Hebrews: Jesus, Man of Sorrows

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I’ve been told I am a “strong” person. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I appear strong because I do a pretty good job of hiding when I am falling apart, although some of you have learned to read between the lines. Like you, I have cried and yelled and begged God to change certain things in my life. Like you, I have struggled with depression and anxiety and despair.  But you and I are in good company.  Even the strongest person in human history came under the weight of emotional affliction.

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save Him from death . . .” (Hebrews 5:7). If you didn’t know who Jesus was, you would probably think that this guy went into whatever he was facing kicking and screaming all the way. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Luke said, “As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (9:51). Jesus walked toward the cross with determination. But the Scriptures are clear that it was a terrible strain on Him.

Of course, you know that this verse is speaking of His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest. Jesus was “very sorrowful and troubled,” even “to the point of death” (Matt. 26:37, 38). He said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). Luke said His anguish as He prayed produced “sweat like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44).  He pleaded, Abba, Father, everything is possible for you Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). I’ve prayed much the same thing, and I am sure you have as well.  The difference is, you and I bear much smaller burdens compared to Jesus, who was feeling the weight of the sin of the entire human race being piled on His shoulders. Isaiah called Him “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). So when the author of Hebrews says that Jesus, our great high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). it is because He also felt the weight of despair. It was one of the most “human” moments in Jesus’ life.

I’m going to leave you right here, Beloved, in the Garden with Jesus, watching Him cry to His Father. But know that He was not lost to despair, nor are you and I. When we return to Hebrews, we will see that this very human moment is also a moment of divine glory.

Change Your Perspective

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“From the ends of the earth I call to You, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2).

Years ago a choir director told us altos that the best way to hit a high note was not to try to climb up to it – that almost always caused us to flatten the note – but to see ourselves gliding down onto to it from above. He was trying to get us to approach the difficult note from a different – higher – perspective.

Life is hard. But you don’t need me to tell you that. After a year and a half of a pandemic and social and political unrest, many of us are just worn out. And to add to the stress, many of us are carry some heavy personal burdens too. You may be dealing with a scary diagnosis or a financial crisis. You may be trying to work through grief or disappointment or a difficult relationship. Maybe there’s upheaval at your job. Or you’re just carrying more responsibility than your shoulders can bear.

So how do we deal with it all? We have two choices – either look at it from the pit of despair, or approach it from a higher perspective. We can choose to see it all as a hard blow or as God’s shaping and strengthening our faith. We have to choose whether we will roll around in hopelessness or stand in confident trust that God has a purpose and a plan in it all.

Believe me – I haven’t always been a shining example of faith in the hard times I’ve encountered. I’ve struggled. I’ve cried. I’ve worried and I’ve questioned God. But I’m learning that I can either drag myself into misery or climb up on the Rock that never fails.

Beloved, I don’t know your struggles – but I know that your perspective affects your faith and your ability to face it all with confidence and hope. And perspective has everything to do with how you see God – as faithful or fallible, as near and caring or as distant and unconcerned. Beloved, know this – God is with you and me in the hard stuff. He is faithful. We can trust Him. He will not fail us. He is our Rock – a high place on which you and I can stand. Climb up here with me and let’s watch Him work wonders.

For the One Who is Losing Hope

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It’s been such a hard year and a half for the world. So much tragedy and pain and loss and anger. So much despair and hopelessness. I see you, friend – struggling to hold your head up. This message is for you – the one who is losing hope. I know how that feels. I have been there. When you think that these hard days will never end, the pain will never stop, the sin will never leave you, the loneliness will never go away. When you wonder if there’s any point in going on.

Please hear me: there is a reason to keep going – you are only in the middle of your story. When I read a book, and the plot twists put the heroine in a desperate situation, I know there are more pages and chapters for the story to turn around. But when we are in the middle of our life story, we think this is all there is, and this is how it will always be. But there are more pages and chapters to come. And with them comes hope. Because the Author of your story is the God who loves you, and He is writing a glorious turnaround for you. He sees your story from beginning to end. He sees you in the middle, where the struggle is now – and He sees you on the other side, whole, stronger, at peace.

