Short fuses, quick tempers, and God

Most of us struggle with anger occasionally, and some of us more often than that.

An aggressive driver cuts you off in traffic.

A boss blames you for his mistake.

You trip over your child’s toys, which she left out . . . again.

Your spouse forgets to pick up your son from practice.

One response may come naturally.

Lose your cool. Blow up. Come unglued. Hurl the insults like daggers.

It feels good, doesn’t it? At least temporarily.

But of course it’s not right, and it’s not helpful at all.

The New Testament presents a consistent witness against human anger. Here’s a short sample:

But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth (Colossians 3:8).

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice (Ephesians 4:31).

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment . . . (Matthew 5:22).

For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder (2 Corinthians 12:20).

Now the works of the flesh are evident: . . . fits of anger, . . . (Galatians 5:19-20).

In the Colossians passage above, Paul chastises the believers by telling them, in essence, “You’ve got to get rid of your anger. You may have acted that way before you followed Christ, but now you’ve got a new identity.”

Some of you probably don’t need this lesson, but a few of you may.

Take a few minutes and reflect on these passages. Ask God to use them to search your heart for traces of anger and bitterness that you may have ignored.

Ask him to forgive you for letting your anger lead you to mistreat people.

Ask him to replace it with patience, love, and kindness.

He may convict you to apologize to your spouse, kids, or coworkers.

I’ve heard people brag about their quick tempers before. “I’ve got a short fuse,” they said. “People know not to push the wrong buttons with me.”

What they don’t recognize is that short fuses don’t glorify God.

Got a quick temper?

God wants to help you get rid of it.

One year ago

A year ago today about 40 of us huddled on the bottom level of our church building and anxiously listened to weather reports.

Earlier that day meteorologists had issued a particularly strong warning about how bad this storm system would be, and we waited to see if they were right.

They were.

The worst of the storms went west and north of us, but terrible thunderstorms exploded throughout the southeastern part of the U.S. that day, spawning almost 300 tornadoes (358 from April 25-28).

It was the costliest tornado outbreak and one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, with total damages of nearly $11 billion.

More devastating, of course, was the loss of human life.

346 people died, including 235 in our home state of Alabama.

Towns such as Tuscaloosa and Hackleburg were devastated. Countless towns were hit hard: Phil Campbell, Cullman, Rainsville, Ohatchee.

It’s been a year, but when you visit these towns you still see the destructive path of the storm. In fact, you’ll likely see reminders 10 or 20 years from now, probably much longer than that.

Time tends to dull our senses to yesterday’s tragedy, though. Life goes on, and after the initial shock and outpouring of compassion, we return to our routine.

But pause for a few minutes today.

Take some time and pray again for those who are still picking up the pieces of their lives.

Pray for those who grieve for a mother or father, son or daughter, grandparent, sibling or friend.

Pray for those whose lives were irrevocably changed because of a rare combination of natural forces that made our world become very unsafe a year ago.

Pray for those who question God because he allows things like this to happen. Pray that they will feel his presence, and that they will see in his people compassion and kindness and love.

Those tornadoes, though widespread, affected only a small part of this planet, so pray also today for people throughout this big old world who are hurting.

Many are hungry. Many are grieving. Many are scared.

Millions woke up this morning to uncertainty and fear because they live in a place where evil reigns through terror, war, and corruption.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that because things are good with us, they’re good with everyone.

But that’s not true, of course.

So let’s take time today to pray for the hurting.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Psalm 46:1-10).

It is finished

In a very real sense, Jesus wasn’t killed by the ones who crucified him.

He chose to die.

Most crucifixion victims grew weaker and weaker and finally died quietly.

Not so with Jesus. Mark suggests that he died suddenly and violently, that he was still strong at the moment of death (J.A. Brooks).

Notice his description of the Lord’s final moment:

And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 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 15:37-39).

According to Mark, Jesus “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.”

John puts it like this: “he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (19:30).

If we put the two accounts together we see a striking image of Jesus’ last few seconds of life on earth.

He had finished the work he came to do.

He’d lived a sinless life, completed the will of the Father, and offered himself for the sins of the world.

He now cried out with a victor’s shout.

“IT IS FINISHED!”

