Everyone loves a happy ending. Most of our fairy tales begin with, “Once upon a time,” and they end with, “And they lived happily ever after.” That’s the way they’re written because that’s the way we want them. That’s the way we like them. Some would say that that’s the way we need them. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy finally makes it home, where she’s longed to be from the very beginning. In Beauty and the Beast, the prince is restored, and the curse on the castle is finally lifted. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey learns it was better for his town that he lived instead of jumping off a bridge. In Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket inherits the entire chocolate factory for passing a test and returning the Everlasting Gobstopper.
Now, it’s certainly true that when it comes to life and literature, the good guys don’t always win, the hero doesn’t always get the girl, the man in rags doesn’t always make it to riches, and the wrongs endured aren’t always righted. In such cases, the audience is left with unanswered questions, moral ambiguities, a sense of disappointment, or perhaps even the anger that comes with unfinished justice. People generally aren’t inspired by a miserable ending. That’s because it conveys a lack of rhyme or reason to the universe—a sense that there’s no benevolent sovereign authority overseeing life as it unfolds before us. We’re just doomed creatures with bumper stickers announcing, “Excrement Happens,” and we think, “Hopefully it won’t happen to us.” But that seems horribly unsatisfying. Even depressing.
Research indicates that given a choice between happy endings or sad endings, we tend to choose the happy ending by a 10 to 1 margin. Even if we have to re-write the author’s original conclusion, as in Pretty Woman, we’ll get our happy ending. Human beings crave it. Job craved it. Fortunately for Job, he eventually got it. He had to wait for it, and he had to be divinely prepared for it, but he eventually got it. In spades. All that he lost was restored to him two-fold.
For many people, if the happy ending takes too long, they simply settle for the happy hour. They anesthetize the pain of life, never really facing up to it or being completely honest about it. But Job did face up to it. And he was honest about it. In the end, after his painful ordeal, Job gets his happy ending. That tells us the God who knows his people’s suffering will someday end his people’s suffering.
This message explores how the end of suffering commences with our restoration to God, continues with our reconciliation to others, and culminates in our reversal of painful circumstances forever. The Apostle James wrote, “As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11). That’s why there’s a happy ending for God’s people—precisely to demonstrate that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, even if we have to wait for it to fully realize it.
One of the factors that makes the Bible ring true is that it tells the worst about its best people. There’s never any attempt to hide or gloss over the moral failings of its heroes. There’s never any attempt to dress people up with slick packaging. Very often we see the ugly truth about God’s people, and, frankly, it can be upsetting.
Noah, Abraham, Samson, Jonah, and King David are but a few who come under significant censure by the biblical writers. So does Peter—the man to whom Jesus gave the “keys to the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19). That is surprising because Peter blew it so often as a follower of Christ.
Still, we like this rough-around-the-edges fisherman with a big mouth, don’t we? Perhaps we think to ourselves, “If Peter can blow it so badly and so often and still make it into stained-glass windows, then maybe there’s hope for me, too.” But we never take refuge in the fact that Peter stumbled badly on more than one occasion. We take comfort in the fact that Jesus dealt patiently with Peter. He dealt graciously—and at the deepest heart level—with Peter to help him become a useful disciple.
How did Jesus do it? It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty. It certainly wasn’t overnight, either, but it was real. In fact, the Peter we meet later in the book of Acts, and then also in the epistles, is almost a completely different person from the one we see in the Gospels. What happened? Why the transformation? Jesus labored to show Peter his desperate need for grace. And after Peter saw that need, he was finally ready to lead.
Specifically, after Peter denied three times knowing Jesus, the Lord came into his shattered world and gave him a new beginning, a new hope, and a new opportunity to set the record straight. Three times he asked Peter to re-affirm his love for him—one for each denial. Peter did exactly that, and Jesus gave him his job back right there on the spot. “Feed my lambs,” he said. In other words, “Teach my Word to others.”
Spiritually, it can be devastating to learn we can’t earn God’s favor, that his love is not for sale. It can’t even be purchased with the currency of good behavior. No, divine love is a gift. This “gospel” is good news for the broken, for those who think they’ve completely ruined their lives. Indeed, the restoration of Peter shows us that Jesus restores his people by re-storying them in grace. He takes back the pen we stole and writes a better ending than we ever could have imagined.
We cannot go back and change our past, but by the grace of God, we can start right where we are and make sure there’s a different tomorrow. “A bruised reed he will not break,” said Isaiah. “A burning wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3). That’s the Jesus Peter knew. Harsh and condemnatory religionists would have taken back his keys. Jesus never did.
[ Please note that there is no sermon outline or PowerPoint file available for this message. ]
A Few GoodMen is ranked as one of top 100 movies of all time. It’s a military courtroom drama starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon. One of the memorable lines of the movie comes from Lieutenant Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. He’s the lead defense attorney, and his case against the colonel isn’t going well. After a series of deep frustrations with his co-counsel, Lieutenant Galloway, played by Demi Moore, Kaffee blurts out, “And the hits just keep on coming!” It’s an expression that basically means, “Here we go again!” or “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
By the time we meet up with Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24, it’s hard not to think of this line, “And the hist just keep on coming!” He’s already had a hard and adventuresome life as a prophet, but we’re just getting started. After several miracles and death-defying adventures, the son of the widow he just rescued becomes deathly ill. Elijah watches his little friend go through the dying process. A few months ago, he saw the brook dry up, and now he sees a young boy’s life dry up, too. Now what? Surprisingly, the widow blames the prophet for her son’s death. For Elijah, the hits just keep on coming.
