Guess Who’s Missing From the Easter Pageant – Day 38

I can remember many childhood Easters, being corralled by Sunday school teachers, waiting to be ushered out to the front of the sanctuary. Each of us, dressed in our finest bath robes, nervously rehearsing our lines for the pageant. (I’m pretty sure one year my brother’s bathrobe had baseballs on it… but no one seemed to mind.) Most of the time, the littlest kids just waved palm branches but every once in a while, one of us taller kids would be cast as a disciple or a Pharisee. When you were old enough to remember more than a line or two, (and most importantly could project loud enough to be heard in the last pew) you might even be cast as Jesus. That’s when you knew you had made it big. Year after year, we would run through the same parts of the Bible story… Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, sometimes we even made it all the way to the Garden. But, we never seemed to make it past there. I suppose what followed in the story was a bit too graphic to be comfortably portrayed by elementary school children… and no one ever wanted to be cast as Judas anyway.  

And so it went, year after year. The Easter Pageant was often followed by thunderous clapping and a rousing congressional hymn like “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Victory in Jesus,” or “Up From the Grave He Arose.” That was Easter… those few parts of the story that fit comfortably between the opening hymn and the Children’s Sermon. (I would only find out later that the darker parts of the Easter story were reserved for the main sermon, once we were safely back in Children’s Church.)

This was the tradition and it didn’t waiver. Isn’t it funny, when some traditions become so interwoven into the fabric of our lives that we don’t even question them? As I grew older, I understood why the pageant stopped where it did. No parent wants to videotape their child being hung on a tempera-painted plywood cross. We knew what happened next in the story anyway… the betrayal, the beatings, the sham trial, the cross, the empty tomb. The story started with Christ on a donkey and ended with His rapture. For nearly four decades, that was the story.

You see, though I understood why our children’s pageant ended where it did, it never even occurred to me to look at what happened before Christ got to Jerusalem… that there might be a valuable opening to the Easter story. Still, if you were to ask me about Easter, and I started by telling you about the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector, you may think I changed the subject. However, as it turns out, Zacchaeus is exactly who was missing from the Easter story. But, I will have to start a little earlier in Luke 18 to make my point.

In Luke 18:31-33, Jesus predicts his death to the disciples for the third time. He said, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” Christ knew exactly what was in store for him in Jerusalem… even if it was still hidden from the disciples. This is where the Easter story really starts. From here, everything is already set into motion. Everything Christ predicts will come to pass. So, it would be perfectly understandable if He were a bit preoccupied on His way to Jerusalem. Even still, He found time to heal a blind beggar on his way to Jericho (Luke 18:35-43). He even made time to stay at the home of a despised tax collector.

Luke 19 starts with ten little verses. “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

This is what gets me about this story… this is the only time Zacchaeus is mentioned in the Bible. Why would Luke choose to include this story here? Doesn’t this interaction with a sinner distract from the Easter narrative? Christ must have had hundreds of such encounters throughout His ministry. In Hollywood, this scene wouldn’t make it off the cutting room floor. It distracts from the arc of the story. Come on… get to the action. However, Luke isn’t interested in box office sales. He is making a point. Luke’s gospel is not just a first-person eyewitness account of Christ’s life. Luke never met Christ. Luke came to know Christ through Paul’s teaching and witness. Luke was a physician and, as such, an educated man. He took it upon himself to interview those who knew Christ and to record their stories. As such, Luke may be the first recorded investigative journalist in the Bible. Like all good investigative journalists, he’s not just telling a story, he’s collecting evidence… evidence to prove that Christ was who he said he was… the Son of God.

How then does this tax collector’s story provide evidence of Christ’s nature and divinity? The importance is both the timing of the story and the method by which it was collected. Jesus encountered Zacchaeus on his way to Jerusalem. Within a short period of time, He would be crucified. This is important for a number of key reasons. First, when anyone else may have been distracted by their impending death, Christ was still mission focused. He didn’t miss the opportunity to save a seeking man. He saw the sincerity and humility with which Zacchaeus pursued Him. He witnessed his changed heart and offered him salvation.

Second, the story of Zacchaeus’ transformation must be true. At the time Luke’s gospel was written, there were still people in Jericho who would have known Zacchaeus. We don’t know how old Zacchaeus was… he too may have still been alive. Certainly, if you were gathering evidence about Christ, you wouldn’t include a story of such a well-known man in such an important city if his conversion didn’t actually take place. You wouldn’t risk the credibility of your gospel nor would you place a lie so close to the climax of the entire plot.

That timing is the other part that amazes me. Surly, the news of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ reached Jericho. This would have been the perfect time for Zacchaeus to go back on his word. With Jesus dead, he no longer would have to give away his fortune, making amends for how he had cheated his people. The fact that the story was collected and verified after Christ’s death on the cross lends it extra credibility. Zacchaeus must have been so convinced that Jesus was the messiah that even after His death, he kept his promise. Now that is a testimony worth recording!

