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Letting Jesus Fight for Us

If you haven’t listened to our current podcast about Vengeance, Mercy, and Justice, it’s something I’ve been noodling on for a few weeks. It started with this quote from Adam Smith, “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Too often, our society “lets off” those who are well-connected at the expense of those who have been the victims of their violence or greed. Such “mercy” only adds more pain to those they harmed.

And yet, mercy is what we want for ourselves and those we love, even if we have wronged and offended innocent people. And when we or someone we love suffers at the hands of another, our cry isn’t for mercy but justice. It’s strange, isn’t it? We want mercy for our failures and justice for those of others.

How does God sort through the wake of human pain and brokenness, dispensing both mercy and justice in a way that does not excuse the evil done or revictimize those wronged? Complex questions, to be sure. I don’t know how God does it or will do it when he sums up all things at the end of the age, but I trust him with it. Walking that line between justice and mercy is something we find challenging to do.

Even our cries for justice are often thinly veiled hopes for vengeance. We want people who cause heartache for others to suffer indescribable pain and call it justice. How often have we heard that “justice was served” by a murderer being put to death or dying by his own hand? But was it? Did it restore the life of the one they murdered or right the wrong they had done? Of course not.

The other day, I was talking about this with my friend, Luis, and he shared a recent dream. He was in a battle with a vicious hoard, primarily humans, but also mixed in were animal-human hybrids. He had expended all his ammunition, and still, they came toward him to destroy him. In the fury of adrenaline and the frustration of a losing battle, Jesus came to him in the dream.

“What do you want, vengeance or justice?” Jesus asked him with Luis breathless and terrified

All of his emotions screamed for vengeance in the rage of his own powerlessness. But with Jesus standing there, he knew that was best. “I want justice.”

“Then you better let me fight for you,” Jesus responded, and there the dream ended.

I’m not sure all that means, but as we talked about it, we realized how easily the adrenaline of our fear and anger spills over into feelings of vengeance. We have no idea where the dividing line is. Learning to live in his love will invite us to let Jesus fight for us. He has to show us the way where love can walk through the darkness without being exploited by those who are destructive and also know when he’s inviting us to lay our lives down for someone else’s good. Only he is wise enough to negotiate this space where mercy and justice are complements to each other, not competitors.

I love the instructions he gave his disciples: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” The economy of the coming kingdom is based on a mercy that doesn’t excuse evil nor allows us to be exploited by it. It’s a long process to learn the power of that statement and discover that his mercy is greater than any sacrifice of time, money, or life that we can offer him.

Who is sufficient for these things? We are not. How much more pain have we caused by trying to save ourselves or fix a situation that is beyond us? Of course, that does not mean we quietly suffer abuse or injustice. Allowing him to fight for us is not lying down and suffering the abuse of others. It means we will first find our refuge in him. He is the only one that can hold us in any storm, heal the damage we have suffered, and make up for what others have stolen from us. From there, he may well show us a way to resist those who seek to abuse us or help others find the justice they deserve. But now, we won’t be doing it with vengeance or our limited wisdom or power, but responding where love and justice dance together in his victory.

Micah invites us into that same reality: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). And I think the “with your God” phrase at the end applies to all of the previous invitations:

Do justice… with your God!

Love mercy… with your God!

Walk humbly… with your God!

Because, in fact, that’s the only way we can do those things.


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Lessons from the Rubble

Lessons from the Rubble

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • November 2001

twin_towers_0Last Saturday I stood with my wife and son at the place in Manhattan now known as Ground Zero. The massive buildings that had been the World Trade Center lie in a heap, shredded and charred. Nearly six weeks after the atrocities of September 11 the smoke and smell of destruction still hung heavy in the afternoon air. The fences were lined with flowers, posters and pictures paying tribute to those who are dead or still missing in the rubble.

I found it as difficult to process that scene as I had the unfolding stories on television that September 11. Having just flown in from Buffalo, NY the day before I was still asleep when my wife turned on the TV and told me I had to see what was happening. Two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Just as I rolled over to focus on the screen the first tower started to crumble.

