Open Our Eyes

(I was recently asked by my church to give a message to our local congregation. This is what I shared, a message for the current times.)

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A man was walking in the woods. It was very foggy and it was getting dark so visibility was poor. Because he cannot see, he walked straight off into a cliff. Luckily as he was falling he was able to grab a bush that was growing at the side of the cliff. He then looked up and he cannot see where he fell off. He looked down, and he cannot see the bottom of the cliff for it was dark and foggy. So there he was clinging on a bush, hanging for dear life.

He then started shouting for help. “Help! Is there anybody out there, help!”

Unbeknownst to him, the bottom of the cliff was less than 6 feet from where he was hanging and it was a sandy floor. But he cannot see that. So he continued hanging and shouting for help.

Then a voice came to him, “I can help you.” He was startled but relieved. He asked, “Who are you?” The voice answered back, “I am God.” Then he pleads, “Please God help me!” The voice told him, “Let go of the bush.” The man heard it, but he again pleads, “Lord help me!” Then the voice came again, this time more firmly, “Let go of the bush.”

The man thought intently for a few seconds, then shouted back, “Is there anybody else out there?”

Many times we only listen to what we wanted to hear. I pray that as we receive God’s message to us this morning, that we listen, even if it’s not what we wanted to hear.

Troubled Times

We are living in an alarming and troubled times. So we will study for today a story that happened during an alarming and troubled times as well.

The story we have for this morning is found in 2 Kings 6: 8-23

Now the king of Syria was making war against Israel; and he consulted with his servants, saying, “My camp will be in such and such a place.” And the man of God sent to the king of Israel, saying, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Syrians are coming down there.” 10 Then the king of Israel sent someone to the place of which the man of God had told him. Thus he warned him, and he was watchful there, not just once or twice.

The king of Syria, Ben-Hadad II, was at war with the king of Israel, Jehoram, son of Ahab and Jezebel. It was not an all out war, but more of guerrilla tactics. He wanted to ambush the King of Israel. But every time he would make a plan or move his army to one place, the king of Israel would learn about it and would avoid to go to that place and the plan of the king of Syria was foiled. This happened several times. How did Israel get their intel? Israel had a secret weapon. Elisha the prophet, who was like a radar, would give warning to the king of Israel.

11 Therefore the heart of the king of Syria was greatly troubled by this thing; and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you not show me which of us is for the king of Israel?” 12 And one of his servants said, “None, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.”

So the king of Syria was frustrated. He thought there was a mole in his court. Then somebody told him that there was a prophet in Israel that can know whatever he says or plans even in his bedroom. The walls have ears! It’s like having the phone wire-tapped or the rooms having secret surveillance video cameras.

You now what? That’s the same way for us. God knows what’s going on in our day to day living. Whatever actions and thoughts we have, whether good or bad, God knows.

13 So he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and get him.” And it was told him, saying, “Surely he is in Dothan.”

So the king of Syria wanted to capture the prophet. Was that a foolish move? If Elisha knows what he’s planning against the king of Israel, surely he would also know what is being planned against him?

So he sent spies to know where Elisha was, and he got a report that Elisha was in a small town, named Dothan.

Dothan is a small shepherd town. It is not a fortified city. One other time this place was mentioned in the Bible was when Joseph, son of Jacob, was looking for his brothers who were tending the sheep, and he found them in Dothan, meaning “two wells,” which is a famous pasture land. This is the place where Joseph was thrown into a well, and his colorful coat was torn, and where he was sold to merchants going to Egypt. So this is the place where Joseph’s misery began. But what was meant to do him evil, after several years turned into a blessing, as we all know his story. For that’s the God we serve, He can turn curses into blessings.

14 Therefore he sent horses and chariots and a great army there, and they came by night and surrounded the city.

The the king of Syria sent an army of horses and chariots (tanks and Black Hawk helicopters), and under the cloak of darkness, in stealth mode, they surrounded the town of Dothan, and blocked every gates and passageways. For the residents inside the town there was no way out.

