It was the winter of 1998, and the four oldest Fox children had walked from our house in Graham over to the Pine Cemetery, pulling their sleds behind them. There’s a great hill in the cemetery that a lot of the kids in the neighborhood would sled on. They had been gone for about an hour when Jesse, then 4 years old, asked his Mom, “When are they going to come back from the grave?”
We celebrated the greatest news the world has ever heard last Sunday, the news that Jesus Christ came back from the grave. We continue to celebrate that news, every day. It is the foundation of what we believe, and a solid foundation it is, indeed. For centuries Christians have lived with hope in the midst of suffering, have read His Word and kept His commandments, have gathered with others who believe and given their lives to telling the story, and have even given up their lives to follow Him. But dear readers, we live in a world that is increasingly skeptical of the absolute truth of the gospel, a world that is willing to believe almost anything except that Jesus Christ is God and died for their sins and rose from the dead and is the only way to the Father.
I read a Barna Research poll last year that revealed fully one-third of those who claim to be born-again Christians do not believe that Jesus came back to physical life after He was crucified. What? That’s like saying, “I believe that Michael Jordan is a businessman, but he was never a basketball player.” Saying you believe in Jesus, but not in His physical resurrection is like saying you believe in Christmas but not in Jesus’ birth.
Some believe the resurrection of Jesus is no more (maybe less) than a fairy tale. I had a good friend in graduate school who went on to get his Ph.D. in English and teaches at UC-Davis. We had lots of discussions about God and Jesus and the Bible, most of which he just would not believe. When we had our first child, my friend, Steve, sent me a copy of Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes and wrote in the margin to Micah that his Dad should read these to him every day. Well, if Jesus is not raised from the dead, then we might as well read Mother Goose for devotions and memorize the rhymes and believe in Humpty Dumpty. Maybe, just maybe, the king’s horses and the king’s men will be able to put him back together again. That could be our only hope, without the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Take a look at Paul’s argument for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, beginning in verse 12. This passage is still being used in some law schools as a classic example of sound reasoning. Paul starts the chapter, however, by delineating four truths that are of first importance. 1. Christ died for our sins. 2. He was buried. No swoon theory where Jesus was later revived in a back alley somewhere and then somehow pulled off the greatest hoax in history. No, he was dead and buried. 3. He was raised on the third day. Without this truth, the first two are meaningless. 4. He appeared to many after His resurrection. Without this truth, the third truth is cast into shadow. His body is gone, but where is He?
Jesus Christ is risen, and has become the first fruits of those who die in Him. That means we who believe in Him will also be raised from the dead.
It really doesn’t get any better than that.
How many of you remember your Mom’s stern warning to you as a child: “Do not borrow anybody’s comb!” My Mom was pretty convinced that if I ran someone’s comb through my hair, I would instantly be infested with microscopic creatures that would eat through my scalp and destroy me and life on the planet, as we know it. She even said I would be better off drinking out of somebody else’s cup than to use their comb. So I went through my childhood with an irrational fear of hair germs and would break into a cold sweat when I saw teens sharing their combs (or their picks…remember those?) willy-nilly, without regard for life or limb or scalp. I was convinced that’s why this kid in high school named Chad went bald at 18. He was probably sneaking behind the gym with borrowed combs almost every day.
There are some things you just don’t borrow. Like mouth guards, if you are playing on the basketball team, riding the pine, and suddenly the coach yells for you to get in the game. I never expected that to happen. I was one of those guys at the end of the bench who, if this were a Final Four game, would be locking arms with the other benchwarmers as the starting point guard stood at the free throw line, trying to ice the victory. I never expected to be put in the game. We couldn’t be enough points ahead for the coach to put me in the game. But here he was, calling my name, and I can’t find my mouth guard. Hey, better to risk losing all my teeth in the lane as I am bumping armpits with my head, while trying to get a rebound, than to borrow a mouth guard from Lewis, the kid on the bench even further down the roster than me. I am pretty sure that Lewis kept his mouth guard inside his tennis shoes when they weren’t on his feet. For all I knew, he may have thrown his comb in there, too. No way am I borrowing his mouth guard.
There are some things you just don’t borrow. Like burial plots. I mean, once you are dead, you’re dead, right? There is no way you can borrow a burial plot. You can only borrow something that you intend to give back.
Check the records. There is a burial plot in Jerusalem owned by a certain Joseph of Arimathea. When Jesus of Nazareth was crucified nearly 2,000 years ago, Joseph asked Pilate if he could take the body of Jesus. He put Jesus in “a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” Three days later, that tomb was available again because Jesus was raised from the dead, just as He said He would be. You know what is interesting about the Son of God? He entered the world through a virgin birth. He entered Jerusalem for His final week on a borrowed donkey colt, one that had never been ridden. He was laid in a borrowed tomb on Friday, which He gave back on Sunday.