Who will ever forget that day? Another plane had crashed into the Pentagon and one in the countryside of Pennsylvania. Throughout the day the pictures and stories unfolded the disaster. Suicide hijackers had taken command of jumbo jets with the most rudimentary weapons because no one could conceive of them using those planes as guided missiles. Phone calls from aircraft and offices from people who were staring death in the face sought to affirm their love to those closest to them. People leapt from the upper floors of the towers in a desperate attempt to escape the encroaching flames. Heroic rescue workers were trapped and killed when the buildings finally crumbled to the ground.

All of that and more rushed through my mind as I stood with hundreds of others who gazed upon the carnage and destruction of Ground Zero. There the lives of 5,000 husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters had been crushed in the rubble caused by an evil almost impossible to comprehend. This was no accident or natural disaster, but the intentional act of those who thought they were doing God’s will.

Such climactic events are watershed moments. Though our leaders tell us to go back to life as normal, those words fall empty. Our sense of vulnerability and our restructured priorities will create a new normal. That can either destroy us with fear or despair, or help us lean in closer to the only security we’ve ever really had anyway–the love and care of an awesome Father.

The Day our Illusions Died

Many have said that the world changed on September 11, but I don’t agree. The world has since the fall been filled with this kind of evil and we have never been as invulnerable to it as we would like to think. It’s just that many of us in America have been insulated by our prosperity from seeing the world as it really is.

On September 11 any illusion we had that God’s blessing means we aren’t at risk from evil was exposed for the lie it was. No doubt, there were precious believers on those flights and in those buildings who didn’t go home that evening. Whatever grace they needed in those moments, God freely gave them. Whatever grace their family and friends will need to get through their grief and go on with life will also be given to them. Being blessed doesn’t mean we escape the evil in the world, only that the evil will not prevail over us.

Though we rarely see acts of evil on such a huge scale, we don’t have to look any further than many of our inner city neighborhoods to find people who grow up in fear of violence and suffer from incredible need. Most of the world lives in great risk. In my own county more people have been murdered since September 11 than have died from anthrax on the East Coast.

While one may seem random and the other calculated, the reality is that evil is alive and well in our world and it causes incredible pain, suffering and destruction. That needn’t lead us to despair, however, only repentance. At moments like this we see sin for what it is, the destroyer of everything good God has made. It is also in moments like these that we get to see God perform his greatest miracles. He is able to work incredible good even out of the most despicable acts of evil. As he did with Joseph, who had been betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers, God is able to work out his purpose in the world and in you even in this time of risk and threat.

Where Was God that Morning?

The media asked that question as well as many believers I know. Somehow we wonder if God was somewhere else in the world that morning and didn’t see the events that were happening on our eastern seaboard. Nothing could be further from the truth.

He saw it. Even as it unfolded it grieved his heart. And yes, though this is hard to hear, he did not stop it. Some people find that incompatible with the image of a loving Father. Wouldn’t his love compel him to ensure that such atrocious evil not succeed?

The Bible makes clear that God does not circumvent all evil in this world. He has given dominion of the earth to humanity and though he often intervenes to reveal himself in history and to move it to its divinely appointed end, he rarely spares us the consequences of evil. Rather, he redeems us out of it and through those consequences he invites us to refocus our lives on him and his will for us.

The idea that God won’t let bad things happen to good people misunderstands the nature of the world he created for us. It also is blind to the realities of the world in which we live. Six million Jews died in concentration camps in Germany during World War II. Thousands of Africans have been killed in the last decade by tribal warfare and by the AIDS virus. Atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and throughout the Middle East have filled our media for years. Isn’t it arrogant of us to say that our suffering in the U.S. calls God’s character into question and not share the same pain when it happens in distant lands?

I met with church leaders in Nepal in the late 80’s all of whom had been imprisoned and many beaten for their faith. There are believers and unbelievers alike who put their children to bed hungry around the world.

Suffering is a daily reality in this world that is out of synch with the Creator’s plans and priorities. Certainly this is on a much grander scale, but is no more devastating for those impacted by it than other acts of violence in our world. If we only feel compassion when it is our fellow-countrymen, then we might want to reconsider just how deep our compassion runs.

Thoughts from the Sidelines

So much has been written and said in the aftermath of these events. The heroic acts of rescue workers at the crash sites and passengers on the fourth jetliner, the generosity of people for those in need, and the resurgence of kindness and community in our culture have been an inspiration. On the other hand, it has troubled me that so many would also seek to exploit this tragedy to advance their personal agendas.

