Prayer When We are Alone

Almighty Father,

Reach out to me this morning and comfort me in my solitude,

lonely, missing one so dear.

I know that I should not be sad for a life well lived,

for someone strong who showed me how to live and then how to die.

Yet, I am sad, because it is my turn to be strong and I do not want to be.

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

grant me time and space and strength to grieve and to let tears flow.

For the season is at hand for such.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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Dedication

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the enduring memories of my experience as a camp counselor in my Boy Scout years occurred when I was asked to teach a troop of special needs scouts how to swim. By the end of the week, however, two of these scouts were swimming. Both had the swim routine down before I met them, but both also faced certain obstacles to finishing the course.

The first had perfect form in swimming the American crawl, but only in shallow water where his fingers touched the bottom. He became violently upset when I prodded him to venture into deeper water. The second swam just fine, but thought it was more fun to be rescued by the lifeguard. He would swim a lap or two in his swim test. Then, a great big smile would come on his face and he would pretend to drown. I can still see the horror on the faces of those watching me get mad at a drowning scout—that is, until they saw him stop drowning and finish his swim test.

Isn’t that so like us when hear God’s call? Swim in deeper spiritual waters? Who me, Lord? Stop focusing on myself and step out for Christ? Who me, Lord? I think the hounds of heaven have been after me all my life. Yet, in the chaos of life frequently cloaked God’s presence day to day.

A woodcut called “The Ship of Fools” has hung over my desk since 1985. A couple years back I learned that this woodcut satirized a practice prevalent in the Age of Reason in Europe of driving special needs individuals out of the towns or placing them on boats (Foucault 1988, 3-37). For years, however, this woodcut symbolized my experience of the chaos of life. Yet, God blessed me in unmistakable ways which with the passage of time lifted this cloak over his presence.

One example of the lifting of this cloak occurred on a Sunday morning as my mind drifted during a long sermon by a Guatemalan friend. I prayed to God: why am I sitting here working in Hispanic ministry? I have no Hispanic heritage; my preaching in Spanish is weak and boring. Why am I here? God reminded me that I came to Christ through the testimony of a young man named Nicky Cruz[1] who I realized for the first time was Puerto Rican. It came as a surprise because at age 13 when I came to faith I had no idea what a Puerto Rican was—to me, Nicky Cruz was just another member of a street gang in New York. If I am a fool for the Lord, it is because he called me from the first day of faith.

This example illustrates that one of the ironies of life is that we are often strangers to ourselves. Our desires, motivations, and purposes lie behind a veil that cloaks our shadow side, limiting our personal growth and relationships, especially our relationship with God. Pulling back the veil accordingly offers the hope that we realize our potential, become comfortable with others, and welcome God more fully into our lives. One of my purposes in writing this memoir is to lift this veil.

Richard Niebuhr (1937, 1) observed that: “All attempts to interpret the past are indirect attempts to understand the present and the future.” I explore my past in this memoir not only to understand the past, but also to inform my call into pastoral ministry. During the darkest days of my career, several verses hung on my office wall:

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isa 43:1-3)

Much like God called the Nation of Israel out of slavery to human masters, God calls us out of slavery to our own desires and sin. In doing so he also blesses us so that we can bless others (Gen 12:3).

Consequently, this memoir focuses on the history of my personal journey of faith and call to ministry so that those that come after me will be encouraged in their own faith knowing that Christ walks along side of us each step of the way.

Soli Deo Gloria.

References

Foucault, Michel. 1988. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (Orig Pub 1965). Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Vintage Books.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks. (Review: Part 1 ; Part 2 )

[1] My parents took me to see the pre-release showing of a film, The Cross and the Switchblade, which told the story of the dramatic conversion of a young gang leader, Nicky Cruz. The film starred Pat Boone and Erik Estrada (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amg_Q4aT6Mg). We viewed the film in Constitution Hall in Washington DC.

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Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 2

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Many times philosophy is denigrated as irrelevant and uninteresting. Far from irrelevant, it gives form to our thoughts—our default settings—and motivates us to take actions that we never really think about. For example, why do postmoderns head to the mall when they are upset, while back in the day moderns typically stopped to pray in a church? Far from uninteresting, philosophy shapes our music, explains trends in art, and leads us both to see and explain the world and ourselves in fresh, new ways and to rediscover aspects of our history which previously seemed mysterious or simply a bit nonlinear.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher makes three observations about the postmodern apologetics project that bear repeating.

