Archive | June 2021

The Prayer of Anguish

Growing up in the church, I came away with the impression that Christians are supposed to pray confident, victorious prayers, full of praise, trusting that God will always provide the answer we seek.  But when I examine the actual prayers of some of the great heroes of Scripture, I find a different picture.

David, the great psalmist, opens Psalm 13 with dark questions: “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

Psalm 22 opens with even deeper despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

And in Psalm 69 David vomits up this expression of discouragement: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.  I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.  I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.  My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”

Jeremiah, who gained a reputation as “the weeping prophet,” stated, “My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick” (Jeremiah 8:18).  He complained to God, “Cursed be the day on which I was born!  The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!  Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, ‘A child is born to you, a son,’ making him very glad.  Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great.  Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14-18)

 Moses, the great leader of Israel, prayed to God, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight–and do not let me see my misery” (Numbers 11:15).

And the great prophet Elijah begged God, “O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4).

According to the Gospel of Luke, even Jesus—a very member of the Godhead—prayed in deep turmoil.  Even after an angel came down from heaven to minister to Jesus, his turmoil was not dispelled.  Luke 22:44 reports, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”

What we need to know is that prayer will not always be a peachy clean experience for us, filled with the refreshing peace of God.  Sometimes prayer will be filled with the bubbling up of the deep sorrow, fear, pain and anguish of our soul.

Jesus’ experience of praying on the Mount of Olives shortly before his arrest and crucifixion was like a gethsemane.  The word gethsemane means “a place for pressing oils.”  Ray Vander Laan explains, “During Jesus’ time, heavy stone slabs were lowered onto olives that had already been crushed in an olive crusher.  Gradually, the slabs’ weight squeezed the olive oil out of the pulp, and the oil ran into a pit.”  That seems to be how Jesus felt as he prayed.

Olive oil was almost sacred to the Jewish people.  It was used to anoint kings and priests.  When Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives, blood seeped from his pores like anointing oil that was squeezed from the olives.  The blood that seeped from Jesus did exactly what olive oil did in Jewish culture for centuries.  It is Jesus’ blood—his death for us—that anoints us as heirs of the King of the universe and as priests of the Living God.

Because Jesus was willing to go through the agony of crucifixion, we are brought into intimate and eternal relationship with God. 

Because he endured the agony of prayer on the Mount of Olives, we can know that it is okay for us to pray in anguish.  If it okay for Jesus to pray in agony, then it is okay for us to pray in agony as well. 

As Jesus prayed in agony, he felt free to ask of God exactly what he wanted.  He wanted to be relieved from having to go through with the crucifixion; he wanted to be relieved of having to take upon himself all of our sins.  So he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”  We can know that it is okay for us, too, to ask God for whatever we want. 

In the end, though, Jesus submitted to God’s will.  He prayed, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.”  We will need to pray as Jesus did, submitting finally to God’s will.  The sequence is important though: Start by genuinely pouring out to God the longing of our soul; and conclude by submitting to God’s will for our lives.

Through it all, we can know that Christ sympathizes with the anguish of our prayers, for he experienced that himself.  And we can know that he is with us in our anguish, for that’s what he accomplished by drying for us (by anointing us with the blood that was squeezed from him).

A Deed to be Praised and Imitated

When a woman poured expensive ointment on Jesus’ head during a dinner at Bethany near the end of his life, Jesus announced to everyone at the dinner, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Nowhere else in any of the Gospels did Jesus suggest that anything anyone else had done would be told all around the world.  He did not claim that everyone would hear about the faith of the centurion, or about Peter walking on water, or about the blind man seeing again, or about Zacchaeus’ dramatic repentance, or about the feeding of the 5000, but he said it about this woman pouring ointment on his head!

Pericles, who was responsible for the construction of the Parthenon in ancient Greece, argued that it was the duty of an Athenian woman to live such an inconspicuous life that her name would never be mentioned among men either for praise or for shame.  The thinking in Greek culture was that a woman should live in such a way that she would never even be noticed.  But this woman caused a great stir when she broke open her alabaster jar and poured the ointment on Jesus’ head.  Jesus praised her and announced that she would go down in history for it!

Mark reports that the people at the dinner “scolded her,” complaining “in anger” that the ointment could have been sold for the price of at least 300 days’ wages, and the money given to the poor.  But Jesus defended her and affirmed the value of what she did, and he declared that what she did would be “proclaimed in the whole world!”

What is going on here?  Why is Jesus so impressed by her deed?