I have been deeply concerned that the media has played into the hands of the terrorists and exacerbated this atrocity. While they were most useful in the first 48 hours in helping us understand what was happening, their need to fill round-the-clock programming and compete with each other has brought out the worst. Glorifying Osama bin Laden by putting his photo on magazine covers, playing his videotapes unedited, highlighting our vulnerabilities and helping incubate an atmosphere of terror by overemphasizing specific threats to our society has demonstrated that they care far more about their own profits than serving the public interest. While I agree that a free press is essential to a free society, we also need a responsible press that refuses to become the story it seeks to report.

Be wary of those who interpret these events in apocalyptic terms. Is this the beginning of the end of the age? Are we now in the final battle between the West and Muslim extremists? Is the antichrist at hand? I don’t know, and I don’t suspect others do either. It is easy to rework catastrophic events into our agenda for the world, and many believers in the past have been wrong in doing so. Many thought Hitler was the antichrist, that the founding of the state of Israel signaled the last generation, and that Jesus would come in 1988. All proved wrong and demonstrate the danger of presuming to interpret the apocalyptic language of Scripture with human reasoning.

If God has clearly spoken to you regarding these matters by all means speak out, but be careful of those who exploit this atrocity to sell their books or fill in their prophetic charts. We might well be at the threshold of the last days, and we might yet be a ways out from them. The geo-political arrangement in my view is still not in line with many of the prophecies of Scripture. Knowing whether it is or isn’t shouldn’t even be a factor for us. Jesus told his disciples that simply following him every day and occupying until he comes would be all we’d need to do.

Don’t fall for those who blame others. The shame of the fall compels us to blame the victims in times of crisis as a way to make us feel less vulnerable ourselves. Those who sought to use this crisis to advance their political agenda against only certain kinds of sins in our culture saw it blow up in their faces, and rightfully so. Those who blamed society’s moral laxity, its increased secularity or its approval of abortion as reasons for God to punish the U.S., exemplified arrogance not discernment. In times of trouble God’s prophets joined in the repentance owning their own failures, not pointing fingers of blame at others. The abuses and excesses of Christianity in America are well known and humility in the face of such calamity will serve God’s work far more. Jesus warned those in his day who thought the victims of calamity were more deserving than those who did not that they were wrong and missing the point entirely. (Luke 13:1-5)

And don’t make the mistake of thinking Godliness and patriotism are the same thing. Yes I think the resurgent unity of our country and care for each other during this time is a refreshing change from our otherwise indulgent society. I too sing God Bless America and The Star Spangled Banner with renewed meaning. If we think the feelings associated with these moments are the anointing of the Spirit, then we have certainly misunderstood God’s life and power.

I support the actions of our government to root out those responsible for terrorism and bring them to justice, but we cannot give in to perpetuating the cycle of hatred that spawned these acts in the first place. Our cause must be justice not vengeance or we will find ourselves playing the terrorists’ games.

God is not American. Participation in his kingdom need not exclude us from patriotism, but don’t forget that patriotism will never fulfill the glories of his kingdom. We are citizens of a greater kingdom, with priorities that go beyond our own personal safety and desire to punish evil–and our trust must go beyond it as well.

The Party Is Over

In the early 80’s, Tom Sine in his book, Mustard Seed Conspiracy, warned us that we could not just enjoy our irresponsible materialism and not create animosity in the rest of the world. Though we are the most generous society in history as far as feeding and caring for the needs of the world, the disparity between their need and our waste cannot be ignored.

Though nothing would ever justify terrorism, we dare not ignore the dynamics that breed people who see suicide attacks as a noble act. To be sure those who twist religion to evil ends manipulate these young men, but they wouldn’t be able to do so if they did not exist in such desperate circumstances. Many were drawn from refugee camps and Palestinian lands on the West Bank or those who sympathize with their plight. They blame our politics for propping up oppressive regimes that put them at risk and keep them in need. They watch their babies die from hunger or lack of simple antibiotics while they hear of the billions of dollars spent in the U.S. on cosmetic surgery or decadent amusements. If our war against terrorism does not include reaching out to such people, we will only breed a future generation of terrorists.

