Most of Israel’s existence has been spent surrounded by antagonistic countries both big and small. Whether in modern or biblical times, super powers like Egypt, Babylon, Assyria or Arab nations have threatened to wipe it out of existence. Or smaller harassment’s like Philistine giants, terrorist bombings and daily barrages of rockets threaten the lives of its people. Despite this, the people of Israel have almost always had a hope of a deliverer.
Like every nation, this hope is kindled whenever a new political party comes into power. The possibility for positive change and freedom from oppression entices the hopes and dreams of its people. Hope can easily interpret other changes as signs that deliverance may come. Take, for instance, the possibility of the U.S. embassy moving to Jerusalem. Could that be a sign that more positive things are still to come? Or what about the hope of years ago: Is this prophet going to deliver us from the Romans?
When something happens in any national capitol, people across the nation take notice. When events cause a stir in Jerusalem, the whole country looks expectantly. A number of years ago, about this time of year, a charismatic Jewish leader came to the city that carried with him the hopes of a greater Israel. Many Israelis crowded the streets to get a glimpse of him. This man brought new ideas to Israel, was ethically sound and confronted the old guard, which seemed powerless to help Israel. This man seemed to have all the promise of a revolutionary that would bring real change.
When the crowds flocked to see him, he was not in a motorcade or a limo. No. He was riding on a young donkey. He wasn’t a political activist wielding military power. He was a rabbi, who healed the sick and cast out demons. People waved palm branches—a symbol of Israeli nationalism—in excitement to welcome the Galilean, Jesus of Nazareth.
But how is it that within the span of a week, those very same people would crucify their hero? The last week of Jesus’s life is filled with drama: driving people from the Temple with a homemade whip, filling people’s hearts with powerful teaching, thwarting arrest, confounding his opposition with wisdom. All this back and forth … until one of His closest, most trusted disciples betrayed Him to death.
The people were desperately longing for a Messiah. He came. They killed Him. How could it happen? The people of Israel wanted their Messiah to do something He wasn’t intended to do and wanted Him to be something He was not supposed to be. Their agenda was not His agenda; they wanted Him to establish their earthly kingdom, but He came to establish a spiritual one—and they crucified Him because of it. As believers, we know ourselves to be God’s special people, His chosen ones, but so did Israel, and we can be just as susceptible to agendas that are contrary to God.
In our modern world, we thoroughly understand the idea of competing agendas. There is never enough time, energy, money, etc., to meet all the demands on our lives. Multi-tasking was once heralded as an ability that people had to master in order to succeed. “Work-life balance,” the ability to properly prioritize the demands between home and work, has surged in success literature as people climbing the corporate ladder burnout more often than not.
But even if we learn the secret of living a peaceful life within a world of constant bombardment, there is often a subtler competition of agendas that we don’t see happening. This competing agenda is the very thing that could move a nation to kill its long anticipated Savior. We long for our God to bless our lives so we can juggle everything that competes with Him for our time, energy and focus.
As we get sucked into prioritizing all these secular demands in our lives, we don’t see that keeping God in our lives has become only one of many priorities rather than the only priority. The Messiah as King of the Jews had become a means to a secular end for the people of Israel, not the end in itself. So in this last week of Jesus’ earthly life, they rejected Him. How do we keep from doing the same?
Breaking Free and the Bigger Picture
Have you ever noticed that the Gospels—and therefore, God—spend a disproportionate amount of time on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth? Despite this being just one week among an approximate 1,700 weeks of Jesus’ life, it takes up more than 25 percent of the Gospels. Should taking time to set this week apart each year and remembering Jesus be a priority for us?
Giving special attention to Holy Week has been the normal practice of the Church worldwide for centuries; only in recent decades has this practice faded. Like many churches from the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox traditions, GFA and Believers Eastern Church follow the liturgical church calendar. Doing so helps us remember that we are primarily spiritual people following a Christ-centered agenda for our lives rather than a secular one. The subtlety of these pressures aren’t always obvious.
Having personally lived in multiple countries and cultures, I’ve found that each one is undergirded by a national rhythm created by its calendar and holidays. Take, for instance, the importance of holidays that shape our national identity. These not only remember those who gave their lives for our freedom, but the holidays themselves reinforce the cultural characteristics of our individual countries.
American culture is very celebratory over its soldiers and freedoms. We have holidays like Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day and the Fourth of July. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is very solemn in its remembrances. For instance, it takes a minute of silence to remember those who died in the Great War at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November every Armistice Day. And then there is India, which is very proud of its ancient heritage, especially seen on its Republic Day, a day when the entire country takes part in a flag-hoisting ceremony after the prime minister hoists the Indian flag at 9 a.m.
Every year, our secular holidays and their cultural icons shape each culture and the attitudes of the people within them without their citizens even realizing it. They are an outside force that silently reinforces who we are, what we are like, and what we do as a culture, and we are completely unaware of their subtleties.
In the same way, the church calendar provides a framework for us as Christians to remember that we first and foremost are a spiritual people who are part of a heavenly culture rather than a secular one. If the church calendar becomes our dominant rhythm-maker for each year—rather than the secular calendar—we have an outside force working for us to remember that Christ is our only priority.
As I write this, we are in the end stages of the Church’s Lenten season, a season of fasting and turning away from secular agendas. I am more aware than I want to be that I have not eaten any cookies, cakes or ice cream; drank any pop; watched any movies, etc., since before Ash Wednesday (oh, so long ago!).
At the start of Lent, we’re filled with an anticipation of God using this special time in our lives to draw us nearer to Himself. After a week or two, the initial romance with fasting wears off as we find that part of us really wants that cookie! And the struggle for who reigns in us wages on. By this time, many of us are dominated by the desire for Lent to be over. No more anticipation, no more romance, no more battle…bring on the cookies!
