says that “the Judge is standing at the door,” he is giving yet another inference to his belief in the imminent return of Christ

Third, we are to look at the prophets (v10-11). James encourages his readers to remember many of the Old Testament prophets who were persecuted severely. Jesus used the same illustration in Matthew 5:11-12 as did Stephen in Acts 7:52. One such example is the prophet Jeremiah. Among other things, he was beaten and put in stocks (Jeremiah 20:2); placed into prison (Jeremiah 32:2); and thrown into a muddy cistern (Jeremiah 38:6). James reminds us of the endurance of Job who is most known for his endurance in the face of adversity. God rewarded Job for such faithfulness and endurance. He will also reward us for our endurance.

Finally, we are not to swear (v12). In all of our attempts to avoid expressing impatience during trials we should avoid swearing. This is speaking of denying one’s guilt by reinforcing his statement with an oath. Peter did this in Matthew 26:72. Oath-taking, which occurred throughout the Old Testament, had been greatly abused in the days of Jesus and the early church. The word of the Christian should be so trustworthy that his yes means yes and his no means no.

Chances are you will be done wrong again sometime in your life. How will you respond?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Thank You, Jodi! Welcome, Susan!

For nearly a decade now, Jodi Miller has been our Children’s Director here at Grace Church with oversight of our 1st grade through 6th grade programs. I have only known Jodi personally for a little over 2 years, but I am amazed at the job she has done with this program, especially considering that her role has only been part time. Frankly, I’m not sure you can find many churches of our size and scope that have simply a part-time person over such an important area of ministry. Jodi has done a tremendous job.

Jodi came to me a while back and talked to me about her being convinced that it was time for her to re-direct her labors of love here at Grace Church. If you have had children in our children’s ministry over the past several years, then you know how valuable Jodi has been to our church. We are very thankful for Jodi and the ministry that she has had and we are very excited that Jodi will remain part of our team here at Grace Church by filling a part-time support help position in the church office.

As we say “thank you” to Jodi, I am also excited to announce that Susan Auld will be taking on our Children’s Director Role beginning today, December 1st. Susan will start in a part-time role for the month of December and then move to a full-time basis after the first of the year. Susan has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Elementary Education and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Bible, both from Philadelphia Bible University where she graduated in 1994. She has a lot of experience in teaching and holds a Teaching Certificate for kindergarten through eighth grade with the Association of Christian Schools International. She also has her state teaching certificate.

Susan is married to her husband, Tim, who is on staff at Lancaster Bible College and they have two children, Joshua (age 9) and Emma (age 6), both of whom attend Lititz Christian School. Before coming to Lancaster Bible College, her husband was a pastor up in Canada, which also gives Susan very valuable experience in local church ministry. Tim is now the Assistant Director of Degree Completion at LBC and also teaches several classes including one on evangelism.

Susan was raised in a Christian family in Altoona, PA, where she was taught the basics of the Gospel and gave her heart to the Lord at the age of four. She began serving in local church children’s ministry while in Junior and Senior High School. It was during this time that Susan developed her love for children and for teaching.

I am very excited about the enthusiasm, energy, dreams and vision that Susan brings to our Children’s Ministry. She will be working closely with Beth Kachel, who is our part-time Director of Early Childhood Ministries. Beth continues to do an outstanding job in leading our nursery through kindergarten. She will now be working under Susan and I believe that the two of them will make a great team.

A heart that is warm toward God is a heart that is warm toward children, so please be praying for Susan, Beth and Jodi as these transitions take place.