Benedict Judas–An Excerpt

After the double murder that shattered my life and the life of my family, I slowly began to heal. I had a lot of help when I chose to see it. God. Family. Friends. A new wife who is my partner in every way imaginable… I don’t remember it, but Becki tells me years ago when we were so young and dating that I talked an awful lot about being a writer. I do remember two paid stints as a weekly newspaper columnist. I remember liking the idea of writing. In the aftermath of my horror, I did begin to write once more–I blogged. Those early days were full of anger and resentment. Raging against the machine, as it were. Eventually, I settled in on the idea of writing a book. I am still writing. As of today, I see one more chapter and then a conclusion/epilogue to write before the massive job of editing begins. Who knows whether it will ever be edited well enough to get a publisher to look at it. Even so, writing has been good for me, my ministry, my preaching… If nothing ever comes of it than that, well, it won’t be the answer to my dream, but I’ll be grateful none-the-less.

What follows is an unedited excerpt from what I am calling The Weakness of God. I hope you’ll get to read in its entirety one day. I pray it will be a blessing. LEFjr.

When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also  should do just as I have done for you.  “I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I’m not speaking about all of you; I know those I have chosen. But the Scripture must be fulfilled: The one who eats My bread has raised his heel against Me.

 “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He. I assure you: Whoever receives anyone I send receives Me, and the one who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.”

When Jesus had said this, He was troubled in His spirit and testified, “I assure you: One of you will betray Me!”

 The disciples started looking at one another—uncertain which one He was speaking about. One of His disciples, the one Jesus loved, was reclining close beside Jesus. Simon Peter motioned to him to find out who it was He was talking about. So he leaned back against Jesus and asked Him, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus replied, “He’s the one I give the piece of bread to after I have dipped it.”

When He had dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son. After Judas ate the piece of bread, Satan entered him. Therefore Jesus told him, “What you’re doing, do quickly.” (John 13:12–27 HCSB)

As I write this, I am fifty-four years old and less than five months away from my fifty-fifth birthday. I am not ancient and if you listen to the new gurus of our culture, I am still fully ensconced in middle age. On the days when I believed the hype and muscles are sore and legs are stiff, that is small consolation.

The truth is, I am no longer a youngster, but I am not quite yet approaching ancient-of-days status. On the other hand, I am a bit long in the tooth to so easily giggle at the inappropriate.

Have you ever wanted to laugh at a funeral?

Have you ever had to work hard to suppress a snort in the middle of a church service?

Preachers are the worst at this from my experience.  We are trained, educated, and equipped to be solemn when and where we need to be.

But there are certain verses in certain translations that have been known to provoke a struggle in repressing the inappropriate laughter of our inner twelve-year old. Even worse, occasionally someone will read something wrong—out loud in the church—and it will be all a guy can do to hold the laughter in.

I will not share any pre-adolescent examples here save for one that is mostly personal with me—and highly indicative of an excessive silliness factor. If this example isn’t good enough for you ask your own preacher, or better yet, read your Bible–you’ll find something to make you grin.

Save one.  I did promise you one, so here goes nothing.

True confession:  I cannot read, either privately or publicly, the name Judas Iscariot without fighting the inner mental giggle of a third grader.  Every time I see his name I want to call him Judas-is-a-carrot.

Beyond silly I am sure, but you get what you pay for whether reading it in this book or the sermon I developed to try out this material.

 Judas Iscariot.

There are loads of scholarly opinions on the meaning of Iscariot.  While interesting, they are not what I want to consider.

In American History, there have been numerous traitors who have plotted, divided, or otherwise acted in their own self-interests while betraying their country. They are each infamous to some degree, but none so much as Benedict Arnold.

In some respects, Benedict was a pitiful character.  A capable and worthy commander, he accomplished many good things in the quest for American sovereignty.  But disappointment, bitterness, and disillusionment ultimately led to an act of betrayal that has become synonymous with his name.

However, Benedict has nothing on the man Christendom rightly considers the most infamous traitor of all, Judas Iscariot.  And since I can’t restrain myself, let’s just call him Judas.

Judas.  That’s a name often stirring disgust, disrespect, anger, and most any other negative emotion found in our English vocabulary. There’s not much worse than betrayal and Judas says it all.