And he chose to die.

The flogging didn’t kill him; neither did the blood loss.

It wasn’t the nails or the cross or the thorns.

He died when he was finished. When he’d done what he came to do.

The centurion saw the way Jesus died and said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Indeed he was.

And now he reigns.

My God, My God

Could God abandon God?

I don’t pretend to know exactly what happened, but I think it may have been the Lord’s most terrifying and difficult moment of the six-hour crucifixion.

It’s the only saying from the cross that Mark records:

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down” (Mark 15:33-36).

Listening to our Lord’s plaintive cry is gut-wrenching.

Why have you forsaken me?

He had been betrayed by Judas.

He’d been abandoned by the apostles.

The throngs of followers who loved his miracles had apparently been swayed by his enemies.

But he still had the Father, right?

Something mysterious happens here, something dark and ominous.

Just a few days earlier Jesus had associated darkness with judgment (Mark 13:24), and just before he died the whole land became dark.

Then Jesus asks why God has forsaken him.

Paul would later write that “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

He became sin for us.

He was our sin offering.

And because he became sin, somehow, inexplicably, God forsook God.

The Father abandoned the Son.

The excruciating pain of crucifixion must’ve been awful, but that wasn’t the worst part.

The flogging, the mockery, the taunts and insults—that must’ve been almost unbearable.

But just before Jesus died he experienced his worst moment.

God forsook him so that he might accept us.

He became sin so that we might become righteous.

The world became dark so that we might live in the light.

The worst part of the cross for Jesus became the best part for us.

That’s when he took what our sins deserved.

And they crucified him

It almost seems odd how Mark describes the Lord’s death.

He does nothing to satisfy our curiosity about the physical agony of crucifixion, though that’s the part we often focus on.

He does little to stir up sympathy for Jesus.

His style is simple, slow, methodical.

Here’s his short description. You’ve read the story many times before, but read it again today . . . slowly, reflectively, gratefully.

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him (Mark 15:21-32).

I feel inadequate when I attempt to comment on the Lord’s crucifixion. What happened that day just can’t be captured with words.

Maybe that’s why even Mark didn’t really try. He simply told us what happened, leaving the rest to our imagination.

But it’s clear that he wants his readers to know that this is the real reason he wrote his story. The cross is the crux of the gospel . . . it is the gospel.

Everything since the Fall has pointed to this day. In fact, God planned the cross even before our ancestors ate the wrong fruit.

Scholars have often described Mark’s gospel as a story of the Passion with an extended introduction; in other words, it’s not so much an historical account of Jesus’ life as it is a description of his death. Mark spends almost half his space—seven of his sixteen chapters—discussing the last week of the Lord’s life.

The cross, more than anything, has so much to say to us as believers.

In our walk it’s easy to get distracted, to lose focus, to obsess over peripheral issues that ultimately don’t matter.

We get bogged down in the stress and noise of life and forget.

Today, for a few minutes, just think about the cross.

The pain. The mockery. The insults. The loneliness and abandonment.

They said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself,” but they had it all wrong.

He saved others instead of saving himself.

Have you ever been persecuted?

Occasionally I hear about how Christians suffer in some parts of the world, and I’m ashamed.

My story doesn’t include anything even remotely close to that . . . does yours?

And mine certainly doesn’t approach this:

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him (Mark 15:16-20).

Jesus experienced this mockery probably for two reasons: One, he intended to endure the worst Satan could throw at him, and two, believers in every age needed to be emboldened to face the persecution that would so often come.

It’s hard to imagine anything more blasphemous. Between 200 and 600 Roman soldiers dressed God in clothing fit for a king, then gave him the traditional greeting meant for Caesar, changing the words slightly: “Hail, King of the Jews!” (instead of “Hail, Caesar the Emperor!”).

“And they were striking his head with a reed” translates a Greek phrase that means they did it repeatedly (NIV: “Again and again they struck him . . .”).

Their spitting on him may have been a parody of the kiss of homage (J.A. Brooks), and their bowing down completed their cruel mockery of “paying respect” to a king.

Mark preserved this story to encourage all believers everywhere to stand fast like Jesus.

It certainly has something to say to us, perhaps especially those of us who live in cultures that are quite tolerant of Christianity.