The final thing that I love about the Zacchaeus story is the last verse. Indeed, tagged onto the end is a perfect summary of Christ’s entire ministry… “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Not a bad way to have your story end. Now, I know that the story is only ten verses long, not much in the grand scheme of things. But ask yourself this – Can you name any other first-century chief tax collectors? Me neither. The story is short but it exists. Two thousand years later we still remember Zacchaeus’ name. Children still sing songs about him. We still teach it in our Sunday school classes to the same bathrobe wearing children that will act out this year’s Easter Pageant… never aware that a tax collector is missing from their story.

This brings me to my final question. If someone today were gathering stories as evidence of Christ’s divinity, would your story make the cut? It’s a sobering thought. But, if we live our lives with the same certainty that Zacchaeus did, one day we too will hear Christ say, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
 
– Michael Freeman

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Freedom Isn’t Free – Day 37

Can you imagine if all the characters in the Bible were alive today and had Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram accounts? It would be an interesting way to learn more about some of the not-so-major characters of the Bible, or even just have a deeper understanding of the impact Jesus had on people like “the blind man” or “the leper” or other characters we don’t even have names for.

One character I would be particularly interested in “following” on said hypothetical social media accounts would be Barabbas. I never really gave the guy much thought until last year honestly. In scripture we only read about him briefly, but he is in all four gospels (Matthew 27:15–26; Mark 15:6–15; Luke 23:18–24; and John 18:40). Barabbas is described as a “notorious prisoner”, “a robber”, a murderer and one who had taken part in the insurrection. Not the most popular guy and not the best social resume. But then, out of the blue, the day before he is supposed to be put to death, some guy shows up called Jesus. Next thing you know, Barabbas is released and Jesus is sentenced to death.

Like I said, I never thought much about Barabbas before. He was a bad guy, a murderer, and so I just assumed he was subsequently ungrateful and unchanged about the whole situation. But wouldn’t that floor you a little if you were in his place? I mean, I’m sure Barabbas wasn’t denying the fact that he did bad things or that he was by all definition a bad person. Maybe he didn’t care about dying. But regardless, to wake up one morning thinking it will be your last day, and then to go to bed that same night as a free man – I would think that has to change you a bit (if not just utterly dumbfound you completely).

At Easter Family Fun Day last year, one of the stations families traveled to was to see Barabbas in prison. Now, as a disclaimer, I did not get to see this acted out, but just in hearing about that station it really got me thinking. Barabbas must have had some change of heart, or have been impacted in some manner after that night. After all, some random guy who did nothing wrong was going to be put to death in his place. Wouldn’t that change your life?

I’ll ask it again – wouldn’t that change your life? Has it? We are all Barabbas. We all got a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, but at the expense of an innocent man. And not just any man – the Son of God; God himself! Shouldn’t that change everything about our lives – how we live each day, what we say and do, how we interact with other people?

Again, we don’t know how Barabbas acted once he was freed. If he had a Facebook account maybe he would have unfriended all the criminals he knew from his past. Maybe he would have posted a long monolog about what just happened. Maybe he would start posting pictures of new friends he met at church or share a new devotion each day from a book he started reading. But I bet he was a changed man.

Because that’s what Jesus does. He comes into our lives (sometimes from out of nowhere) and tells us we are free. We don’t deserve it. He died for us even though we are mean, nasty, horrible sinners. We deserve death. If we fully understand the magnitude of what he did for us – that we were facing death one morning and a free life that same evening – wouldn’t we tell everyone about what happened. We’d post it, tweet it, snapchat it, text it until we ran out of battery power. So are we?

My challenge to you, and myself, this Lenten and Easter season (and beyond), is to not take this freedom we have for granted. Don’t assume you have tomorrow, or ten more years even, to do what God is calling you to do. Freedom is a gift, and it was not free. So let us proclaim the Good News that we know and believe to be true, and let us do so like there’s no tomorrow!

“For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” 1 Corinthians 6:20
 
– Laura Courtney

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Good Deeds – Day 36

For the past few months, I’ve been studying Titus. The more I study it, the more I realize that one of the main themes of this book is “good deeds.” A while ago, a friend brought up the verses Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

My first thought when hearing this verse was, “Who in the world would “grow weary” of doing good?” And after more consideration, “What does “doing good,” actually mean?” Now first off, I want to make it known that I do not believe we gain our salvation through good works. The Bible is clear that we are saved by the grace of God and not at all on our own merit (Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5).

