Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The New Covenant

Dear Friends,

It was Passover in Jerusalem. That same night that Jesus was to be betrayed. 1 Corinthians 11:23-24 That’s why we call it the “Last Supper” but it’s the first Eucharist – the first Holy Communion. Passover was a religious ceremony given to Moses so that the Israelites could save their families. Every household needed to follow a specific ritual that included slaughtering an unblemished lamb, roasting it and eating it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  Exodus 12:1-14

Soon after His entry into Jerusalem, Jesus instructed his disciples to find a certain man who had an upper room that was large enough to hold all thirteen of them. Most houses had flat roofs with small rooms built on top but some of the bigger homes had a large upper room that was occasionally used as a gathering place. (Like our banquet halls today) The disciples found the man and they gathered in his upper room as the sun was setting. At the door to the upper room where a meal was about to take place, the disciples could expect a servant with a pitcher of water, a bowl and a towel to wash the guest’s feet as they arrived. You can imagine then their shock and confusion when they found their master and teacher with the water and towel acting like an ordinary servant and ready to wash their feet. But of course we know that this was no ordinary Passover and Jesus was no ordinary teacher. 

Jesus was preparing them for the Passover that was to be the model for every Lord’s Supper after that and Jesus was also preparing their hearts to model His humility and the call to humble service. John 13:12-14 Jesus told his disciples and He tells us to come to the Lord’s Table with a humble attitude. We come to receive Holy Communion in an attitude of quiet reverence with head bowed and humble thoughts that open us to the love of Jesus and prepare us to serve and love others as Jesus has served and loved us.

The picture in our mind of Jesus and the twelve sitting at a formal dining room table in a huge gothic hall is based on the painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. He set the Last Supper in a palace to reflect the Renaissance period at the time it was painted but no upper room ever looked like that! The room may have had plenty of windows to let in light and fresh air or it may have been dark and stuffy. A short-legged table sat about 18 inches off the floor and was surrounded by large cushions that they would sit on and lean against. 

On the table was a bowl of saltwater to remind them of the tears that were shed by their ancestors in Egypt. Another bowl contained bitter greens like parsley that recalled the feelings of resentment against the harsh rule of the Pharaoh. During the meal, you’d dip the bitter greens into the saltwater before you ate them. 

Also on the table were large platters of flat unleavened bread that recalled the haste to leave Egypt since leavened bread would take too much time to rise and prepare. Next to the bread was a paste made of crushed apples, dates and nuts and sprinkled with cinnamon to remind them of the bricks they used to make for the Pharaoh when they were slaves. 

At the center of the table was the roasted lamb. On the day before, Peter and John had gone to the temple to purchase an unblemished lamb that they gave it to the priest to sacrifice. The priest had poured some of the blood into the fire and this ritual made the lamb holy and a sacrifice to God. This was Thursday night. Not in their wildest imaginations did the disciples think that the next day, Jesus would be the One sacrificed. That Jesus would become the Lamb of God who was sacrificed to take away our sins. 

There were three cups of wine in front of each disciple but in front of the host, Jesus, there was large common cup filled with wine and called the Cup of Blessing. One of the disciples would have started the liturgy by asking, “Why is this night more important than any other night.” As the host, Jesus would have answered by singing Psalm 136:1-26. Jesus had started the Passover meal by taking the bread and giving thanks and breaking it.That happened at every Passover meal but He then added strange, new words to the Jewish ritual. He said, “This is my body that was broken for you” that echoed His words recorded in John 6:52-58.

At the end of the ceremony, it was time to share in the Cup of Blessing – the large chalice that all present would drink from. Matthew was sitting right there and tells us what happened next. “Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’” Matthew 26:27-28 Jesus had now given the new meaning to this first meal of the New Covenant. No longer a remembrance of leading God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus will now lead them from their slavery of sin and into the fullness of eternal life.

Jesus and the disciples then sang a hymn of praise and left to walk to the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark 14:26 Tomorrow He will be tortured for the entire day and in the afternoon He will be killed. And what does Jesus do? He leads His disciples in singing a worship song to God. There are the circumstances in our life that lead us into our own “Garden of Gethsemane.” Those situations when our own cross becomes too heavy to bear. Those times when God brings us alongside someone else whose cross we need to help bear. And when life gets tough, like for Jesus, we also must lift our voices in prayer and praise to our Heavenly Father. For God never left Jesus’ side. He will never leave ours. Amen?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Don't Worry, Be Happy!