15 And when the servant of the man of God arose early and went out, there was an army, surrounding the city with horses and chariots. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”

Picture this, the young servant of Elisha was just waking up. Perhaps he wanted to start the day early. He probably went to the well to get water, then he noticed that there was a different glimmer around the town. As the rays of the rising sun was hitting the pasture land he saw something shining around the town. He squinted and he saw that it was the shiny metal armors of a big army. There were soldiers, war horses, and chariots. He squinted some more and he noticed that that was not the army of Israel, but that was the army of Syria! He looked not just in one direction, but all around him, and realized that the whole town was fully surrounded. This is bad!

So he woke up Elisha and blurted, “Alas my master! What shall we do?”

Let’s pause for a moment here. We know the end of the story but let’s dwell for minute in this particular stage of the story of “Alas my master, what shall we do?”

Have we experienced something similar? Maybe not as dire as this, or maybe it was more dire than this. Maybe you were a soldier and you were in a foxhole and bullets were flying all around you. Maybe it was not that dramatic, you were sitting in a doctor’s office, and the doctor told you, “Sorry, it is cancer and it is advanced.” Or you were at work, and your employer told you, “Sorry, but we are letting you go.” Or you were in an attorney’s office signing the final paper work of your divorce. Or other more situations that the problem was overwhelming you, and you blurted out, “Alas my master, what shall we do?”

Chariots of Fire

But Elisha was not afraid. Why? Let’s read.

16 So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 

With God on our side we always have the advantage. Even if it’s just you against the world if God is with you, you are already the majority.

1 John 4:4The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

Yet perhaps the young servant was not convinced with Elisha’s words of reassurance. Perhaps he was still shaking in his sandals. He cannot come to grips of the sight of the large Syrian army surrounding them. So Elisha prayed to God, a prayer not for himself, for he already knew of his deliverance, but he offered a prayer for this young servant.

17 And Elisha prayed, and said, “Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 

God lifted the veil between the earthly realm and the spiritual realm and allowed this young man to see that the mountains around Dothan was full of army of angels riding fiery chariots. Suddenly the Syrian army became insignificant. Suddenly the enemy’s army looked so puny compared to the heavenly army.

Are we like the servant of Elisha? Do we lack the eyes of faith? I pray that God will open our eyes that we may see that there is a host of angels around us, even right now as I speak. May God open our eyes to realize that He never leaves us. May God open our eyes to remember that He is always in control no matter what the circumstances may be. Yes, there’s social and political unrest. Yes, there’s financial crunch. Yes, there’s a raging pandemic. But God is still in control.

Procession of the Blind

Then when the Syrian army tried to advance, Elisha prayed once more, he asked to release the horses and chariots of fire and scorch the Syrian army! No? That’s not what your Bible version says?

18 So when the Syrians came down to him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, “Strike this people, I pray, with blindness.” And He struck them with blindness according to the word of Elisha.

Elisha did not pray to kill the Syrian army, for God has a better plan. He prayed that the Syrians be blinded. In one prayer he asked for his young servant to have his eyes open, and in one prayer he asked for the soldiers to have their eyes be blinded. God can open eyes and He can shut the eyes.

In the Bible, there were other people that were blinded by God. Remember Saul who became Paul? When he became blind, he was able to listen more to what God was calling him to do. He was blinded so he can see. What a contradiction. Do we need to be blinded so we could be free of the world’s distractions? Do we need to be blinded so we can listen more intently to what God was calling us for? Do we need to be blinded for us to realize that we are really helpless so that we rely solely in God?

The term used in this verse that was translated as blindness is not the same term used for the illness of being blind that is the lack of sight, but rather the term used meant to dazzle or confuse. Maybe like a deer in the headlights.

19 Now Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, nor is this the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” But he led them to Samaria.

Elisha then told the army that they are in the wrong place and their GPS was set wrong and they are looking for the wrong person. So he led them to Samaria, the capital of Northern Israel, which is a fortified city.

