Sunday, March 31, 2013

Message from an Empty Tomb

Luke 24

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Resurrection

24 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.


Can you even imagine this scene? I'm pretty confident that everyone who heard the news of Jesus' empty tomb must have been thinking they'd lost their minds. Let's get real. Having an encounter with an angel first thing in the morning isn't exactly business as usual. Who sees "two men in dazzling apparel," except in Las Vegas or on Broadway? But there they were, announcing Jesus' resurrection.

We've been talking all week about grief and the resurrection, but let's talk for a minute about  the promise and the message we have been given though grief.  From deep within our grief, do we ever stop and return to prophesy of a glorious day when we will be resurrected? I know that in my own times of grief and sorrow, it has been easy to look forward to death and being with Jesus in heaven away from all the pain.  In those times, I relate to the Bible promises about being with Jesus in heaven. But, to be honest, when I'm grieving I have trouble clinging to promises about my life on earth. I have trouble singing songs of hope.

This feeling of being disabled from hope is not unique, and it often feels like future joy mocks us. It is as if the days to come are like bullies who torment us saying, "Let's see you talk about hope and really mean it now!"

When the Israelites were captives of the Babylonians, they were asked to entertain and amuse their captors.

Psalm 137

English Standard Version (ESV)

How Shall We Sing the Lord's Song?

137 By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord's song
    in a foreign land?

The Israelites were devastated. The psalmist says they just sat down and wept thinking about what was in their past—their homeland and heritage. They hung up and put away their musical instruments for praise and worship, but their captors required them to sing songs from home. The people of Israel were grieving, and wondered how they could ever sing the songs of their homeland—songs from the good ol' days—while being held captive. Isn't that just how it is for us when we grieve and mourn? But the psalm goes on to say, 

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!

Dear friends, grief can choke off our praise and pull a curtain around our memories of happier times...cutting them off from our hope for today and for the future. We we are in the clutches of grief and sadness, our lives can feel like tombs of death sealed from the outside by an immovable stone. We feel empty and depleted. 

Yet, what if we chose to see things differently? 2 Corinthians 10:5 says that we can "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ," and that ability can be put into practice amid our pain and suffering. We can make up our minds, even right now, that we will not forget God's promises to us that are for THIS life, not just the life to come. Even though we grieve and mourn we have hope and we CAN experience joy!

My friends, out of our ashes, and out of our tombs of grief and loss, our God has been faithful to raise us up because HE was raised from death to life! And so, because He conquered sin and death for us, we have not only hope for the future, but hope for TODAY. We have a message—a testimony of Jesus' great faithfulness to us. But that is not the end of our message.

What we find in grief is not only that He lives—Jesus who has already borne the sacrificial, crucified, tormented death of our griefs, and of all our sickness, sin, and shame—but WE live...and we live to share that message of hope that rose with Jesus out of the tomb. We live to share His love through our own stories of life, death, and resurrection from our personal tragedies and griefs.

I am praying today that everyone who grieves and mourns will take both courage and encouragement to let Jesus raise you up out of life's griefs (the stains of sin and death on our human hearts) so that you can tell His story and proclaim His love through your message from an empty tomb!

And for anyone who does not yet know, or has not heard, the beautiful story of God's love, please visit my friends at What is the Gospel? and find out how you can have hope and share the great message from the empty tomb!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Sound of Silence

If you have ever heard or read the story of the prophet, Elijah, you may remember that, at one point, he was on the run and in fear for his life from the evil Jezebel. Elijah was literally running for his life; there was a price on his head. 

I have heard Elijah's story told like the religious version of a Nora Ephron film, where, after many fits and starts, Elijah has this romanticized moment of closeness with God that turns the whole thing into a happily ever after tale. Forgive me, but I am impatient with these kinds of interpretations of Elijah's story. 