How do we respond when we get a tongue lashing we don’t deserve? Step into lawyer mode? Defense mode? Return the verbal garbage with garbage of our own? Hurt people tend to hurt people, and Elijah gets wounded here. But he doesn’t seek to wound back. He offers no argument, no rebuke, and no explanation. He does speak, but not to the woman’s tortured logic and agonized questions. Rather, he offers her gentle service and simple burden sharing. Then he gets alone with God and cries out to him for help (1 Kings 17:20), offering up an impossible prayer: “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (1 Kings 17:21b).
It’s one thing to pray for the weather, as Elijah has recently done. It’s another thing to pray for the restoration of life to a dead body. That’s something new. But not only does Elijah pray the impossible prayer, he’s willing to be ceremonially “unclean” in the process by stretching himself out on the boy three times (1 Kings 17:21a). It was a form of sacrificial intercession in the face of a desperate situation. Happily, the Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him (1 Kings 17:22). It’s the first resurrection of Scripture. Thankfully, it’s not the last.
How do we face an impossible situation today? Like Elijah, we can get alone with God. We can pour out our problems to the Lord. We can strive for patient endurance and calm assurance amid the hits. And we can wait for God to act, receiving his deliverance in due course. Like Elijah, we can be fully persuaded that hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives. Patient endurance, then, is well founded. Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun who lived in the 1500s. She wrote a verse that John Michael Talbot made into a song in our day:
Let nothing trouble you. Let nothing frighten you. For everything passes but God will never change. Patient endurance will obtain everything Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all. God alone is enough. God alone is enough. Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all.
One day the hits will stop coming. Jesus made sure of that. On the cross, he was willing to become truly “unclean” for us, dying for our sin. But on the third day, he rose again from the dead, having told his followers, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Today he puts his infinite resources at the disposal of those who, like Elijah, pray in righteousness and faith. That’s how we hit back at the hits.
Have you ever had a cow on your plate? Probably, but it was broken down into a hamburger first, which you then had to chew. Your body broke it down even further through digestion into proteins, amino acids, and other nutrients that could be absorbed into your bloodstream and used as fuel for life. Inside that cow, then, was energy for life—but it had to be broken down again and again to be of any value to you.
How do we handle the pressures of life in a fallen world—especially if we believe that God is for us not against us (Rom 8:31)? How do we reconcile the goodness of God and the aches and pains of this world he calls us to endure? David’s relationship with God as revealed in Psalm 57 gives us a clue.
One day King Saul tried to shish kabob David to the wall with a spear while he was playing his harp. When that failed, Saul dispatched his soldiers to capture him, but that didn’t work, either. In fact, every attempt by Saul to lay a hand on him was frustrated. Eventually, David escaped to the cave of Adullam as a fugitive. According to Psalm 57:6, David’s spirit during those days was “bowed down in distress.”
Despite the pressure he was feeling, 1 Samuel 22:1 tells us that when David’s family found out where he was hiding, they met up with him there, including “all those who were in distress…and he became their leader.” That’s a noteworthy rendezvous. Four hundred people who are stressed out seek after David, who himself is stressed out. They want to be with him. They recognize that God is still with him in a unique way. Moreover, they want him to be their leader even though he’s on the run.
How many people do we know whom we can honestly say we want to be around when they’re stressed out? Most of us aren’t so sure we like being around ourselves when we’re stressed out! But David handled the pressures of life in such a way that people wanted to be around him even when he himself was under pressure. Why? David tells us he ultimately took refuge in God (Ps 57:1), not the cave. Indeed, he recognized that despite his many challenges in life, God was still fulfilling his purpose for him (Ps 57:2).
This sermon looks at the great “why” behind our distress, a word, incidentally, that means “to pull you apart slowly; to stretch you or draw you tight.” It’s an image that comes from the ancient rack torture. In other words, distress is when life is ripping you apart, tearing at your soul, and causing you grief or pain. The good news is that God’s people don’t go through distress only to come out the other side with nothing but a scar. No, for the child of God, every trial we face is Father-filtered. There’s a “divine why” behind it and a supreme good coming out of it, even if we don’t know at the time what that may be.
We do know that the testing of our faith leads to spiritual growth (Jas 1:2-4; 1 Pet 1:6-7), and growth requires eating. Not only eating but digesting what we’ve eaten. Digestion, of course, is a process of breaking down the food we eat into a form our bodies can use. It’s a process that’ essential to life itself. Now, we can read a book about digestion, and even become a gastrointestinal doctor, but unless we actually eat, we will starve to death.
Likewise, believers can read our Bibles until we’ve memorized them, but unless we “digest” life as it unfolds, activating our faith in the process, we will spiritually starve. David’s trust in God while under pressure is a reminder for all of us to digest life with faith in order to truly live. Anything less would be IN-digestion. So, by all means, have a cow. But eat it in faith. Energy for life awaits you.
Below for your encouragement is a slide presentation called, “Disability, Dying, and Death: Relational Theology and the Gift of Hope for Life’s Descending Triad.” It comes from a seminar I did a while back with two other colleagues and may be turned into a small book someday. Even without the presentation script—which awaits another round of editing—you might be able to find some encouragement here for whatever challenges you may be facing these days.
