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When Jesus Prayed from the Cross

Of all of Jesus’ prayers, Matthew 27:46 may be the most bracing.  Every syllable of these few words scream a sense of separation, brokenness, and unrelenting doubt. Reading only those words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” conjure up a whole range of the worst emotions: fear, anxiousness, defeat, regret. The Son of God seemingly doubts His Father. The Father apparently casts off the Son. My whole life in and around church, I have heard sermon after sermon and lesson after lesson explain that in this moment, as Jesus became sin for us, His Father could not look upon Him and had to turn away. Certainly theologically, this answer rings of truth.  In those moments of darkness around the cross, mocking voices at His feet, evil appearing to have its way, Jesus may very well have felt a spiritual distance from His Father because of our sins that He so selflessly bore.

But if we stop there, I believe we fall woefully short of the depth these words beckon us to mine down into the rich soil of the Word of God.  Jesus wasn’t some confused, dying, mistreated innocent man lamenting the terror and agony of separation from God. He wasn’t some frightened martyr unsure of His place and purpose on that cross. Remember, He pleaded in the garden only hours before for God to remove this heavy burden from His shoulders.  He had told His disciples on multiple occasions the foreboding future that awaited Him in Jerusalem—arrest, the cross, death (three times in Matthew alone: 16:21-28, 17:22-23, 20:17-19).  He knew what He was doing. Remember also, as a young boy, He confounded the most religious in the temple at 12, proceeding to make a career of upsetting the status quo of the religious elite with His divine take on His Father, the Old Testament, and their hollow religious legalism (Luke 2:41-51).  In the wilderness temptations, the only words to leave His lips were quotes from the book of Deuteronomy (Matthew 4:1-11). After His resurrection, He preached a seven-mile sermon to two disciples telling them all the Old Testament Scriptures predicted about His own suffering and death (Luke 24:13-35).  Jesus knew the Old Testament. As the divine Son of God, Jesus wrote the Old Testament. As the man incarnated by God, He most assuredly would have had the Old Testament memorized, a common practice for the religious leaders of His day. Indeed, you would think if anyone ever memorized the Old Testament, it would be its Author, right?

As the words of Psalm 22:1 left Jesus’ lips, it’s perfectly safe to assume He knew He was quoting the Psalm, perhaps even quoting the whole Psalm from the cross. The chapter starts in distress and moves to an amazingly accurate prophetic account of Jesus’ sufferings on the cross.  But what should catch our attention, arrest our eyes, and stop us dead in our tracks isn’t the lament of the first verses or the predictive accuracy of the middle verses.  The cresting pinnacle of the final verses should reach into our very soul and grip us more powerfully than any other part.  Read these words and make note of their joyous rhythm and rising anticipation:

23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
28 For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
30 Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.

That’s not the song of defeat. Those words do not sound the hollow echo of the Son cast away from His Father. That’s not the frightened plea of surrender. Nor is that the lament of a broken, doubting martyr.  That’s a victory cry!  Psalm 22 ends on the highest of high notes. Jesus pursued obedience to His Father unflinchingly in the face of the fiercest evil.  He set His gaze on the cross, never wavering to the right or left.  This moment was not His darkest hour but His victory lap!  He had taken the cup He didn’t want to drink and consumed every drop. He had forged a path never before even seen by the eyes of men, the path of perfect obedience to His Father’s will. I don’t believe for a second that this prayer on the cross signaled only the separation of Jesus from His Father. I hold firmly that these words bloomed with His anticipation of an embrace this world has not known before or since of a Father’s pride in His Son’s perfect and complete execution of His will.  Jesus was announcing to those with ears to hear, “Satan, I have taken your worst, and defeated you. Father, I have accomplished everything You asked. I am victorious!”

Look back at to the end of Psalm 22:31 one more time slowly: “…that he has done it.” As you do, Imagine Jesus praying these words to His Father.  Picture in your mind’s eye the metal spikes that clasped His hands to a wooden beam keeping Him from putting His hands together as He prayed. See before you the same type of spike through His ankles which kept His knees from bowing before His Father. And yet, look upon the One who prayed with a posture of humble submission unrivaled by any in all of history.  The song ends on the precipice of victory, a crowning moment of glorious success, a declaration of triumph over the forces of evil seeking to take His life. This victory cry of Psalm 22:31 calls your mind to another of Jesus’ words from the cross, doesn’t it? That’s right. You got it:

“It is finished!”
John 19:30

When Jesus met His greatest challenge, He prayed. When He waged war with the enemy in the darkest of nights, He prayed. When He needed the strength to persevere under the weight we will never know or imagine, He prayed.  He models for us, like no other, the central place prayer should take in our lives.  What motivation to pray as He prayed indeed!