First of all, he wasn't running like Chicken Little and crying that the sky was falling. Jezebel really wanted to have Elijah murdered! Second of all, it's all well and good to give messages on what a more brave and faithful Elijah would have/should have done, but the humanness of Elijah's story really ought to help us relate to the franticness of knowing that a life was truly in jeopardy. But, for me, Elijah's encounters with God are too neatly tied up by most people who discuss his mountain top revelation.

God had been asking Elijah, "What are you doing here?" and I am sure it wasn't because He didn't know what was on Elijah's mind. I sort of imagine it as God's way of getting Elijah to think beyond the immediacy of his circumstances. I can almost hear God saying, "Um...Elijah, not for nothin' but...did it ever occur to you that you are not where you belong? That you're not doing the work I have called you to do? Hmmm...?"

So by the time Elijah goes up to the mountain and experiences the drama and dangers of the wind, the earthquake, and the fire he was probably FINALLY beginning to wonder what it was that God had in mind...what God wanted him to do. Scripture goes on to tell us that God was not in any of the violent weather, but was finally revealed in a "a gentle blowing" sometimes referred to as a whisper, or "a still small voice."And yet even after that God still asked Elijah what he was doing there. That suggests to me that the still small voice was probably a supernatural breath into what was otherwise a deafening silence for Elijah.

My friends, profound grief comes with much legitimate fear. In grief we learn just how much we can lose, how cruelly and suddenly we can lose it, and how quickly the world seems to go on despite our agony. There's a reason people struggle to comfort the bereaved. Grievous events and situations are thieves of words and crushers of our explanatory powers. We cannot get our minds around the catalysts of grief because they are both entirely normal within the human experience, and yet entirely personal to us as individuals.

Can you imagine all the on-lookers and Jesus' mother, friends, family, and followers after it was clear that he was dead? Imagine the theatrics and then the equivalent of an announcer saying, "That's it folks. Show's Over. Everybody go home. Jesus has left the building." It's like that as we experience grief. 

In the midst of the dramas that lead up to our grief, we are asking God, "what am I doing here?" and expecting some grand response from on high. But for a time the answer may be nothing more than a whisper of wind and silence. In the vortex of pain and suffering that follows our traumas and opens the portals of grief, we too go silent for a time, and only occasionally ask what it is that God expects us to do with our suffering. We want to repeat our list sorrows to God. Yet our gentle Father in Heaven continues to ask us, "What are you doing here?" Dear ones, my sense is that God means to tell us that we cannot pitch our tents in the wilderness of grief and expect mountain top revelations akin to Moses' encounter where he received the 10 commandments and chiseled them on the tablets.

In fact, more often than not God will send us back to our lives to continue His work as before, only wiser and with greater reverence, humility, and obedience before Him. That is certainly true of Elijah. And in one way or another it is inevitably what God has in mind for us. Job did not remain in sackcloth and ashes. He got up, scarified, prayed, and went about the business of starting a new family...knowing well that it could all be stripped away again without explanation. Ezekiel was not even allowed to grieve the death of his wife. Jonah was put right back on task.

Maybe the reason the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds is because He has work for them to do that requires their prayers of repentance, their acts of sacrifice, their commitment to the calling God placed on their sum, their trust and obedience.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

This Cup Is the New Covenant

1 Corinthians 11:25

English Standard Version (ESV)
25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

As we're thinking about grief and the resurrection, we come to Maundy Thursday—our recognition of the Passover feast and the covenant of communion. I have not made a study of Jesus' last days, but as I was preparing for this post I couldn't help thinking about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Matthew 26:36-56

English Standard Version (ESV)

Jesus Prays in Gethsemane

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

It is interesting to me that even before the Passover feast, Jesus is talking about the grief he is about to bear as a cup. It may be he is referring to the cup used to pour out offerings on the altar in the temple, though I think quite a few scholars point to the cup as figurative language referring to a person's destiny. Either way, I think the cup also provides a useful metaphor for us to talk about grief. Can you imagine Jesus in the garden saying, "Father, if it is possible, please don't ask me to sign this covenant in grief," knowing, as he did, the agonies that were to come?

