Under the Olive Tree

And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.

Mark 14:51,52

I saw things no one else saw.

I was there that night in the olive garden. The place known as Gethsemane. It was my one of my father’s many fields that our family owned. They were the perfect places to go and be alone. I had gone to consider the recent events in our community regarding the one known as Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing had divided the people more than the words and works of this man. Or was he God?

Thinking no one would be in the gardens at this hour, I left our home dressed very modestly. The spring evening was pleasant, with just a warm, faint breeze blowing through the trees on this balmy night in Jerusalem.

Then I heard the voice.

Frightened, I crouched low. I walked gently on the stones that marked the path through the olive grove, careful not to be heard. Someone was crying out in great pain. Agony.

I had never heard anything like it. Or since.

I don’t ever want to hear that distress and wail ever again.

Not the words. But the pain conveyed in them. Someone was pleading. Requesting permission to change what appeared to be an agreed upon course of action.

If possible, remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.

I listened. No response. Who was this? And who was he talking to? I crept closer.

Inching gingerly along the rugged trail, I crouched low to see who it was that was in such great pain and turmoil. Who it was that was pouring out his heart without response.

It was Jesus of Nazareth! He was kneeling in the tiny space between two mature olive trees. Resting underneath the trees appeared to be three of his companions. Sleeping. A fine group of watchmen they were, allowing me to get within 15 feet of their master! Just then, he raised his voice loudly.

My father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.

He was praying to God! Loudly, fervently. With the certainty of one who knew God!

I had never heard anyone pray in such a way! I was gripped with fear and amazement all at once. I looked more closely and noticed that blood was coming off his brow. He appeared to be  perspiring blood. His prayer was so intense, so filled with tremendous urgency. And yet there was no answer. Jesus seemed to know that there wouldn’t be. Whatever cup he was asking to avoid was unavoidable. The weight of this reality had set in on Jesus.

He waited. He looked toward heaven. He was crying, while his friends were sleeping.

No answer.

Suddenly a group of soldiers violated  the night with their torches, clubs and vile hatred.

They seized Jesus, treating him roughly. I was so caught up in the moment that I forgotten about my proximity to the events unfolding before my eyes. Panicked, I gave up my position of anonymity. Two of the guards seized me by the garment, which came off in their hands and facilitated my escape.

In the years since I have often thought of that night. I told no one of my true identity. But I have thought deeply about the prayer of Jesus of Nazareth that night.

What was the cup he would drink?

God promised that his enemies would be forced to drink the cup of his wrath.

I have the strangest and strongest sense that Jesus drank that cup for me.

I believe he died in my place.

That he died in the place of all those who believe in him.

That he was condemned for my sins.

He took my place on that cross. Freely.

My debt he paid, and my death he died that night.

And it is marvelous in my sight.

 

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Paradise

Paradise is pretty much that. Paradise.

But that’s not how the story begins.

I was the kid voted least likely to succeed. The one whose little brother was a foot taller and a whole lot smarter. I was always referred to as “that one.” For a while, I didn’t even know I had a name.

I was the guy you didn’t want your kids to play with. The one you didn’t want your sons to hang out with in the teenage years. I was the boy you didn’t want your daughter to date.

Get the picture?

So it was no surprise to anyone, including me, that I turned into a loser. A thug. A career criminal. I never hurt anyone, mind you. I threatened many folks. But never laid a finger on a soul. Petty theft. Breaking and entering. Bullying. Slander, abuse and fear were my weapons, and intimidation was my game. I feared no one, and everyone feared me.

I loved no one. And no one loved me.

Well finally my lawlessness caught up to me. I stole the wrong woman’s bag and ended up with a death sentence. Not just any death. Crucifixion.

Turned out there were three of us to be hung on crosses that day. One a fellow ‘colleague’ of mine. The other was the one known as the “King of the Jews.” He was called many other things as well, depending on whom you got your information from. His real name was Jesus of Nazareth. A carpenter’s son. And he had created quite a stir the last few years where I’m from.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But the fact that he was on a cross told me all I needed to know. He was guilty. Just like me.

