David McLemore

The Darkness in the Grave

The very place where you see yourself as most undeserving is the very place at which Jesus’ cross says to you, “Come to me.” You say, “But when does his welcome end?” The cross says, “Never.” Jesus has the final word with us. His salvation is not temporary. His sacrifice is not for a limited time. This is a permanent deal.

In Mark’s account of the death of Jesus in Mark 15:33-47, he includes a bit about Jesus’s burial in verses 42-47. Why does he record the burial of Jesus? Throughout history, this has been a contested point of the story. Some say Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. Maybe he passed out, was taken down, and recovered somewhere. Muslims say he was taken to heaven before he died on the cross. Others say dogs ate his body. But from the earliest of days, the burial of Jesus was an important and well-recorded point. All four gospels record his burial, and the earliest Christian creed, the Apostles’ Creed, includes it.
But why does his burial matter so much? Because only a dead Jesus saves. Only a dead and buried Jesus experienced the full wrath of God against our sin. Only a dead and buried Jesus can resurrect. If he wasn’t really dead and truly buried, the resurrection couldn’t have happened, it was only for show, and if the resurrection didn’t happen then, as Paul said, “our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain.”
The details Mark includes lead us to the conclusion that Jesus really did die, and he really was buried. Verses 42-43 tell us that by evening, because it was the day of Preparation, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin council, took courage and went to Pilate to ask for the body. Those details matter because of what comes next. Verse 44 says Pilate was surprised to hear Jesus was already dead. Crucifixion could take days. Jesus was dead in a few hours. So he called the centurion who oversaw the death. After confirming, Pilate gave Joseph his body. This wasn’t normal practice. Usually, to complete the humiliation of crucifixion, the body was thrown in the trash heap. So why did Pilate give the body to Joseph? Mark doesn’t say. All he says is that he did, and that’s important because it’s different from the normal way of things. It’s the kind of thing that is only written down if it’s true.
But it’s important for other reasons too. It’s a fulfillment of prophecy. The Old Testament prophesied this kind of burial for the Messiah. Joseph was a rich man—only a rich man had a tomb like this prepared. Isaiah said the Messiah would have his grave made with a rich man in his death (Isaiah 53:9) and that the tomb would be cut out of a rock (Isaiah 22:16). Even more amazing, John says in his account that this tomb was in a garden (John 19:41). Remember, that’s where the tragedy of this world’s darkness began. The Puritan commentator Matthew Henry puts it this way, “In the garden of Eden death and the grave first received their power, and now in a garden they are conquered, disarmed, and triumphed over. In a garden Christ began his passion, and from a garden he would rise, and begin his exaltation.”
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The Darkness Over the Son

Mark 15:33-47 shows us the cross of Christ. The darkness of sin overcame Jesus on the cross, and he felt it. Verse 34 says Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark includes both the Aramaic version Jesus actually spoke and the Greek translation for his readers. According to verse 35, some thought he was calling for Elijah. The Aramaic words misheard certainly could sound like it, and in Jewish thought, Elijah, who had not died but had been lifted into heaven, would come back to help God’s people. In verse 36, they took sour wine to him, fulfilling the prophecy of Psalm 69:21, “for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” This isn’t the wine with myrrh offered to Jesus on the way to the cross. This wasn’t meant dull his pain but to prolong his life, to see if Elijah would come. But Elijah wasn’t coming. He wasn’t crying out for Elijah anyway. He was crying out for another reason—not for someone to save him but to show the kind of salvation he was securing.
His cry was the first verse of Psalm 22. Why that Psalm? Because there, the Psalmist David laments the feeling of forsakenness. The first two verses say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” Do you know that feeling? Have you felt forsaken? Have you felt abandoned? On the cross, that’s how Jesus felt as the darkness came over him. He wants us to know he identifies with us. His cry is our cry because our cry is his cry. Dane Ortlund, in his book Gentle and Lowly, says this.