  1. Because we cannot argue from a foundation of absolute truth for the truth of Christ, neither can anyone else, such as secular modernists or scientists, argue from a foundation of absolute truth. This is an important observation because if Christian apologists continue to play by Enlightenment rules, there is no inherent reason why anyone should listen (138) and there is the danger that they may simply be shouted down by “imperialistic Enlightenment rationalism and liberalism” (168).
  1. While conversation cannot proceed from a foundation of absolute truth, common cause can still be found on an ad hoc basis. Placher observes that Christians can agree with both Jews and Marxists on the need to extend assistance to the homeless among us (167).
  1. In a real sense, our theology is justified in the eyes of the world by our actions, not the other way around (167).

Let me turn to each of these observations in turn.

No absolute truth, but shouted truth. The Enlightenment effort to find a foundation for absolute truth failed to discover a set of observations or logical relationships which could be used to justify objective truth. In its absence, competition has opened up to substitute subjective truth or truths of various sorts.

In the political realm, an early development of postmodern thinking evolved in Germany in the early twentieth century in the form of national socialism. If no absolute foundation exists, then let’s pick a leader to tell us what to believe. The logic was as unmistakable as the evil that it implied. Fear motivates us to seek easy answers and to accept solutions that would otherwise be unacceptable. The link of national socialism to the philosophy of Nietzsche, particularly his “will to power” is direct and undisputed among those that have studied it.[1] Political correctness, which originates with Karl Marx,[2] flows out of this line of thinking because once you promote a subjective alternative for absolute truth it is terribly inconvenient having your opponents point out the subjective nature of your alternative.[3]

In an economic realm, the absence of absolute truth helps explain the critical role of advertising and Hollywood movie productions in forming public opinion and preferences in daily purchases. If subjective truth is the only truth, storytelling is extremely interesting and important in cultural development because it persuades.[4]

Agree not on truth but on service. Placher makes the point that when we meet someone, we do not lay out a detailed foundation for conversation; we just look for points of agreement and start talking.

At one point I attended my uncle’s retirement from the Council of Churches in New York city and, although he worked as a pastor, a table of orthodox Jews attended the retirement gala. This observation interested me and I invited myself to sit with them. When I asked why so many orthodox Jews were attending a meeting of the Council of Churches, they told me that although they do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they agreed with many of the service projects undertaken by Council of Churches and wanted to get involved.

Service points to Gospel truth. Although Placher does not develop this theme, it is an inference that can be drawn. In a world where many voices scream for attention, actions speak louder than words and point to the motivations that brought them to fruition. Jesus said: “each tree is known by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:44) No one cares for a tree that bears no fruit and such it is with philosophies.

William C. Placher (1948 – 2008) was a postliberal theologian, a professor at Wabash in Indiana College, and the author of numerous books. His doctorate (1975) was from Yale University.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, reviews modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part 1 of this review I summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part 2 I summarized key implications of his work. Placher’s work is a fascinating read written for college students, but helpful to anyone concerned about cultural trends.

References

Lind, William S.  2009. “The Roots of Political Correctness.” Online: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/2009/11/19/the-roots-of-political-correctness. November 19.

Schaeffer, Francis A. 1976. How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Wheaton: Crossway Books. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-wW).

Sacks, Jonah. 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1E0)

[1] For example, Nazi propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, named her documentary on the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg a paraphrase of Nietzsche’s famous phrase, Triumph of the Will (Schaeffer1976, 62).

[2] For example, see: (Lind 2009).

[3] Marx tried to substitute his concept of dialectal materialism for the existence of God, but enthroning man or man’s thinking in place of God begged a creation account. Evolution seemed to fit the bill here until scientists in the ninetieth disproved the concept of spontaneous generation. Rather than explain how mankind could not evolve to be the center of the universe, Marx and his followers refused to talk about it and began to restrict access to Bibles, which competing creation account. It was curious to see why communist countries, such as North Korean, imprison anyone with a Bible while also arguing that God does not exist! This persecution is not arbitrary but has a philosophical foundation that goes all the way back to Marx.

[4]This is the theme of a recent book by Sachs (2012).