Psalm 33:11 says “The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” He has a plan and a purpose for your life – and for this present season that seems unbearably hard – and He has the power to fulfill His plan. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). He never leaves anything unfinished. And that includes you and me.

If life is hard right now, remember that this is one page in the story of your life – but it’s not the whole story. The struggle, the pain, the ache you’re feeling now is not the final word. Let God keep writing your story. Trust Him to turn the plot around. Beloved, as long as there is breath in your body, your story is not done – there is hope. Please keep reading – the best is yet to come.

Not Where I Thought I’d Be

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“This is not where I saw my life going,” she said sadly. “I’m not even sure how I got here.” My friend once believed that God had a call on her life. Yet she drifted. Marriage, children, jobs, responsibilities, distractions, troubles, many of her own making. Yet every year on her birthday, she would look wistfully into the dusty box of what she had hoped for in her life and realize how far away it all was.  And how far away she was from God. Early morning devotions gave way to getting kids ready for school and herself to work.  Sundays became the day to catch up on chores at home. Her Bible was buried under stacks of bills and commitments. Before long, God was a distant thought; until her husband packed up and walked away.  She was a broken woman who thought she was a lost cause to God. My heart was so tender to her as I shared a story from the Bible that I pray offered her some hope.

The Israelites were about to cross over into The Promised Land. Moses warned them about their tendency to drift from God. He knew that once they were settled, they would become complacent and their hearts would every so gradually be drawn astray. They would become self-focused and push God aside for idols of wood and stone.  And they would be punished.  God would cause their enemies to overtake them and scatter them far from home. But He would not leave them there. Wherever they went, God said, “if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find Him if you look for Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 4:29).

I took her hand and told her “If you will seek God, even from where you are right now as far as you may be from Him, you will find Him.”

“How do I do that?” she asked.

“Heart and soul – by telling Him that you know you are far away, but you want to come back to Him. And going back to what kept you close in the beginning – His Word and church and prayer.

“But what if I miss Him?” she asked with tears in her eyes.

“You won’t. He won’t let you.” I answered. “As soon as you start seeking, He will put Himself right in your path.”

I don’t know where you find yourself today Beloved, but I know for sure you are just a prayer away from God. Just say the words, “I want to come home.” He’ll meet you on the way.

The Path from Despair to Praise

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 “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in You.”       Psalm 39:7

How do we reconcile our trust in God in the face of hard, devastating circumstances?  The writers of many of the Psalms were well acquainted with the conflict of faith amid disappointment.  I find tremendous help in their honest writings.

Psalm 77, for example, ranges from raw angst and discouragement – “Has [the Lord’s] unfailing love vanished forever? Has His promise failed for all time?” (v. 7) to glorious praise – “You are the God who performs miracles; You display Your power among the peoples.” “You lead Your people like a flock,” (vs. 14 & 20).  How did he swing from despair to exultation? Verses 10-12 are the pivot point in this Psalm. After heart-wrenching despair, he says, “Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal; the years of the right hand of the Most High.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes I will remember Your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all Your works and consider all Your mighty deeds.’”(v. 10-12)    Asaph determined to turn his thoughts around and meditate on the long history of God’s miracles, works, and mighty deeds.  And as he followed this line of higher thinking, you can sense his spirit lifting as the words build to a crescendo that bursts forth in praise: “Your ways, O God, are holy.  What god is so great as our God?” (v. 13) He comes to the foundation upon which all faith must rest: God. Not just what He can do, but who He is. After digging through my exhaustive concordance, I lost count after 200 times that I read “That you may know Me…” It is the whole point of our faith.  Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” (John 17:3). Beloved, if your burden is heavy today, follow the path the psalmist laid out. Come to him in your honest despair. Ask the hard questions that weigh on your heart. He can take it. Remember His faithfulness to you in the past as you meditate on who He is.  Then let your angst be lifted up in praise.  I know it works – it is the road I traveled this morning.