There are some things you just don’t borrow. But I will be eternally grateful that Jesus borrowed His gravesite. That means I will only be borrowing mine for a while, too.
The angel said of Jesus, “He is not here, for he is risen, as he said. Come see the place where he lay.” This, my friends, is why we celebrate Easter tomorrow, and every day: Jesus rose on Sunday, and conquered sin, death, and the grave.
One of the questions I was asked to address with a group of pastors and church leaders in Virginia several years ago was “How have you avoided legalism in your church?” I responded that I think the key to avoiding legalism is keeping the main things the main things. Legalism happens many times in a church simply because the pastor or the elders inflate the importance of externals and underplay the importance of heart issues. The Pharisees had the externals down; they were nearly perfect in every way…on the outside. But inside, Jesus said, the Pharisees were filled with dead men’s bones. They were hypocrites, and therefore could not afford to ever let their guard down and be real with each other. The heart issues remained hidden to all but Christ.
I went on to relate this to how we raise our children. What we praise in our children will be emphasized in their lives: their looks rather than their character, their talents rather than their servanthood, their intellect rather than their heart for God. If our emphasis is on the externals, then we are raising little Pharisees who will make their lives (and those around them) miserable. What we praise in our children will be those things we value the most, and which they will develop with the most zeal.
It is the same with a church. What we celebrate as a church defines what is important to us and ultimately what we will become. I heard a great teaching on this a while back at a luncheon for pastors. The speaker, Rick Sessoms, said that the “products and practices” of a church do not happen in a vacuum but are the direct result of what the church really values. The question for a church then is simple: How do we know what we value? Sessoms offered the following questions as guidelines.
What can we do with this information? I think we can and should evaluate our own lives and the life and health of our churches, to see if what we value are the same things Jesus taught and modeled for His disciples. Those things will be matters of the heart, matters of character, development of leaders who know how to lay down their lives, compassion for the lost, and wisdom that is anchored in the Word.
James tells the church that if anyone is sick among them, they should call for the elders to come and pray over them. Let’s think about that for a moment. First, for the young readers, “sick” is a serious word here that means there’s something wrong. I understand that some of you use the word as a synonym for awesome, as in, “Man, that dude on the guitar is sick.” I can assure you that James is not asking for the awesome people to call for the elders. No, these were people who were ill. Infirm. Not well. And based on the text, probably not ambulatory. They were most likely at home, in bed. What should they do?
Call for the elders of the church to come and pray. Let me hasten to add that this means of grace is not mutually exclusive from the means of grace God has given us through medicine and doctors. But most people, even Christians who know what the Word teaches, will not consider this option and even see asking for prayer as a last resort.
The first question to ask James is, “What church?” Well, the one they are in, the one they are committed to. This passage, along with several others, makes a strong case for church membership. We are called to commitment to a local church, not just casual acquaintance with one. This passage also makes a case for a plurality of elders. Notice James doesn’t instruct the sick person to call for the pastor, but for the elders. Plural. You can find the qualifications for elders (or pastors, or bishops, or overseers, or any other title you want to bestow on those who lead the church) in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
The second question is, “Who is responsible to get the elders to come and pray?” The ones who are sick! They are to take the initiative. They are to call for the elders, not on a whim, like, “Oh good grief, I’ve tried everything else, maybe I’ll give the elders a go at this.” They call for the elders because of the spiritual authority these leaders have been given. And they call for the elders because there is faith even in taking the initiative.
I think that’s in part why Jesus asked a lame man at the pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be healed?” The man had been a cripple for 38 years. Of course he wanted to be healed! But wait, if that seems so obvious to us, why did Jesus ask the question? We know that Jesus never asked a foolish question, or an unimportant question, so we have to admit that Jesus asked because He knew some people do not want to be healed. Ray Stedman wrote, “I know many people today who do not want to be healed. They do not want to receive divine help in their problems. They do not want to be helped out of their weakness. They love their weakness, their helplessness. They are always craving the attention of others through their helplessness. They sometimes flee assuming responsibility for their own lives. I have even seen people turn their backs on a way of deliverance they knew would work, because they did not want to be healed.”
The initiative of the sick is essential, as is the response of the elders. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church. Calling for the elders is a way of saying to the Lord, “I want to be healed.”
