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Four Services, One Story

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When Jews celebrate the Passover meal, the youngest child asks the question, “Why does this night differ from all other nights?” Since we will soon celebrate Jesus’ fulfillment of Passover during Holy Week, it is good for us to ask a similar question: “How does this week differ from all other weeks?”

Central celebrates four worship services during Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. All four services link together to tell a single story: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus for our salvation. These four services, however, are not the same; rather, each highlights a unique aspect of Jesus’ saving work and a distinct aspect of his gifts and calling to us. Therefore, each service will have some special elements that differ from our normal worship services.

On Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ final triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the loud praise of large crowds lining his way, and we will also have our own procession of praise with a children’s choir singing and carrying palms. Jesus’ apparent triumph, however, turned to tragedy. Jesus willingly entered into conflict with the leaders who would put him to death in just a few days, and thus we will leave the service praying for the same courage and faithfulness from Jesus with a song about his turn from triumph to death for us.

On Holy Thursday, we commemorate the first Lord’s Supper, which Jesus shared with his disciples when he was preparing them for his imminent death. In the midst of that night of pain and fear, Jesus comforted his disciples by loving them and teaching them to love one another, and we will receive that same love from Jesus in his words from that night and in the Supper that he continues to share with us. After that first Supper, Jesus sang a psalm with his disciples and went to a garden to pray in anguish as he began to be stripped of every comfort, and we will finish the service by praying about our anguish with a psalm and turning our hearts toward the cross as the communion table is stripped bare.

Good Friday is the day we remember Jesus’ suffering and death as the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. In a service of readings and song, we will hear and sing the story of Jesus loving us to the point of death in our place, and we experience the extinguishing of light until we end the service in darkness and silence to contemplate the depths of sin and wrath that Jesus endured for us in love.

Holy Week ends not in tragedy but in the greatest triumph of all, the death of death and sin in the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, this will be our greatest day of praise! We will begin with the sunrise service with a choir at 7:30 a.m. in Forest Park, and then more choir and brass with services of extreme joy and praise at the church at 9:00 and 10:45 a.m. 

We hope that you will set aside time for each unique service during Holy Week. As each service links to the next, we can live the story together in a powerful way and experience the love of God afresh in the death and life of our living Lord!

Click here for more information on all of Central's Holy Week services.

           

Posted by Mike Farley

Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?

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As we watch the scenes of city of Texas and Florida submerged in the deluge of hurricanes and Mexico digging out from a ferocious earthquake (and all in the same month!), at some point we can hardly help wondering “Why?” Why does God allow events like this to occur?

This is a hard question because it has many layers, both emotional and intellectual. In order to ground our faith and to respond in a fully appropriate way, we not only need good theological reflection but also personal comfort from God and the people of God. Thus, I only offer these reflections below as a beginning of some answers to the intellectual side of our distress. A full and proper response requires bringing these questions, doubts, and pain directly to God in prayers of lament, just as God invites and teaches us to do in the psalms. And we also need to bring our questions, doubts, and pain into our relationships with one another for conversation, counsel, comfort, and encouragement.

From a theological perspective, there is no clear answer why God allows particular evil acts and events to occur in the age in which we now live. Since we are not God, we can only know God’s perspective, purposes, and actions on the basis of what he has revealed to us about himself. When we search God’s revelation, we do not find specific answers to questions like, “Why did God allow this hurricane at this time in this place?” or “Why did this disease or this accident or this terrible event happen to a particular person at a particular time and place?” 

This is why it is folly to read specific theological lessons or warnings into specific disasters. In the aftermath of nearly every major disaster, it seems that various religious leaders confidently declare that the catastrophe was divine judgment on the nation, the church, or some specific group of people, for a particular sin or offense. These attempts are spiritually presumptuous and rash because they claim knowledge of God’s will and purpose that we cannot possibly know. Prophets in the Bible were able to declare the theological meaning of disasters in some circumstances because they received revelation that provided a divine perspective and interpretation. But today we have no such revelation about particular evils; rather, we have God’s final and ultimate word to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who reveals God’s intent and power to overcome evil and rid his creation of evil and its cursed effects. In light of God’s ultimate word in Jesus, we face events of great suffering with humility about our limits in knowing their meaning but also with confidence in what God has revealed to us.

God’s revelation does give us some general truths to help us understand some aspects of evil and suffering. We know that some suffering exists because human beings make terrible choices to rebel against God, and human sin has unleashed chaos, pain, and suffering into the world that compounds and multiplies in unexpected and horrible ways. Beyond the sphere of human decisions, we also know that there are demonic spiritual forces at work in our world to create chaos and distress. Moreover, in a fallen world, God sometimes chooses to use the occasion of evil and suffering as a context to bring about great good in making our desperate need for God very clear and for moving his people to care and serve in ways that display God’s self-sacrificial love and compassion with great clarity. (I am not saying that God is the direct cause of evil in a way that makes him morally culpable; rather, I am only claiming that God sometimes brings good out of evil and painful circumstances).

But none of these general truths explains every instance of kind of evil (by far), still less why God allows a particular evil to befall a particular person at a particular moment in history. We just don’t know. It seems that this is one of the major lessons of the book of Job. Job demanded an audience with God and an opportunity to pose questions about his great suffering and to lament his anguish to God, and God gave him that opportunity. In response to Job, God did not offer specific explanations. Rather, he reminded Job that there was much about the world that he did not understand, and yet he was nevertheless able to accept those limitations and continue trusting God on the basis of what he did know about God.