You Don’t Have to be Miserable

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I love to read the Old Testament prophets, especially the minor prophets (meaning their contribution to the Scriptures are shorter in length, not in importance). This week I’ve been in Micah. There’s a lot here that speaks to me.

The first several chapters detail the nation’s sin against God. They have worshipped every idol instead of the Lord. They plot evil and reject the commands of God. Their leaders are wicked and have no concern for the people under their care. The people take offense and declare war when they don’t get what they want. (That sounds familiar.) Men “lie in wait” to attack one another. Despite all of God’s goodness to them, they shun His laws and turn their backs on Him. The people cheat and lie and abuse their neighbors and their own family. In the seventh and final chapter, God’s bounty and blessings have disappeared and Israel is in misery. Food is scarce. Evil, wickedness, and sin are rampant throughout the land. It is dark and hopeless.

Yet – God’s good promises are sprinkled throughout the book. Promises of gathering together the scattered flock. Promises of peace. Promises of holiness and rescue and redemption. Promises of a righteous and eternal Ruler. Promises of being lifted out of the darkness and into the light. Promises of the enemy’s defeat. And best of all, promises of pardon and forgiveness and mercy and compassion.

This describes my life. Sin, rebellion, rejecting God’s ways and demanding my own brought about misery, fear, physical, emotional, and spiritual poverty, gloom, and darkness. Then came hope. Light. Rescue. Forgiveness. Redemption. Mercy. Grace. Compassion. Restoration. Peace. Joy. The power of sin was broken and I was set free.

Friend, you don’t have to live in the misery of your sin. You don’t have to stay in the darkness. Life doesn’t have to be hopeless. There is a Savior. His name is Jesus. He comes in the name of God with an outstretched hand of mercy and compassion. Beloved, take that nail-scarred hand. Receive His forgiveness and redemption. There is life and light and peace and Joy in the Lord. All for you.

Seeing the God Who Sees Me

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The angel of the Lord found Hagar…” Genesis 16:7

You know the story of Abraham and Sarah – childless and old, God promised them a son, but in the waiting, they grew impatient and Abraham slept with Sarah’s maid Hagar, and she conceived. But their act of faithlessness caused tremendous grief for the Egyptian slave-girl. Twice Hagar wound up in the desert, weary, hungry and frightened. On her first excursion, Scripture tells us “The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert” (Gen. 16:7). The Hebrew word for “found” means “to cause to encounter.” God purposefully put Himself in Hagar’s path to cause her to have an encounter with Him. He set Himself right where He knew she was going because His heart was tender to her.  Hagar gained precious insight into who God is.  Realizing that the God of her master was very much aware of her and her plight,  She named the Lord El Roi – “the God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13).

After the birth of Ishmael (which- by the way – means The Lord has heard – Gen 16:11) Hagar and her son were forced to leave their home with Abraham and Sarah.  When their meager supplies of food and water ran out, Hagar recognized their inevitable deaths.  She put Ishmael under a tree and walked away, so as not to watch her weakened son die.  She and the boy were both crying, and God once again came to Hagar and assured her that He was aware of their plight.  Genesis 21:19 says, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”  Oh, do you see the beauty of this passage? El Roi – the God who saw Hagar, now opened Hagar’s eyes so she could see.  He showed her a well of life-giving water that would minister to their bodies and to their spirits.