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Prayer for Protection

Sovereign Lord:

I praise you for raising me up from the deeps that I had fallen

and have not let my detractors have their day.

You remembered me in my hour of affliction and healed my soul and body and mind.

I need not fear the grave or the hell that others have fallen into.

Praise the Lord, Christians, give thanks and bless his name.

His wrath passes quickly, but his love is forever; our weeping is a night’s misery, but

our weeping is a night’s misery, but our joy comes with the new day.

As for me, because of my many blessings, I will remain strong in the Lord.

You have strengthened my footsteps, but when clouds cover your face, I am distressed.

To you alone do I cry for mercy; if I die, will my bones praise you and tell of your faithfulness?

Hear my prayer; come to me quickly!

For in you mourning becomes dancing; black funeral suits are quickly removed and your joy clothes me daily.

I will sing to you and not stay silent; I will rejoice in your name forever! (Psalm 30)

In the power of your Holy Spirit cover me in my weakness.

Shelter me in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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The World of Perception

One of the oldest photographs of me as a baby shows me in a high chair. I am smiling with my hands in the air and oatmeal on my face wearing a diaper and a top covered with a bib. The date on the photograph is February 1954 which means that I was about two months old.

Does little Stephen remember this early meal? Hardly. Did little Stephen climb into this chair or prepare his own food? Hardly. We know, however, from the picture that little Stephen is well fed and cared for because he is plump and happy. We suspect that little Stephen has a mom that loves and cares for him, but she is nowhere in the picture.

How does little Stephen perceive his world?

As parents (or siblings) we know that little Stephen needs constant watching because everything in arm’s reach goes straight into the mouth. Science tells us that babies are actually born blind, but babies can still feel, smell, and hear, although the mouth has priority. For the baby, trying something out generally means putting it in the mouth. No amount of reasoning by mom will change that behavior.

So how do little Stephen’s perceptions change with time?

If stuff goes into the mouth that does not belong there, little Stephen cries and cries, but that does immediately mean that it won’t go into the mouth a second time. If little Stephen does not like smashed peas, for example, he will still try them a few times before learning to refuse them on sight.

In the same manner, dad and other relatives may initially hold little Stephen, but pretty soon he will recognize that they are not mom and may get anxious and cry unless mom is in sight and comforting him.

How sophisticated is little Stephen’s decision making?

Through tasting, little Stephen learns that he likes some food and does not like other food—and other random, mouth sized objects. Good food gets a positive response from little Stephen; bad food gets a negative response. This tasting elicits a behavioral response, with either positive or negative.

Through sight, little Stephen compares his food and visitors with his prior experiences and either accepts or rejects them. Although these comparisons come much later than tasting per se, they form the basis of early rational decision making.

Who provides little Stephen’s template for thinking about God?

In little Stephen’s world, mom is the early model of God’s immanence because she brings him into the world and cares for him. Dad’s role as progenitor and provider is less obvious and serves as an early model of God’s transcendence.

How does little Stephen relate to his parents?

Little Stephen has a definite preference for mom because she cares for him and is always present. This preference only changes once trust is established both with mom and with dad.

Isn’t telling that we, as postmodern people, have grown fat and irritable? In our anxious world, the fascination with food reflects a mass regression to a child-like state, where we trust only things that go into the mouth—not because we are hungry, but because we are anxious—and where we cry for the one who cares for us, even if we do not even know his name.

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Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 1

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard not to notice the crisis of identity facing Christians and the church today. If we as Christians see ourselves as created in the image of an almighty God, then nothing is impossible for God and, by inference, for us as heirs to the kingdom. On the other hand, if we start to believe our critics that God does not exist and church is just another human institution, then our options are no different than anyone else’s—limited by the time and money immediately available. Because we act out of our identity, we need to care about what our identity is in our heart of hearts, not just on our business cards. For Christians, our truest identity is defined in our theory of God or, in other words, in our theology.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher writes:

“This book represents some of the philosophy I have been reading, as one context for thinking about a new way—or maybe a very old way—of doing theology.” (7)

By “old” Placher means to argue apologetically from a Christian perspective with Christian assumptions. This “old” perspective, which he calls the “unapologetic” approach, is interesting because:

“Christian apologists can adopt the language and assumptions of their audiences so thoroughly that they no longer speak with a distinctively Christian voice.” (11)

Arguing from the “new” Enlightenment perspective means:

“questioning all inherited assumptions and then accepting only those beliefs which could be proven according to universally acceptable criteria.” (11)

If those universally acceptable criteria preclude faith in Christ Jesus by their nature, then the “new” perspective blunts effective witness (12). Worse, if no universally acceptable criteria exist, which essentially means that the Enlightenment (or modern) era is over, then the price of arguing is paid without gaining any credibility as a witness. Thus, adopting an unapologetic stance appears warranted in the postmodern era which we find ourselves in.