Isn't that just how we feel when we encounter grief? The precious parents I know who have had to endure the loss of their children, whether pre-birth or in adulthood, have all shared with me the experience of feeling poured out before God and pleading with God to let the agony of such devastating loss pass from them. I have heard many people who have a mother, father, sibling, parent, or grandparent facing death, as well as spouses who are enduring the griefs of divorce, share similar sentiments. Even the loss of a home, job, relationship, or health can call us very painful feelings of impending grief and loss. Let's face it, when we encounter grief it is never welcomed because we recognize the absoluteness of death and loss that is coming our way. We sense in advance, as Jesus did, that it will be unbearable agony.

The Bible tells us in Isaiah 53 that Jesus "bore our griefs" and made "His soul an offering for sin." We might say that there is a sense in which our human grief is poured out as a response to sin—the pain, suffering, death, and loss we experience in this life. Thinking in that way can help us begin to better understand Christ's sacrifice for us on the Cross.

My friends, if you are grieving the sins and agonies of this life—whether as part of this Easter season of prayer, sacrifice, and resurrection, or as a result of suffering and loss in your life—I am praying that you will take comfort in the knowledge that there is One who understands your heart and your hurt because He died for your healing. As you walk through your grief and endure suffering in this life, you can gain comfort and strength that Jesus died for you to experience a life of perfect comfort, peace, joy, and wholeness that you can practice now in preparation for the life to come...with our Lord and Savior in heaven.

Let us pray in confidence, faith, and hope the words that Jesus taught us when He said these words, recorded in Matthew 6:9-13,

In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

And let's pray together, that when we must endure the cup of grief and suffering that we can give it to God for His use and purposes in bringing comfort and hope to others.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

If you have ever walked alone in the dark, or on an isolated road, then you know that feeling of impending doom. There's an anxious tension that pulses through you as every leaf rustles. The sight of someone coming toward you brings on a sweat and palpitations. In those moments, we feel as though we are in the scene from To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout and her brother, Jem, are walking home from the school play.

When we walk through dark, lonely places we are conspicuous and vulnerable, and we fear the worst.

That is precisely the feeling David speaks into in Psalm 23:4. He says, 

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

David knew very well the dangers on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. The Valley of the Shadow of Death (see image, top) was a real place—a dangerous passage between the high cliffs where robbers and assailants could lay in wait and attack. It may well have been the image Jesus was invoking when he told the parable of the good Samaritan. 

The man walking on the road—through The Valley of the Shadow of Death—was beaten, robbed, stripped, and left for dead. That is just what we fear when we walk alone, and it is also how we feel (beaten, robbed, stripped, and left for dead) when we grieve. Grief is nothing if it isn't a lonely walk through a valley that is made fearsome and dark by Death's shadow.

But isn't it comforting to know that even amid all of the feelings of grief that leave us stripped bare, empty, and bruised all over we can walk through the valley fearlessly? Just as a shepherd has his crook to keep his sheep both on the path and safe from danger, we have God walking with us, in Spirit and in Truth. 

If we have a personal, saving relationship with Jesus, then His spirit goes with us everywhere. His Truth—the Word of God...the Bible—speaks back to fear and reminds us that God is walking with us all the way through this life and into the next. Throughout Scripture we are told, at least 365 times, not to fear. Yet, grief is so powerful because it is often the realization and aftermath of our fear(s). 

Even as people of faith, grief makes our hearts cry out to God in pain and confusion saying, "I thought you were with me! I thought your rod and staff were there to protect me from <fill in the blank>." Grief calls up emotions that rehearse our pain and trauma over and over again, each time wondering where the rescuer was, and why we were abandoned.