So then, what is the point of these good works? “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). They are to glorify God. Our good works point, not to ourselves, but to our Father. Also, the works that we do are evidence of our faith. We are told in James 1:22, “prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” Later, in James 2, the author charges us to prove that we have faith without any works to back it up. If we claim to be a Christian, then we should be able to live a lifestyle that reflects our Savior.

Which again brings up the question, “What are good works?” As I’ve been reading through Titus, this theme keeps presenting itself. We are to be an “example of good deeds” (Titus 2:7). In 2:14, it talks about how He saved us and redeemed us so that we could be a people “zealous for good deeds.” Those who believe in God will be “careful to engage in good deeds” (3:8). We are to be “ready for every good deed” (3:1). And, going back to the James’ theme, “Our people must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14).

Galatians 5:22,23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” These are the fruits we are to be showing through our good works. That’s all well and good, but I’m a practical person.   What in the world does this look like in my life?

I have these grand ideas of what “good works” are supposed to look like. It’s me coming up with a way to raise millions of dollars for orphans around the world. Or maybe I dedicate my entire life to rescuing women off the streets. Now, these ideas are not bad, but what am I called to do now? What does doing good deeds look like in my life currently? Well, if I am to show self-control, then I won’t fly off the handle when my toddler asks me the same question for the 100th time. It’s showing kindness to a friend who needs someone to talk to, even if I have a to-do-list that hasn’t been touched in a week. When my husband has had a rough day at work, its showing him love instead of snapping that my day wasn’t a piece of cake either.

Doing good is not glamorous. It’s repetitive. And yes, it can even be boring. It’s getting up every morning ready to do whatever God has placed in your path. It’s caring for the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). Good deeds often go unnoticed. If we are doing them with the right attitude, the point is not for others to praise us, but quietly and consistently pouring ourselves out for others because that’s what Christ did for us.

 

– Deb Trojak

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I’m So Glad Jesus Loves Me – Day 35

Approximately six years ago, I was diagnosed with Lupus. Lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes many symptoms that can vary from person to person. My biggest struggles have been joint pain and fatigue. It was incredibly scary to think that I would have this for the rest of my life. About three years after being diagnosed, it became harder to go up and down stairs. I would have to stop halfway, take a break, and go the rest of the way. It was so upsetting that I wasn’t able to play in the yard with my girls like I had before. Our house, that I thought was average sized, seemed overwhelmingly big and became harder and harder to take care of. The fatigue was frightening at times. I was in consistent prayer asking God for help. He led me to new ways of eating and different vitamins to take to improve my quality of life. And although this helped with energy levels, I was still in a lot of pain everyday.

As a family, we decided it was best to sell our house and find something that was one level. We put our house on the market and within two months we had a contract. We had also found a doublewide trailer for sale on a one-acre lot to move to. The road to get from one house to the other was rocky to say the least. I was feeling so much stress and guilt about making my family move because of my illness. I remember one Sunday morning during my prayer time, I cried out to God and just prayed, “Lord I feel like I’m drowning. Please save me!” I got my family and myself ready and we came to church. I was a greeter outside that morning and this is the first time that I had done this.   While greeting and talking to people, a man walked up to me and said, “You look like you could use some jewelry.” He placed a necklace in my hand and walked away. When I looked at the necklace in my hand, it was a simple chain with a small opal butterfly pendant. I almost started crying. The butterfly is a symbol of lupus because of the butterfly rash you get on your face and the awareness color is light purple. If you have seen an opal it looks iridescent and has a purple tone to it. God had heard my prayer. In that moment, I knew He loved me and will take care of any situation in life.

I love the verses in Matthew 14, the story of Peter walking on water where is says, “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’”

In that moment I was Peter. I stepped out of the boat and started the process of moving, but when things got scary I started to sink. I cried out and asked for help and just like the scripture says immediately Jesus reached out his hand and pulled me back up. Why did I doubt Him? I’m not sure because He has never let me down before. However, even though I doubted, He still immediately came to my aid. I KNOW with all my heart that my GOD, my SAVIOR, loves me and when I feel I need that extra reminder, I wear the butterfly necklace that God gave to me.

I was given the opportunity to thank the man who gave me the necklace. I am so grateful that he was obedient and sensitive to God’s voice. This took place over three years ago and God is still speaking to me through this one act of kindness and obedience. I leave you with this thought: JESUS loves you more than you will ever know and He will show you through ways that will speak only to your heart. Keep your eyes open and on Him and you will see His eminence love for you!