What is relational theology? The God of Scripture (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is thoroughly relational; hence the field of relational theology, as distinct from systematic theology, contextual theology, etc. As I’ve written before, the Holy Trinity is not a math puzzle (1 + 1 + 1 = 1), it’s a clue to the relational heart of the universe. That clue is precious to believers because the prime reality of existence is not matter. It’s not energy. It’s not quarks. It’s a divine relationship. Specifically, it’s an eternal reciprocating relationship of personal diversity and unbreakable unity. As the well-known hymn puts it, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”
Human persons made imago Dei—in the image of God—are therefore relational beings, much like their Creator. Even introverts are aware of their interrelatedness with others! This connectional dynamic has much to say to us in a broken world marked by disability, dying, and death. It also has much to say to us in a world marked by the risen Christ, who knows firsthand what it’s like to feel disabled, go through the dying process, and then eventually taste death itself.
May the Lord enable you to revel in the gift of hope, even if through tears.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’s resurrection is filled with sarcasm, culminating in the order Pontius Pilate gave: “Take a guard. Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how” (Matt 27:65). How did that work out for you, governor? Jesus rose from the dead, and the guards had no power to stop it.
But Pilate’s order represents what most people are trying to accomplish these days—making things as secure as they can. We lock our doors, buckle our seatbelts, password-protect our computers, wear helmets while biking, go through TSA stations at the airport, and purchase all kinds of warranties and insurance policies. But the resurrection account reminds us that real security is found in the risen Savior.
That’s the point of Matthew’s sarcasm. Sarcasm in this context means a holy defiance against the lies and pretense of this world, and humanity’s vain attempts to destroy the work of God. It’s a sacred sneering at all the obstacles and injustice in our society that keep people from flourishing as God wants them to flourish. It’s an attitude that faces the difficulties and challenges of life and says, “Bring it on.”
Why? Because the empty tomb means believers can’t lose in the end. Indeed, our own impending resurrection gives us a holy defiance against our fears and final enemy, death itself. Therefore, we can have a healthy suspicion of all our own attempts to keep ourselves secure, and a bold embrace of God’s incredible adventure for our lives—whatever that may entail. Make the tomb as secure as you can? You might as well try to kill an elephant with spitballs. Jesus Christ—risen from the dead—is Lord of all.
What would you like your final words to be? When it comes time for you to leave this life and enter the next, what would you wish to say to those who remain behind? The Apostle Paul’s last words to the church can be found in 2 Timothy 4:9-22.
In this passage he chronicles the kinds of earthly hardships he endured throughout his ministry (i.e., the pain of seclusion, desertion, deprivation, opposition, and isolation). But he also sets forth the kind of support he received—and believers can expect—from God, even as they follow in his footsteps. To paraphrase, Paul reminds the church, “God will supply you, God will strengthen you, and God will save you.”
In short, Paul instructs the church to overcome earthly hardship with heavenly hope. He reminds his readers that the earth cannot take them when God is keeping them, and the earth cannot keep them when God is taking them. He is sovereign over the lives of his people and the unfolding history of the world.
Paul then bids farewell with a blessing: “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you” (2 Timothy 4:22). After this, we hear nothing else he says. After this, we read nothing else he writes. After this, we learn nothing else he thinks. His martyrdom is imminent, so these are the final words of Paul to the church. What does he want believers to remember as he signs off? What does he want ringing in their ears until Jesus comes back?
Paul wants the church to remember the presence of God (“The Lord be with your spirit”) and the powerof God (“Grace be with you”). Grace, of course, is the unmerited favor of God that can captivate a terrorist like Paul. It’s also the unlimited power of God that can convert a terrorist like Paul and use him to change the world in Jesus’s name. What could the grace of God do through you?
Adoniram Judson was the first overseas missionary sent out from America. In the early 19th century, he and his wife went to India. A short time later, he went to Burma, where he labored in gospel work for nearly four decades. After 14 years on the field, Judson had a handful of converts and had managed to write a Burmese grammar.
During that time, he suffered a horrible imprisonment for a year and a half, and he lost his wife and children to disease. A man who had been incarcerated with Mr. Judson described their prison conditions as he re-called them:
“The only articles of furniture the place contained were these…a gigantic row of stocks, similar in its construction to that formerly used in England…[only these were stocks for the feet, not the head and hands]. It was capable of accommodating more than a dozen occupants, and like a huge crocodile opened and shut its jaws with a loud snap upon its prey…. The prison had never been washed, nor even swept, since it was built… This gave a kind of…permanency to the odors…
“As might have been expected from such a state of things, the place was teeming with creeping vermin to such an extent that…the greater portion of my dress was plundered. Surely it was enough for Mr. Judson to be shut up in the hot, stifling stench of a place like this without having his ankles and legs weighted with…irons, the scars from which he wore to his dying day.
“He could say with the Apostle Paul, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ When Mr. Judson was subjected to these indignities and tortures, he was in the very prime of life—36 years old.”
There’s nothing like a good missionary biography to illustrate how small our sacrifice for Christ often is by comparison. Adoniram Judson suffered greatly for his Christian commitment. But, like the Apostle Paul, Judson considered his work for Christ to be infinitely more important than his own personal comfort.
Where does that kind of inner strength come from? It comes from the grace standing behind what Paul writes to Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:8-9). In other words, you can endure anything when you remember the gospel is everything.
Looking back on his life, Judson wrote these words: “If I had not felt certain that every trial was ordered by infinite love and mercy, I could not have survived my accumulated sufferings.” Like Paul, Judson believed that no suffering is too great if it brings about the salvation of those who place their trust in Jesus Christ—a trust that leads to “eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10). Or, as Martin Luther put it:
Let goods and kindred go This mortal life also The body they may kill God’s truth abideth still His Kingdom is forever
I’ll take the “living hope” over the “little hope.”