I remember one Christmas back in the mid-1980s. I cut down a cedar tree in the woods and dragged it into my living room. I put it in the tree stand, which proved to be a bit too wimpy to hold up the sturdy evergreen. So I went outside to get a couple of cinderblocks that I would place on the legs of the tree stand, to give it support. I knew exactly where the blocks were. My mind argued with itself about taking a flashlight into the dark night. “You know where the blocks are; they are not hidden,” one side reasoned. “Yes, but it’s dark out there. You need to see where you are going,” the other side answered. I won the argument with myself … or maybe I lost. Nonetheless, I struck out into the dark wilderness of my backyard and made my way to the stack of cinderblocks. Having reached my destination without a problem, I congratulated the winning side of my brain for having the foresight to leave the flashlight back in the kitchen drawer. I then picked up two of the blocks and lugged them to the back stoop, where I set them down in the light to inspect them for dirt. That’s when I realized that about two inches from my ungloved right hand, inside one of the cinderblocks, was the healthiest black widow spider I had ever seen. Perhaps she had just eaten her husband and was still bloated from the heavy meal, but for whatever reason, I was spared an attack.
I learned a valuable lesson from that close encounter with a venomous arachnid. Would you like to know what it was? You might want to get a pen and write this down, because this kind of profundity only comes ‘round once in a great while. Here it is: “The light does you no good if you do not use it.”
That’s it. Simple, I know, but in the words of the old country preacher, “That dog will hunt.” You see, a flashlight is useless in the drawer. Headlights are worthless if you don’t turn them on. A front porch light is dangerously without purpose if you throw a T-shirt over it. I learned that lesson the hard way as a teenager when I wanted to have some “private conversation” with a girl on her front porch. Her Daddy was not a happy camper when the smoke from my smoldering shirt smote his nostrils in the living room.
Jesus said it like this: “Men do not light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
Walking in the light of the truth you have received greatly improves your vision. You can see better when you follow Christ. That doesn’t mean he will not lead you through hard times, narrow places and difficult spots. There are dark valleys where we cannot see the next step and must walk by faith and not by sight. But there are also times when we are in the dark because we choose to be there. He has given us the light of understanding but we have chosen to reject it or neglect it.
The old saying is true, that God will only give more light to the one who is walking in obedience to the light that he has already received. That’s where I want to live, in the light. It keeps me honest. It might keep my hands away from poisonous spiders, as well.
James would answer, “Lying is,” because it gets to the ultimate issue of personal integrity. We are bombarded by lies on a daily basis. We hear them on the radio and television, and read them in the news. Politicians and advertisers lie to us. And if we can be totally honest with ourselves, we tell lies, too. We lie to ourselves, to each other, even to God. For some, lying is an art, a craft that they hone and perfect. They understand that lying can move a product or build a resume. They know that, “A lie can travel around the world, while truth is still lacing up its boots.”
We call it “fake news” in the media. We also see that every time a politician opens his mouth these days, there are 50 people fact-checking every word. Sadly, that happens out of necessity. One President in the late 1990s said to his top aides, “There is nothing going on between us,” referring to his White House intern. Of course it came out that there was plenty going on, so when the President was asked before a grand jury to explain his statement that he had made to his top aides, he replied, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the — if he — if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.”
Huh? Go back 25 years before him, and you hear another President say at a press conference, “I am not a crook.” Which turned out to be a lie. We would all be justified in our anger against these men if we did not have to look at ourselves in the mirror every day. We also shade the truth, exaggerate, and sometimes just flat-out tell lies.
Now I am aware there may be a moral relativist reading this column who would respond, “You’re making a big deal about ‘truth’, but really, there is no Truth with a capital T. There is only little-t truth, which is a construct. Your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth.” I would say to them, your life proves that you don’t believe that. Because when you get your Duke Energy bill, and the company has inadvertently added a zero, you call them up. You say, “You have made a huge mistake. The power bill should have been $175, but you charged me $1750!” You don’t expect them to say, “Hey, $175 is your truth, but $1750 is our truth. Pay the bill or lose your power.” No, and it’s the same when you go to the doctor to talk about your MRI. You don’t want him to tell you his truth with regard to the results. “Well, the MRI shows a huge mass in your pancreas, and conventional wisdom says we need to aggressively treat that or you will not be here next year at this time. But my truth is that you are fine. Forget about it. Live happy. It’s probably nothing, in fact, I am sure it is.” No, the relativist trashes his own doctrine at that point, as well as that doctor, gets a second opinion and demands the objective truth. My integrity and yours depends on truth-telling, or crumbles for its lack.
James said it plainly: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’ be no.” In other words, why not just tell the truth?