Dear one, this life is filled with sin and death. No one escapes such things this side of heaven. There are times and experiences in life that may literally leave us beaten, robbed, stripped, and left for dead. Ask anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted. Rape is violent and sometimes deadly. We cannot always understand where God was when something like that happens. We cannot easily explain God's seeming absence when tragedies occur like the Newtown, CT shooting. These are the valley experiences that demand our faith in God's sovereignty and wisdom that are beyond our understanding. That kind of faith only comes from living a life that is steeped in God's Truth, which we receive through his Word.

Our fearlessness does not come from our emotions. It does not come from our experiences. It comes from deep faith in the Truth, that the Lord is our shepherd.

As you encounter the griefs of this life that come from sin and death, remember that you do not walk through them alone. Our fearlessness comes not from an assurance that bad things won't happen to us, but from the hope that we have that when our walk through this life and its trials is complete we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Psalm 23

New King James Version (NKJV)

The Lord the Shepherd of His People

A Psalm of David.

23 The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What's Love Got to Do with It?

1 Corinthians 13:4-8

New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.

Willa Cather was an American novelist who wrote stories about life on the Great Plains. In a novel titled Death Comes for the Archbishop, there is a scene in which one of Cather's characters explains love as a supernatural activity akin to the miracles of the Church, so we see our dear ones through the lens of our heart's affections. "Where there is great love" Cather writes, "there are always miracles." Thinking along those same lines, I have often said that it is truly a miracle that we are loved by anyone ever at all. Our incredible propensity toward sin and selfishness really ought to make us virtually unloveable, but God in His mercy created us to love and be loved. Everyone always has someone out there somewhere who truly loves them, and even if by some chance that isn't true we are loved infinitely more than we could ever imagine by our Creator, God. Wow!

The thing about love and miracles is that they are not always packaged neatly. Otherwise, no one would ever grieve because our love would always raise the dead. No one would ever have to weep over a grave. In truth, the miracles of great love sometimes take great faith and greater patience, wisdom and understanding, compassion and generosity. Sometimes the miracles and the mercies of love are buried deep within a mess of grief. I would argue, then, that where there is great love there is always grief...of one kind or another. Love and loss are perpetual companions, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, isn't it finally grief, deep sorrow over the losses we incur through sin, that finally drives us toward forgiveness and reconciliation?

I cannot tell you how many times I have returned to the words of Isaiah 61 and Job 42 over the course of the past few years. Clinging to hope and faith that there miracles even in life's worst and most agonizing messes of sickness, death, and loss, I have held tightly to the words of Scripture that promise and demonstrate God's heart for miraculous love and mercy. Our God has a grand plan of reconciliation and restoration that He says will repay us a double portion of mercy and blessing in exchange for our miseries. Where there is great love (for us, by God) there are always miracles.

My friends, with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday just days away, I can tell you that at my house our hearts are coming upon these days with some pretty substantial grief in our hearts. We have faced the last two Easter holidays heartbroken. Each year, someone we loved very dearly passed unexpectedly from life to death, and we were already cut to the core from two years of Christmas holiday losses. I can tell you that there is not even one day in our lives when our great love does not bump or bang into our great grief. One life affects so many, and death never takes only the ones who go to the grave. The bereaved die too in some ways, and each day we need to depend upon God's miracle to raise us from the dead and help us to breathe and live through a new day. 

Yet each day He wakes us to see the sun and lays us down by the light of the moon we are given new miracles and new mercies...if only we will open our eyes to see them and our hearts to embrace them. We sin, yet we are loved. We grieve, yet we are loved. There is bad news, and yet there is always good news. 

If you are struggling with grief this Easter season—whether it is grief over the death of a loved one, the loss of a friend or a job, the problems of your past...anything at all—you have plenty of evidence of the bad news. But because Jesus, the Lamb of God, lived a sinless life and took the sins of the world upon Himself so that we can be right with God and live on eternally, there is always very good news.  Check it out this presentation some friends of mine put together to explain how the bad news of sin and death leads to the good news that comes from Jesus, who bore the weight of our griefs.