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a LIVING HOPE through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you.
Like coffee on the tongue of a child, the book of Ecclesiastes is an acquired taste. New believers don’t usually like it, and even seasoned saints aren’t always sure it belongs in the canon. Indeed, Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling and provocative books in the entire Bible. The author deals with a key issue of human existence—namely, the meaning of life—and all the questions associated with that vast and vital topic. What is the reason for humanity’s presence on earth? What can we do with our lives that will make them worthwhile? How can we truly find joy and satisfaction during our brief time on earth? What is the “big picture” of this world and God’s “end game” for it?
We’ve all wrestled with these questions, haven’t we? The everyday weariness, frustration, injustice, and sense of emptiness we sometimes experience during life “under the sun” don’t seem to square with those fleeting moments of happiness, contentment, and delight that are also part of our stories. Aggravating the problem is a certain death that looms over us all—a dread that stands in sharp contrast to the pulsating life we have now. Such contradictory realities cry out for resolution—if, indeed, there can be a resolution. If there’s no Big Story at all, what then is the point of all our little stories?
Christian faith teaches that people can believe there is a resolution to the conundrum—chiefly expressed in the hope-filled story of Jesus and his love. In his victory over death (and all the hate and hostility directed at him by angry and fear-filled people), he disarmed the ravages of soul that lead to hopelessness and despair. By conquering the darkness with his own faith intact (Luke 23:46), Christ enables his people to endure (and even embrace!) the riddles, mysteries, and unanswered questions of this life until the restoration of all things. Moreover, they are empowered to participate now in that restoration in Jesus’ name, knowing that all will be well in the end.
As coffee can help students pull an occasional “all nighter” on their way to the end of a semester, so the bold realism of Ecclesiastes can help us make it to the end of our lives knowing the journey was well worth it. Despite the evil and ugliness of this world, which seem to support the idea that there can be no meaning in the universe, humanity keeps pursuing the question of meaning. We see it in our songs, poems, and artwork all the time. “What’s it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?” Alfie may neither know nor care, but a large segment of humanity refuses to live with the conclusion that life is totally senseless and has no meaning at all.
But why should that be the case? Are we somehow “hard-wired” for meaning, or are we simply being naïve? Or could it be both? Ecclesiastes 3:11 says: “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of human beings; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” The text suggests that human beings are hard-wired for meaning (“God has set eternity in the heart”), but we will never comprehend the big picture in this lifetime (“cannot fathom what God has done”). The Christian faith we love and embrace allows both these things to be true at the same time.
It is important to note, however, that Ecclesiastes does not envision a superficial faith that fails to take into account the fallenness of this world. Rather, it is a wakeup call to believers and unbelievers alike. For unbelievers, Ecclesiastes is an evangelistic nudge, calling secular people to face the dire implications of their skepticism and consider a better way. Utter despair is neither warranted nor necessary. For believers, Ecclesiastes is a call to realism, summoning the faithful to take seriously the enigmas of life and the sense of futility it often contains. Triumphalism is neither warranted nor sustainable. True wisdom, then, recognizes that human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and perfectibility on our own is a myth. It also recognizes our need for divine grace at every moment—giving us an irrepressible hope as we face the future together. The overall message of Ecclesiastes, then, holds two realties in dynamic tension:
1. Human beings do not hold the key to the meaning of life. We cannot know the big picture in its totality—what life is all about with its many riddles, mysteries, heartbreaks, and inconsistencies. We proceed through life as a horse with blinders; we see in part, and the big picture is veiled to us. But this need not lead to despair for the people of God. We have been “hard-wired” to know that there is a big picture—that there is a grand purpose in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit together—even if the knowledge of how they do so presently eludes us. As eternal yet finite creatures, we are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary. We want to fill in all the blanks, and we get frustrated when we cannot.
2. Still, we can know the one who does know the big picture—the infinite God, who alone holds the key to the meaning of life. We can put our trust in him and live in obedience to his ways, even when life is baffling, disappointing, or patently unfair. We can trust him even when we feel tethered by our own limited understanding and finite comprehension of all that God is doing in the world. Wisdom involves knowing that nothing we pursue in this life can lift the veil, but one day our spirit will return to the God who gave it, and he will rightly judge all things. Consequently, during our brief time on this broken planet, we can still have a measure of joy at the end of the tether.
In short, the book of Ecclesiastes is a strategic blend of good news and bad news. It’s a thick, dark roast coffee dispensed with a hint of mint and mocha syrup to make it tolerable. Generally speaking, it gives us two things to do simultaneously:
1. Lament the BAD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.
Human life is extremely short. (1:2; 7:2)
Human life is inherently frustrating. (1:3-4, 11; 2:11)
Human life is exceedingly difficult. (4:1; 8:14)
Human life is spiritually broken. (3:11; 8:17; 7:20)
2. Celebrate the GOOD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.
God knows the big picture of human life. (3:11b, 14; 7:14a)
God encourages his people to live wisely. (2:13-14a; 7:12, 19; 9:17)
God invites his people to enjoy now the gifts he gives. (9:7-9; 11:8; 9:10; 11:9)
God has a life for his people beyond this life. (12:5, 7, 13-14, 11)
This last observation reminds us we can live now, and we can live forever. That is, we can be spiritually “well caffeinated” for life under the sun. And we can know for sure that something good awaits us above the sun. What could be more worthwhile?