*This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Pray Like This. Be looking for it toward the summer.




Stealing from my Wife

This week, my wife was sharing a couple thoughts she had on a passage of Scripture she had been studying. Her insights into the text were so good. As a preacher and teacher, I felt it my instant impulse to take her outstanding insights and turn them into a sermon or a lesson down the road. Seeing my mind turning, she smirked, “Now don’t you dare steal that thought!” She knows me. I love that about her. She loves God’s Word. I love that about her too. More than anything else we discuss, I love the conversations that start, or move to, or finish up with a Bible passage or a lesson God’s teaching us.

Our conversation that evening got me thinking. How often do I do that for her? How often do I say something she wants to share with someone else because of its instant impact on her? How often do I bring good news home that she wants to share with others? How often do I share first what God’s doing in me so she’s challenged to grow deeper with Him because of my walk?

Now don’t misunderstand me. Just because I am a pastor and we are a ministry family doesn’t mean we don’t have any warts…or wars for that matter. We’ve had our knock-down drag-outs over the toothpaste tube and such. We vent to one another. Frustrate one another. And I’m sure, I’ve even irritated her once or twice.

What I hope to do, though, is something I don’t tell her nearly often enough that she does for me. I want to make her better. A better wife just because she’s married to me. A better mother just because she parents with me. A better Christian just because she walks life with me.

So dear Diana, take this as my public promise not to steal your thoughts on that passage we discussed the other day. But please, don’t stop sharing them with me. They make me better. And I didn’t have to steal that to share it.

Praying for the Villain

Let me state upfront that I don’t like Duke Basketball whatsoever. My first memory as a Kentucky fan consists of Christian Laettner stomping a Kentucky player in one of the most epic NCAA tournament games ever. In that game in 1992, Laettner would go on to hit the game winner, finishing with a perfect stat line of 10 for 10 from the field and 10 for 10 from the free throw line. My fan vitriol for Duke had begun. My wife, Diana, and I have enjoyed a common disdain for Duke. She’s a UNC Tarheel through and through. Duke memorabilia that found its way to her home as a child ceremoniously burned in the backyard.

Anyway, Laettner was the first in my memory of a long line of Duke “villains” who seem to embrace being hated for wearing the Duke jersey. Coach K himself. Bobby Hurley. Steve Wojciechowski. J.J. Reddick. And now, Grayson Allen.

Allen is the latest to take up the mantle of current most hated Duke player, tripping players from the opposing teams three times in the last two seasons. He recently served a one game suspension for said incidents. For many of Duke’s rivals, rival fan bases especially, and many sports talking heads, that one game wasn’t enough. For me personally, let’s just say I agree with the majority.

So it would be hard to exaggerate the gut punch in my stomach the other day when my seven year old son, Joseph, said while watching highlights of Duke, “I know who I am going to have as my prayer request this week: Grayson Allen.” I immediately cringed.

For much of the last year, our family has each picked a different specific prayer request, usually a person, that we all three pray for all week. We pick new requests on Sunday. So when he announced his new prayer request, I hate to admit it, but I recoiled inside. Yet just as quickly as I shuddered at his statement, I sensed God’s conviction. I don’t know Grayson Allen, but because he’s a Duke “villain,” I must confess, I haven’t found myself thinking toward his spiritual well-being. The second my cringe became conviction, I realized my son saw him more clearly than I did. My vision of him was tainted by my Kentucky blue shaded glasses smudged with more than twenty years of fan distaste for Duke. Joseph just saw someone who needs God. I don’t know where Grayson Allen stands with God, but regardless of where that is, he (just like me, by the way) needs God’s mercy, patience, forgiveness, and grace.

The more I thought about my son’s prayer request, the more I have considered other “villains” we perhaps tend to depersonalize or dismiss. It’s not always even the villains we don’t see through God’s eyes. It may just be those that are religiously or ideologically different or far removed from us. Sometimes, I think the shaded glasses we wear keep us from just seeing that all of us – everyone on the planet – desperately need God. Whether those glasses are shaded by our political identity, denominational allegiance, or national patriotism, at least with me, my glasses have far too often blinded me from seeing them through the only eyes that matter – God’s. To be honest, Kim Jong-un hasn’t made my prayer list by name. Neither did Castro. Rarely did the radical Jihadist like Bin Laden. I didn’t often pray specifically for those of a different party affiliation. I can’t ever remember praying for Benny Hinn, Paula White, or even the Pope.

I needed to be reminded, according to God, it’s not Grayson Allen whose the villain. Neither is it the name-it-claim-it prosperity preacher, the communist, the leftist, or the Muslim. We all were His enemies, the villains, if you will, when He died on the cross (Romans 5:6-10). In these five verses, we humans are identified as “weak,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” and “enemies,” compared to God. And we all equally need Him to reach across the gap we’ve created by our sinfulness and treat us differently than we deserve.