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham notes that while Psalm 22:1 was originally written in Hebrew, Jesus spoke it in Aramaic and thus was personally appropriating it. Jesus wasn’t simply repeating David’s experience of a thousand years earlier as a convenient parallel expression. Rather, every anguished Psalm 22:1 cry across the millenia was being recapitulated and fulfilled and deepened in Jesus. His was the true Psalm 22:1 of which ours are the shadows. As the people of God, all our feelings of forsakenness funneled through an actual human heart in a single moment of anguished horror on Calvary, an actual forsakenness…The world’s Light was going out.

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What’s in a Name?

Leon Kass comments, “The change of Abram’s name, offered in conjunction with God’s abundant promise, is in fact deeply significant. ‘Abraham’s very identity is now inextricable from God’s promise of abundant offspring. His being depends on God’s speech. If God breaks his promise, Abraham ceases to be Abraham.’”1 Abraham cannot be Abraham unless God is faithful. It all depends on the promise.

Ninety-nine years is a long time to wait for a new name. Most men make a name for themselves well before. Through their work, they conquer their field and make their contribution. Through their family, they establish their progeny and expand their influence.
But for Abram, it was a different story. We meet him in Genesis 12, where God calls him to go to a land he will show him (Genesis 12:1). He was a foreigner in a strange land, unknown by the world, childless, landless. In a world that depended so much on one’s family line, he was as nameless as they come.
The irony is the name Abram carried meant “Exalted Father.” Would he ever live into his name? That question constantly nagged. In his seventy-fifth year he heard a word from God and followed him into a new land, chasing promises from a God previously unknown but one whom he deemed trustworthy, Abram put all his chips on God’s square. What had become of the gamble? So far nothing.
But the promised remained. Not only did it remain, but it was also constantly reinforced. God kept coming to Abram, bolstering his word with covenants and signs and everything else.
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You Serve A Higher Master

Jesus is saying to us today that the motivation for our good, hard work is not to be noticed by him but comes from already being noticed by him. We are under his kind watch. He is not only infusing our work with his grace to honor and glorify him and provide goods and services to others that help them flourish, but he is also receiving all our work unto himself as service to him. No task is meaningless. How could it be? Jesus is in it.

Last week, I posted a word about slavery in Paul’s address to bondservants in Colossians 3. This was, basically, an excerpt from a sermon i preached on the entire passage of Colossians 3:22-4:1. It is a passage often used to speak to how Christians are to work. I think that is the right way to approach the text, and i wanted to provide another excerpt from my sermon today.
In Colossians 3:18-4:1, Paul shows the fullness of Christ for our home life. In the first four verses, he addresses husbands, wives, children, and parents. Then, in verse 22, he addresses bondservants, or slaves. It’s the same word. In this address, we might expect Paul to start a different way. Why address the slaves before the masters? But this is how Paul arranged the entire section. Why not the husbands before the wives? Why not the fathers before the children? Paul started with the powerless because the powerful are always first. He started where there is the least natural hope. There is grace and mercy in even the arrangement of the verses. God’s word is amazing.
Paul tells the bondservants to “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.” This is similar to his command to children. Of course, Paul is not condoning sinful behavior. Bondservants are not to be disobedient to their masters, but if their masters ask them to do something sinful, they have a higher master. They are to obey their earthly masters, but they are to fear the Lord. Jesus not only limits the slave master’s authority but also frees the slave to disobey when morally necessary. Their earthly master is only earthly. Jesus is the big boss.
We all have an earthly boss. Someone demands our time and attention. How are we to obey? How are we to work? “Not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” There are two things here—a positive and a negative. Negatively, we can’t slack off when no one’s looking. Jesus’s eye is ever upon us. Positively, we don’t have to hope someone notices our hard work. Jesus’s eye is ever upon us. Both of these are good news. There isn’t a meaningless moment. The King of the Universe is right there with you. When the King notices you, you can’t slack off. You don’t want to. When the King notices you, you need no other praise. His is enough.  Someone once asked G.K. Chesterton, “If the risen Christ suddenly appeared at this very moment and stood behind you, what would you do?”
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The Gospel Never Does Nothing

As we continually expose ourself to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and as we just open our empty hands before him, we can trust that he will do his work. He will not leave us as we are. He will increase our joy. He will soften our sorrows. He will heal our wounds. He will, if he must, even cause the fish to get sick and spit us upon his shores to witness his redemption.