Note: It was my Old Testament Professor Dr. David A. Dorsey who first got me turned on to the book of Ecclesiastes. He has a wonderful summary of the author’s message and layout in his book The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 1999.
1. Happy birthday to my mother-in-law, Lorena, who turned 83 a couple days ago. Family from North Carolina came to see her this past week, and more will be coming from Delaware this Memorial Day weekend. Nancy Reagan once described Alzheimer’s Disease as “a long goodbye.” I might add, “a long and sad goodbye.” Lorena is most like herself when she prays. That’s why we secretly hope she never says, “Amen.” Alas, all prayers conclude at some point, and the mundane tasks of life resume. Those tasks are now exceedingly difficult for her, but she can still experience the love and joy of family, even inside the fog of a mind devoid of all short-term memory.
2. National Conference was inspirational this year, in large measure because of the Grace Community Church (Willow Street, PA) worship team, led by David Julian and Alyssa Mayersky. This pair is Southeastern Pennyslvania’s answer to Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes. I’m so glad they use their incredible gifts for the glory of God. Note to Dave and Alyssa: When you sing Goodness of God and The Blessing back to back, it just leads to some “ugly crying” on the part of us delegates! 🙂 Keep up the great work; we appreciate it! (Thankfully, Alyssa has a YouTube channel.) Dr. Doug Buckwalter’s devotionals were also insightful, inspirational, and uplifting. What a blessing to be his student many years ago, and now his colleague on the seminary faculty. And, as always, Bishop Bruce Hill was the picture of competency, joy, and common sense.
3. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” So said the esteemed poet Maya Angelou. This week marks the anniversary of her death in 2014. Thankfully, Amanda Gorman is well on her way to reaching a similar stature that Angelou enjoyed. Political quibbles aside, I love her ability to capture a moment with energy, flair, and creativity.
4. I’m loving the meat smoker I got for Christmas in 2019. Applewood chips are the best for smoking chicken, which I think I’ve nailed—if I may so myself. Ha! 🙂 With my brother-in-law’s rub recipe, it’s the best way to prepare it by far. Alas, I’m still learning the best techniques for pork and beef. Those meats are a little harder to get just right. I guess I’ll just have to keep trying!
5. Life has apparently come full circle. I’m heading out soon to a dance recital for my daughter, who first tapped in public many years ago as Minnie Mouse. Today she’ll be a grown-up “Momma Mouse” of sorts. I’m hoping her flair for dance will help the little guy (or gal) inside her to inherit much better rhythm than I have. 🙂
6. Today’s weather reminded me that Enya sings a lot of songs about rain. One of these days I may compile them all into a single post. “Echoes in Rain” from Dark Sky Island is the one pulsating through my head right now. One reviewer describes the piece as featuring “a buoyant optimism due to the marching rhythmic ostinatos and pizzicato strings.” That’s an apt description—which is really saying something since most critics give us little more than piffle and perfidy when they’re deconstructing other people’s art.
7. Here’s a song that’s new to our congregation, based on a question from the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. It’s called “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death” by Keith and Kristyn Getty, and Matt Papa. I’m loving it!
What is our hope in life and death? Christ alone, Christ alone What is our only confidence? That our souls to Him belong Who holds our days within His hand? What comes, apart from His command? And what will keep us to the end? The love of Christ, in which we stand
O sing Hallelujah! Our hope springs eternal O sing Hallelujah! Now and ever we confess Christ our hope in life and death
What truth can calm the troubled soul? God is good, God is good Where is His grace and goodness known? In our great Redeemer’s blood Who holds our faith when fears arise? Who stands above the stormy trial? Who sends the waves that bring us nigh Unto the shore, the rock of Christ
O sing Hallelujah! Our hope springs eternal O sing Hallelujah! Now and ever we confess Christ our hope in life and death
Unto the grave, what shall we sing? “Christ, He lives; Christ, He lives!” And what reward will heaven bring? Everlasting life with Him There we will rise to meet the Lord Then sin and death will be destroyed And we will feast in endless joy When Christ is ours forevermore
O sing Hallelujah! Our hope springs eternal O sing Hallelujah! Now and ever we confess Christ our hope in life and death
O sing Hallelujah! Our hope springs eternal O sing Hallelujah! Now and ever we confess Christ our hope in life and death
Have a blessed holiday weekend!
UPDATE: Bethany’s group did a tap dance routine to Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” It was a marvelous performance, even though it looked exhausting. The choreography called for heel clicks but no wings, which she really wanted to do. Watching her on stage brought back memories of past recitals, not to mention the emotions that go with them. (“Is this the little girl I carried? Sunrise, sunset….” Ha!) Anyway, the song is another example of why Aretha is the real Queen of Soul.
You need me (need me) And I need you (don’t you know?) Without each other there ain’t nothing either can do Yeah!
American Psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “Depression is the inability to construct a future.” In other words, the person who lives in a constant state of darkness and despair has experienced the death of hope. It’s a feeling many of us can relate to because depression is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s been known and studied for more than 3,000 years.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 125 million people around the world are clinically depressed each year. Twenty-five million of those people live right here in the United States. That includes entertainers, musicians, athletes, politicians, scientists, white collar workers, blue collar workers, the clergy, and more. In fact, more Americans suffer from depression each year than heart disease, cancer, and AIDS combined.