Now you probably don’t know what it means to be hung on a tree. Arms suspended. Body weight crushing your tendons. Suffocating in the fluid caused by collapsed lungs. Essentially naked in front of a crowd of people who are cheering your slow, excruciating death. All the while still having enough hate in me to lacerate anyone within eyesight.

In this case it was Jesus of Nazareth.

I have to say, from the beginning he was different. I fought hard against my Roman oppressors. Took out a handful before they got me on that cross. Cursed every one of them and their mothers! Not Jesus. It’s like he wanted to be crucified. He stretched out his arms and practically invited them to drive the nails through his hands and feet. While we raged, he resisted. While we spat out vile epithets, he offered forgiveness.

I even turned on Jesus. The two of us poured out our wrath on him. Mocked him, ridiculed him, and challenged him. Made me feel good to think there was someone worse than me.

Then a funny thing happened.

My mind began to change. I can’t explain it. I saw him with new eyes. No longer did I see him as a helpless fool, I saw him as an innocent sacrifice. The Passover Lamb. Dying in the place of those who are truly guilty. Dying for people like me.

And in my final breaths, I asked him a favor. “Don’t forget me, Jesus.” He turned to look at me. I didn’t know what to expect. Would he add to my guilt? What he remind me of my past? What he place condemnation on my soul? If so, I would be deserving. What would he say?

I’ll never forget these words. I hope you don’t either.

“Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Me? A criminal. A lifelong loser. In paradise? It’s as if Jesus knew my heart when I asked him to remember me. To forgive me for all the terrible things I have done. He said he wouldn’t forget me. Guess what? He didn’t.

Today I’m in paradise.

With Jesus. Being with Jesus is paradise. And my life of perpetual crime, disobedience and shame is overlooked by the great promise of a Savior who came not to condemn sinners like me.

But to save them. Trust me.

He has done marvelous things. I’m living proof.

It’s Good Being the Boss

I’ve got about 100 people who are required to respond to my authority. When I say “jump”, …well, you know the rest. I’d like to believe they obey because they want to, that it is an action born out of a fierce loyalty to my unquestioned love for each of the men that I oversee. Something tells me otherwise. While I do have their best in mind, this isn’t my first rodeo.

I’ve been in their shoes. I know what it’s like just to put food on the table. Yet, I hope they know I’m not like all the other centurions.

Being a Roman soldier in Israel is not the assignment I wanted. I’d much rather be closer to home. Transplanting my family to Capernaum hasn’t been an easy task for any of us. Thankfully Caesar has provided a servant to support our families during our long hours of patrolling the provinces of Judah.

These are interesting times.

While I’ve been here the last seven years, I’ve never heard or seen quite the buzz that is stirring up these Jews. A man known as Jesus of Nazareth is doing and saying things that are both wonderful and threatening. Wonderful to the common people, and threatening to the status quo.

I’ve had the chance to see him. Albeit briefly. The people throng after him. Hang on his words. Pursue him. Beg him for miracles. Bring people to him to touch. I must confess, there is something about him. Even from a distance as he crisscrosses through Israel, I find myself drawn to him as well. Yet, I am thankful to not be in need of his power like the masses.

I never want to be in such desperation.

But I am.

Our faithful and trusted servant, Alexander, was in a terrible accident. While leading our children through the rugged hillside of Judea, he pushed our children away from a stampeding herd of goats that had broken free from the their shepherd. Now being pursued by ravenous wolves, there frantic path had intersected with that of my children. Alexander’s fearless heroism had saved my children’s lives, but also left him in the way of a panic-stricken flock. He lay paralyzed in our house.

I determined that asking Jesus of Nazareth for help was more important than looking weak in the eyes of my soldiers and the Jewish people. My commitment to maintaining the facade of independence, self-reliance and autonomy cracked. I imagined how sacrificial my servant had been for my family.

Giving up my pride was a small price to pay.

As he passed through Capernaum, I made my move. I could feel all the eyes of the people on me. I made my pitch. I didn’t need Jesus to even come to my house. I know how to give directions, but I also know how to take them. If Jesus said it, I’d believe it.

Inexplicably, I felt faith welling up in my heart, and leaving through my lips.