But for all of us the most powerful response is personal not political. Paul’s words reverberate in my ears with new meaning: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light… Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Rom. 13:11-14)

Whether or not the end of the age is upon us, it is a lot closer than when Paul penned these words. Notice he doesn’t consider the tensions at the end of the age to be night overcoming the day, but night giving way to the daylight. His focus was not on the trauma we would witness in the world, but on God’s purpose that would come to light through it.

Now more than ever, hear the Father inviting you to draw nearer to him than you ever have before. Don’t do that by redoubling your efforts to prove your love to God by good works or increased religious activity. Rather, come to the quiet and cultivate a transforming relationship with the Lord of Glory. Paul knew that only as we grew to know him better would his presence become more real and more satisfying than our own sins, appetites and distractions.

Getting back to normal doesn’t mean we spend our money and live our lives as we did before. Hopefully the priorities of many will change dramatically. What would it be like if we found more joy and fulfillment in the unfolding purpose of God than the costly amusements Madison Avenue keeps shoving down our throats?

How Shall We Now Live?

Times of tragedy and vulnerability offer us an incredible opportunity to find out where our security really lies. If it was placed in the illusions of our prosperous culture, you would have pretty quickly have found your stomach churning and sleep difficult to find.

As much as our government must mitigate this threat however they can, our security does not lie in jet fighters, hazmat suits, or airport screeners any more than ancient Israel could rely on horses and chariots. This is a great time to discover just how much I entrust myself to the Lord’s care and direction or how much I’m shaped by the age in which I live.

One of my favorite phrases in the book of Revelation, describes those followers who endure the trauma of the last days and overcame the power of sin and the terror of the antiChrist’s reign. “They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” I love the simplicity of that and can think of no better words to describe life at its best. What’s even better is that we don’t have to wait until the end of the age to live that way.

He invites us every day to focus on his presence and simply do what he puts before us each and every day. While I’ll be the first to admit that doing so isn’t easy, there is no better time to let him teach you. As you learn the simple joy of following the Lamb wherever he goes, you will find that fear will have no place in your heart. While we certainly will all live with greater awareness of potential risks in our mailboxes or on our airplanes, we don’t have to let fear control our lives. Whatever God calls you to do, he will more than equip you with the grace and peace to see it through.

Paul is an excellent example here. Following Jesus led him to be locked into prison, stoned by those who opposed him, even to be robbed by bandits and shipwrecked on the high seas. Paul never saw these as proof that God had abandoned him, but part of the challenge of walking with Jesus in a fallen world. Though circumstances would at times press him on every side, or strike him down, he said it never crushed him or led him to despair or loneliness. (2 Cor. 4:7-10)

He drew a real distinction between events on the outside and the joy and freedom he treasured on the inside. Even in calamity that treasure would only be even more refined and through it find new ways to reach out and touch others in the process. Learning to live with a practical, daily dependence on Jesus is what spiritual maturity is really all about.

Elsewhere Paul said his “life was hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) What an incredible picture! He did not see himself as the victim of circumstance but secure with Christ in God. Regardless of what swirled around him he knew that God was his safety. Of course you can’t live there if you’re still trying to force God to fulfill what you want for your life. If you only trust him when life is easy, then you will not only miss him, but also miss the most valuable purpose of trust.

But when you set your mind on God’s things and know how safe you are in his awesome love, you can awaken to each new day not buffeted by fear, but free to see what he will do in the unfolding events of your life. Nothing can touch you there, not the most painful tragedy or alluring temptation.

Nothing will bring greater joy to his heart and more freedom to yours than to learn how to live there. He will teach you if you ask him. With your eyes more focused on him than the events of this world, you’ll be able to face anything with the confidence that comes from knowing him.

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The Most Exciting Days in History

By Kevin Smith

BodyLife • January 1998

As the last few years of the twentieth century flit away, much of our society is marked by a sense of disillusionment. Things have not turned out the way we once thought they would. The optimism of the ’60s and ’70s has given way to a harsh ’90s loss of vision and hope for the future.

We have become used to living with change. Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock, written in the ’60s, understated the massive change that humanity has been subjected to.

kevin_smith_0Alongside society’s feelings of hopelessness and questions about the value of life and living, the church has also gone through massive change. Church life surveys indicate that fewer people are attending church services each week, and the message of the good news of Jesus is regarded by many (including some churchgoers) as at best irrelevant. The young have deserted the church in droves, voting with their feet.