Depression is both common and complicated. It’s a condition with many causes, many expressions, and therefore many definitions. Some have called it “a howling tempest in the brain.” Others have called it “the common cold of mental illness.” And just like the common cold, there’s no immediate cure, but everybody seems to have a remedy for us. Especially Christians.
Sometimes our prescriptions sound callous or even cruel, coming across as if we’re saying, “Take two Bible verses and call me in the morning.” But that doesn’t work. And it’s not even an issue of faith most of the time. In fact, depression affects believers and unbelievers alike. The great Reformer Martin Luther lived with depression. So did:
The Puritan author John Bunyan
The Baptist teacher Charles Spurgeon
The Bible translator J. B. Phillips, and
The hymn writer William Cowper
We can add to the list Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. In fact, President Lincoln once wrote in his journal: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”
Even Presidents are not immune to depression. Neither are God’s people. Consider Moses, Elijah, David, Jonah, Job, Jeremiah, and Peter—all of them, at one point or another, were depressed. Moreover, the book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
But almost every time it plummets, it comes back up again. The writers always seem to come around to some sort of resolution—some sort of peace, hope, joy, contentment, or confidence that God is at work. Only two of the biblical psalms have no expressed hope in them at all—Psalm 39 and Psalm 88. The latter composition is the great lament of Heman (not to be confused with “Haman” in the book of Esther; the Hebrew spellings are different).
In Psalm 88, the word “dark” or “darkness” is used three times (vv. 6, 12, 18). Heman feels like he’s surrounded by darkness, and there’s not a single ray of light to be found anywhere. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, the word “darkness” is the very last word of the prayer. That doesn’t come through in English, but that’s how the original reads. So, we have to ask, what’s a prayer like this doing in the Bible? Why did they include it?
The book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
Heman is not exactly a household name—even for students of the Bible—but he played a vital role during the reign of King David and King Solomon. He was a well-respected prophet and worship leader in Israel during the glory days of the monarchy. He served at the temple by royal appointment, and Scripture tells us that Asaph was Heman’s right hand man. Asaph is better known to us than Heman, mostly because Asaph’s name is on 11 of the psalms, while Heman’s name is attached to just one. (After reading Psalm 88, we might conclude that one is enough from the hand of Heman!)
Psalm 88 is there to teach us that while suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith. On the contrary, the weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light. Heman thought his darkness was both absolute and permanent, but it wasn’t. God hadn’t abandoned him. How do we know that? And do we know he won’t abandon us?
While suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith.
The end of Psalm 39 contains a heartbreaking appeal: “Turn your face away from me, God.” The end of Psalm 88 likewise contains a devastating assertion: “Darkness is my closest friend.” What these two writers expressed poetically one man experienced literally. Matthew 27:45 says, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ ”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is, why have you turned your face from me? Jesus experienced the ultimate darkness that Heman thought he had gotten form God (but didn’t). Jesus on the cross got the real darkness. Willingly. For us. And he knows how it feels to go as low as one can go.
But the Jesus Story doesn’t end on the cross. Or in the tomb. As Peter writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). If ever it looked as if hope had died forever, the cross of Christ was it. But the death of Christ was not the end of Christ. That’s why Peter speaks here of: “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” A living hope, as opposed to a dying hope or a fading hope. Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
The weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light.
Somebody once said, “Hope is the ability to hear God’s music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it now.” Indeed, real hope is essential to dancing through our present struggles. How can we do that? We get help from trusted sources. We get a qualified therapist if we need one. We take meds if they’re properly prescribed. We take care of ourselves—physically and spiritually—as best as we can. We look at the trials of life and remind ourselves, “It’s nothing a resurrection can’t cure in time.” So, we press through the darkness with God’s help, and others’ help, and we wait for the clouds to lift.
Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
Despite his horrible circumstances—and the severe depression it caused him—Heman demonstrates the beauty of a melancholy believer who will cling to God in faith even while swirling down the vortex of misery. We salute him for what he can teach us today. “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5b). So, hasten the morning, Lord. For all of us.
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It has often been said—based on a journal entry by Søren Kierkegaard—that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment. But what if the sequence were reversed? What if we started out as old folks and got younger with the passing of time? What if we went from being slobbering seniors to drooling infants rather than the other way around? Would that contradict another truism that says youth is wasted on the young?
Welcome to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 2008, the piece was made into a film by the same name starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (story by Robin Swicord and Eric Roth; directed by David Fincher). It was also made into a stage musical in 2019. I’m captivated by the mind-bending thoughts prompted by just a cursory glance at its plot.
Born under “unusual circumstances,” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) springs into being as an elderly man in a New Orleans nursing home, and he ages in reverse. Twelve years later, he meets Daisy, a child who flits in and out of his life as she grows up to become a dancer (Cate Blanchett). Though Benjamin has all sorts of strange adventures over the course of his life, it’s his relationship with Daisy, and the hope that they will come together at just the right time, that drives Benjamin forward. One of the money quotes in the film, which is often misattributed to Fitzgerald himself, is this:
“For what it’s worth, it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
We always want that fresh start, don’t we? We always feel the need for genuine newness, but we worry that the sand in our hourglasses will run out of grains before we get there, leaving us with a pile of broken dreams and regrets. That’s why we write pop tunes like, “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher), and song lyrics like, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future” (Steve Miller Band), and clever aphorisms like, “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays” (Meredith Wilson).
We even have a whole series of contemporary movies called Back to the Future. And then there’s Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the British time machine-spacecraft that can go anywhere in space and time at the push of a button. It’s all fantasy, of course, but these stories reveal that we’re a species obsessed with going back and starting over.