What’s the worst thing that might happen to us?

Do teenagers fear criticism from their peers if they walk with Christ?

Do we worry that coworkers will mock us or avoid us?

Will we be passed over for a promotion?

The whole scene—Peter’s denial outside while Jesus stands firm inside—is a pointed reminder that Jesus calls us to follow him even when it’s tough.

Maybe we should be properly chastened by what Jesus suffered, as well as by what some Christians in other parts of the world are enduring right now.

A few hours earlier Jesus had said, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).

The next time following Christ becomes difficult and we’re tempted to cave in, perhaps God will bring this story to mind.

God never intended our Christian walk to be easy.

“and having scourged Jesus”

The flogging scene in The Passion of the Christ portrays the brutality of the beating Jesus endured better than anything I’ve seen.

It must’ve been awful, yet the gospel writers mention it only in passing, it seems.

Here’s Mark’s account:

. . . and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified (Mark 15:15b).

His description leaves us wanting to know more.

He was scourged? What does that mean? How bad was it?

Mark’s readers probably needed no explanation; they knew what he meant.

But we’ve never seen anything like the flogging Jesus endured.

Here are some brief descriptions of what scholars think it was like. For your devotional time today, take a few minutes and think about what he went through.

“Flogging was not a light punishment. The Romans first stripped the person and tied his hands to a post above his head. The whip, sometimes called a ‘cat of nine tails,’ was made of several pieces of leather with pieces of bone and lead embedded near the ends of the leather strips. Two men, one on each side of the criminal, did the flogging. The Jews limited the number of hits (stripes) a person could receive, usually no more than thirty-nine. The Romans had no limit. Flogging ripped out chunks of flesh and often left the bones of the victim exposed. Some victims did not survive a flogging” (R.L. Cooper, Holman).

“Flogging was both a preliminary to crucifixion (perhaps to hasten death) and an independent punishment. . . . Bits of metal, bone, or glass were imbedded in leather thongs; and the flesh of the victim was shredded, sometimes until bones or entrails appeared. Flogging was sometimes fatal” (J.A. Brooks, NAC).

“But before Jesus is given over to their custody, the governor has him scourged, which apparently was standard pre-crucifixion procedure. Scourging was done with a whip made up of several leather straps to which were attached sharp, abrasive items, such as nails, glass, or rocks. Scourging resulted in the severe laceration of the skin and damage to the flesh beneath (e.g., Josephus: ‘flayed to the bone with scourges’)” (C.A. Evans, WBC).

It’s scary to think about how painful this must’ve been.

Take a few minutes and thank him.

I am Barabbas

Most of you have reflected on the final hours of Jesus again and again, and there’s probably little I could say that you haven’t heard before.

I suppose that’s a danger here for all of us, isn’t it?

The story can become too familiar, too common.

But it’s a story we need to hear. We need to reflect on it, absorb it, be touched by it.

As you read the beginning of Jesus’ Roman trial, slow down. Read it as if you’ve never heard it before.

Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas (Mark 15:6-15a).

There’s a lot of irony there.

Barabbas means “son of a father,” and he had committed insurrection.

Jesus was the “Son of God” and was accused of insurrection.

Barabbas, who was guilty, was released.

Jesus, who was innocent, was convicted.

I’ve often wondered why the story of Barabbas is included in the New Testament. It seems, at best, tangential to the Lord’s trial, which is the focal point.

Perhaps it was included just to show us how much some of the leaders hated Jesus.

But there’s probably a more theological reason than that.

One who was guilty was pardoned, while one who was innocent died.

Mark wanted to remind us again that this is the gospel.

The story of Barabbas took place in my life several years ago. I was guilty and deserved to be condemned, but God chose to release me.

In my place on the cross went an innocent man. He stepped in and took the mocking, beating, and execution that I deserved.

I’m Barabbas, and so are you.

I wonder if the first Barabbas hung around Jerusalem long enough to stop by Calvary and see the cross where he almost hung.

I doubt it. I’d guess he got out of Jerusalem as quickly as he could.

But you and I can’t do that. We’ve been acquitted of crimes we committed, and we need to go to Calvary and see the cross that has our name on it.