Dear one, though we grieve and mourn, we have hope. Though our hearts may be in pieces there is One who can take each and every broken piece and turn it into something  not only useful, but beautiful. You cannot love without grief, but you cannot truly and miraculously live without it either.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Good Grief

Throughout this long season of increasingly polarized world views and consequent political stand-offs, the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14, along with those of Nehemiah's prayer for the people of Israel, have been camped out in my heart for God's church and His people around the world. During these complicated days, I've come to understand these verses as calls to deep, personal and collective grief among followers of Jesus. 

2 Chronicles gives us the formula, and Nehemiah gives us the model. It is humility, a contrite heart, prayer, seeking, personal accountability, and repentance that will move God to forgiveness, healing, and rebuilding among His people. So far in this mini-study of grief and the resurrection we've talked about the profound nature of grief, as seen through the life of Mary (the mother of Jesus) and the nearness of God in the process. Today, I want to look a bit more carefully at the goodness and purpose of grief. 

I am sure there are other ways of qualifying the goodness and purpose of grief, but I came up with this short list to try and highlight what I think we gain most from grief when we look at it as the catalyst for prayer and healing/restoration. Good grief—the kind that draws us nearer to God—should yield at least three things.
  • Gratitude
  • Grace
  • Giving
The reason I am so convinced of the necessity of these three products of good grief is because of the ways in which we can see God connecting them throughout Scripture as critical elements of His grand restoration project. Moreover, in the midst and aftermath of sin and death, we almost always see division and strife. Gratitude, grace, and giving do not generally function well (if at all) when we are struggling against God and one another. These are not the only problems that can turn grief from good to bad, but they are definitely a few concerns worth looking at with interest. What I've learned is that gratitude is often the jumping off point for finding the best of what grief has to offer us.

When I think about grief and its connection to gratitude I am reminded of the precious group of bereaved parents that God has brought into my life, and the ways in which so many of them have powerfully and openly expressed gratitude for the lives of their children. Those children exerted a great influence over their parents in life, and that influence continues in death. Sometimes the influence may have been (and may yet be) terribly painful in life, but the unbelievable profoundness  and inner chaos of grieving their child's death can also call up a deep appreciation for all that is good and blessed in life. They can see it more clearly through grief's tears than many of us can see through joy's smile.

We can learn much from that example. Learning to be deeply grateful for every moment of goodness—learning to see goodness in the smallest things, and finding that we live through our griefs and troubles—is one of the greatest lessons we can ever learn. When we do, we gain greater access to God's mercies that are new and abundant every morning. We come unambiguously into contact with the infinite abundance of His grace. It is then that we can say, "Lord, your grace is more than enough."

The grace we can receive through grief IS more than enough for our needs, and we know this because in genuine grief we are stripped bare of ourselves and what we hold dear. We find out what we can and do endure. We see that our true needs are really quite few, and we find, then, that God's excess and abundance is everywhere in our lives. Grief teaches us the value of each breath and each moment. 

Grief also demands that we become purveyors of forgiveness and unmerited grace toward ourselves and others in order to survive. In grief, the weight of bitterness can become unbearable, because grief does not have one ounce of energy to spare for wasted feelings that accomplish nothing and exacerbate misery. That kind of anguish cannot long coexist with God's love and Truth. They are completely incompatible.

Unfortunately, we are sometimes slow to open ourselves to grace when we grieve, but when we believe in our hearts the grace that we profess with our mouths we find that our grief has provided us with a storehouse of generous giving to others...particularly those whose pain and suffering we recognize.  2 Corinthians 1:3-5 explains the phenomenon this way.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

When we find gratitude for the abundance of grace we receive through our grief, we also find that our grief has manufactured an abundance of grace to be given to others. We ultimately learn in grief that we do not have to hoard grace for fear of one day losing it. It is really quite the opposite. Initially, the shock and fear that accompanies our grief can make us feel the need to hold onto everything more tightly. Later, we may find ourselves terrified to hold onto anyone or anything at all for fear that it will be snatched away. But if we cling to God's Word and His Truth then the tension between holding on and letting go can ease, and we can become wise stewards of our suffering and loss...generous givers of our comfort to others.