In so many ways, it seems that confidence in our culture and our future on planet Earth is at an all time low.

Perhaps the greatest danger is when human beings themselves find they are at the end of their rope. At the point where our optimism fades and our expectations are threatened, we often act in ways that are extreme, sometimes downright inhumane!

At each era of history, in all the schemes for living that the human race has devised, it always seems that in the course of time the best ideas end with a need to look for further solutions. Each set of ideas disintegrates on the rubbish heap of history.

To people who are human spirits and who (as St. Augustine reminds us) can be satisfied by nothing but God, it is little wonder that we cry out for the reality of God’s person.

Exciting Days

How can we say, then, that these are the most exciting days of human history? They are exciting because in these days of disillusionment we are finding much that is sterile and destructive, and we are beginning to see past our dreams of better things to catch a glimpse of the vista revealed by the God who shows his intentions in the Bible.

For a long time we human beings have disregarded God and his ways. Like goldfish in a bowl, we have argued that our perspective on life is reality. This reality has only been sha-ken from time to time when the bowl has wobbled. But we live in days when it’s threatening to topple. Like goldfish tipped from their bowl into a drain and on into the ocean, our perspective is undergoing radical change!

This is an exciting time in human history because humankind is realizing that things are not what our philosophers and psychologists have said they are. Rather, reality is based on the God of the Bible.

Looking for God’s Reality

But where do we find that reality? Despite all the religious options of our day, people still don’t know where to look.

They’ve seen the futility of mere talk about God. They’ve sensed the emptiness of projecting their own vulnerability and failures on to God. And the way the hopes and magic practices of ‘religion’ make God appear as someone able to be controlled and marketed, without too many side-effects, has made people as disenchanted and wary about God as everything else.

We must ask: Has religion kept us busily away from knowing close relationship with God? In the end, structures absorb life and rob us of a growing intimacy with the Creator.

The truth is, God’s church has been ‘squeezed into the mold’ of the world system, the very thing Paul warned us about when he wrote to the Roman Christians:

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul’s admonition is for all of us who have seen the goodness of God’s rescue from sin and death to focus clearly on God and see the world from his vantage point with the expectation that God will change us from the inside out. This change will allow us to know what God desires so that we can respond.

The outcome is that we’ll no longer find ourselves locked into society’s way of approaching things. Taking God’s perspective saves us from being dragged down to the level of the immaturity of our culture.

The Church Is not Peripheral to the World

The exciting thing is that, in these days when many seem to be leaving organized institutional religion, more and more people are discovering new depths to their relationship with the living God.

For too long we’ve understood God’s church as being a little like a students’ chocolate eating club’ that meets outside of school or university class-time. We’ve seen it as an extracurricular activity for people whose primary concern is life in the world.

But God’s understanding is that his church is a people for whom his desires form the central direction of their lives. By doing what God reveals, they find not only that they express their love for God but also that what he desires is best for humanity itself. As they do what God wants, God rules as the supreme ruler he is.

As Paul said, [God] set [Jesus] on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever … At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence (Ephesians 1:20-23).

History underlines that the world is different because of what God has done through his church. Hospitals, schools, trades unions and many of the service and caring strategies taken for granted today had their beginnings in God moving his people to act.

Yet history also records some very dark days when horrific things were done in the name of God. You don’t have to go back to the Crusades; mere decades ago in God’s name, Aboriginal children were removed from their families, and thereby denied the very relationship that God made basic for life.

God Is Always at Work

But history is his story, and the sovereign God is never jammed! Even when his people are disobedient and rebellious, he redeems the mess and leads them on.

There is no point in the history of his people when God has not been there to sovereignty lead them forward. Even in the darkest hour God is at work. Luther published his famous 95 Theses. Calvin saw a vision of a city where God was king. Wesley made the Gospel known across England. Booth cared for the marginalized and poor. The Pentecostal and charismatic movements of the 20th century helped people open up to God’s Spirit. And so on. God has moved his people.

Some people today are sad when they consider what they know of the church. But God is at work. There is no place where God acts that is not good!