Christ who is the content of the gospel leaves no one in a neutral state.
—Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God, page 399

The one thing the gospel never does is nothing. Under the preaching of the gospel, no one remains the same. We are either moving closer to God or further from him. No one remains neutral. No one remains unchanged. We soften, or we harden.
Encountering Jesus is a life-altering event every time it happens. His word is always fresh. Even if we believe we know it, because he is God, his word is not returning void. Every time it is spoken, something happens. We fall in love with him, or we grow to despise him. We lean in, or we turn away. In every church meeting every Sunday morning, there is a massive movement in the hearts of people all over the world because of the gospel of Christ. Because Christ is the gospel, when we hear his word, we hear him, and when we hear him, we either fall down before him, or we run the other way. The one thing we don’t do is nothing.
It’s not always easy to perceive this movement. Perhaps we notice the leaning in more than the turning away. Yes, we can sprint in the other direction, but that’s not how it works for most of us. It’s more like drifting away at sea.
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The Spiritual Discipline of Thanksgiving

Jesus’s blood seals our fate, and his Holy Spirit is our guarantee. The Father himself loves us. And if we have the Father’s love, we have everything we’ll ever need because he’s a good Father. The spiritual discipline of thanksgiving gives us eyes to see the goodness of God, and when we see the goodness of God, we can’t help but thank him for who he is.

When Paul drilled down to the very heart of sin in Romans 1:21, he said, “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” A thankless heart isn’t just a problem. It is a sin against God. Every kind of evil begins there. Francis Schaeffer said, “A heart giving thanks at any given moment is the real test of the extent to which we love God at that moment” (A Christian View of Spirituality, 205). Thanking God is loving God. Thanksgiving is not an optional add-on to the Christian life; the Christian life cannot be lived without thanksgiving.
But giving thanks is hard, isn’t it? Paul called this world the “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). It’s not easy to thank God with a broken heart or a tragic diagnosis. It’s not easy to thank God in the depths of anxiety and depression. It’s not easy to thank God in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep and don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, but you think it’s more than you can bear. Nowhere does the Bible say thanking God is easy. But nowhere does the Bible say thanking God is optional. It’s not a practice reserved only for the good times. It’s a spiritual discipline necessary at all times.
Becoming Psalm 100 People
The Bible says, “If there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). One classic Psalm of thanksgiving, Psalm 100, gives us things of which we can think about. In fact, Psalm 100 is a perfect Psalm to grow in the spiritual discipline of thanksgiving.
We start in the middle of Psalm 100, in verse 3, because it shows us the ground for our thanksgiving. Our God is the only God. It all begins there. The one true God is ours by grace in Christ. We are his people, his very own creation. He didn’t plop us here and retreat to heaven to see how this played out. He is involved in every detail of our life, the good and the bad, the sins and the successes. He is our Good Shepherd who takes care of us and watches over us, and even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, it’s so he can take us to the green pastures and still waters we long for. We are not the first people to experience this. The Bible is filled with those who have come before us, bearing witness to these truths. God has been faithful for generations. Throughout history, God has never disappointed anyone who trusted him, and he will not start with us. “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Ps. 100:5).
These truths find their ultimate expression in the person and work of Jesus Christ. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20a). Every promise in the Bible that God made, every hope in the Bible that God gave, and every joy in the Bible that God promised find their Yes in Jesus. Yes, life is still hard and still hurts, but in Christ, even death is now a portal into a better world with him. “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28a). We have victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57). We’ve been rescued! Jesus is the reason for our greatest thanks.
We can give thanks even in the hard stuff, because no matter how hopeless today may seem, there is hope for tomorrow. As Ray Ortlund said, “God has designed reality in such a way that we praise our way into a better future.” Thanksgiving moves us closer to God’s heart and a better tomorrow.
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The True and Better Leonardo

