Posted by: gbake783 | March 28, 2012

Ogden Valley News Easter Message

I have a great relationship with the editor of the Ogden Valley News – our Valley newspaper. The paper is published twice a month and gets a huge percentage of readership from our Valley residents.

A while ago I asked the editor if she would like pastoral editorials to coincide with upcoming religious holidays. She agreed and has published two of my articles – one for Christmas and one for Easter. The paper came out today; I’ve copied the article below (I couldn’t find a link, sorry).

The paper gave it the title, “An Easter Message.” Works for me! I’m praying that it will minister to our Valley residents.

The Bible’s Easter message speaks directly to well-worn phrases like religion, morality, or values. I think you’ll be surprised what the Bible has to say. The Easter season is the perfect time to remind ourselves what God thinks about religiosity.

It may surprise you to learn that the term religion is used only five times in the King James translation of the Bible. Of those five uses, only one is positive. Three times the apostle Paul refers to his former religious life as a Pharisee (Acts 26:5 and Galatians 1:13,14). James 1:26 says that religion can deceive. And then, in James 1:27, we read the only positive religion reference in the entire Bible: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” So, religion can be good. Or bad. Let’s keep studying.

During Jesus’ day, the most highly respected religious leaders were also the most moral – the Pharisees. Pharisaical religious morality was second to none – they scrupulously observed not just God’s laws, but also rules invented to protect the original precepts. They drew fences around fences. For example, they obediently tithed herbs collected in their gardens (Luke 11:42), religiously washed their hands before every meal (Mark 7:5), and, in an ultimate act of hypocritical religiosity, refused to take back the silver-coined bounty Judas returned after his betrayal – the Pharisees would not permit blood-stained money to corrupt kosher Temple funds (Matthew 27:6). Even Jesus acknowledged the superlative nature of Pharisaical religiosity (Matthew 5:20).

Yet, Jewish religious leaders, most of whom were Pharisees, cried the loudest for Jesus’ crucifixion (Mark 15:7-11). In fact, while these religious stalwarts subjected Jesus to their kangaroo court, one leader unlawfully struck Jesus while He spoke (John 18:22). Scruples, I suppose, have boundaries. Let me repeat – the Pharisees were the religious and moral elite.

Jesus habitually annoyed these Jewish religious leaders, but perhaps nothing was more frustrating than Jesus’ insistence on befriending sinners. The Pharisees fumed over Jesus’ audacious desire to eat meals with tax collectors. In the Pharisaical mind, publicans – ethnic Jews employed by Rome to collect from other Jews – were unclean traitors. How could Jesus eat with such sinners? Jesus response was curt, “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice:’ for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13).

Jesus’ response should not have surprised these religious leaders because He was simply alluding to any one of several Old Testament passages. You see, God had warned the Israelites time and again that the act of religion – observances used as a cloak of morality – can deaden the heart to true spiritual matters. Organized religion doesn’t necessarily lead to righteousness, but sometimes self-righteousness, that insidious pride and self-justification that has no need for God. It presumes to do God’s bidding, but rarely serves anyone other than oneself. Self-righteousness is a disease that almost always accompanies the nebulous notion of religion in general. I could quote Isaiah 1:11-15, Micah 6:6-8, or Amos 5:21-23. But Psalm 51:16-17 probably says it most clearly, “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

No New Testament passage illustrates the worthlessness of religiosity more than Luke 18:11-14. The Pharisee stood out from the crowd and prayed loud enough for all to hear. He listed his religious credentials and thanked God for … himself! One of those nasty tax-collectors, on the other hand, bowed his head and begged for mercy. I’ll let Jesus finish the story, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Both the Old and New Testaments are clear: mere morality, scrupulous religiosity, and striving to earn worthiness before God tend toward that soul-deadening pride of self-righteousness. Jesus, in fact, calls it blindness (Matthew 15:14; 23:16).

So, you may be wondering, just how does the Easter message relate to the concepts of morality, righteousness, or religion? It hearkens back to a quote I referenced earlier – Jesus came to befriend sinners. And just how did Jesus befriend those sinners? Did group dinners, warm embraces, and kind words epitomize Jesus’ friendship? How about when Jesus celebrated weddings (John 2), mourned at funerals (John 11:32-35), or lovingly welcomed everyone’s children (Mark 10:14)? Indeed, these are expressions of Jesus’ warm, easy spirit, but they don’t quite hit the mark.

Jesus came to befriend sinners. That’s really the key word. The New Testament records all types of sinners who eventually befriend Jesus: treasonous tax collectors (Mark 2:14), criminals (Luke 23:43), thieves and drunkards (1 Corinthians 6:10), and even murderers (1 Timothy 1:13). In fact, the apostle Paul says it most succinctly, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). Many religious Americans try to clean themselves up before coming to Jesus, a notion that is completely foreign to the New Testament. We come to Jesus because we’re unclean – we come to Him for the cleaning.

Yes, we’ve offended God with our sin. We’re sinners. But here’s where the Easter message really hits home: though alienated, though dead in our trespasses and sins (Colossians 2:13), Christ fulfilled our obligation to God with His sacrifice on the cross. Jesus makes peace with His own blood (Colossians 1:20). The apostle Peter says that we have much more than reconciliation, we have a rich inheritance because Jesus died and rose from the dead. The resurrection story is our reconciliation, our hope, our friendship, and our joy (1 Peter 1:3).

Jesus’ death on the cross and glorious resurrection remind us why self-righteousness and self-conjured morality are odious to God. The Easter message is this – Jesus paid it all. Any effort to supplement that payment with our own efforts harms the soul.

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