What was I thinking? What was I saying? I felt so foolish. Weak. Vulnerable. The complete opposite of how I think of myself, and how I want others to see me. Before I could retract my statement or pull the words out of the air, Jesus did the unexpected.

He applauded my faith!

Said he had never seen anything like it before! Me! Who knew?

Then he told me to go home. Alexander was healed.

I have to confess that put my faith to the test. I really did believe that Jesus could my friend from a distance. That he didn’t need to actually touch him to raise him. But now that he told me to go, taking me at my word…I was being challenged to take him at his word!

I stood there. Frozen for what seemed like an eternity. No one said anything. Silence. All eyes on me. Jesus’ expression compelled action. His words. His eyes. They spoke to me. They inspired more faith.

The first step was the hardest.

Each one become easier as I journeyed home. I played out every possible scenario. He would still be paralyzed, and I would be utterly humiliated. That I should have brought Jesus with me. Then, he heard the words and remembered the face. I kept going.

As I rounded the corner towards home, my children greeted my with shouts of joy and tears of gratitude! Had I heard, they screamed in delight! Alexander was healed! Up on his feet, like nothing had ever happened!

I collapsed into their arms and rejoiced with them. And told them about Jesus.

We have seen his power, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

 

A Friend’s Faith

The five of us were inseparable.

Growing up, we did everything together. From school, family and worship…we were practically joined at the hip. We shared in our fathers’ work. We dreamed of living in the town as we eventually married and began families of our own.

That all changed in one moment.

Samuel was assisting his father in repairing the roof of his family’s very modest abode. A mixture of palm branches, hardened clay and loose pebbles composed most of the coverings in the regions near Capernaum. It was a pretty effective shelter, allowing the heat to escape during the long summer months, and funneling the rain water effectively away from the inhabitants of said houses. Not perfect, but good enough.

It was a time between seasons. Samuel and his father were seizing on the opportunity to make moderate repairs to the thatched roof when the worst happened: Samuel plummeted head-first to the ground, breaking his neck in the short but severe fall. He was alive.

But I think he wished he had died.

In our time there was little if nothing that could be done for a paralytic. Samuel was simply a living thing. He despaired. He cried. He was longer the young man we once knew. He became unnecessary to virtually everyone, and a burden to those who loved him. His family.

And even his friends.

Move forward four years. Samuel has continued to labor. Every illness takes longer to recover from. The financial burden is taking a toll on his family. Rather than being a source of revenue for them, he has become an expenditure. In order to preserve our own strength while providing a regular source of encouragement, my three friends and I take turns visiting throughout the month. It’s a difficult journey for all of us.

But we begin to hear of a man known as Jesus of Nazareth.

He has been making his way through our region for the several months. Opinions are divided about him. Yet no one disagrees on one thing: He is able to perform miracles!
Could he do for Samuel what we hear he has done for others? Healed the sick, cast out evil spirits, and even fed the masses. Yes, but can he raise a paralyzed man? Even if he can, would he? We believed he could…and would.

One evening he was near us. Speaking to a crowd in a home. Literally a full house. The four of us were not about about to be turned away. We are had carried Samuel not only five miles, but had been helping to carry him for four years. This was his time. Though he had no expectations, having been severely disappointed in the past by faith healers, we had more than enough faith for him!

No room. Packed. Then it hits us! The same way Samuel was paralyzed is the same way he will be healed! Though the roof! It took some ingenuity, but we managed to load him up on the tenuous covering. We clawed our way through the crudely built roof and saw candlelight break through. A little more work, and we were in!

Oh, the faces!

I wish you could have seen what we did! Some of the crowd was angry at us for disrupting their meeting, others laughed at our boldness, and the owners of the home were just plain shocked!

Not Jesus.

He just smiled.

I’ll never forget it as long as I live! He looked at Samuel. A look of sheer compassion and concern. He didn’t even know him, but you could tell he cared.

Then he looked at us and smiled. His eyes glistened, a mixture of tears and joy. His expression clearly indicated his pleasure in our outlandish endeavor. He was really moved by our actions. He even said so. He commended us, healed Samuel, and changed our lives forever.

We ran back home. All five of us! Told the whole what Jesus had said and done! We still do.

It was marvelous in our eyes. We hope it is to you too.