Susan is a 14-year-old girl who lives in a Muslim family in Uganda. One day a person spoke at her school about Jesus, His sacrifice for our sins, and how a person can be redeemed through faith in Him. That day, Susan gave her life to Jesus. When she got home and her father heard about it, he grabbed Susan and her brother by the hair and dragged them into the front yard. He put a knife at her throat and told Susan that he would kill her and her brother if she did not stop talking about her faith in Jesus. Susan did not stop. So her father took her to a room in the house where there was a single mat on the floor. He made her sit on the mat and said, “You will not get off of that mat until you renounce your faith in Jesus.” Then he locked the door. And he didn’t open it again for three months. The only way Susan survived was that her brother would dig a hole under the door and pour water into it. Susan would lean over from the mat and lap up the water. He fried bananas and put them under the door so she wouldn’t starve. One day the neighbors asked the brother where Susan was. He told them and they called the police. When they opened the door, they were horrified to find Susan, barely alive, weighing only 44 lbs., her bones beginning to deform because of the way she had sat for three months. When asked why she had never moved from that spot, had never gotten off the mat, Susan said, “Because my father told me that if I got off the mat, I would be denying Christ.” (Open Doors USA)
I thought about that story as I read what the book of Hebrews says of prophets of old: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.” Those words, written nearly 2,000 years ago, are just as true today. In many countries, and the number is growing, those who speak the truth about Jesus, as Susan did in Uganda, suffer and sometimes die because of their testimony. James writes in his letter, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” It’s vital that we understand as followers of Christ that patience and suffering are traveling companions. We grow in patience if we suffer well, and we suffer well by practicing patience in the midst of the trial, by looking to the Lord to be the lifter of our head.
What do we learn from the prophets and from testimonies like Susan’s? First, God allows suffering in the lives of those who speak for Him, so that their life will back up their message. Second, we are not to go silent in times of suffering. The will of God does not lead us where the grace of God cannot keep us. Even the sword cannot separate us from the love of Christ.
I am thankful for my Ugandan sister whom I have never met. Her story of faith in Jesus, no matter the cost, moves and inspires me. She inspires me to pray for her and the millions of Christians around the world who suffer simply because of what they believe about God. And it inspires me to stand and speak about Him who is the author and the finisher of our faith. He is worthy of any price that I have to pay.
Seems this lady was a classic worrier, even though her faith was firmly settled in Jesus. And as classic worriers tend to do, and really all of us do this, they worry much about things that are outside of their control. The son got a phone call from his dad years ago. He said it startled him a little because his parents always called at certain times in the week, and this was outside the norm. His pastor dad sounded very concerned and asked his son if he would do something for him. Of course, the son answered, and waited to hear the news. He knew his parents were getting ready to leave soon for a trip to Hawaii, and he knew that for his mother, flying was death. But he was surprised to hear his father say something about the fruitcakes that David’s mom loved to make, and how she always included brandy in the recipe. And he was reminded that his dad had to travel two counties over to buy the brandy, lest someone would see him, their pastor, in the ABC store. Then his father said, “If our plane goes down, don’t grieve or mourn or do anything until you’ve done this. Go directly to our house, look in the shed, and on the floor behind the freezer, you will find the bottle of brandy. Destroy it at once.” The folks in the memorial service roared with laughter, and a few minutes later it was the older son’s turn to give a eulogy for his mom. Jeff looked from the pulpit to his father in the front row and said, “I just have one question, Dad. Why was it that the younger son got to know where the brandy was kept?”
In his letter, James tells his readers to be patient until the coming of the Lord. Then he reminds them that the farmer is absolutely dependent on the rain. And we know that rain is absolutely outside of our control. Farmers have to trust God with what is His to do. I love the late Keith Green’s song, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest,” especially his verse about Noah: “You just think about Noah, totin’ his umbrella, when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. All his neighbors would laugh at his pet giraffe, and they would snicker as he passed by. But the Lord said, ‘Hey Noah, be cool — you just keep building that boat, it’s just a matter of time, ’til they see who’s gonna float; you just keep doing your best, and pray that it’s blessed; hey Noah, I’ll take care of the rest, I’m the weather man!’” If you know the story, you know that Noah worked for 100 years, building an ark in a world that had never seen rain, much less a flood.
What we learn from Noah was that not only did he trust God completely with the things that were outside of his control, but he also trusted God completely with the things that were under his control. What was in Noah’s control? The ark. He was told by God to build the ark. His obedience was just as necessary as the rain. He couldn’t control the rain: that was on God. He could only control his obedience.