As we approach our celebration of the Christ's resurrection, there's a great opportunity for us to humble ourselves and pray, seeking God and experiencing a good kind of grief over our sins and the sins of this world.

Think about it...if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

If we, as the body of believers and followers of Jesus, humble ourselves before God to the point of grief and repentance for our sins—our individual and collective sins—then God moves. He hears and forgives and heals. I cannot think of a greater way to come to the Cross and experience the riches of Easter, which we received at Jesus' expense.

The Lord Is Close to the Brokenhearted - Promise!

Have you ever been through a bad time, or experienced a difficult loss, and had some sweet friend share this verse with you? The Lord is close to the brokenhearted...etc? I think this Bible verse may be the default choice for "religious" sympathy cards. And why not? It sounds good. When someone is absolutely crushed and brokenhearted it sounds kinda comforting to say and hear that The Lord is close at hand.

And of course He is right there and fully available to brokenhearted people, but the verse sort of suggests that God is closer to the brokenhearted than to the folks who are feeling fine. And guess what? In a sense, He is! But I think there's a catch...a bit of perspective that's needed to really appreciate why this verse is comforting.

Remember the scene in the classic Christmas film, It's a Wonderful Life, when the main character, George Bailey, has come to the end of his rope? It's Christmas Eve, and George's life unravels because his Uncle Billy lost the $8,000.00 bank deposit for the family's building and loan business. The bank examiner is in town to review the year's receipts, and there isn't enough cash on hand to cover the payments shown in the books. The whole issue can mean scandal and jail for George and Uncle Billy, not to mention the effects on George's wife and children, and the townspeople who have their money and loans with Bailey Building & Loan.  

Out of time, options, and hope, George comes unglued. He yells at his wife and children, storms out of the house, and ultimately ends up at the local bar. In a moment of deep desperation, George Bailey bows his head...right there at the bar.

George was brokenhearted, so he prayed. I won't give away the ending (just in case you've never seen the film) but The Lord was close to George Bailey. George was in trouble and cried out to The Lord, and The Lord showed up...not the way George ever imagined, but God was definitely on hand to save George Bailey.

But we do a great disservice to the verse from Psalm 34, and other verses like it, if we think of it as a kind of magic wand rather than an insight into how God works in our lives. Look at our friend, George Bailey. He'd come to the end of himself; his usual way of toughing it out through difficult situations could not save him from the bank examiner. George had nowhere else to turn except to God...his last resort. 

George Bailey's broken heart made him willing to humble himself before God. Do you see where I'm going with this? God wasn't close(r) to George because George was in trouble. God was closer than George had ever realized because for the first time George's heart was truly broken. George Bailey's prayer at the bar is a desperate, humble admission that only God could rescue him. The Lord saves those who are crushed in spirit. 

Just in case you think we're talking about situational rescue where God simply sweeps in and shows up with $8,000.00, let's look at a few other Scripture verses where we find similar words of promise. Matthew 5:3-4 says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are those who mourn." When we are considered blessed we are understood to be in God's favor. To be blessed by God is to receive supernatural favor—an extra, generous measure of God's underserved help and lovingkindness. 

These verses tell us something very wonderful about God. He has a special love for the underdog.

And that is as it should be. Don't you think? Isn't it generally more thrilling when the one with the most working against him—the one with the fewest opportunities and resources, the one with the most to lose—overcomes the obstacles and comes out a winner? But the thrill is short-lived and shallow if it turns out that the underdog is arrogant and proud. 