Dear Friends,
“You might want to sing it note for note
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy”

Back in 1988, Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” went to number one on the charts. It was the first “a cappella” song to do so, meaning it’s performed entirely with voices. It was so popular that George H.W. Bush used it as his official presidential campaign song. In today’s contentious congress, this would be a good theme song for our law-makers. It would be an even better theme song for us.

“International Happiness Day” was this past Tuesday and I’d be surprised if that made anyone happy. A recent American Psychological Association survey showed the stress level for Americans has increased in the past year. 51% of us are more stressed than ever and for 20% of us, our stress level is “extreme.” The four biggest stressors in people are the economy, our personal safety, terrorism and our concerns about our health or the health of a loved one. 

For many of us, the older we get, the more worries we have, and we envy young happy children laughing and playing without a care in the world. Is our tendency to worry, in part, why Jesus told His disciples that they must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Mark 10:15 Jesus made the uncomfortable point to His followers that children were better suited for heaven than the adults! Bible commentators believe that Jesus was saying that children live by faith, trusting others to care for them. That’s why small children who have trustworthy parents don’t worry. Here’s one of those kingdom principles that’s uncomfortable to hear because of the inarguable truth of it: “Our worry and stress are in direct, inverse proportion to our trust in God.” Increased worry is the early warning sign of decreased faith. Many of us are like the man who said to Jesus, “I do believe.. Increase my belief.” Mark 9:24 We do have faith and do believe, but if we find ourselves bogged down in the worry pit, we need to ask God to increase our trust in Him. We need to come to Him as dependent and as trusting as a small, happy child.

“Now there, is this song I wrote
I hope you learned it note for note
Like good little children
Don’t worry, be happy”

While this #1 hit single “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was not a Christian song, McFerrin has said that his Christian faith permeates everything he does. Let’s see now.. Philippians 4:6 says: “Be anxious for nothing” and 1 Thessalonians 5:16 says: “Rejoice always.”  So, be anxious for nothing and rejoice always! In other words: “Don’t worry, be happy!”

“Listen to what I say
In your life expect some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy”

Expect trouble. Jesus guaranteed that you’ll have some. John 16:33 Maybe even a lot of trouble in your lifetime. And when you worry about it, the suffering will increase because you now add the stress of worry to the original trouble and it can seem overwhelming. But when we bring our troubles to our Lord, then “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” Psalm 46:1 and no trouble or tribulation can ever separate us from the love of Christ. Romans 8:35 Don’t let the circumstances of your life dictate your happiness! In Christ there’s a joy for life that becomes intrinsic to our spirit and we’re reminded by that cherished old hymn that, no matter what our life’s challenges,“it is well with my soul.”

And one way to maintain a level of happiness in even the most difficult of times is to find something to be thankful for in all circumstances. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (Not thankful for all circumstances but in all circumstances) Medical science agrees! A psychologist writes that “Giving thanks is wonder; it is appreciation; it is looking on the bright side of a setback; it is fathoming abundance; it is thanking someone in your life; it is thanking God; it is ‘counting blessings.’ It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is coping; it is present-oriented.” She said that, “Because a person’s happiness is directly tied in to their ability to be thankful, their gratitude makes it easier to cope with stress and trauma.” She said, “A positive perspective allows us to obtain a better grasp on suffering. Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness, as hard as that might be, can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew.” Thankfulness brings happiness and when we replace that frown with a smile, our happiness will then encourage and be a blessing to others!

“Don’t worry, be happy
‘Cause when you worry your face will frown
Put a smile on your face, don’t bring everybody down
It will soon pass, whatever it is
Don’t worry, be happy!” Amen?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Perfect Lenten Prayer

Dear Friends,

Lent is a time of quietly coming before God in preparation for Easter. It’s a time of asking God to help us look deep within to honestly assess where we are missing the mark. It’s a time of repentance and renewal. And for those of us who may be looking for a new, fresh way to participate in Lent, we might want to consider looking back to ancient times and see what we can borrow for our own journey.

They call him Saint Ephrem the Syrian and he was born around the year 300. Ephrem was not a bishop but an ordained deacon and is known by Bible scholars and historians because of the monumental quantity of writings he left behind. Ephrem wrote sermons, commentaries and hymns to combat the gnostic heresies that were leading people away from God’s Word and the teachings of the apostles. But he is best known in the Eastern churches by his prayer for Lent. This is not a catholic prayer – most Catholics have never heard of St. Ephrem or this prayer. But it’s prayed by Orthodox believers everyday during Lent. And some of us who have been worshiping in Protestant churches all our life, (three fast praise songs, two slow medleys, pastor’s prayer, offering, 40 minute sermon, announcements, dismissal and donuts) are exploring historical Christianity  to see what can be recovered for our use today. In doing so, we are discovering spiritual treasure in these ancient church prayers and practices.

In the Orthodox church, the prayer of St. Ephrem is considered to be the most appropriate summation of the season of Lent. You could call it a Lenten Checklist and I’m giving you two versions. The Orthodox English version that is translated from the original Greek has been prayed in the Eastern churches for nearly two thousand years and that's the one I'm using for my commentary below. But if you are not comfortable with the King James English, you also have the Pastor John Contemporary Version. At the bottom of this post, you'll see a link to a PDF file of both versions of the prayer that you can print out if you'd like.

“O Lord and Master of my life, give me not..” We are saying, “Keep me from succumbing to these evil thoughts and deeds. Lord keep me from falling prey to “..the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power, and idle talk.” Sloth brings a spiritual poverty to the soul. Someone at church once told me that they were just too lazy to pray. At least he was honest! We come up with all kinds of excuses to not spend time in worship, prayer and God’s Word but if we also were honest about it, many times it simply comes down to sloth. Paul says we should not be lagging in diligence, but should be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. Romans 12:11 Spiritual sloth will starve our soul! 

The next sin is “meddling” and in 1 Tim 5:13, Paul says that we must not be idle gossips and busybodies, and go around town saying things which we shouldn’t. 

The prayer of St. Ephrem continues with a petition to keep us from the “lust for power” – a self-centered attitude. When we love power and control, we fight to elevate ourselves over others. Lord, take away our tendency toward self-centeredness and show us everyday how to be more other-centered in our lives.

We next pray that God would take away our “idle talk.” Lord, clamp Your hand over my mouth and keep me from idle chatter and empty words. Keep me from talking just to hear myself talk. Keep me from negative and complaining words that are empty of anything positive and life-giving. 

It’s too easy to give up chocolate or red meat for Lent. It’s much more difficult to give up laziness, meddling, a self-centered attitude and idle chatter empty of edifying and encouraging words. The only purpose of a Lenten “fast” is to give up what comes between us and God. So it the chocolate that’s coming between you and God? The prayer of St. Ephrem asks our Holy Father to remove from us that which keeps us from living the joyful and abundant fullness of life in Him. 

“But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity..” Chastity is not just used in the narrow sexual context but in the larger sense of living a wholesome life. Then “..humility..” Much of our sinful behavior is due to pride and the antidote to pride is humility. A heart of humility will take away any sense of entitlement we have. Next is a request for “..patience..” You may be blessed with the patience of a Saint or you may be more like me. Patience means accepting things as they are and not how you want them to be at that moment. 

And finally we ask in this Lenten Prayer for “” Not the touchy-feely love that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You don’t even need people for that. You just need a cat. But this is God’s agape self-sacrificial love. This is the love that truly cares for another person’s needs and we willingly give of ourselves for them. This is Christ-like love. When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” Mark 12:31 He really meant that.

And that leads us to the last part of this prayer. “Grant me to see mine own faults (sins) and not to judge (others).” We tend to worry, obsess and rage over the sins of others while ignoring our own. You can’t force others to change, but through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, He will show you your sins and give you the power to change yourself. And then finally we bless, extol, exalt and glorify God as the Orthodox Christians say “unto the ages of ages.” For 2,000 years, this prayer, mostly unknown to Protestants and Catholics, has been the “perfect” Lenten prayer in the Orthodox church. Perhaps it should be our prayer too. Amen?

If you'd like to pray the Prayer of St. Ephrem during Lent, click HERE for a PDF version that you can print and cut out.