How unspiritual of us? Maybe. But maybe that’s exactly the rhythm that this season is supposed to work in us. As fasting causes the season of Lent to drag on, the arrival of Palm Sunday is good news for multiple reasons. The quickly approaching end to my fasting increases my focus on and my excitement for Easter coming. Jesus is coming, and my time of fasting is coming to an end with Him!
I remember being in Asia for the entirety of one Lent. The tradition of Believers Eastern Church, like many Eastern churches, is to fast from meat during Lent. This was particularly difficult on one young seminary student. So, on the last night of Lent, he bought some fried chicken and stayed awake until midnight. After finishing his fasting prayer and giving thanks to the Lord, he devoured the whole box of chicken! He was so thankful for Easter coming!
Jesus asked if friends of the Bridegroom can fast when the Bridegroom is with them (see Mark 2:19)? When the resurrected Jesus arrives on Easter, we are commanded to end our fasting. We are not allowed to fast on Easter, not even to kneel in church! It’s time to embrace and celebrate Christ’s coming, death, resurrection and soon return!
Every year, this short season mirrors the bigger picture of our lives. We suffer and toil here in a world full of sin, temptation and suffering, longing for the day when Christ returns and brings freedom from the bondage of sin and this world. Also, we remove the aspect of choice that is involved with competing agendas. In following Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter, our lives are governed by something bigger than me, something that transcends the busyness of modern life.
Many Asian cultures are full of religious festivals that help center the lives of the people on God. When we remove the Christian calendar from the lives of new believers, there is a sense of loss. They have joy in Jesus, but when does that joy become tangible, when can they celebrate? Incorporating these powerful rhythms into the life of the Church not only makes the life of Jesus more tangible and relevant, but it helps shape their thinking about this world and the world to come. It helps remind them that they are governed by something that transcends their past life and secular world.
Preparing Our Hearts
As we reach Palm Sunday this year, we start a time of transition. As mentioned earlier, the Gospels give a disproportionate amount of attention to this last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus enters into Jerusalem; His death and Resurrection are almost here. Whether or not you observed Lent, can Sunday mark the beginning of the most important week of your year? Can we at least ask ourselves if we are so secularized by our competing agendas that we can’t make one week out of 52 all about Jesus?
It’s easy enough to find a simple reading plan for holy week online or in the back of many Bibles. We can read and meditate on what Jesus did each day of the week. Do you realize that the first act of Jesus when He was heralded as the Messiah was to re-establish the Temple of God as place of prayer for all nations (see Mark 11:17)? Maybe that’s a good place to start for us.
We can spend a bit more time each day meditating on Jesus, His life and His overcoming as recorded in Scripture. As a family or church, we can spend time worshiping together by following Christ’s life this week. On Maundy Thursday, we can take time to meditate on the Last Supper, Jesus’ agony in the Garden and His betrayal. I’m always struck by the loneliness of Jesus on this night, how none of His disciples could put Him first and how His Father was His only comfort as He wrestled against sin and temptation.
On Good Friday, can we take a special time of solemnness as we remember how Jesus hung on the cross, slowly dying after being brutally tortured? Growing up Roman Catholic, even as a child, I was required to fast during the hours that Jesus was on the cross. As an adult, setting aside those six hours from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. is so difficult. They drag on for so long, and when you realize that this whole amount of time Jesus spent crucified, it makes what He did all the more amazing.
All of this is to help us to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ with the greatest joy possible when Easter Sunday finally arrives. We’ve prepared our hearts and minds and calendars for the coming of our King. We’ve broken free from the competing agendas to say “God only is my agenda and priority.”
Making It Real
Some of us from Gospel for Asia recently attended the two-year anniversary celebration of a church plant in Terrell, Texas. What struck me the most was how “incarnational” it was. The celebration was not behind closed doors; it was out in the street and parking lot. It was a community event filled with “tax collectors and sinners.” When Jesus came the first time, it wasn’t to spend it with those who didn’t need a physician, but with those who needed Him and would receive Him. The Gospel was preached at this church anniversary celebration, not by the most eloquent of speakers, but by someone who knew what they had been saved from and who exuded Christ’s love.
As we prepare for Christ to come, do we have a self-centered agenda or a Christ-centered agenda? We have the term “C and E” Christians, referring to people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter. I haven’t seen the statistics, but my guess is that the percentage of people who opt to come on these two days of the year are decreasing. Can we be like Jesus and go out and invite non-churched people to come with us?
On the mission field, the focus of Easter is celebrating Christ, but it’s done as a community event. Believers and missionaries from thousands of local parishes will be encouraging their surrounding communities to celebrate with them the life, death and resurrection of Christ. They have been praying for their neighbors and will be lovingly inviting them to celebrate Jesus with them next Easter Sunday. Can we follow their example?
A friend of mine and I are hoping to hand out Easter gospel tracts next week. Being an introvert, I cringe every time I step out of my car with tracts in hand. But I know Jesus loves the people around me, and His agenda for their salvation is more important than my agenda to do something that benefits me or provides me the comfort of not having to talk to people I don’t know.
Whatever my personal priorities for my life are, there is one priority that rises above them all, and rightfully so. This week is the perfect time for us to crucify the busyness agendas that would seek to compete with Jesus in our lives, and to let how we spend our time, how we focus our minds and who we invite to worship Jesus with us say to God, “You are our only priority! You are our Messiah, our King. You and You alone. Deliver us from this world’s continuous bombardment of agendas that would seek to turn our eyes from You.”
Will you join us at Gospel for Asia (GFA) as we set apart this week for God? Start with Palm Sunday. Invite people to attend Easter Sunday service with you. And pray for our brothers and sisters on the mission field who are seeking to do the same. Happy Palm Sunday!
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