The underdogs that God is most interested in are those who are humble and who are eager to give God all the credit, and the honor and glory forever...whether they win or lose.

Take a look at these verses from Isaiah 61. 

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,

Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”

There they are again...those same kind of promises from God that we see in Psalm 34 and Matthew 5, the same merciful heart of God toward people who are grieved and broken, the same promise to bless, comfort, and rescue them.

So...what if we read Psalm 34 in this this way: Hey! Look up! You're heartbroken? God sees you, and He's standing right there next to you with His arms open. If your heart is torn apart—if your spirit is smashed to bits to the point where you're ready to give up the entire situation to Him—take His hand. Fall into His arms. When you admit that you cannot rescue yourself, and that He is the source of all hope all the time, He will save you.

Think along the same lines as you re-read the verses from Matthew and Isaiah. The reason The Lord is so close to the heartbroken, and so ready to save the crushed in spirit, is because those people are ready to be humble. They are out of options and they are ready to relinquish their lives to the will of God. The promise to those who come to the place of "not my will but thy will be done" is that they will receive comfort. They will receive something beautiful, and experience real that leads to the kingdom of heaven and the earth's inheritance.

But it's worth noting that the true blessing doesn't come until we're really knocked down and all the fight is out of us. Remember George Bailey's prayer? Take a look at what happened immediately after George prayed.

POW! Right in the mouth! Down goes George! And if you remember the rest of the film, George has to endure another series of humbling experiences before he comes to the true end of himself. He is forced to examine and respond to his situation through a lens of faith that came through humility and brokenness. George needed a willingness to trust in the power and blessing of God's sovereignty to turn around a seemingly impossible situation. With that kind of faith in God's ability and power, it no longer mattered to George if God sent him to jail or provided him with a way out. George found a blessing that did not depend on circumstance.

Isn't that what happened to Job—that poor soul whose entire life was stripped away, including his family, his possessions, and his health? God was right there and close to Job the whole time! He had never once lost track of what was happening in Job's life. God was in the midst of Job's unimaginable encounters with death, poverty, and sickness.  God was there in Job's suffering. He is always in our suffering too.

Still...Poor Job. He'd worked so hard to live an obedient and holy life, and he still ended up brokenhearted and crushed. But the moment that Job stopped focusing on what happened to him and why—the moment Job stopped pleading his case and was instead reminded of God's infinite power, might, wisdom, knowledge, and creativity—he became very, very humble. Job was finally ready to receive God's blessing and give God the glory. Job found God's abundant mercy blossoming and alive in an INCREDIBLE mess!

Read Job 42. When Job focused completely on God's character and nature he repented. He even prayed for some of his friends who had misrepresented God and been miserable comforts to Job amid his agony. Job also made a sacrifice. Though he had nothing left, not even his health, he went to the altar and made a sacrifice. 

Job's heart was changed. He was no longer simply a good man who gave to others out of his wealth and obedience to follow the law. Job learned true reverence and fear of The Lord. He laid down his life, his grief, and his grudge. Job sacrificed to God out of his humility and poverty. Ever faithful and infinity merciful, God receives Job's offering and blesses the latter part of Job's life even more than the first. God's favor and abundance came to Job through suffering, grief, sorrow, and sacrifice.

Dear ones, when you think about the resurrection, and when you look to the Cross of Jesus knowing that He suffered, died, was buried, and then rose from the grave to conquer sin and death, realize that you are released. You are free from the captivity of your own suffering and death. You are healed and set free. 

You will receive comfort, beauty, and joy when you trade in your sorrows for the joy of the Lord that leads you to praise. 

This is the praise we find in our Easter celebrations. Our "Yes!" to The Lord, and our "Amen!" that acknowledges the fulfillment of that "Yes!" is something we must say in faith and submission to God. These responses are found at their richest and most rewarding when they are born out of grief over the sins of this world...including the sins of our own hearts and lives. It all happens at the foot of the cross.