Rather than taking a blank canvas and layering paint drop by drop, he takes a soiled heart, made hard by sin, and softens it, reworks it, in fact, remakes it into his image. His art is not of the kind to hang on a wall for admiration. It’s the kind that stands in the hall, shouting down the corridors the glory of the artist. He’s creating not a showpiece but sons and daughters for himself. And if he’s producing such characters for his own enjoyment and pleasure, to share a part in his joy and gladness, why would he be content with any remaining sin or spot or imperfection? 

The world recognizes Leonardo da Vinci as one of history’s great artists, arguably the greatest ever. His Mona Lisa is the most famous painting the world will ever know. He never finally finished the picture. He was still working on it at the time of his death. Leonardo kept it with him, moving it from city to city, never handing it over to the one who commissioned it, because he was never done perfecting it. He tinkered and touched up and remade it throughout his last years of life. He even went to the lengths of painting the undergarments so that the proper texture was visible on the outer garment. He was meticulous and discerning. He researched the muscles of lips on corpses to get the smile just right—a smile that has sparked conversation since its revealing so many years ago. Is she smiling or not? Look at her eyes, and it appears the answer is yes. Look at her mouth, and it becomes debatable. Who could paint such a face full of motion? Only Leonardo because he alone cared enough to research the exact movements of the human mouth. He was never finished until the painting attained a specific and intentional character. So too is God.
In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis says about God something we see in Leonardo’s intention with his art.
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It’s Time to Starve Discouragement

We should go out of our way to honor fellow Christians, to say out loud, in front of others, the wonderful things God is doing through his redeemed people. Call it honor time. Build it into your rhythm of life together with your church family. It is not to build a mutual admiration society meeting. It is to look at the work of God in another person and name it. It is to recognize the glorious ways the Holy Spirit is building his church through his people.

Every Tuesday night we circled our chairs to face one another. Sometimes it was more an oval than a circle, an outward expression of our mutual inability to get ourselves in right order. We came from work or from school or from wherever we had been on Tuesdays. We brought our Bibles. We opened with an ice breaker. It was something people in churches do all the time. But it was something I never knew existed.
Our time was broken into three segments. We talked theology, we confessed our sins to one another, and we encouraged one another. We called that last part “honor time,” stemming from Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:10, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” It wasn’t flattery. Flattery is saying something nice to someone else hoping they will return the favor. Flattery is self-serving. Honor is not.
Perhaps the best verse in all of scripture to explain what it is to biblically honor another is found in Colossians 1:27, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Biblical honoring is looking at another Christian and calling out the work of God in them. It is not a mere human encouragement. It has divine origins. Most people never see God’s grace in their lives pouring out to others. Most people exist on a starvation diet of encouragement. Most people assume they are who they tell themselves they are. What else is there to believe? We all need someone to help us see Christ in us, the hope of glory.
Christ in You
We start with Christ, the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 22:13). He was before all things and is above all things (Col. 1:17). From him come all good things (James 1:17). Jesus is the most praise-worthy person in the universe. His goodness is pure. He deserves all glory and honor. He is the only one who is truly loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (Gal. 5:22–23). He is full of grace and truth. He is merciful and faithful. Everything we desire to be in our devotion to God, Jesus is perfectly. So we look first to Jesus to see clearly the fruit in his people.
The Bible teaches us that Jesus is not only “out there”; he’s also “in here,” in the hearts of his people (Rom. 8:11). Christ is in his people. We barely have proper categories to understand this truth. Jesus is not beside us like a friend. He resides inside us like our conscience, or our heart, or our brain. He indwells his people. The only perfect man to ever live is more than just a man. He is God—one with the Father and Spirit. By his Spirit, he lives in the hearts of his people.
The greatest truth about every Christian is the indwelling of God himself! Christ in you, the hope of glory.
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My Only Comfort