I have a grandson named Jude, but you don’t hear of many babies being named Judas.

The name Judas, like Hitler, Stalin, or even Osama, evokes little that could be considered pleasant. Some things can be redeemed but I am not sure Judas or his name ever will be.

Betrayal isn’t something we take lightly. American music is full of somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs. Even our lingo and slang is full of ways to describe what betrayal is like.

Stabbed in the back.
Sold down the river.
Taken for a ride.
Double-crossed.
Spit in my face.
Pulled the wool over my eyes

And in the immortal words of William Shakespeare as he had Julius Caesar speak them, Et tu Brute?

Even you, Brutus, even you.

How could you? Those are words we have said to others or maybe had said to us.

How could you?

Nobody likes being thrown under the bus.
Nobody likes being the scapegoat.
Nobody likes the blame being laid at your feet.
And nobody, I mean nobody ever enjoys being betrayed especially by someone we love and trust.

Ask the guy who unknowingly invested his life savings in a Ponzi scheme.

Ask the woman who said yes and moved across the country away from family and friends only to be contemptuously discarded and kicked to the curb for a newer model.

Ask the employees who began to build a company only to learn it was based on deliberately fraudulent information. Have you ever heard the phrase cooked the books?

And since we have already involved a nine year-old, ask the poor kid whose best friend made fun of him on the playground in front of the whole class.

How could you?
Why would you?
Why did you?

Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and He told His disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with Him, and He began to be deeply distressed and horrified. Then He said to them, “My soul is swallowed up in sorrow—to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake.” Then He went a little farther, fell to the ground, and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him. And He said, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”

 Then He came and found them sleeping. “Simon, are you sleeping?” He asked Peter. “Couldn’t you stay awake one hour? Stay awake and pray so that you won’t enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

 Once again He went away and prayed, saying the same thing. And He came again and found them sleeping, because they could not keep their eyes open. They did not know what to say to Him. Then He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The time has come. Look, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up; let’s go! See—My betrayer is near.”

While He was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, suddenly arrived. With him was a mob, with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. His betrayer had given them a signal. “The One I kiss,” he said, “He’s the One; arrest Him and take Him away under guard.” So when he came, he went right up to Him and said, “Rabbi!”—and kissed Him. Then they took hold of Him and arrested Him. (Mark 14:32–46 HCSB)

All these centuries later, nothing about Judas’ reputation has been rehabilitated.  There is no commission to overthrow the guilty verdict.  There is no organization intent on seeing him in a fairer light. I would like to be remembered, but not like this.

Not like this.

Judas will go down in history as the worst betrayer of all time. That he did it with the intimacy of a kiss only adds to a higher level of disgust.

If you are like me, you probably can’t even say something as simple as poor old Judas.

Unfortunately, long before this ugly affair, there were problems in his character—and those problems created even more problems, leading to his ultimate betrayal.

John 12 tells the story of Mary, sister to Lazarus and Martha, anointing Jesus’ feet with a pint of pure nard, “an expensive perfume.” (John 12:3 NIV2011) Continuing the story, we then learn of Judas’ strident objection and the true reason behind it.

“Why wasn’t this fragrant oil sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?” He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the money-bag and would steal part of what was put in it. (John 12:5–6 HCSB)

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, a ministry Judas was fully immersed in, Jesus taught His disciples many wonderfully important, life-affirming things. Maybe you’ll remember these two from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21 HCSB)

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24 NIV11)

Do you see where Judas’ heart was?

Do you see the internal/ external conflict he was living with?

I have been a Judas neophyte most of my preaching life. I cannot ever remember preaching a sermon on Judas. I can’t remember ever doing much thinking about him at all. Most of my theology where Judas was concerned could be summed up and communicated quite clearly in six short words or two short phrases: “Judas bad. Don’t be like Judas.”

Suffice it to say I was quite surprised to learn there are other theories or possibilities for why Judas did what he did. I would have assumed that Judas’ betrayal was primarily motivated by greed, especially given what we learned of him in John 12.