You may find yourself in some difficult places and very hard circumstances, but I can assure you that you have never been out of your Heavenly Father’s sight.  There is no place you can go that God will not be.  Whether they are physical places, emotional pits, and spiritual dark caves – God has promised, “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5) The truth is, it’s often in those hard places that we see the God who sees us. Had Hagar not been lost in the wilderness, running from the hard hand of her mistress, she would have never encountered the Lord and come to know Him.  I know this to be true in my life.  So often I have discovered aspects of God that I would have never known had I not been in difficult circumstances.  When I was unable to put food on our table, I discovered Jehovah-Jireth – the Lord who Provides (Gen. 22:8). When I was desperately ill I found Jehovah Rapha – The Lord our Healer (Ps. 103:3). When I was discouraged and fearful, Jehovah Shalom – The Lord is Peace (Jud. 6:23-24) and Yahweh-Tsuri – The Lord my Strength (Ex. 15:2) came to encourage and strengthen me.  If you are in a difficult season, look for God to reveal Himself to you in a new and encouraging way.

Beloved, if He was faithful to a frightened, lost Egyptian slave girl, and He will surely be faithful to you.

Real Faith for Real Life

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“Take your stand and see this great thing which the Lord will do before your eyes.”  1 Samuel 12:16, NASB

How can we learn to have real faith in a real world full of real problems in our real lives?  By focusing our hearts on a real God and our minds on a real Word. Let me give you an example from my own life.

No too long ago I was dealing with a heart wrenching situation and there was nothing I could do to change it. God knows I tried. After several exhausting months, I finally came to the point of understanding it was out of my control. So my next step was to I beg and plead with God to fix it.  As it drug on and on and took many twists and turns, I began to have physical and emotional health issues from the stress. I was sorely distracted from the work God had called me to and thought about giving up.   Then I realized that was just what the devil was after – to make me abandon the kingdom work and run back into my protective shell. But God (oh, how I love those two words!) began to slowly turn my heart from desperation to dependence.   I started meditating more on God’s character and less on the problem at hand. I began searching the Scriptures so I could pray God’s Word over the matter.   I stopped telling God what I thought He should do and began telling Him that I trusted Him in whatever He chose to do. God gave me a phrase that became like a mantra whenever Satan started to taunt me over the situation: “I have rested the matter in the hands of my Father.”  Mind you, the issue still wasn’t resolved, it continued on and for a time looked even bleaker than when it first began. The devil continued to hammer away at me, but I ran that phrase over and over in my head, and often spoke it out loud so that the enemy could hear me.  I cannot describe the peace that filled my mind and heart.

Beloved, that is real faith for real life. It is making the moment by moment determination to keep your focus on God’s power, faithfulness, strength and promises.  It is trusting in Him rather than trying to solve the problem on your own.  It is looking into the Word of God for a word for your soul, and praying His will through His Word. It is coming before Him in raw honesty and allowing Him to soothe your wounded heart and calm your frantic spirit. And most importantly it is holding up your shield of faith (Ephesians 6:16), remembering His character, remembering His Words and choosing to believe that He is with you in the battle; and God never loses a battle.

The Day Between Death and Life

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“It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.  The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how His body was laid in it.  Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”  Luke 23:54-56

It was the darkest day of their lives – the day after Jesus had been crucified on the cross.   They’d heard the hammers pound the nails into His hands and feet.  They listened to Him cry out to His Father in anguish and surrender.  They saw His body slump as He give up His Spirit.  They watched the soldiers pierce His side and witnessed blood and water drain from His battered body.  They held their breath as Joseph and Nicodemus took His lifeless body down from the cross.  They followed in a sad processional to the garden where their Lord was entombed.

In our modern understanding of these days, we hold solemn vigils on Good Friday, remembering the death of Jesus, and we come together for joyful celebrations on Easter Sunday to celebrate His resurrection.  But Saturday is the day for egg hunts, travel, shopping, and preparing our Easter Sunday finery.

More and more the Holy Spirit is teaching me to sit in the moment with the Bible characters.  To put myself in their sandals and their experience and not rush on to the end of a familiar story.  He is teaching me to take a holy pause.

What must this day have been like for these devoted women?  Were they numb with grief?  Or was it the kind of sorrow that aches deep in the bones?   This day – the day after darkness filled the noon-day sky and the curtain was torn in two – must have left them empty inside – confused, in anguish, and filled with disbelief.  How could this be?  Their Jesus was dead.

