Monday, April 22, 2019

Caught Between Strength and Weakness - Easter

Which is harder to believe: something that’s already happened or in something yet to come? It’s an obvious answer. When something has already happened, we typically have a connection with it. We’ve read about it from a reliable source. We actually experienced it happening. The fact that it happened has made an impact on our lives.

In the early 1920s Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin was sent from Moscow to Kiev to address an anti-God rally. For an hour he abused and ridiculed the Christian faith and denounced the events it was founded on until it seemed as if the whole structure of Christianity was in ruins. At the end of his presentation, a Russian Orthodox priest rose and asked to speak. He faced the people and gave the greeting, "He is risen!" Instantly the audience rose to its feet and shouted, "He is risen indeed!" 

When you know something has happened, you’ll refuse the lie. When you aren’t sure, you’ll believe anything.

When I approach the stories of the Bible, I do so from solid belief that what I read is true. This Book, produced over a period of 1800 years, with more than 40 different writers has one consistent story: God designed a plan before the foundation of the world and has implemented and carried out that plan with such precision that He often told what would happen in advance. A plan that has been and is being fulfilled throughout history with the final parts of the plan being worked out before our very eyes today.

The central message is: God so loved the world that He chose to reconcile the world to Himself through the death of His Son, so that those who believe in Him enough to call out to Him, in faith for salvation, would not perish but have everlasting life.

He also included promises that are to be relied upon by His people to help them live a faithful and godly life. Some of those promises are direct, others based on certain conditions. If you do this, then I’ll do that. Sometimes those promises are unique to specific moments.

Like: when I stumble He will lift me up, when storms come I will not be washed away, when I pass through the valley of the shadow death He will be with me. They are provisions matched to circumstances. There is such variety in God’s promises that either directly or indirectly there is a promise that fits whatever we face.

But promises have one thing in common: they anticipate some measure of faith. Knowing what God said and trusting in what God said are not always one and the same. Saying we believe what God said is true and letting that truth affect our lives are not always one and the same.

Question: When you find your situation matches the conditions of one of those promises, do you ever struggle to rely on what God has said? Or: when it comes time to apply our faith by trusting God specifically for something He has provided for, do we do so confidently, or do we have to fight through doubt?

I find that I struggle most when the circumstances seem bigger than the promise.
  • When my faith checkbook records less than the purchase requires,
  • When the hurt seems larger than the bandage,
  • When my pain outshouts my faith to control my life.

We look at what’s going on around us, overwhelmed by what’s happening and afraid of what might come next. And the hope that once filled our hearts with promise becomes merely a wish upon the shadow of a verse we read in the Bible somewhere once. There’s no faith, no confidence, no assurance that what God said could apply to us.

It’s easy in moments like that to think we are the exception. That God’s promises work for everyone else but us. My circumstances are different. My pain is unique. My suffering is specific to me only. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

Did Jesus ever have a moment to question a promise from the Father? It was just after He had celebrated Passover with His disciples. He was facing crucifixion the next morning. He knew what was going on. He knew what it all meant. He was going to die.

Jesus had perhaps seen many people die by Roman crucifixion, none for the sins of the world. And, all the people He saw die were still dead. He was to come back alive. No one had done what He was scheduled to do – face death with a direct promise of resurrection within three days. That put Him in a unique position of one. No one had ever had to trust God in this way.

Matt 26:36-41 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Then He said to them, "My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me." And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will." And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, "So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." 

I’ve always read that last statement thinking Jesus was talking about the disciples. That their flesh was competing with their spirits.

I don’t think that’s what He meant. Jesus wasn’t telling them what they were going through, that their flesh was too weak to stay awake and pray, but He was telling them what He was going through. Ever been caught between weakness and strength?

The plan had always contained resurrection. Ps 16:10 For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. 

Acts 2:29-32 Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. And so, because he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne, he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY. This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. 

He was guaranteed a resurrection. He had the promise. He knew the prophecy. He was in on the plan. He had inspired the men who had written it all down, therefore His spirit was fully willing to go through with the crucifixion and death. But what about His flesh?

His flesh, His humanity was struggling with the process. He knew what was to come after He died, but also knew what it would take to get to that point. He was struggling with enduring the suffering. He’d read Isaiah. He knew Psalm 22 by heart. He was so familiar with the story He could even feel the nails before they ever touched His skin.

He knew what to anticipate – physically, emotionally and spiritually. And here in the Garden it was overwhelming Him. So: Matt 26:42 He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, "My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done." Again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more. Then He came to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!" 

Jesus was a man on death row. But unlike a dead man walking, heading to execution not knowing what to expect, Jesus knew all the details.

He knew more than anyone else what He would go through. That’s why Gethsemane was the most critical, human moment Jesus ever faced. He knew what was in the cup He was about to drink.
So, He prayed: Let the cup pass. He prayed it three times. And each time resolved the tension with not My will but Yours be done. What does that mean? Hand Me the cup. It’s mine and I’ll drink it. It means He was going through with it in spite of the struggle with the ordeal to come. And that wasn’t fully resolved until the third prayer.

Sometimes we read these stories and sanitize out the human strain of the crisis.

I remember being in a discussion group, once, talking about Abraham sacrificing Isaac. One lady in the group asked if we could feel the tension of a father about to kill his son? Suddenly, a clean, non-emotional event was full of terror and fear and sorrow. He was willing to obey but knew that obedience came at an extremely high cost. Plunging a knife into his son wasn’t as casual as carving up the Thanksgiving turkey. Every ounce of faith was required to do what God had told him.

That’s where Jesus was. Willing to obey but feeling the high cost of that obedience.

Heb 10:36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. 

The writer of Hebrews tells us how He did it: Heb 12:2 who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, He despised the shame 

What joy could there be in a torturous death? How could you ever anticipate joy knowing all you were going to go through? By looking beyond what you face and seeing a faithful God working to accomplish what concerns you.

It made Him steadfast. It kept Him on target. It wasn’t the nails that held Jesus on the cross. It was the joy He found within His purpose, strengthened by the assurance of the Father that He not only would make it through, but He would endure and receive what was promised.

That’s why His prayer was so crucial. It connected the agony of a struggling flesh with the willingness of a surrendered spirit. A spirit that would not allow the flesh to dominate, to steal away His joy, to influence Him to deny who He was. He had to go through with it. There was no one else to whom He could pass the cup. It was Him or no one, the cross or nothing.

Phil 2:9-11 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

Act 4:12 And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.

What was at stake? You. Had He not endured to die and rise again, we’d never know a life in relationship with the Father was even possible. We’d be dead in our sins. Our faith would be worthless and we would of all people be most miserable.

And to Him that would be unacceptable.

Aren’t you glad you were included in the joy through which Jesus endured the suffering, drank from the cup and came back to life so He could reconcile you to the Father?

  1. Though Jesus’ death was a highly spiritual event, He was not a mere machine going through the motions.
  2. The physical torture was excruciating, the emotional strain overwhelming, the spiritual challenge enormous.
  3. For Him to endure, He focused on the joy of what would be accomplished through Him.
  4. For us to endure our own suffering, we do the same: find joy in the fact that the same God has promised to get us through.

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