Placher’s argument raises two questions that we care about. First, is the modern era truly over and, if so, how do we know? Second, because Placher clearly believes that the modern era is over, how do we approach apologetics in the absence of universally acceptable criteria for discussion? We care about these questions because it is hard to witness for Christ in the postmodern era if, in effect, we do not speak the language of a postmodern person.

In part 1 of this review will focus on the first question while part 2 will consider the second.

Is the modern era over? Placher starts his discussion of the Enlightenment with the father of the Enlightenment, René Descartes, writing:

“Descartes had set the goal of seeking a foundation for knowledge, but modern philosophy soon divided between empiricists who looked for that foundation in bare, uninterrupted sensations [things you see, hear, feel, taste…] and rationalists who sought it in logically unchallengeable first truths.” (26)

For empiricists, a problem quickly emerged because:

“We cannot build knowledge on a foundation of uninterpreted sense-data, because we cannot know particular sense-data in isolation from the conceptual schemes we use to organize them.” (29)

If this is not obvious, think about how one knows that a light is red and different from yellow or green. In order to recognize the difference, one needs to understand the definition of red and how it differs from yellow or green. Without knowing that definition, red is not a distinct color. We teach colors to children at a young age so they seem obvious to us as adults, but to untaught kids colors have yet to be learned. The definition of red is what is meant here as a conceptual scheme.

For logicians, Placher observes:

“What we cannot do is find some point that is uniquely certain by definition, guarantee to hold regardless of any empirical discoveries, independent of any other elements in the our system.” (33)

Placher notes the definition of a mammal, “a warm-blooded animal with hair which bears live young”, had to change with the discovery of the platypus (32). While the problem posed by the platypus seems trivial, Placher notes after referencing Russell’s paradox that:

“If our definitions in mathematics or logic lead to problems, we may decide to change them, but we always have more than one choice.” (34)

In conclusion, Placher cites Wittgenstein observing:

“when we find the foundations, it turns out they are being held up by the rest of the house. If theologians try to defend their claims by starting with basic, foundational truths that any rational person would have to believe or observations independent of theory and assumptions, they are trying to do something that our best philosophers tell us is impossible.” (34)

In other words, the attempt by Enlightenment scholars to find a defensible basis for objective truth has failed and we are now in the postmodern era where it can be said: “how you stand on an issue depends on where you sit”.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, is a fascinating review of modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part one of this review I have summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part two of this review, I will summarize Placher’s arguments for how we should do theology and witness understanding that we are in the postmodern era.

 

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Mark 16: Easter

New Life
New Life

“And he said to them, Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6 ESV).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most vivid memories I have as a young person was the experience of an Easter sunrise.  Easter is mysterious, earth-shattering news.  How could I sleep through it?

At my grandfather’s funeral, I was given a head of wheat which hangs now in my kitchen.  The wheat reminds me of Jesus’ saying:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 ESV).

The mystery of resurrection is everywhere in nature.  Sunrise is the resurrection of the day.  Springtime is the resurrection of the seasons.  The metamorphosis from caterpillar to cocoon to adult butterfly is a beautiful, dramatic resurrection.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “all of creation groans in anticipation of our redemption” (Romans 8:19-23).

Prophesies of Jesus’ resurrection start early in scripture.  Systematic theologians see salvation history as creation, fall, and redemption.  Because sin is the cause of death, eternal life requires forgiveness of sin which is brought about in Christ’s resurrection.  This transition is prophesied in Genesis:  “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15 ESV).

Other theologians see resurrection arising out of righteous suffering.  The prophet Job writes not only of Christ, but his own resurrection:  “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27 ESV).  At the birth of the church on Pentecost (Acts 2:27), the Apostle Peter sees resurrection prophesied by King David:  “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:10).