Thankfully, it’s a gracious God who provides genuine newness in Christ—the one who said we can be transformed spiritually, from the inside out, like a caterpillar to a butterfly, as if we we were being born all over again (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:23).
Moreover, it’s a good and wise God whose timing is always perfect. He has promised to make all things new (Rev 21:5).
So trust in him. Lean into him. Wait on him.
Whether you’re coming or going.
Thank you, Lord, for the hope of newness that can be found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Thank you that his gospel is the remedy for regret. Help me to live wisely as I step into the future with you, knowing that you are already there, eager to lead and sustain me by your grace. Amen.
Today we conclude our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple sketch with profound theological messaging. In Part 1 we looked at the picture without comment, scanning the piece and letting it have its impact on us. In Part 2 we looked at the encounter in general, noting the significance of these two women meeting in the presence of Christ. In Part 3 we looked at the three types of fruit presented in the sketch, two of which are visible and one of which is not. In Part 4 we looked at the artist’s strategic use of color and how each one telegraphs important spiritual truths. In this last part, we look briefly at the hands, feet, and faces of the two women. They, too, tell a story.
Garrett Johnson has noted, “We find Eve; that is, we find ourselves, walking along our path, tripping upon the serpent’s scales, dolefully latching onto our symbols of self-satisfaction and divine pretensions.” Johnson is perceptive in his assessment of the fallen matriarch. A similar and contrasting observation can be made of Mary. She clings to nothing; instead, her hands are free to gently caress the one who desperately needs her Son, whom she will soon share with the world. Indeed, all of Eve’s children need her Son, and God brings him to us as promised though this young obedient servant of his.
The two women make contact through look and touch, banishing the isolation and alienation that often accompany sin. Yet there is a hint of reluctance on Eve’s part, so the scene has begun, but it is not yet completely resolved—leaving us to contemplate her response to Christ. And ours.
Specifically, Eve’s right arm takes a defensive posture, as if she were trying to cover herself, even while holding onto the forbidden fruit. The bend in her arm forms a V, one of the universal symbols of women. Moreover, this V creates an arrow pointing down toward the serpent, which is entwined around her legs. Despite the entanglement, Eve is able to walk, though it is clearly difficult for her to do so. Her journey is encumbered every step of the way by the enemy, but the mother of the redeemer now stands before her. Consequently, Eve is stepping in the direction of hope—but not without assistance.
Eve’s left hand is touching Mary’s belly, but only because Mary has apparently pulled it toward the child, overcoming Eve’s hesitation. Her reluctance is no doubt rooted in her sense of shame and unworthiness. Mary knows, however, that it’s precisely for such people that Jesus has come. Confidently, then, she helps Eve touch the one who will undo the effects of her cosmic treason.
Additionally, Mary gently strokes Eve’s cheek with her right hand, giving her assurance that all will be well. The promised deliverer, “the seed of the woman,” has finally come. Jesus will take her shame and nakedness to himself on the cross, and in the process, his “heel” will be “bruised,” as the prophecy says. Crucifixion is ugly business, but no longer will Eve need to bear the weight of her own sin and all the calamity it unleashed on the world, for the world’s sin bearer is now here.
Mary, of course is stomping on the head of the serpent, rendering it impotent in the presence of the gestating Christ. This dramatic act portrays the protoeuangelion of Genesis 3:15, where God judges the serpent with these words: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Protestants need not object that Mary is the one crushing the serpent’s head in this scene because: (1) Jesus will do exactly that in his death, burial, and resurrection; and (2) Jesus will give his followers authority to do the same. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20; emphasis mine). Believers will share in the crushing because Jesus did the neutralizing of satanic authority: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Consequently, Eve is able to drop the forbidden fruit and step into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. Will she do so? Will we?
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the sketch is the contrast of expressions. Eve’s face is crestfallen, downcast, and ashamed. She blushes profusely because of the humiliation that comes from having her sin exposed to the world. It’s difficult for her to look up, although she clearly tries to do so, daring to hope that Mary’s child might offer the relief her soul so desperately needs.
Mary’s gaze is priceless. She smiles gently at Eve, knowing full well that her child is the hope of the world and the remedy for all its miseries. She conveys no sense of judgment, haughtiness, or condescension toward Eve, only love. Her eyes are wider than Eve’s because she knows from the angel exactly who this child is and what he has come to do. Eve is still in the process of discovery, so her face is not yet relieved of all its agony, nor is she yet able to look at Mary directly.
King David had a similar experience. In his prayer of confession to the Lord over his sin with Bathsheba, he pleaded to God, “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity” (Ps 51:9). So ashamed was he of his sin that he asked God to stop noticing it, something he was unable to do himself (cf. Ps 51:3). But as soon as the king made that request of God, he virtually reversed course and cried out, “Do not cast me from your presence (literally, “your face”) or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51:11). Did he want God’s face to stay or go?
The crisis was devastating to David. In v. 9, he wanted God to hide his face from his sin, but in v. 11, he didn’t want God to hide his face from him. The dilemma was acute. If God chose to look on David’s sin, it would produce in him a deep sense of unbearable shame; if God chose not to look on him at all, it would produce in him a deep sense of awful abandonment. Neither option was pleasing to David, and his only hope was that God would somehow find a way to cut the Gordian knot of unacceptable choices. The knot is finally cut by Mary’s child, who grew up and became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
I, too, know the shameful blush that comes from sinning against God and wounding others—precious people made in his image who deserved better from me. Maybe you know that feeling, too. We cannot undo our own treason against God, but Jesus can. Be assured that the grace of God in Christ is greater than your failures. Humbly accept his gift and turn from what made it necessary in the first place. If your face is downcast in shame, humiliated by your own sin, dare to look at Christ by faith this Christmas. You’re why he came.
