Famous Last Words: Promise

A few years ago, the book Heaven is For Real rocketed to the top of the New York Times best seller list, and its popularity peaked last year with the release of a 12 million dollar feature length drama that drew audiences searching for confident assurance that the promise in the title was definitely a fact. The fascination with this tale (and other stories like it) just proves the obsession with the subject of what happens after we die continues to be as common today as it has been throughout history.

It was this natural human desire to know what lies beyond the veil of death that birthed the plea that one of the condemned criminals posed to Jesus as they both hung painfully on their crosses outside Jerusalem.

Seeing that something was obviously different about the innocent rabbi suffering next to him, this man silenced the insults of the third convict saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:41) He then turned to Jesus with his last request on Earth. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)

Jesus responded with words that can salve the internal longing for eternity that exists within each of us. Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Isn’t it amazing that Christ’s last words about the way to heaven were spoken to a helpless prisoner? Humanly speaking, it might be a little more expected for them to be delivered to John the Beloved, Joseph of Arimathea, or even His own mother. Certainly, these devout followers would be more likely to be worthy of this kind of assurance since they were among Christ’s disciples.

But when you think about it in light of Christ’s mission and ministry, the fact that the promise was delivered to a hopeless sinner trapped by the guilt of his own actions was the whole point!

In speaking to this particular man, Jesus not only assured him that heaven is indeed real, but that the way to get there isn’t dependent on anything a person does. Faith in who Christ is and asking for deliverance was all that was needed to grant the dying man access to the eternal heaven… and don’t miss this fact… we can be assured also, that faith in Christ is all that is needed to give us access too.

So be encouraged by these last words from the Lord! While each of us is a rightfully condemned sinner just like that man on the cross, the good news is that grace and mercy are just as available to you as they were to him!  So look to the cross, recognize Who Jesus is, what He has done, and ask Him to remember you too! Your expression of faith and plea for mercy will guarantee that one day you, too, “will be with (Jesus) in paradise!”

 

Famous Last Words: Pardon

I spent the last couple of couple of months reading “The Story” which is a version of the Bible compiled by Max Lucado that presents its message as one continuous narrative in chronological order. While it isn’t a comprehensive study of scripture by any means, it was an interesting read that provided a well-connected understanding of God’s movements throughout the flow of time. As I neared the end of the chapters that contained the story of Jesus, I paused at the end to think about hours of His life on earth, and was drawn to the precious few words that He spoke in those last moments.

Obviously, in the desperate condition He was in, there wasn’t enough physical, mental, or emotional energy for Him to engage in conversation or stories, so His statements were brief and to the point. But His lack of words doesn’t negate the importance or impact of what He did say.

Since today marks the beginning of the annual journey toward Easter and the celebration of Christ’s triumphant victory over death, I would like to take the next few weeks to look at His last words from the cross to help us see the underlying message that still resonates for believers today.  Today, the first from Luke 23:34…

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We have a round piece of glass six feet in diameter that covers our wooden dining room table. We bought it when we first got the table because we knew that with the constant parade of meals our kitchen produces, it wouldn’t be long until the finish would be ruined. Not so long ago, our grown daughter sat on the table top and leaned forward putting all her weight right on the edge. Not surprisingly, the glass snapped! She felt really bad, and apologized profusely saying over and over that she “didn’t think that would happen” and “didn’t mean to do it.” While, of course, that’s the truth, the reality is that whether the deliberate intent was there or not, the glass was (and still is) broken, and it was her fault.

jesus-414397_1280You know, I think that’s part of what Jesus was communicating to us when He said, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” No one knows the exact chronology of when He spoke this sentence, but one might imagine that they were uttered shortly after His cross was lifted into place. His reaction to the gawking eyes of onlookers was not hostility, but rather compassion. His heart of concern motivated him to call out to the Heavenly Father on behalf of all of them… including those who were at that precise moment carrying out His execution. His request was presented despite their lack of understanding for what they were actually doing. Sure, they were aware that a person was about to be killed, but I think we can also rightly assume that the most of the people on the scene had no idea that the man they stared at was anyone other than a common criminal, and certainly not the divine Son of God! But, pay close attention to this easily overlooked detail… Their unconscious understanding and unintentional nature of their actions did nothing to erase their accountability (because Jesus pinpoints them all as in need of forgiveness.) And only the guilty need a pardon.

People today are little different than they were then, and still default to pleading ignorance when they can’t or don’t foresee the consequences of their actions. But that excuse doesn’t work on a spiritual level. The plain truth of scripture is that whether they/we mean to or not, ALL people have broken God’s law and are guilty of sin. (Rom 3:23)

But thank goodness, that isn’t the only thing Jesus said in His request. Even in His dying moments, He understood the pitiful state of humanity and interjected a plea for mercy. And it’s key to see that juxtaposed to His request, His own life was in process of being presented to the Father as the necessary price that would make it possible for the request to be granted!

So, don’t read this as another blog to help focus attention on the Easter season. Ask yourself a serious question.  “What Jesus would say if He were looking at me right now?” Would He see the guilt of sin still marring your life? Or would He see that your guilt has been erased through faith in His sacrificial death… and that you are now completely pardoned and totally free!