The days we live in are exciting because at long last we are rediscovering what God intended for his people from the beginning. The groups and fellowships we meet with are really organizations made by men and women that try to manage and control God’s church. But all the best efforts of men and women to support, encourage and help ‘grow’ the church often get in the way of the One who is master of the church. For it was the Master, Jesus, who said, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not stand against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Relationship Not Religion

It is easy to miss the point that it was God who initiated the action to rescue his creation when we rebelled. Jesus died on the cross, and in this action opened the door for forgiveness to be available to all humankind. Paul writes:

“Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

This is not religion but the expression of a relationship with a living being. It’s not theory but reality! It has nothing to do with ‘going to church’ and everything to do with being the church.

When a person encounters Jesus, he or she is a whole new creation. They find that God has made them more than just a mind and body they discover the realm of spirit. And they find that God has made them to know the wholeness of spirit, soul and body that modern men and women have disregarded but desperately long for.

Life Better Than We’ve Dreamed

Things may be changing. The whole world may seem mad. Many things may stand in the way of finding the Creator’s reason for our existence on this earth. But God is at work. He has acted to redeem his creation. Nothing but nothing will stand in the way of what he has done.

When the Mao Tse Tung’s government came to power in China, a group of foreign missionaries being forced to leave China sat and lamented that God’s work was being curtailed. Less than 50 years later the evidence of the fastest growing church in the world points to the fact that people’s most diabolical treatment and schemes cannot stop God!

This is a day when we are increasingly seeing the difference between the programs of religion and relationship with God, and catching a glimpse of what Jesus was talking about when he said, “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”

So don’t worry if denominations pass away or Christian organizations crash! For these are indeed the most exciting days in human history!

Editor’s Note: This article Copyright 1997 by Kevin Smith. Reprinted with permission. First published in On Being magazine, PO Box 434, HAW-THORN VIC 3122. Kevin has become a dear friend of this ministry, having first met him in 1995. This fall Wayne taught with him tn Singapore. The are in the early stages of co-authoring a book tentatively titled The Church Relational: Discovering How to Live in Father’s Family. Kevin Smith, with his wife Val (pictured above), has an extensive ministry teaching, counseling and encouraging Christians throughout Australia and overseas. Bible quotes in this article are from The Message by Eugene Peterson.

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Once In a Lifetime…

Once In a Lifetime…

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • March 1997

O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Psalm 88:1-6

These words from Psalm 88 echoed off the solid rock walls that surrounded us and sunk deep into our hearts. I was standing with about 20 others in a small chamber carved out of solid rock. Fifteen feet above us was a small hole that had been cut in the rock. Two thousand years ago that was the only access to this dungeon and it was used to lower prisoners into the holding cell we were now in.

This room lie directly beneath the house of Caiaphas, the high priest during the time Jesus lived. Through the long night before his crucifixion, Jesus had been here. The religious leaders had already judged him and they awaited morning to dispatch him to Pilate.

Read the verses again. What went through Jesus’ mind and heart as he sat in the darkness, knowing his hour had come? One thing became very clear to me there. There is no suffering I endure, or pain I have known that he does not understand. He knows well the depths of our anguish which makes him such a wonderful Savior to turn to when doubts and fears assail us.

It was just one moment on my eight day January trip to Israel, but it symbolizes so much of what that time meant. Not only were we walking in places Jesus walked and discovering things about him we’d never considered before, but we also witnessed the oppression of religion that was visible at every turn. Just what was a dungeon doing beneath the house of a high priest anyway?

I am taking this space to share with you some of my trip, not to flaunt it, but to respond to all the questions that I’ve had about my impressions there. It was deeply moving and wonderfully enlightening. For those of you that may never have the chance to go, perhaps I can give you some taste of what it’s like. But I write also to encourage some of you to consider the possibility, even if you have to save years for it. It is a journey that will deepen your faith in Father, and provide more background to allow the Bible to come alive in your hands than anything else you could do.

The Stage God Chose

I can’t say that going to the Holy Land had been one of my long-held dreams. I always had an intellectual curiosity about going there, knowing it would add depth to my study of Scripture. At the same time, however, I knew that the land of Israel was no more holy than any other place in God’s creation nor would God’s presence there be any greater than it is in Visalia, California.