To answer that question, consider the setting where this took place.  They were eating a Middle-Eastern meal, vibrant with the aroma of delicious food.  There would have been the smell of freshly baked unleavened bread, since this was in the days leading up to the Passover.  There would have been the aroma of red wine.  There would have been the smell of dates, and figs, and fresh grapes, and cooked onions, and Jerusalem cheese, and pickled herrings, and honey pie.  Quite possibly, there would also have been the smell of barbecued lamb or goat.  These aromas would have warmed the nostrils and the souls of all the guests.

Then the woman arrives, not with a hot dish made from her grandmother’s famous recipe, but with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.  When she breaks the jar and pours the contents on Jesus’ head, she fills the room with a new and beautiful aroma—the aroma not just of nard, but of love and devotion. 

Apparently, there is nothing that thrills Jesus’ heart more than that!

Henry David Thoreau once advised, “Behave so the aroma of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere.”  That’s what this woman does, and such a deed deserves to be shared around the world!

Henrietta Mears once remarked, “God does not always choose great people to accomplish what he wishes, but he chooses a person who is wholly yielded to him.”  That’s what Jesus finds in this woman, and that’s what he decides should be shared all around the world.

One other aspect to this story should be mentioned.  In breaking the alabaster jar, this woman made a great personal sacrifice toward Jesus.  Jesus, in turn, tells the people at the dinner that “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.”  It is Jesus who will be making the greatest sacrifice—giving his very life for us.  There is something incredibly beautiful when the sacrifice of Jesus is greeted by a person’s own sacrifice of devotion and love.  When that happens, the world ought to hear about it so that we can be inspired by it and imitate it.  That’s why her story continues to be shared throughout the world. 

Let Nothing Block Access to God

Watching the movie John Q helps me to understand the Biblical account of Jesus overthrowing tables in the temple and driving out the money changers.

In the movie, Denzel Washington plays the part of John Quincy Archibald, a Chicago factory worker whose young son, Michael, is rushed to the hospital after collapsing at a softball game.  John and Denise Archibald are told that Michael needs a heart transplant to survive.  The procedure will cost the family $250,000 with a required down payment of $75,000 in order to place Michael on the organ recipient list, but due to the factory’s recent change of insurance carriers, John’s health insurance refuses to cover the surgery.  When the Archibalds are unable to raise the needed funds and are unable to arrange alternate aid, the hospital decides to release Michael from their care so that he can die at home.  Distraught over the prospect of losing their child, Denise pleads with John to do something.  In desperation, John takes Dr. Turner and several patients and staff hostage, demanding that Michael’s name be placed on the recipient list. 

Desperation to save his child drives John Q. Archibald to extreme actions.  That’s the kind of pathos stirring in Jesus’ soul as he watched what was taking place in the temple.

Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem at the beginning of preparations for Passover.  This meant that pilgrims from many distant towns were also arriving in Jerusalem.  For many, this was the time when they would pay their yearly temple tax.  But the temple would only accept Tyrian shekels which had a higher silver content than the normal Roman currency.  Money changers in the temple charged a handsome markup in the exchange process, greedily profiteering off of worshipers. 

On top of that, temple authorities appointed inspectors to check the quality of every animal that worshipers hoped to present as a sacrifice, to certify that every gift to God was without injury or blemish.  If the inspector decided an animal had an unacceptable flaw, the worshiper would be required to purchase a replacement from one of the temple’s merchants.  Often the temple sellers would charge as much as 20 times more than what the same animal would be sold for outside of the temple.

Mark specifically notes that Jesus overturned the benches of those who were selling doves.  The law stipulated that a dove was an acceptable sacrifice for those who could not afford to present a lamb or goat.  Doves were the usual sacrifice by women for their purification, by lepers for their cleaning, and by the poor.  The ability to offer a dove in the temple was essential for those who were most vulnerable in Jewish society at the time. 

Moreover, the area of the temple where business was taking place is the portion that was referred to as the Court of the Gentiles.  This was where God-fearing Gentiles could draw near to God.  By setting up shop in this section of the temple, the merchants and the temple authorities were blocking Gentiles from having access to God.

When the life of his son was at risk, John Q took the extreme action of taking the doctor and others hostage.  When Jesus observed the risk to the souls of those who were being pushed aside, Jesus took desperate actions himself.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  As desperate as John Q was to get his son on the recipient list, so desperate is Jesus that no one be blocked from having access to God.