This week, thanks to my son, I will pray for Grayson Allen. And next week, I may just add some other villains, including myself, to the list.

Christ the Savior is Born!

Since I was big enough to remember, Silent Night has been my favorite Christmas carol. I am drawn to the calm, soft hope of the lyrics and rhythm to the music. When I hear it on the radio, sing it in church, or quietly hum the words to myself, a warm peacefulness courses through me. In my opinion, one of the most theologically rich lines of any song, Christmas or otherwise, is the closing line to verse 2, “Christ the Savior is born!” In those simple yet profound words, Christmas is tied to Easter.

When we look into the window of the tiny stable, we see the shadow of a cross. The hope of the incarnation is also the necessity of the crucifixion. The Lamb born in a stable would grow up to be the Lion of the tribe of Judah sacrificed on a stone table (to borrow from C.S. Lewis’ beautiful imagination). The infant Child born that night had royal blood, even divine blood, circulating in His veins. The cradle would lead to the cross. Snug swaddling clothes would be swapped for a piercing crown of thorns. The wooden manger holding Him safely that first night would be traded for a wooden cross holding His hands and feet with painful spikes. Worshipping shepherds at the place of His birth would be replaced with smug religious leaders, jeering soldiers, weeping followers, and cowardly disciples at the place of His death. The cool, angel-laden night in Bethlehem would be exchanged for the dark, ominous day in Jerusalem. The baby who miraculously entered the world would walk the path of suffering, mistreatment, pain, scourging, and unjust death at the hands of men to meet the just requirements of God before He would return again miraculously through resurrection. In the stable, the Savior-King was born. On the cross, the Savior-King was tested. At the resurrection, the Savior-King would be inaugurated!

Packed neatly into five simple words, the final line of the second verse of Silent Night tells us as much. Christ, He is the King. The Savior, He is the One to bear our sins, pay their penalty, and extend forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration to humanity through His death on the cross. Christ the Savior, He is born. And with His birth He brings hope and joy and peace.

“Christ the Savior is Born!” Yes He is!

The God Over All!

This morning before I headed to work, my wife Diana read to me 1 Kings 20:28.

And a man of God came near and said to the king of Israel, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The LORD is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’”

What a powerful reminder to us today.  Our God is not only God of the hills but God of the valleys.  He is God of the cities and God of the countryside.  He is God over the first world and God over the third world.  He is God over the rich and God over the poor.  He is God over the conservative and God over the liberal.  He is God over Trump and God over Hilary.

Today, in the midst of unrest, insecurity, and a political season ripe with far more questions than answers, take hope that no realm, throne, or person operates out from under the sovereign authority of God.  And while you are holding to that hope with me, why don’t we join together to ask God to announce to us all that He is still the LORD!


Isn’t this what we are supposed to do?

Over the past 4 years, mission teams from our church have helped with the Houses of Hope Project building homes for widows in Kenya, Africa. On one of those first trips, our team built a house for a widow named Irene who has 9 children. As a sacrifice of thanks to our team for building her a house, she sacrificed her only chicken to feed them. Our team responded by giving her back seven-fold, delivering seven new chickens from the market the next day. God used her sacrifice to spark their generosity. She responded again before we sent another team the next year by donating a piece of her land to build a church. You can read a full account of the ways that her one chicken led to a church and so much more here. You can also read her story in the book Spiritually Shrewd? By Dr. Greg Mathis, and you can purchase a copy here.

In October 2016, I was privileged to join another team from Mud Creek to Kenya where we visited Irene. On that Sunday, we worshipped with her and her family at Ombaka Baptist Church, the church built on the land she donated. As soon as we arrived, our team coordinator on the ground, Shem Okello, told us that Ombaka Baptist has already had to expand its walls because of how rapidly the church is growing. He also excitedly shared with us that Irene has now started two home Bible studies which are thriving (the first became Ombaka Baptist), and she is working on a third! After the worship service, we drove her to her home. As we gathered to fellowship, neighborhood children, parents, and curious onlookers gathered around. Our Missions Pastor, Jack Givens, presented the gospel and 22 more responded to the message of Jesus that day. I stood back and watched in amazed silence as tears formed in my eyes at the hand of God at work in this small village near Kisumu, Kenya.

Before the worship service began, we joyously presented Irene with a copy of Spiritually Shrewd? Dr. Mathis wrote the book in part to tell how God had used her faithfulness to inspire Mud Creek in missions and sacrificial giving. The book cover has a picture of her on it. Her eyes dropped to the ground as we gave her the book and took a photo of her receiving it. She slipped around to the back away from the hustle of all the church activities. As we praised God for her faithfulness during the service, her eyes again went to the ground diverting away from the attention. When she spoke to the church and team after service, her voice was soft and her words few.