But what hit me the moment I arrived in Israel was that this was the stage God had chosen to reveal himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to their descendants and through them to the world. It was here that he put his own Son on display, and here that his blood was spilled for the salvation of the world. And in that setting I was far more touched than I ever expected.

I arrived at the invitation of The Israel Tour Company, who had invited me to join a pastor’s tour they were conducting and teach on themes of the cross at various sites throughout Israel. What a journey this week proved to be.

We began on the Mediterranean coast, at the Roman city of Ceasarea. Built by Herod as a resort city to indulge the fleshly passions of the Romans living in Palestine, it was also the site God asked Peter to go to when the gospel was first extended to the Gentiles. No wonder the other church leaders were angry that he had done so.

The next morning, we went up into the Carmel Mountains to Mt. Carmel, where Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal. From our overlook we saw the entire Jezreel valley, and Israeli fighters taking off headed for Lebanon.

From there we went to Megiddo and combed through 4,000 years of history that has been excavated. We saw sections that Solomon had built and at one point stood above a Canaanite altar where child sacrifices were being made when Abraham arrived. This is also the site that is called in Latin, Armageddon. It is just about 12 miles from there across the Jezreel Valley to Nazareth where we spent some moments in the synagogue, that is on the exact site of the one where Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah.

Leaving Nazareth we went through Cana, site of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding then through the hills to finally arrive at Galilee. Coming over the hill top, spread out before us was the Sea of Galilee itself, spilling out into the Jordan River that wound its way south through verdant lush farmland. We drove around the backside of the Sea to the place where Jesus delivered the deranged man who lived among the tombs then wound up the Golan Heights, where we got a bird’s eye view of the Galilee all the way to snow-capped Mt. Hermon on the border with Syria.

After an evening in Tiberius, the major commercial center in the Galilee, we spent the night at a kibbutz on the southern shore. I ended the evening standing in the darkness, with the water lapping at my feet and surveying distant lights that encircled the lake. “I can’t believe I’m here,” kept running through my mind. “Nor that, 2,000 years ago, he was too.”

The next morning we rode in a boat across the Sea and then explored the north shore. We went to Capernaum where Jesus based his ministry, saw Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, where Jesus surely stayed and stood in the synagogue he had frequented. Then we went to the Mount of Beatitudes, and there overlooking the Sea of Galilee with the wind blowing through the trees we had opportunity to reflect on the words Jesus used to teach people the reality of Father’s kingdom.

Then it was on to Jerusalem, with a stop at Bet-Shean. This was the city and fortification that marked the joining of the Jezreel Valley with the Jordan Valley. Here King Saul’s head had been hung from the walls after his death and here Rome built a magnificent city that existed in the time of Jesus. The excavations were breathtaking. We saw 2,000 year-old mosaics, baths, streets and pillars.

We then wound our way down the Jordan Valley, where Israel would have crossed under Joshua’s command to take the Promised Land. Here, too, John the Baptist baptized those who came from Jerusalem. Through Jericho, then wound our way up the hills and at dusk, came over Mt. Scopus and before us lay what Scripture calls the City of God. The panorama took in the Mt. of Olives, Gethsemane, Mt. Zion, the Old City, and Temple Mount on Mt. Moriah.

The next four days we spent in and around Jerusalem, visiting 3500 years of history. One afternoon some of us walked the tunnel that Hezekiah built to bring the water of the Gihon spring into the city walls when Assyria was planning its assault on Jerusalem. For an hour we meandered by flashlight in thigh-deep water, through solid rock until we arrived at the Pool of Siloam where Jesus healed two blind men. The next day we took a side trip down to the Dead Sea, En Gedi (where David hid out from Saul), and Masada where a Roman fortress had become the symbol of Jewish resistance to foreign oppression.

On our last day we followed the life of Christ, from the shepherds fields near Bethlehem, through the events of his passion, ending at the empty tomb. What an incredible day to be so near the places where these incredible events changed the history of the whole world and became the source of our salvation.

Where Better to Trust?

Why did God choose this stage? Israel has for thousands of years stood at the crossroads of history. A narrow strip of land between the deserts of Arabia and the Mediterranean Sea, it was the only traversable land-bridge between the major civilizations of Babylon, Egypt and the European kingdoms of Greece and Rome. All trading routes traveled through this small area. What greater place could God chose to put his love on display to the whole world than right here? So to this land he brings his people.