However, some believe Judas’ actions were intended to force Jesus to confront the power of Rome. Others believe that Judas betrayed out of disillusionment, out of his own sense of being betrayed by Jesus’ proclamations of impending death.

So, which was it?

Was it greed?
Was it confrontation?
Was it disillusionment?

Yes, it was. Yes, I have no problem saying yes to any of those statements, yes to them individually, or yes to them as one combined answer.

Yes. And it ought to scare us to death.

If the answer is greed, I don’t know anybody who hasn’t struggled with materialism. I don’t know anybody who isn’t tempted to allow the things of this world to become our treasure, to be what we serve.

As far as confrontation is concerned, many of us have bargained with God trying to get Him to work within our own agenda.

And disillusionment? Who hasn’t been disappointed by God? Who hasn’t been tempted to take matters into our hands when God doesn’t do what we expect or want?

Nobody wants to be compared to Judas, but there it is. And like Judas, every single one of us is susceptible to betraying God.

John 13:27 tells us after Judas ate the bread Satan entered him…

In the College Press NIV Commentary on the Gospel of John, the authors make a heart-wrenching statement: “Ironically for Judas the bread of the Last Supper was not ‘Christ’s body broken for him,’ but his commitment to self-serving allegiance and evil actions.”

In Judas’ desire for whatever was not of God, he became the tool of Satan.

In my faith tradition, we partake of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. It is a hallowed, holy moment of reflection, communion, and remembrance. I just wonder how many times we eat of the bread and drink of the cup and then turn right around and betray our Lord.

Suddenly, I don’t feel quite so superior to Judas.

In your struggles for the legal tender, in your wanting God to do a certain thing, in your disappointment when God doesn’t do what you think God should have done, guard your heart.

Don’t become a tool for Satan.

The reality of Judas isn’t very far from any of us!

The Wheels On The Bus

My Cole was quite the funny guy.  He loved sports of every variety and could carry on a conversation about it.  But, his mental disabilities made him a contradiction in terms (aren’t we all?).

To the day he died, he absolutely loved Barney the purple dinosaur.

He was always up for one of the silly movies about the golden retrievers–you may remember the most well-known, Air Bud.

If I had a dollar for every time in his almost twenty-two years we heard or sang The Wheels on the Bus, I’d be a rich, rich man.

The wheels on the bus go round and round

                  Round and round, Round and round

                  The wheels on the bus go round and round

                  All ‘round the town.

There are verses about the wipers on the bus going swish, swish, swish. There are verses about the driver, people, and the horn.

Beep, beep, beep anyone?

Those are fond memories for me.

I’d like you to think about the first verse…

The wheels on the bus go round and round.

That is an apt metaphor for the busyness of my life.  Knowing how most of us live I suspect the metaphor works for you too.

Life hardly ever slows down.  Those wheels keep turning because the road keeps coming.

I have my phone set up for silent hours from 9pm to 7:30am.  But even though it may not ding all night long there is usually a long list of emails and texts to deal with as I start my day.

Mondays are usually the worst.  Things pile up over the weekend.  A new set of deadlines approach.  There are fires to be put out.  There is new business to consider.  And heaven knows, there are still things to be done that never got started the week before.

But then, you know that too, don’t you?

The wheels on the bus go round and round…

Life is busy.  If not work, there are more activities in a kid’s life these days than most of us could have ever imagined.

Maybe you’ve heard the old cliché “I’ll slow down when I am dead.”

Yes, the wheels on the bus go round and round.

There have been many times in my life when I was in danger of the wheels falling off. Maybe that describes you even now.

There are two passages I’d like you to remember:

First, Mark 6:30-31, The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to Him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest for a while.” For many people were coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.

 And then Psalms 46:10, Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. (NIV11)

 Life is infinitely worth living, but don’t forget to rest, don’t forget to seek Him.

Be still.
Be very still.

Blessings to you and yours.

Les Ferguson,Jr.

The Great Physician!

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(This particular article isn’t really about politics. But it is about my life and the profound changes that have taken place. This is my continuing story–this is about being in a brand new place, emotionally, spiritually, and otherwise…)

This world, good old planet earth, is desperately broken. I am not talking about pollution or global warming. I am not speaking of a new ice age or climate change brought on by human activity.