When asked to produce a sign Jesus himself spoke of the sign of Jonah (Luke 11:29-32).  In the belly of the whale Jonah prayed:  “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2 ESV).  And the whale spit him out on dry land, another resurrection story.

Resurrection did not start with Jesus.  Some see the story of the binding of Isaac as a resurrection account [1] and a prophecy of the cross (Genesis 22:1-18).  The prophet Elisha raises the Shunammite’s son from the dead (2 Kings 4:32-37).  In the valley of bones, Ezekiel prophesied about resurrection of the Nation of Israel (Ezekiel 37:3-6).  The exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt and the return of the exiles from Babylon are both resurrection accounts where a dead nation rises to new life.

In the gospels, Jesus himself performed several resurrections.  He raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead (Mark 5:22-43).  He raised the widow’s son (Luke 7:12-17).  Most remarkably, after lying four days in the tomb he raised Lazarus from death (John 11:1-45).  Like other resurrections, Jesus’ healings and exorcisms brought hope where there was none.

Some scholars believe that John Mark’s gospel recorded Apostle Peter’s testimony while he was in Rome during AD 41-54.  Mark later traveled with Paul.  Mark’s role was to teach about the life of Jesus.  Later, Luke may have assumed this role in Paul’s missionary team.

Interestingly, Mark did no see the gospel ending with Jesus.  Neither did Luke whose gospel was followed by the Book of Acts.  Mark’s gospel starts with:  “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1 ESV).  Scholars believe that Mark’s gospel ends with the woman going out from the tomb to relay the angel’s message:  “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7 ESV).  Likewise, our part in salvation history is to pass on the story.  As the hymnist Katherine Hankey (1834-1911) writes:  “I love to tell the story, of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love…” [2]

Christian hope starts with the resurrection: we know that death is not the end of life’s story.  And because we know the rest of the story, we can invest in life and live each day with boldness and joy.

[1] Did Abraham believe God would raise Isaac from the dead?  Why did the angel have to tell Abraham twice?

[2] www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh156.sht

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Mark 15: Holy Saturday

Frank_and_Gertrude_Hiemstra_grave“And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.” (Mark 15:46 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus is buried on the Day of Preparation which ends at sundown when the Jewish Sabbath begins. This detail in Mark’s Gospel is important because burial was forbidden on the Sabbath[1] and executed criminals could not hang overnight (Deut 21:23). The Gospels mention nothing taking place on the Sabbath while Jesus lay in the tomb and the narrative resumes on the following day. In other words, Jesus rested in the tomb over the Sabbath. Holy Saturday was a day of mourning and grief.

Grief is more than crying. In Jesus’ Beatitudes, Matthew records: “Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4) Luke records: “Honored are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21) Both accounts of this Beatitude are written in the form of a lament which has two parts.  In the first part, one empties the heart of all grief and pain and anxiety in prayer to God; in the second part, having been emptied the heart turns to God in praise. In the lament, when we grieve, we make room in our hearts for God.

The most famous lament in the Bible is cited by the Gospel of Mark as Jesus’ last words: “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)[2] These words come from Psalm 22 verse one which turns to God in verse 19: “But You, O LORD, be not far off; O You my help, hasten to my assistance.” At a time when much of scripture was memorized, rabbis would cite the first part of a passage knowing that the audience would fill in the missing part. Knowing this tradition[3], Jesus could cite the first verse in Psalm 22 knowing that people hearing him would know the Psalm and how it ended.

Jesus gave us a template for dealing with grief the night before during his prayer in Gethsemane. Mark records that Jesus’ prayed three times:  “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.” (Mark 14:36). Jesus is aware that he stands before the cross and does not want to die; still, he yields to God’s will. Each time we face pain and grief we are faced with a decision: do we turn to God or do we turn into our grief? Our identity is crafted from a lifetime of such decisions.

The story of Joseph of Arimathea is instructive. Mark records: “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:43) Asking for the body of a man just crucified for sedition took guts. Yet, with no expectation of resurrection, on a day when Jesus’ inner circle was in hiding and in fear, Joseph “took courage” and asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Then, he buried him in his own grave [4].

Holy Saturday is a time to reflect on Christ’s crucifixion. Are we among those happy to see Jesus in the tomb or are we looking forward to the kingdom of God like Joseph of Arimathea?