Before we arrived, Shem Okello met with her to hear what God was doing in her village. He rejoiced in amazement at the two active Bible studies and the third one she was beginning. He praised her part in God’s work. She replied, “Isn’t this what we are supposed to do?” She clearly doesn’t believe she is the center of this story. Irene has heard the words of God and obeyed them. She isn’t seeking fanfare. She doesn’t want an audience. She isn’t trying to grow a following. She simply has heard the words of God and is obeying them.

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20

Irene hasn’t merely memorized the words of Jesus in His Great Commission. She hasn’t just liked them or shared them on Facebook. She hasn’t settled to highlight them in her Bible or underline the most important words. She is doing them. She is making disciples. She is faithfully serving and obeying God where she lives. Irene does God’s work of disciple-making by simply inviting her neighbors, friends, and family members to be with her in church. She is telling others what Jesus has done for her. She is making her home a place for believers to gather to hear God’s Word and learn God’s ways.

A chicken became a church. A widow became a witness. A down-and-out woman became a disciple-maker. All of these miracles have taken place because one person in Kenya, Africa, took the Words of God seriously and applied them obediently.

What about you? Are you obeying God’s words? Are you fulfilling His commands? Are you becoming His disciple? Are you helping others become disciples?

In my 30+ years in church, I don’t believe I have ever heard a more pointed or convicting message than the one from Irene’s lips that day. “Isn’t this what we are supposed to do?” Yes it is. Are you doing it?

Jesus Is in the Boat!

In Mark 4:35-41, Jesus was sleeping through a storm that threatened to sink the boat He and his disciples were taking across the Sea of Galilee. In what likely rivaled His most dramatic of miracles, Jesus simply stood up and said to the tempest, “Peace! Be still.” Instantly, all was calm.  The raging fear of certain death plaguing the disciples caused by that storm changed to marvel, awe, and fear of the One with authority to still the raging weather with only His voice. The whole passage fascinates me, but I have found myself pondering the similarities between the disciples lack of faith in the presence of Jesus to my own far-too-often weak kneed doubting of Jesus’ power and authority today. While digging into that text, I ran across a sermon preached on these same verses 100 years ago. Charles Jefferson, pastor of Broadway Tabernacle in New York City uttered these eerily prophetic yet deeply comforting words on the heels of the first World War.

This scene…is interesting because it is a picture of our own situation. The sea is rough and the waves are beating into the boat, and God seems to be asleep. All through the World War He seemed to be asleep. He allowed ten million boys to be butchered and never opened His eyes. He allowed hundreds of thousands of women to starve to death and tens of thousands of children to be blown to pieces by pitless guns and did not seem to know what was going on. He seems to be asleep yet. It looks as though He were asleep in Asia, for millions of people are starving to death and mothers are eating the emaciated bodies of their dead children.

He seems to be asleep in England, for in England there are over a million men out of work. They have been out of work for years. There is now no work for them to do. The tragedy of poverty has saddened the eyes of the women and you can see the marks of it on the faces of little children, and God does nothing. He seems to be asleep in the United States for our largest American cities are the victims of bandits, some of them low-downs, vulgar thugs and some of them officials in high positions. God seems to be asleep. The waves are beating into the boat.

The criticism against the church is ferocious. The opposition to Christianity is fierce. The attack on religion is violent and venomous…Many Christians are alarmed. Some of them are almost indignant that Christ should allow the church to get into such a predicament. They ought to listen for a voice coming out of the storm, “How is it that you have no faith?…Don’t you know that in every generation brilliant men have written against the church, but the boat has not gone down?” There is no cause for alarm. The waves are beating into the boat, but the boat is not going down. It is not going down because Jesus is in the boat!

20 Centuries of Great Preaching, vol. 7 (Waco: TX, 1976), p. 67-68.

In our day, as we lament the political turmoil of the coming elections, we may be tempted to think that Jesus is asleep and the boat is sinking. As bathrooms become battlegrounds for liberal rights risking the innocence of our wives, mothers, and children, we may be tempted to think that Jesus is resting somewhere unaware. As death grips the most innocent of our day through the death-plague of abortion, we may think that the boat is about to go down. As our Christian brothers and sisters face persecution and death under the Muslim regime in numerous parts of the world, we may be tempted to believe that the ship is going under while Jesus keeps His eyes shut. As cancer ravages the body of a loved one and your prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, you may think Jesus has not wakened to your plight and you are about to drown. But oh beloved, let me remind you and me! Let me encourage you and me! Let me exhort you and me! In the words of Charles Jefferson 100 years ago, “The ship is not going down because Jesus is in the boat!”