Looking back from this side of the Cross, we want to take their faces in our hands and tell them, “Just hold on! Don’t grieve. Everything is going to change tomorrow!”  As Paul Harvey says, we know “the rest of the story.” We know death cannot keep its grip on Jesus. We know they will soon find the tomb empty.  We know this is only the day between death and life.  But they didn’t.  In their world, death was final.  It was all over.

They didn’t know they were only waiting. . .

Rescued

“The Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them.”  Judges 2:18b

Do you remember the old saying: “You made your bed, now you have to lay down in it.”? In essence it’s saying that the hard situation I am in is the result of my own choices and I have to live with the consequences. We’ve all experienced it in some form in our lives. It’s a principle that plays out from time-outs in childhood, being grounded as a teenager, and dealing with all sorts of struggles and issues as an adult that are the direct result of our own decisions and actions. Sometimes the consequences are simple, like my son having to replace a window he broke, or me having to stay up late to finish a paper because I put it off too long. But some consequences are far more difficult and painful; just ask any prisoner. Sorrow and suffering is magnified when the offense against us is our own.

The people of Israel found themselves in just such a situation.

Judges 2 is the story of the Israelites’ rebellion and idolatry against God. As we noted in the previous post, Israel had allowed the pagan Canaanites to remain in the Promised Land, in opposition to the Lord’s command, and the Israelite men were seduced into pagan worship by the Canaanite women. The Canaanites worshiped Baal and Ashtoreth, and their worship was largely sexual and perverse. Their evil practices spread throughout Israel, and the Lord God who had delivered them out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land was now forgotten in their lust. They broke their covenant agreement to worship only Yahweh, and now He was angry. Judges 2:14 says “In His anger against Israel the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around.” They had danced to the devil’s tune, and now it was time to pay the piper.

The result of their sin was tragic. They were enslaved and oppressed, in constant peril from their enemies and unable to defend themselves because God had removed His protective hand from them. Their property was taken, their children were ripped from their arms and pressed into slave labor. All because of their own actions. What misery is greater than knowing your suffering has your own fingerprints all over it? I’ve been there several times, grieving the consequences that were the result of my own foolishness. I expect you have too. Perhaps you are there right now, sitting in a mud pit of your own making, wondering how you could have been so foolish and how will you ever get out of it. I used to believe that God was unwilling to help me when I got myself into a mess. Oh I knew He was faithful to help me when I was suffering for any other reason, but I figured He would make me deal with my own messes. And I made plenty of messes. “Sorry child, this is your problem, I’m stepping out on this one.” After all, don’t we learn best from our mistakes?

I am so grateful God doesn’t think like me.

Our key verse tells us that God heard His people’s cries and was moved in His great heart for them. He “raised up judges who saved them out of the hands of these raiders” (Jud 2:16). This pattern of sin, misery and rescue in the lives of the Israelites repeats itself over and over in the nation’s history. And over and over God hears, He sees and He rescues. God’s compassion is boundless. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail, they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22).   His mercy never fails because His love never fails. His love never fails because it is the essence of who He is. God takes no pleasure in our pain and suffering, even when we are the only ones to blame.  He will allow us to feel the sting of our sin, but He will never abandon us to our self-made misery when we cry out to Him. The Bible is a record of God’s great compassion and mercy. From the cycles of sin and rescue in Israel’s history, to His salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ, God has been actively rescuing His people from the misery of their own sin.

If you are struggling with the consequences of your own decisions and actions, know that God hears your cries. He sees your tears. His heart is moved on your behalf. He rescued His people, He rescued me, and He will rescue you.

Holy Father, Thank you for not leaving me in the pit of my own messes. Thank you for your great mercy and grace. I echo David’s words, “out of the goodness of Your love, deliver me” (Ps 109:21).  Amen

Related posts: While; The Wonderful Love of God