We need to apply the same principle in responding to the evil and suffering that we experience. God does not give us specific answers or explanations, but he does give us what we need to endure in knowing, loving, and trusting him in the midst of our suffering. God gives us three gifts to ground us:

  1. He shows us how he has dealt with evil and suffering in the past, which can comfort us by assuring us of God’s good character and power. The supreme historical events that show us God’s response to evil and suffering are Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ death shows us that God is not aloof or coldly distant; on the contrary, God has taken the full consequences of human evil upon himself. He has entered fully into our suffering and broken world, and he therefore can sympathize with us with complete understanding and full compassion (Hebrews 4:14-16). In addition, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God is not conquered by evil but rather that he has the power and the set plan and purpose to conquer all that opposes his good plan for creation, even death itself.
  2. In the present, God gives us himself. He gives us the comfort and strength of his own presence, dwelling in us personally by his Holy Spirit and working in us through others in the church. If we entrust ourselves into God’s hands by trusting Jesus Christ, we have what David describes in Psalm 23: a Good Shepherd who walks with us in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death and in the midst of enemies. This is not an intellectual answer about specific evil events; rather, it is the assurance of God’s active, personal presence and relationship with us. God promises that he will truly carry us, comfort us, and strengthen us to love and serve him, even in the midst of great pain and suffering.
  3. God points us toward the future with well-grounded hope that he will bring a final judgment and end to all sin and its curse throughout the whole creation (see Isaiah 25 and Revelation 21). God will conquer evil and cleanse his whole creation from its effects and its very presence, and we know this because this future victory has already started in the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection.

I know of no other religious or philosophical worldview that can provide greater truth and better resources in understanding and responding to evil in our world. God has not given us answers to every specific question about every specific evil, but he does give us knowledge and strong personal assurance that he has entered our suffering fully, that he is personally present with us in the midst of it, and that he will one day conquer evil completely.

So what does a Christian response to evil and suffering look like? It looks like turning to God and his word for truth to remember, for prayers to cry out in lament, for promises to trust, and for the experience of knowing God’s personal presence by his Spirit. It looks like turning to one another to offer and receive patient listening, dialogue about doubt, empathy and comfort in pain, and persevering prayer that holds each other up before the Lord. It looks like joining our crucified and risen Lord in working together to push back against the effects of evil in our own lives and the lives of others.

For further reflections on a Christian response to evil and suffering, I would highly recommend The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis, Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright, and Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller. For resources on grieving through loss and death, Invitation to Tears: A Guide to Grieving Well by Jonalyn Fincher and Aubrie Hills, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss by Jerry Sittser, and What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) by Nancy Guthrie. (Most of these books are available to examine at the Book Central display in the Fellowship Hall.)

 

 

Posted by Mike Farley
in Prayer

Sustaining Prayer for Revival

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Are your prayers too small? On Pentecost Sunday (June 4), Pastor Clay Smith gave a stirring and inspiring sermon about the kind of prayer that sustains our participation in God’s full mission. While God certainly cares about the smallest details of our lives, he also calls us to lift our heads and hearts higher than our own personal circumstances to fix our hopes and efforts on nothing less than himself and the coming of the fullness of God’s kingdom in our city and the rest of the whole world. Clay rightly reminded us that Jesus taught us to frame all of our prayers to the Lord in the context of this big request and hope: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

But how can we keep this up for the long haul? The inspiration and conviction resulting from a single sermon will fade amid the pressures of daily life that always threaten to squeeze our prayers into their mold. If we rely only on the concerns and desires of our own hearts to guide our prayer, we will soon find ourselves back in the rut of praying the same old things about the same old things.

Praying from the Bible is the primary solution to a prayer life that is too small. God not only tells us to pray, but he has also filled his word with prayers to guide us in praying with big, God-centered words and ideas that we would never think to pray ourselves. In the Psalms (a whole prayer book!) and other prayers from people such as Moses (Exod. 15), Hannah (1 Sam. 2), Zechariah and Mary (Luke 1), the early Christians (Acts 4), and our Lord Jesus himself (Matt. 6:9-13; John 17), we can learn kingdom-focused prayer that constantly stretches our minds and hearts to the full breadth and depth of God and his mission in the world. When we use Scripture as a means to speak to God, the Bible becomes not only a means of knowing about God but also a living means of knowing God and communion with God himself. Thus, the Bible becomes kindling for our prayers, for it gives us powerful, inspired words and images that the Holy Spirit uses to fan the flame of our longing for God himself and to illumine our imagination with a vision and hope for his goodness and glory to make all things new.

How can you learn to pray in this way? Central’s daily prayer guide (http://www.centralpres.com/prayer-guides) provides a simple tool to expand our prayers and align them with the worship of the church. The guide contains Psalms, songs, and other scripture readings and biblically-based prayers that relate to the theme of the Sunday sermon each week and amplify the effect of corporate worship on Sunday as it echoes throughout our daily meditation and prayer. (When you sign up, you will receive the prayer guide in an email on Sunday mornings with all the materials for the coming week as well as a short introductory email that furnishes a brief user’s manual with instructions and resources for using the guide most productively.) By praying from the Bible and the prayers of the church, we will never run out of things to say and our prayers will always be directed by the Holy Spirit toward the highest goal of communion with the Lord himself and the fulfillment of his transforming mission to the world. Come, Holy Spirit, and lead us to pray for the kingdom of God!

Posted by Mike Farley

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