We’re why he came—sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. As the old carol says, Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power, when we are gone astray.” Indeed, he came to be “the glory and the lifter of [our] head” (Ps 3:3) so that we could look God in the eye again, stepping into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. He came so the ancient blessing given to God’s people could fully and finally be true:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace (Num 6:24-26).
We continue our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” the portrayal of a hypothetical encounter between the two main mothers of Scripture—the mother of the human race and the mother of the new human race. The descendants of the former are spiritually broken and stand in need of redemption; the offspring of the latter is spiritually perfect and thus stands able to serve as humanity’s redeemer. The colors in the sketch assist the artist in telling the story.
Eve is covered in her own beautiful brown hair, and brown is the color of the earth. In fact, the garden floor in this sketch is also brown. It’s the earth from which Adam was created by God. Eve, who was derived from Adam, was therefore made of the same “stuff” as Adam. As such, Eve is of the earth, and to the earth she will return in death because of her sin (Gen 3:19).
On a side note, what Eve is wearing underneath her hair is not immediately apparent in the sketch, but Scripture tells us it would have been the garment of skin that God had made for her so her shame and nakedness could be covered. God replaced the garment of leaves she made with her own hands with a more suitable covering made by his own (Gen 3:21). The theological point is that salvation is never rooted in human effort; it is always rooted in divine grace. Self-salvation is no salvation at all.
And do note that it was God who drew first blood on the planet, not Cain. God sacrificed the life of one of his own creatures so that Eve could be spared the imminent death sentence she rightly deserved. Somewhere in the garden, a bloody carcass lay dead because of Eve’s sin (and God’s mercy in covering that sin).
Mary is covered in a garment of snowy white, which is the color of purity.In Catholic theology, Mary’s purity is due to her own “immaculate conception” in her mother’s womb, preserving her from spiritual depravity. In Protestant theology, however, Mary is a member of the fallen human race like any other woman. As such, she needs a Savior, too (cf. Luke 1:47). Her purity comes from the fact that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). I hold to the latter view, as the former is a late theological development with no biblical warrant.
In any event, the white garment signifies that just as Mary is made pure by the gracious presence of Christ in her, so the fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus, can make Eve and her descendants pure, too—but only through the cross, which also makes an appearance in the sketch.
In addition to her white robe, Mary is also draped in a blue head scarf, and blue is the color of the skies and/or heavens. She herself is not from heaven, but she carries the one who is—Jesus, “the man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:14-49). Ominously, her headscarf forms a crown in the shape of a cross, which corresponds to the awful prophecy Simeon gave Mary just after the birth of Jesus: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).
Eve’s “crown,” on the other hand, is earthy brown—a row of curls made by her own tainted fingers. It’s a hint, perhaps, at the crown of thorns that will go on to encircle the head of Christ in his atoning work on the cross. But notice further that the blue cross seems to flow like living water down Mary’s shoulders and back, directly toward the head of the serpent. The crafty beast will soon get what’s coming to him.
The fair skin of the women is not historically accurate. They would have been much browner in tone, Easterners as they were. I suspect the fair skin represents an application of the universal biblical story to the specific race of the artist—an acceptable practice if applied across the board with equal acceptance. That is, were the artist non-Caucasian, Eve and Mary might well be portrayed in that artist’s race, too. “Red, and yellow, black, and white—they are precious in his sight.”
The garden arch is predominantly green, which speaks of life, abundance, and divine goodness, a theme discussed in the previous post. Moreover, the archway is lush with ruddy-yellow fruit, an indication of the kindness, grace, and provisions of the generous God who gave it. He delights in giving good gifts to his children. The single forbidden fruit in Eve’s right hand is solid red, distinguishing it from the copious good fruit made available to her throughout Eden. The serpent is green, too, because it’s a living creature, but it also features dark splotches, an indication of its sinister intentions toward God’s treasured child.
Best of all, the encounter takes place in a yellow-gold light, one that illuminates the entire scene. This color can represent both royalty and divinity, so the stage is awash in the presence of God. That presence envelops both Mary and Eve. Moreover, the in utero Christ is “Emmanuel,” God with us. The point is that God is here. He is in this scene despite the presence of the sinner and the serpent. He has not been put off. He has not abandoned his people.
The implication is that God is with us in our moments of failure and shame (as represented by Eve) as well as our moments of faithfulness and obedience (as represented by Mary). He does not run away. Rather, he pursues us with his “goodness and mercy…all the days of our lives” (Ps 23:6).
That pursuit took Jesus to another garden—the Garden of Gethsemane, where he “prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Quite significantly, the first blood shed by Christ in his Passion was not drawn by human hands (cf. Gen 3:21). He bled freely of his own accord in the garden before placing himself into the hands of his captors. In other words, he had already given what his tormentors would claim they had taken (cf. John 10:17-18).
God sacrificed the life of his only Son so that we could be covered by him and spared the imminent death sentence we rightly deserved, similar to what happened in Eden. One hymn writer described it like this: “Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.” The result is what the Apostle Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15:47-49:
“The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”
In other words, we can go from earthly brown to heavenly blue, wearing snowy white—all because the golden Christ once became bloody red for us.