But also for that reason this land was most-coveted. Jerusalem has been conquered and re-conquered 23 times in the last 3500 years. God told them he would give them this land and keep it for them if they would put their trust in him. That wasn’t just good advice, it was the truth. The nation of Israel would never be strong enough on its own to hold this land by their military might. All of the nations wanted to control Israel’s trading corridors and the money that could be made from taxing the trade that passed through it. If God did not intervene for them on a daily basis, they were only to know the oppression of one civilization after another.

But as Psalm 78 tells us, Israel often forgot God in times when he made her secure. The people would trust in their own power and give themselves over to their fleshly passions. To invite them back to himself, he would send in armies to challenge them in hopes of drawing Israel’s heart back to himself. At every turn in Israel we saw how God entreated his people to trust him and not themselves or their false gods.

I’ve written a lot in this space over the last couple of years on the joyous journey of learning to trust Father for everything, and not rely on ourselves. That is how sin got started with Adam and Eve, and how it infects us all. Putting our trust in Father, however, is where relationship with him thrives and where freedom from sin can finally become a reality. No where have I seen that more graphically illustrated than here. Are we going to trust God, or ourselves. Isn’t that what Jesus faced in his temptations? Would he provide for himself, or trust that Father knew best for him and follow his desires? One day we stood on the 2,000 year old steps that led up to the temple, just beneath the pinnacle where the scapegoat was thrown off, and where Jesus was tempted to put his trust in his own actions.

The entire passion account draws into sharp relief the choice of self-survival or trust in Father. At any moment Jesus could have ended his trial and invoked the legion of angels to rescue him. Even in that long night in the pit beneath Caiaphas’ house, he chose to entrust himself to Father. Even in the darkness of becoming sin for us on the cross; unable to even see Father except as the source of the wrath that he bore so that sin could finally be destroyed in his flesh; he still entrusted himself to God, refusing to save himself.

Thus he became the Savior for us all. Now, as we learn to entrust ourselves to God in the same way, losing our lives in a very real sense of not protecting ourselves, we too can taste of the marvelous provision and love of Father. Life is found in trust, and this trust Jesus not only modeled for us, but extends to us through the life of the Spirit.

Final Things

There is so much more to say, but space does not permit. Israel provides a wonderful study in religious tradition and oppression. Almost everywhere you turn church buildings have been built over the “authentic” site of some Biblical moment. The only problem is in many places there are three or four churches claiming to be the authentic site of the same event. Our orthodox Jewish guide told us that the church built these in the 4th and 5th centuries to hold the faithful when many were abandoning the church. Interesting.

It was an eye-opening moment to watch 16 different orthodox churches fight over every square inch of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which they believe to be the site where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Does anyone else find this absurd? On the site they think Jesus shed his blood for the unity of the church, they demonstrate the disunity of the church and each of them feeling justified to do so because they alone hold the true gospel for the church.

Compound this with all the mosques that the Moslems have built during the time they ruled Israel, and it really was hard to see any pragmatic difference between Christian sites and Moslem ones, except for the crosses or the minarets. But when you look at the religious ceremony, it differs very little, and its no wonder that the Jewish people reject them both.

The hotel we stayed at in Jerusalem was the focal point of the Hebron agreement that was being hammered out while we were there. The American delegation stayed there, and so was the media seeking interviews in the lobby. Some of the saddest words I heard spoken while we were there were made by our guide on a trip through the countryside. “We are creating Bosnia here,” he said. The land is being parceled out to a patchwork of competing jurisdictions that could explode some day in all-out conflict. How difficult the political realities and stakes in this section of the world.

But as far as our own safety we never felt at-risk. The tour companies do a great job of keeping people out of the hot spots, and most people there realize the value of the tourist dollar and don’t want to threaten it. To top it off, Israel has the best security in the world, attested to by the soldier brandishing an M-16 that broke into our meeting with a Tourism official to search our room for bombs. Wow how secure can you get?

None of these things took away from the incredible moments that allowed me to taste God’s work in Israel where he chose to reveal himself to the world. It is a marvelous stage to view God’s love and his work on our behalf.

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