Indeed, Jesus goes on to take the ultimate step.  He lays down his life to give everyone access to God!  Matthew, Mark and Luke each report that when Jesus died, the curtain in the temple was ripped in two, from top to bottom.  The veil in the temple was a long, thick, woven curtain of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen.  It separated “the Most Holy Place”—where God was thought to reside—from everything else.  The thick curtain that set apart that room symbolized the separation between us and God. It represented the barrier between God’s pure holiness and our sinfulness.  By ripping the curtain apart, from top to bottom, at the point of Jesus’ death, God sent a message, letting us know that because of the death of Christ, nothing will be allowed to separate us from God—not the tables of money changers or the exploitation of dove sellers or a curtain in the temple or sin or death or anything else will be allowed to block our access to the love of God! 

The Power of Grace

Louisa Fletcher Tarkington once wrote, “I wish that there were some wonderful place called the Land of Beginning Again, where all our mistakes and all our heartaches and all our poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door and never be put on again.” 

That Land of Beginning Again is sought by many people who come to a point of grieving the mess they have made of their lives.  But most of us fear that we could never find such a Land of Beginning Again where all of our mistakes and heartaches and poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby coat and never be put on again.

It seems to me that Zacchaeus is such a person.  He is the chief tax collector in one of the more important taxation centers in all of Palestine.  Therefore, we know that he is rich and shrewd.  As chief tax collector, every tax collector beneath him had to turn over a portion of their profits to him.  Zacchaeus was a person who had reached the top of his profession and whose income far surpassed nearly all of his countrymen.  But his chosen profession had also made him a despised man.  He was hated throughout the country.  The Jewish people hated him because tax collectors made their income by adding their own margin of profit to the taxes they extracted from others.  Even worse, the money tax collectors turned over was used to pay for the upkeep of the Roman army in Canaan.  Since Zacchaeus was collecting taxes for Rome, Jewish people looked upon him as both a thief and a traitor.  Since he was Jewish, though, he was despised by the Romans.  They used him to collect their taxes, but he was merely a pawn to them—someone to use then discard.  Nobody liked Zacchaeus or wanted anything to do with him.

No wonder Zacchaeus may have found himself longing for the Land of Beginning Again.

One day, Zacchaeus hears the news that the teacher from Galilee is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem.  Zacchaeus has heard rumors about this teacher and miracle worker who is known as a friend to sinners and to tax collectors.  He is curious.  He wants to see Jesus with his own eyes.  He figures that if he can get a good look at this controversial teacher, he will be able to ascertain what kind of person Jesus is.

Being such an unpopular person, though, Zacchaeus knows that no one will give him a spot at the front of the crowd.  The “good” people of Jericho will certainly not be willing to share space with him along the road.  But, being a short person, if he is pushed to the back of the crowd, he will never be able to see Jesus.  Furthermore, who knows what an agitated crowd might do to a chief tax collector.  So Zacchaeus hurries ahead of the crowd and climbs up into a sycamore tree, the leafiest tree in Israel.  He hides there waiting for Jesus to pass beneath him so that he can get a glimpse of Jesus from his place of secrecy. 

The kind of fear that drives a person to secrecy and hiding is the hallmark of shame, which has been described as “the inner, critical voice that judges whatever we do as wrong, inferior or worthless.”  Over the years, external and internal voices had been telling Zacchaeus that his livelihood is wrong and despised, and that he is inferior and worthless for doing it.

When Jesus arrives at the tree where Zacchaeus is hiding, he stops and calls out to him.  Oh, what potential for further shame this presents!  It was considered shameful in that culture for a grown man to run because running involved a man pulling up his robe and exposing his naked legs.  How much more shameful it would have been for a grown man to be caught hiding in a tree (exposing more than just his ankles probably).

But Jesus was not looking for an opportunity to shame Zacchaeus.  Instead, he calls out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

The crowd is ready for shame to be poured on.  They fully expect Jesus to give a good verbal thrashing to the tax collector hiding in the tree.  But a verbal thrashing would be nothing new to Zacchaeus.  He has been scolded many times already.  He has heard plenty of words of rebuke and condemnation.  He has grown accustomed to being judged and disdained.  What he has not grown accustomed to are words of love, forgiveness and acceptance, which is what he gets from Jesus.  Jesus’ words of invitation, acceptance and forgiveness become the motivation for miraculous change for Zacchaeus.  He says to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  The grace Jesus extends to Zacchaeus changes his life.

Many years ago, a Japanese magazine presented a creative advertisement.  The picture of a butterfly appeared on a page.  The entire page was dull gray in color—until the reader placed a hand over the picture.  Then the warmth of the hand caused special inks in the printing to react, transforming the dull gray butterfly into a rainbow of flashing color.

It was the warmth of Jesus’ touch (through a gracious invitation to Zacchaeus) that was able to transform a shamed, lonely, hiding tax collector into a penitent individual who gives half of his possessions to the poor and who pays back four times what he had cheated from others.  It is grace rather than shame that has the power to transform lives.