Our only comfort in life is that we may belong to another. If we are our own, our demise is a welcome thing. Finally, the trouble is ended. The pain will stop. But if we are not our own, our problems lie in the hands of someone else. We have an end to which we are headed. There is a solution to all our problems. There is one who cares even when we struggle to anymore. There is one who makes it all matter, who gives it all deep meaning.

My back hurts almost all the time now. It starts when I wake up. I turn on my left side to stop the alarm from waking my wife and notice the slight twinge of discomfort. If I am not careful, laying there on my pillow with my head tilted the wrong way will prepare me for a day of nagging ache.
I suppose this is part of what it means to grow old. Pain comes more quickly—if it ever really leaves. Like the birds of morning and the crickets of night, the noise of pain exists in an ever-present state, sitting in the background of everything else going on. The difference, of course, is no one considers the pain beautiful. No one stops to listen to the pain. What’s the point? It only makes it stronger.
When I finally put that first foot on the floor and rouse myself from the warmth and comfort of the bed, the pain moves to my heels. When I sit down with my coffee to read in my leather chair, the back pain returns. It is dulled only by the thoughts racing through my brain of the upcoming day. The meetings, the problems, the conversations, the projects, all of it sitting on my shoulders. I am Atlas without the strength to bear it.
However, even a bad day for me is a better day by far than most in the world both now and before. I am, after all, starting my day in a warm bed and with hot coffee. I drive a nice car to a well-paying job with enough challenges for a lifetime. I am surrounded by people who require only my attention and effort. I go home to a big family with a good dinner. Seven months out of twelve, Major League Baseball is in season. It is not a bad life. Not by a long shot.
But the pain is still there. Life is good, but it is not easy.
The right attitude would help, I’m sure. Gratitude would make a world of difference, I know. I get there sometimes. I force myself into it. But it doesn’t remove the ache. It doesn’t solve the problems. Seeing the good side doesn’t make the bad side less real. It doesn’t shine it up enough to camouflage it from the rest of life.
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Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality

Jesus can bear more reality than we can. He chose to bear more reality than we can. He came all the way down, all the way in, all the way through. The reality we run from, he came to live inside. He looked poverty in the face. He felt the leprous skin on his hand. He smelled the offensive incense of false offerings. He heard the blasphemies of man. He tasted the sting of betrayal and death. The reality we cannot bear, he chose.

In Four Quartets T.S. Eliot said, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” We shield our eyes. We busy ourselves. Like dealing with a fussy child, we direct our anxious hearts to something else hoping for a moment’s peace. Neil Postman wrote about “amusing ourselves to death.” We cram our lives with TV shows and movies and songs and social media and YouTube videos and everything else. We can face the reality of others, as long as we don’t have to tune into ours. Inside each of us is darkness we cannot face, and uncertainty we cannot bear. It’s all points to, as Eliot says, “one end, which is always present.”
We cannot bear very much reality. So we go into virtual reality. Strapping on our headsets, we depart from this world to another. We fight fake battles and climb mountains of pixels. We bowl alone, our eyes wrapped in technology taking us far, far away without leaving our chair. The day behind us falls like a blanket to the floor and the day ahead floats out front but we can’t see it. We don’t want to see it. We want an escape. The darkness is too much, so we blind it with light from a thousand sources.
Our day is not unique, only novel. We have more options for distraction. We have easier worlds to enter and more roads to take. But we cannot, no matter what we do or where we go, escape the one end, which is always present. That future we fear is only a day away. The one end makes us anxious so we prefer not to think too much about it. We cannot bear very much reality.
But, of course, reality is where we live.
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