“For whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved”
  – Romans 10:13

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Legacy

I grew up in North Carolina and so it’s not surprising that college basketball is in my blood. My shade happens to be light blue… Tarheel blue to be exact. My parents, my brother, and I all went to college at the University of North Carolina, so an excellent basketball tradition is woven into the fabric of my life. It was only when I moved to Georgia that I realized that everyone is doesn’t think about college hoops the same way. Many years ago, I remember staring blankly at the television channel that was supposed to be airing our game during the NCAA tournament. I was dumbfounded to realize that the first half was being preempted to air the game show, Jeopardy, instead! I can’t even imagine such a thing even being considered in North Carolina!

That’s because basketball is more a way of life than a game there. Such a concept is the fruit of the life of Coach Dean Smith, who passed away this past Saturday at the age of 83. In his 36 years as the captain of the team, he instilled in his players that playing hard, playing well, and playing together is more essential than the score at the end of the game, and that a person’s character is more important than their ability to succeed at putting a ball in a basket.

With bittersweet emotions, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of tributes to Coach Smith this week and happened upon a simple, but profound quote that he believed and infused into his team that I’d like to share. When asked why he never asked his players to win, Coach Smith said that’s because

“Sometimes when you win, you actually lose, and sometimes when you lose, you actually win.”

In today’s society where lying, cheating and obscuring the truth has become an accepted way to get ahead, I think people… and Christians especially… would do well to adopt this attitude toward our experiences in life, knowing that coming out on top is not always what matters the most. Learning how to lose with dignity and glean beneficial lessons from failure is more crucial than ending up with the most points in the game. Respecting and valuing others is more significant than individual accomplishment because winning with an arrogant, self-important attitude actually reveals a person as a loser instead of a champion.

The Apostle Paul said the same thing this way: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant… (Phil 2:3-7)

UNC Celebration of a Century
Dean Smith ~ February 12, 2010

While the final sentence has been written and the book closed on the remarkable life of Coach Dean Smith, his legacy continues to live on in the lives of those who knew Him. But we who were in the bleachers can do more than just stand and applaud his work. His example – and more importantly, the example of Christ — challenges us to think differently about those around whom we live and work.

So it’s not too late to begin a rigorous training program, teaching ourselves to:

Elevate others.
Criticize less.
Learn from your mistakes.
Pass on the praise.
Find joy in small accomplishments.
And “through love, serve one another.” (Gal. 5:13)

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Super Success or Super Fail

This past Sunday night, the Super Bowl drew the largest television audience in history. An estimated 111.5 million people tuned in to the game between New England and Seattle. Thankfully, unlike last year it was far from a blowout and the game was actually settled in the last seconds of play.

If you were inclined toward the Patriots, you were likely ecstatic with the outcome and probably relieved that the Seahawks last drive at the end of the fourth fell short.

But if you were a Seattle fan, you were most likely disappointed, when after such a strong performance, the last pass of the season was picked off, sealing another New England Super Bowl victory.

It’s wonderful when you’re on the winning side and it always feels good to celebrate a championship at the end of a long season knowing that your team was the last one standing. But, no matter who you were pulling for this weekend, it was hard not to feel sorry for the obviously frustrated Seahawks team when despite all their training and practice their entire season evaporated with one errant pass. It’s very likely that in spite of all that these highly skilled athletes accomplished, and all the adversity they overcame, and all the victories they achieved along the way, most of them woke up Monday morning feeling like losers.

Why is that so often the case, not just for athletes, but for just about everyone? What is the root reason why we are so prone to minimize our accomplishments and emphasize and dwell on what we fail to achieve? We remember the promotion, raise or job that passed us by while ignoring or taking for granted the things we do have. We crave and envy the spotlight in which others bask, and in doing so devalue the significance of the role and position is ours to steward.

As if to reinforce that view, we tenaciously hang onto the biting criticism spoken to us by others, sometimes in heated moments, while forgetting the many words of affirmation and support that we have received from loved ones. And for Christians, we often major on unanswered prayers while ignoring the memory of many gracious requests that have been lovingly granted by our heavenly Father.

You know, I think it’s possible to take even the greatest blessing, or the most amazing achievement and turn it into a disappointment simply by the way we choose to think about it. I once heard a speaker give a fictitious account of a boss who surprised an employee with $100,000 bonus. The overjoyed worker celebrated the windfall and called his wife to laud his generous boss… that is until he discovered that all the other employees in his group were given even larger bonuses.

What once was a gift of amazing proportions was now looked upon by the man with disdain… The only thing that changed was the meaning he attached to the gift.

Our propensity to do the same thing is why the admonition of Philippians 4:8-9 is so important. As he wraps up his letter to the new believers in the early church at Phillipi, Paul cautions them (and us) to be aware of how we allow our minds to function – and upon what we let them dwell. He says “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Verse 9 goes on to help us see the effect of right thinking… “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

Peace begins when we learn to bring negative, aberrant thinking in line with the truth and then allow it to govern our actions.

While negative things do happen, and often need to be addresses in some fashion, all too often we focus so hard on the shortcoming that we fail to notice all the blessings that surround us! All it takes to escape this spiraling trap of tunnel vision is to lift you head and look around you! Maybe that’s one reason that we as believers are not commanded to grovel in supplication but to stand and raise out heads.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.
Psalm 121:1-2