 

 – Jess Slenker

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Out of Control – Day 34

God is in the midst of it all! You may know the Bible verse that comes from Hebrews 13:5, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” This is just one of the many verses that use this comforting message. There are upwards of twenty-five other verses that also remind of the fact that God is always with us. Another verse that some have dubbed their life verse is Joshua 1:9, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  

Just this past weekend, I had the extreme privilege to get away with our middle school youth — my oldest daughter Faith is one of them — on the winter retreat. This was my second time going and I truly was trusting God to be with my wife and my other two kids. The theme for this year’s Winter Meltdown was “Out of Control”. WOW! That sounds like this was going to be a crazy and wild weekend for sure, right? Well, knowing that this retreat would be filled with opportunities to experience God’s love and get closer to Him, I wasn’t thinking that at all. However, I was certainly curious to find out where the River Valley Ranch team would be going with this.

The weekend began on Friday night with some time of worshipping and general crazy fun. . .fun that IS RVR! They are very gifted in making the whole experience fun for the students and us leaders, too. In addition to the great time of singing worship songs along with the guest band, Pastor George Hopkins, who shepherds a church in center city Baltimore, spoke to everyone about God being with us even in the chaos. Aha! So, THAT’S the idea behind the title for the theme. When things may seem out of our control, we can rest assured that God is still with us. When everything has us swirling around and feeling overwhelmed, God is with us. He may reveal Himself in unexpected ways while we are facing one of the difficult situations in life that have us feeling out of control. He may reveal Himself in just a whisper. Have you ever heard from God in a whisper? Pastor George challenged us to be quiet with him for just thirty seconds. The students could not just sit for thirty seconds and not make a noise or talk back to him, as he stood in front not moving around or saying a word. He then made the point that God may be trying to talk to you and trying to get our attention in a whisper. If we don’t slow down and take time to listen for Him, we may miss hearing from Him. Therefore, we may feel that God has abandoned us in times of chaos, because we don’t allow ourselves to let Him speak.

Have you ever felt that God had abandoned you? His Word tells us that we can take comfort in knowing, over and over again, that He reminds us of His truth. The truth that when we trust in Him, we will know that we can always turn to Him and let Him speak to us and guide us. His Word is truth. His Word is unchanging. He never leaves us or forsakes us, so we are never abandoned.

Prayer: Dear Heavenly Father, I pray for each person who reads this. I pray that they see that I simply felt led to share a little bit of how amazing You are—that You are indeed The Comforter and ever-present help because You are always there beside us. In the midst of our chaos, whether it’s just everyday life stuff or a specific trial that makes us feel overwhelmed, You are always there wanting us to give all the control to You. Thank You, Daddy God! In Jesus’ name, Amen.
 
– Rick Barnes

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Spread the Joy – Day 33

The spread of happiness is absolutely contagious, with spreading patterns very similar to communicable diseases like the flu. This year, we have seen a lot of contagious diseases. I believe that all things that are contagious are not negative and painful! There is a tiny word (joy) that is misunderstood in a big way. It is easy to confuse “joy” with “happiness,” as they do have similarities. Where you find one, you often find the other. Ecclesiastes 3: 12 says, “Nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and do good in their lives.” True joy, I think, is much deeper into the soul than any amount of happiness. Happiness, after all, is fleeting. We can be happy one minute and unhappy the next minute. But that tiny word, joy, comes from the Lord; it lasts forever and is consistent regardless of the situation or circumstance.

I feel better when I am exposed to joy, even in small doses. Nehemiah 8: 10 says, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” To be honest, I think that all of us have plenty of room in our lives for more joy! We can experience more joy as we spend more time in God’s presence and let the Holy Spirit steer us to pure joy.

Some people have had the privilege of being around others who share the joy of Christ. They are optimistic and positive, kind and full of peace. Just being around these people make you feel more helpful and encouraged in your own faith. It’s easy to get caught up in things that will pull you down. Trust God and He will keep you lifted up.

Joy is contagious! Purposely look for people who have “the joy of the Lord” flowing from them. The joy doesn’t always have to be shared verbally. The smile on your face, a pat on the back or even the tears you may share with others will rub off if you keep surrounding yourself with these joyous people. The amazing thing about joy is that it does not depend on circumstances or other people. It finds its roots in the Lord, who is never changing. Galatians 5: 22-23 tells us that “joy” is a fruit of the Spirit working in every Christian’s life. 1 Chronicles 16: 27 says that “joy” is in the Lord’s dwelling place. Psalms 16: 11 reminds us that the Lord’s presence can fill us with joy.

What part does the joy of the Lord play in your own life? If your attitude is contagious, the people who are around you will “catch” it! No doctors needed. Since joy is contagious, take some time this week to purposefully spread joy to others. You can encourage someone, speak positively to a person, write a note or send a card to a friend, or smile at a stranger. In other words, spread your joy that you have received from the Lord. Contagious joy will build you up and not tear you down. Doesn’t that sound exciting?

Prayer: Dear Father, help us to accept the joy that you so freely offer. Help us to learn to share this gift with others. Pray that God will surround each of us with people who are searching for the “joy of the Lord.” It is in His name I pray. Amen
 
– Jean Abbey

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