[1] Burial is work, hence forbidden on the Sabbath (e.g. Deut 5:12-15).

[2] Also: Matthew 27:46. The direct citation of an Aramaic expression—“Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” in both the Mark and Matthew accounts makes it more likely that these are the actual words of Jesus. This is because the most important expressions in the Bible are cited directly rather than translated or, in this case, the actual words are both cited and translated.

[3] Jesus does exactly that in Matthew 21:16 citing Psalm 8:2.

[4] What a picture of substitutionary atonement—Jesus was buried in my grave so that I do not have to be.

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Mark 15: Good Friday

The Crucifixion
The Crucifixion

“And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Pontius Pilate gets right to the point:  “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answers with two words–σὺ λέγεις—which means:  you say (Mark 15:2). The chief priests accuse him of many things.  Pilate asks Jesus a second question:  “Have you no answer to make?” (Mark 15:4)  Jesus does not respond (Isaiah 53:7).  Pilate is amazed.

The night before, the high priest asked Jesus if he is the Messiah (Christ).  Jesus responded using the words God from Exodus 3:14 saying:  “I am”.  Then, in case anyone misunderstood him, he paraphrased the messianic prophecy in Daniel 7:13:  “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62 ESV).  The high priest accordingly accused Jesus of blasphemy which is punishable by stoning under Jewish law (Leviticus 24:16).  But since Rome reserved the right to decide all cases of capital punishment, the chief priests accused Jesus of the political crime of sedition—treason against Rome.  This is why Pilate asked Jesus:  “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:2)

Realizing that Jesus is innocent of the charge of sedition, like a good politician Pilate begins working the crowd.  In offering to release a prisoner named Barabbas, who was guilty of both sedition and murder (Mark 15:7), Pilate is effectively asking the crowd what kind of Messiah they prefer.  The crowd asked for Barabbas who was known to be a Jewish nationalist—in other words, the crowd prefers a kingly Messiah.

Messiah means anointed one in Hebrew which translates as Christ in Greek.  Three types of roles are anointed:  prophets, priests, and kings.  In his earthly ministry, Jesus embodied the first two roles (prophet and priest), but the crowd wanted a king—someone to drive the Romans out—as we saw earlier in Mark 11:10.

So Pilate gave them what they wanted (Romans 1:24-25), washed his hands of the decision, and sent Jesus to the cross.

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Mark 14: Maundy Thursday

Foot washing
Foot washing

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread (הַמַּצּ֛וֹת), at the Feast of Weeks (הַשָּׁבֻע֖וֹת), and at the Feast of Booths (הַסֻּכּ֑וֹת; Deuteronomy 16:16 ESV).

Holy Week as we know it is often celebrated at the same time as the Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread (Festival of Matzos) often called Passover.  Dates differ because of differences in the calendar rules.  In Jesus’ time, Passover was one of three festivals that required the faithful to travel to Jerusalem.  The other festival familiar to Christians is the Feast of Weeks commonly known as Pentecost.  The Feast of Booths is a harvest festival in the fall.

Passover commemorates the release of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.  God instructed Moses to tell the Israelite to sacrifice a lamb and place the blood of the lamb over their door-posts so that the angel of death would pass them by.  On the night of the Passover, the angel of death struck down the first born of Egypt and passed over the Israelite households.  Pharaoh reacted immediately by expelling the Israelite slaves.  They left so quickly that there was not time to bake bread for the journey.  Instead, they prepared bread without letting the dough rise—unleavened bread (Exodus 12).  Mark 14:12-26 describes how Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover meal in Jerusalem now remembered as the Last Super.

The Last Super is important to Christians because it introduces the new covenant in Christ.  The word, covenant, found in v. 24 appears nowhere else in Mark’s Gospel and alludes to the covenant meal that Moses and the Elders of Israel shared with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:9-11).  The grim symbolism of the wine as the blood of Christ is an allusion to the blood of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:7) which alerted the angel of death to pass over households displaying the blood.  In this sense, as Christians we are (like the door posts) covered by the blood of Christ.  By Jesus’ blood our sins are forgiven and we are passed over (Hebrews 9:11-28).

Where does the name, Maundy Thursday, come from?  One theory is that it is Middle English for the Latin word, Mandatum, which means command.  According to some traditions, Maundy Thursday focuses on Jesus’ lesson on servant leadership:  “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14 ESV).

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