Those things can be debated, debunked, argued, or dismissed—depending on your take.

On the other hand, Paul tells us in the Book of Romans that we have all followed in the path of Adam and Eve—we have all sinned—and the wages of that sin is death.

Indeed, creation itself suffers the burden of our sin.

Romans 8:20-22, For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now.

It is a broken world we live in, a broken world inhabited by horribly broken people.

Undeniably, sin has left its mark. Evil has scarred this planet, disfigured our bodies, and mutilated our lives. Ultimately, disobedience to God has left us with what an old hymn calls a crimson stain.

Yes, we have a broken world filled with broken people. And while I might wish to remain anonymous, I cannot: Hi, my name is Les Ferguson, Jr. and like you and everyone else, I am broken. I am broken and sometimes in ways still to be discovered or acknowledged.

Here’s a truth you can bank on: Broken people are hurt people.

Even worse, hurt people hurt people.

On October 10, 2011, with the murder of wife and son, I became undeniably aware of just how broken my world could be.

Those of my family who survived did so scarred, broken, damaged, and hurt. And by now you should know that hurt people hurt people.

I wish I could tell you that I was or am an exception to that rule. I wish I could tell you, but I can’t.

I just recently spent a week in the Florida sunshine. It was beautiful. And while I forgot about my troubles for a while, the world kept turning. And while it did, brokenness after brokenness made itself evident over and over again.

In a world of heartache and despair, if we are not careful, we will become blind to the beauty of the life God intended for us to live (and I know this first hand). Even worse, we will forget about The Great Physician…

After this, a Jewish festival took place, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. By the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool, called Bethesda in Hebrew, which has five colonnades. Within these lay a large number of the sick—blind, lame, and paralyzed [—waiting for the moving of the water, because an angel would go down into the pool from time to time and stir up the water. Then the first one who got in after the water was stirred up recovered from whatever ailment he had].

One man was there who had been sick for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had already been there a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the sick man answered, “I don’t have a man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I’m coming, someone goes down ahead of me.”

“Get up,” Jesus told him, “pick up your mat and walk!” Instantly the man got well, picked up his mat, and started to walk. (John 5:1–9a HCSB)

I wonder if you see yourself in this story.

I certainly see me…

Maybe you are not an invalid or totally dependent on the care of others.
Maybe you are not financially strapped.
Maybe you are not fighting an addiction.
Maybe you are not divorced and struggling.
Maybe you are not unhappy at your job.
Maybe you are not wrestling with your purpose in life.
And maybe, just maybe, you have never had to cope with grief and loss.

Those are some mighty big maybe’s, aren’t they?

And even if you can maybe say you are healthy, whole, sane, happy, and satisfied with life, there is still the sickness of your sin, the crimson stain of your soul…

Back in our text, John tells us this man had been sick and suffering for 38 years.
That’s a long time.
That’s a lifetime.

Did you happen to catch all the ways he was both alone and not alone?

Verse 7 says there was no one to help him in the water. Why was he alone? I cannot say for sure, but I can speculate from my own experience. I can guess that if he and I are alike, then we were alike in how we handled our pain.

And it is all very circular—hurt people hurt people. And in our pain, we also isolate ourselves. The more we hurt, the more we hurt. Pain causes us to isolate ourselves and pain causes others to isolate from us.

There is a world of lonely people out there. Hurting and hurting. And we are not alone, we just fail to recognize how others hurt just like we do.

But there is another scenario we might also consider (big stuff coming here…). Yes, hurt people hurt and isolate. But sometimes we build our lives around our struggle. We give it meaning. We infuse it with good intentions. And before you know it, it—-whatever it may be-—becomes not only our routine, but our identity as well.

The Great Physician did not come so that you or I could have or live a victim mentality. Our tragedies, pains, failures and heartaches do not have to define the entirety of our lives!

Jesus came to heal.
Hallelujah!

You may not see your struggles go completely away. You may have some degree of pain the very rest of your life. But the Great Physician, the great healer of our souls—-the one who washes away our sins—-the one who redeems, restores, and reconciles can change even the worst perspective.

This I know.
This I know.

Writing here today is proof positive of the Great Physician’s work in my life.