The story doesn’t ever need to get old.

King of kings

In the part of the world where I live, most people call themselves Christians.

In many ways that’s a good thing because they at least know enough about Jesus to want to follow him.

But it also presents some problems.

When being a Christian becomes synonymous with a culture, or a country, or maybe a region of a country, people tend to forget what being a Christian really is.

I’m a Christian because, well, that’s what my parents were or because that’s what most people around me are.

The word can become empty, meaningless.

Jesus didn’t say much during his trial, but Mark was careful to preserve one of his short sayings.

This brief statement says a lot about what it means to follow Christ.

And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed (Mark 15:1-5).

He admitted that he was King of the Jews.

When he said that, he was identifying himself with the lineage of the kings of Judah; he was the “Son of David.”

But he was saying much more than that.

Paul would later describe him as the “King of the ages” (1 Timothy 1:17) and the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15).

He’s the “King of the nations” in John’s Revelation (15:3).

He’s not just the King of the Jews.

He’s your King.

He’s my King.

And I think that’s where people get confused about what it really means to be a Christian.

For some people it may be little more than identifying with the dominant religion where they live.

For others it might be having their names on a church roll or attending church services occasionally, or even regularly.

But that’s nowhere close to what it means to be a Christian.

Following Christ means he’s your King.

He’s claimed you and now rules your life. You’ve submitted to his authority, pledged your allegiance to his kingship, and bowed your knee before his throne.

Living in a part of the world where Christianity thrives has some wonderful opportunities.

But we need to be careful, because every day we’re tempted to let our Christianity be defined by something less than full commitment.

Let Jesus be your Savior, we’re told. Let him be a wonderful teacher. Even believe in him as God’s Son.

But Jesus claimed more than that.

When God raised him from the grave, he anointed Jesus as the King of kings.

And that means following Christ is more than what we call ourselves.

It’s submitting everything we are and will ever be to the Kingship of Jesus Christ.

Warts and all

Sir Peter Lely’s painting style was characteristic of his time; he set out to flatter the person whose image he was painting.

In other words, if any of us were getting someone to do our portrait, he’s the guy we’d want.

But not the kind Oliver Cromwell wanted.

When Lely was about to begin his portrait, Cromwell supposedly told the painter to ignore cultural norms and paint him accurately.

“Paint me as I am, warts and all,” he said.

I’m not sure if the apostle Peter asked for a warts-and-all portrait of himself, but that’s exactly what he got.

His embarrassing denial is one of a small number of events described in all four gospels.

Read Mark’s version of the story, and remember – this is the leading apostle:

And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. . . . And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept (Mark 14:54, 66-72).

The closer you look at this story, the worse it gets.

It escalates . . . when the girl first approached him, Peter said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” When she mentioned it again, Peter denied it repeatedly (the Greek text implies this). The third time, he punctuated his denial by invoking curses on himself and swearing.

Warts and all, indeed.

Ugly gets uglier because Peter cowered before a servant girl, someone who was very low on the social class hierarchy.

And, to make it even more inexcusable, Jesus had already warned Peter that this would happen.

Any way you look at it, it’s bad. In fact, it’s the greatest failure of all the apostles except Judas.

Why is this story here? Why not just gloss over it and save Peter the embarrassment of having his story read again and again?

It doesn’t make sense for documents that were written to create faith in Jesus as God’s Son to emphasize such an epic failure of an apostle.

But that’s probably why it’s in our Bibles.

If one of Jesus’ most committed followers could fall into this trap, we’ll be tempted to do the same.

In fact, you’ll probably find yourself warming your hands by a similar fire sometime this week, if not today.

You’ll be faced with a choice: confess that you’re one of the Lord’s followers, or blend in with everyone else.

Stand up or cower.

Confess or deny.

It happens at work, at school, at the ball park, even in the church lobby.

Someone starts to gossip, a guy starts to tell an off-color joke, your boss asks you to relax your sense of ethics and cook the books, just this one time.

Peter caved in, denied Christ, and disappointed himself and the Lord.

Mark paints Peter’s portrait, warts and all, so we’ll know it can happen to any of us.

We’ll be put in a confess-or-deny situation very soon.

What will we do?