So, why do we worry? Jesus said, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”
I heard a former NFL coach say that the most important thing about the scouting combine was that it gave the scouts and coaches an opportunity to look the players in the eye and see what kind of character they have. “Their speed in the 40 is highly overrated,” he said. “What is most important is the interview.” The most important consideration for coaches looking to draft a young player to their team is their character? Maybe even the NFL is learning that athletic prowess connected to unbridled character leads to trouble. Just let the athlete talk about himself for five minutes, and what’s in the heart will come out.
It’s the same in the business world. When two equally skilled people compete for the same job, the person who gives the best interview usually lands it. One professional said there are five red flags for him in an interview, any one of which is a deal-breaker. Even if the candidate is imminently qualified, he won’t get the job if: 1) He talks too much; 2) She doesn’t have a basic understanding of the company; 3) He is not wearing a suit; 4) She begs for the job; 5) He doesn’t know how to communicate why he would be a good fit for the company. I would suggest that each of those “flags” indicate character problems of selfishness, laziness, carelessness, insecurity and unpreparedness.
In the NFL combine or the professional interview, the question is, does the man or woman reflect the resume? The employer is trying to get a look at the heart, the character, the real deal. God does the same.
David asked God in Psalm 15, “Lord, who may abide with You? Who is able to stand in Your presence?” He was not asking God how to be saved from his sins. That only comes by grace through faith, which cannot be earned by any man or woman. Christ paid for it on the cross. David was asking how he could know that he was really walking with God. “Lord, how can I live in such a way to enjoy the fullness of your fellowship?”
I have a warning for any of you dear readers who might entertain these thoughts: “I don’t care about the fullness of His fellowship. I just want to make sure I am in. That when the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.” If that is the attitude of your heart, it may call into question whether you have ever known true repentance. When the Spirit of God comes in, He doesn’t just take up space, He takes over. There is an ongoing change in a person’s thought patterns, actions, desires, motives, goals, and affections when he has been born again. That doesn’t happen when we say to God, in effect, “Stay in this closet in the basement, please, so as not to get in the way with how I want to live my life; when I need You, I’ll let you know.” Instead, regeneration results in extreme makeover, and there are dire consequences for all who would pretend. As Charles Spurgeon said, “To own Him in our profession (what we say) and deny Him in our practice (how we live) is, with Judas, to betray Him with a kiss.”
Read Psalm 15 and see how your walk, your talk, and your values will stand as evidence of life-change. And yes, Virginia, there is a final exam. All who truly know God will pass.
No matter how fast or slow they run the 40.
I left my apartment in Chapel Hill at 4:00, and I can remember a few mornings when I was asleep at the wheel while I drove. It was God’s mercy that kept me alive. I woke up once while passing a car on Highway 54. Had there been a car coming the other way during my little nap, I shudder at the thought of what would have been lost, including the life of the oncoming driver. I would not have met my lovely bride, enjoyed 34 years of marriage, watched 7 children grow up, or held five (so far!) grandchildren in my arms. All would be lost because of one second of inattention. Some of you will remember the Hudson River crash of 2009. Nine people were killed when a single-engine Piper collided in mid-air with a Liberty sightseeing helicopter. The air traffic controller had stepped out of the tower to talk on his cellphone with his girlfriend. The supervisor was not in the tower, as required by law. Both of these men took a break, just for a brief moment, and that’s all it took for families to be destroyed.
Falling asleep unintentionally is one thing. Pursuing a lifestyle that keeps you in perpetual stupor is quite another. Jesus said, ““But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that Day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”
There is a real temptation, in other words, to deal with the hardships of life by checking out, intentionally throwing yourself into full party-mode, living for the moment, ignoring the warning signs until you swerve over the center line and into a head-on collision. Some of you scoff at the idea, completely confident in your ability to avoid the collision, to live to satisfy your every craving without a problem. May I remind you that the “Day” is coming? It comes for every man. He says, “For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the earth.” Nothing ever caught in a snare meant to be there. No person in his right mind swerves on purpose into oncoming traffic. No one tries to catch a nap while driving 75 on I-85. It just happens. Jesus says it will happen to all of us one day: death will come and then we will face the final Day.
May I say this to all of you who follow Christ? You may have spent a lifetime building a testimony to faith in Him, but it just takes a split second to lose it all. One second you are awake and alert, and the next second you have fallen asleep in the arms of adultery or bitterness or drunkenness or deceit, and all is lost. Watch! Stay awake. By the way, I have never fallen asleep in the car while I am talking with someone else. We need help to stay awake. Do you have someone in your life that is willing to nudge you, or worse, when you start to drift off? I would suggest that’s what the church is for, in part. I am surrounded by a number of men who love me enough to tell me the truth, and I do the same for them. It’s a wonderful means of grace that keeps us on the road.
Don’t fall asleep at the wheel. The price is too high.