There was a time in which I hurt so badly that my pain became the pain of others. And I didn’t give them a choice. I hurt, so I hurt.

But eventually the emptiness of my loneliness couldn’t be sustained any more. Eventually I grew tired of being angry. I grew weary of making my pain my identity.

Enter the Great Physician.
Forgiver of my sins.
Healer of my heart.
Restorer of my life.

Like me, your healing may not be as instantaneous as the man in our text. Some aspects of our curing may take a lifetime. And truthfully, some things may not be completely cured until eternity calls.

But regardless, our healing will not begin until we hear and answer the same question Jesus asked: Do you want to get well?

The great Physician now is near, The sympathizing Jesus;
He speaks the drooping heart to cheer, Oh, hear the voice of Jesus.

stethoscope_and_heart   Do you want to get well?

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS.

Ain’t No Rock

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This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday.
The week before Easter.

For those who don’t follow the Christian calendar, Psalm Sunday may not mean as much as the Sunday that follows.

But Palm Sunday is important.  And maybe more so than you realize.

Where I preach, we will be handing out palm branches. They have symbolized victory in a span of time that reaches far, far back into the ancient world–to a period even before the Christ.

Indeed, palm branches are ancient history and they proclaim victory!

We all want to be victorious in some avenue or endeavor.
We want to win the game.
We want to win the girl/ boy.
We want to win the job.
We want to win the prize.
We want to win the election.
We want to win at life.

Nobody likes being a loser!

For those Jews some 2000 plus years ago, they were tired of losing–politically, socially, and economically. And so the palm branches represented the victory of the conquering King they dreamed and hoped for.

Today, we can understand those branches in a more meaningful way. We no longer have to be subjected to wishful dreaming. We no longer have to wait and wonder in breathless expectation.

Victory?  Yes, to be sure!

But the victory we celebrate is not the winner of the oval office or any other political manifestation. No, the victory we celebrate is the ultimate triumph of hope! It is the accomplished work of the now Reigning King! And that is hope I can live with!

In Luke’s version of Palm Sunday (Luke 19), Jesus is asked to quiet His disciples for their affirmations were disturbing and offensive to the political and religious power structure of the day.

I love Jesus’ response: “If they were to keep silent, the stones would cry out.”

This Sunday and every day as the song says…

Ain’t no rock, gonna cry in my place

 As long as I am alive I’ll glorify His Holy Name!

On to the victory only Jesus can bring! May every day be a triumphant march of the soul!

Palm branches indeed!

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS

There Will Be A Day!

hot-300414_1280     I don’t know how many times I have spoken of it. Or written about it either. But over the years I have talked often about the hymn I’ll Fly Away.

There is something quite compelling about the lyrics:

Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
 
When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.
 
Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away.
 
I’ll fly away, Oh Glory I’ll fly away;
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away!

It’s probably not the most theologically correct song. Certainly the words are not the most erudite you will ever find. But it resonates. Oh, how it resonates.

I have no death wish.
I have no desire to leave my family.
Immeasurably more than I could ever explain, I love my wife, my family, my work, and you.

It’s just that simple.

But still the song resonates.

In a world where death stalks the living, in a world where evil seems to thrive, in a world where life can be so fragile, we can look forward to the day when the final victory is ours. And because there will be a day, we can live now! We can find meaning in the darkest hour, hard though it might be.

So, while we wait, I want to live life to the fullest. I want to know joy. I want to spread sunshine. I want to be at peace and happy no matter what this world brings.

How about you?

I haven’t always done the best at that. My faith has not always been as strong. I have faced challenges that cut my sea legs right out from under me. I have been angry and bitter toward God and others. But I have come to understand and experience peace in the valley.

Philippians 4:4-7, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

That’s how I want to live today, tomorrow, and every day…

Let’s learn to really live, together, you and I! Even better, let’s learn how to live together in unity–because there will be a day!

There will be a day with no more tears
No more pain, and no more fears
There will be a day when the burdens of this place
Will be no more, we’ll see Jesus face to face
 
There will be a day he will wipe away the tears
He will wipe away the tears
He will wipe away the tears
There will be a day
(Jeremy Camp)

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Les, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS