April 13. It’s my “Gotcha Day”! I’ll be forever grateful that Carl and Cherie Valentino hand-picked me out of an orphanage in Philadelphia many years ago and made me their own son. Yes, as I’ve indicated on several occasions, my adoptive father could be extremely harsh at times, and that harshness left a few skid marks on my soul and placed landmines in my path for years to come.
But mom and dad did a beautiful thing for me, and I am blessed that I didn’t have to languish for years as a neglected ward of an impersonal state. Besides, Dad was the child of two alcoholic parents, so he carried his own share of pain in life. In the end, he came to know Jesus—praise the Lord.
Holy Week was rich and meaningful this year, as always. Our church broke attendance records all over the place, but that was minor compared to the massive blessings we shared together. Even though many “free churches” today make little room in their calendar for these kinds of special observances, the worldwide church historically has felt compelled this time of year to align their focus to the Passion Narrative in Scripture.
As such, during these special days we cleared our calendar to focus exclusively on the events of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, which are at the very heart of our Christian faith. Meetings and ordinary business were not allowed. All our attention was directed toward the person and work of Jesus Christ as:
- The triumphant yet humble King (Palm Sunday);
- The Servant of God and Mediator of the New Covenant (Maundy Thursday)
- The Lamb of God Who Takes Away the Sin of the World (Good Friday); and
- Christus Victor—the Risen Savior of the Human Race (Easter Sunday).
The theological rationale for such a special week is how the Gospels themselves are laid out. In terms of sheer space allocation, the attention given to Jesus’ final week of ministry before the crucifixion, along with the 40-day period after the resurrection, occupies a significant portion of Gospel texts:
- Matthew—8 of 28 chapters (29%)
- Mark—6 of 16 chapters (38%)
- Luke—5.5 of 24 chapters (23%)
- John—8.7 of 21 chapters (41%)
All told, 28+ of the 89 chapters in the Gospel story (32%) are devoted to the period of time between the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his ascension back to the Father. Yet this period is less than 1% of Jesus’ entire 3.5 years of public ministry.
In terms of literary style, this space allocation suggests that while the birth, life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus were important to the authors, it was the Passion of Christ (i.e., his final acts, sayings, trials, sufferings, and death) and the Resurrection of Christ (i.e., his empty tomb, post-resurrection appearances, and ascension) that were centrally important to their purpose for writing.
Martin Kähler, a late 19th-century German New Testament scholar, stated that the Gospels are “passion narratives with extended introductions.” While perhaps somewhat overstated, this assessment does strike at the ultimate goal of Jesus’ earthly career.
As noted before, I’m way behind on posting sermon summaries, so here’s a real quick look at where we were in the Word this past Holy Week:
“Don’t Miss the Donkey” (Zechariah 9:1-11)
If we miss the point of Jesus’ donkey, we will miss the point of Jesus’ death.
I think I shocked some folks when I asserted that the palm branches were the chosen symbol for this day by the people who misunderstood Jesus, not Jesus himself. The symbol Jesus chose was the lowly donkey. Big difference.
“Washed by God” (John 13:1-17) and “Fed by God” (Luke 22:14-23)
Our God does feet. He also does souls. We need to give him both.
The shock here is that God in Christ came all the way down to give us what we needed most—himself. He cleanses us and nourishes us with his body and blood. May we never get over the jolt of these incredible truths.
“A Really Good Friday for Barabbas” (Matthew 27:15-26)
Jesus takes our place on death row so that we might live eternally with God.
Of all the Good Friday sermons I’ve done, I had never given one on the the release of Barabbas. This year, I felt a strong urge by the Holy Spirit to do so. Fascinating aspects of the story include: (1) the manuscript evidence for Barabbas’s first name being “Jesus”; and (2) the four failed attempts by Pontius Pilate to get rid of the case against the Nazarene. I stirred in some archaeology and Greco-Roman backgrounds to go with the theology and exhortation. My three main movements were:
- Barabbas and Us—Everyone lives on spiritual death row.
- Pilate and Us—Everyone will eventually deal directly with Jesus.
- Jesus and Us—Everyone can be released from spiritual death row by trusting in Jesus.
Interestingly enough, I had a funeral on Good Friday—something I’ve never done before. That made for a tight schedule, but it was a special request from a special family, and I was happy to help. So, Wednesday night and Friday morning I was back in my old stomping grounds of Fleetwood, PA. The family’s home is on Main Street, and the funeral home is on Kutztown Road.
I was wondering what it would feel like to be back in the area. All was well as I drove around town and went down memory lane. I even found myself praying prayers of blessing over others, whether I thought they deserved them or not. Such is the amazing grace of God. Besides, as George Herbert once said, “Living well is the best revenge.”
Some chapters in life are better than others, but when you let the Author of life author your story (and stop trying to grab the pen yourself), the ending is always maximally great. Some of my favorite writers specialize in the surprise ending—Guy de Maupassant, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, O. Henry, Charlotte Brontë, et al. Those little “Aha!” moments in literature point to the one great “Aha!” moment that’s coming at the end of the age.
Anyway, as per usual, I sobbed my way through Jesus of Nazareth during Holy Week, and then (part of) The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday. I only got to see part of The Passion this year because I had to finish writing my sermon. I just barely made it! 😊
“It Doesn’t Sting Anymore!” (1 Corinthians 15:50-57)
When the risen Christ returns, he will make a brand new you.
I had a lot of fun with this one. Hopefully I’ll be able to say more later, but here’s the outline for now:
The PRESENT LIMITATION of our bodies (15:50)
- Your present body cannot endure on earth.
- Your present body cannot enter into heaven.
The FUTURE TRANSFORMATION of our bodies (15:51-53)
- The believer’s body will be changed in a moment of time.
- The believer’s body will be changed for all of eternity.
The ETERNAL CELEBRATION of our bodies (15:54-57)
- The prophecies of Jesus anticipated the swallowing of death.
- The pardon of Jesus eliminated the sting of death.
After the church service (which featured a special light-to-dark opening), we had a big ham dinner with the whole family. Afterward I got to play with Samuel, which was pure delight. All of us probably had too much candy, so it’s probably time once again to mortify the flesh.
On another note, the nine long appendices of my dissertation are now complete, and I am ready to start writing the chapters. Sheesh, it was a lot of work playing around in (and translating many of) the ancient Near Eastern, Greco-Roman, intertestamental, and rabbinic primary sources. But, oh, how they illuminated my topic! I very much want to share some of my work now, but I’ll resist the temptation to do that and just provide the title:
TORN VEIL IN THE TEMPLE: GOD’S COMMENTARY ON THE DEATH OF HIS SON AND EPICENTER OF HIS NEW CREATION IN CHRIST
I hope you’re intrigued. My thesis is set, and I can hardly wait to share my findings and defend my conclusions. But—all in good time. I think a massive blog post series may be in the future.
Finally—note to self: No more doctorates after this one! 😊 Like the last one, this has been a great learning experience, but it’s been awfully time consuming, and I’m ready to get on to other things. It’s been a special period that needs to wrap up within the year.
Enya has been my musical companion whenever my academic stress levels spike. Her vibe is just so soothing. Speaking of Enya, I worked one of her pieces (“A Day without Rain”) into the Maundy Thursday pre-service playlist. It worked quite well to help set a tone for the evening. I think I’ll go for a walk now and play something of hers that’s a little more exuberant. Any suggestions? Most of her stuff is quite mellow.
Since several rabbinic writings I encountered mention angels being made by God from fire, I’ll leave you with “The Forge of the Angels” from Dark Sky Island.