Dothan is 12 miles away from Samaria. That’s almost a half-marathon away. I have run several half-marathons before, and it took me more than 2 hours to finish that course. I am sure this Syrian army was not running and was traveling more slowly as they were blind and being led. So I surmise that most likely it took them 4 hours or more to cover that distance. If you’re blind and you are being led to cross an unfamiliar street, that maybe hard. But being led and walking for more than 4 hours not knowing where you are going, must be like an eternity.

Imagine this, Elisha was guiding the lead horse and the rest of the horses, chariots and the army were following – like a parade. When they approached Samaria the watchmen at the wall probably saw them from afar. They gave the signal “Enemy approaching!” And they prepared for battle. But as they came closer, Israel’s army noted – wait a minute, this Syrian army was not ready for combat, they were just having a procession, and they were being led by Elisha of all people!

Elisha called out to open the gates. Then he led the army of Syria inside the city walls and then the gates were closed. Elisha prayed again.

20 So it was, when they had come to Samaria, that Elisha said, “Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” And the Lord opened their eyes, and they saw; and there they were, inside Samaria!

Again a prayer to open the eyes. And what did the Syrian soldiers see when they came into their senses? They were in the middle of Israel’s territory. They looked around and saw that Israelites soldiers up on the the walls have their arrows and spears aimed at them. The Israelite army was surrounding them with their swords drawn out ready to strike them. What a surprising sight for the Syrian army.

The circumstance had changed! Before they were the hunter surrounding the prey. Or so they thought. But now they were the prey and they were cornered. God can turn around our circumstances. He will fight our battle. We only need to trust in Him.

If Your Enemy Is Hungry

21 Now when the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha, “My father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?22 But he answered, “You shall not kill them. Would you kill those whom you have taken captive with your sword and your bow? Set food and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” 

The king of Israel was excited like a child inside a candy store. Shall I kill them all? Shall I give the command “open fire!” But Elisha said, no! These are really not captives, these are my guests. Don’t kill them, give them food and drink. After all they were tired from walking 12 long miles.

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
For so you will heap coals of fire on his head,
And the Lord will reward you.
(Proverbs 25:21-22)

There is something more of this giving food and drink. In the Eastern cultures there is a custom that if you eat together or share a meal together, that is like a covenant that you are at peace with each other and are now united as one.

23 Then he prepared a great feast for them; and after they ate and drank, he sent them away and they went to their master. So the bands of Syrian raiders came no more into the land of Israel.

This story gave us a lesson of how to deal with our enemies – Kill them with kindness. It should not always be an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” kind-of-justice. Mahatma Gandhi said “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

I believe that there are more eyes being opened here that was not directly mentioned in the story. Yes there was the young servant’s eyes opened to see the chariots of fire, and the eyes of the Syrian army that were blinded and then opened to see that they were inside the walls of Samaria. I believe that Elisha was also trying to open the eyes of the king of Israel and the Israelites to the truth that we should repay good for evil. Just like what Jesus says:

Matthew 5:43- 48 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

For us today, I pray that our eyes be opened to see that this world is already full of hate. That people don’t like each other. People don’t trust each other. Not just in the opposite sides of the political fence, or opposite sides of any social movement, or whatever race, creed, religion or beliefs we belong to – there is already so much hate and anger in this world. May God open our eyes that what this world needs is that we love those who hates us, pray for those who curse us, and that we do good to those who do us evil. That the world may know that we are His children and He is our God.

Amazing Grace

I would like to end with a story from the post-apartheid era in South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was meeting and was gathered to reach a verdict on a particularly brutal case involving an elderly woman. A group of white police officers, led by a Mr. van de Broek, admitted their personal responsibility in the death of the woman’s eighteen-year old son. They acknowledged shooting him, setting his body on fire, and partying around the fire until the body was reduced to ashes. Eight years later, the same officers took the woman’s husband into captivity. The woman was forced to watch while the officers doused her husband with gasoline and then ignited him in fire. The last words her husband spoke to her, in the midst of the blaze were ‘Forgive them.’

Now the time had come for justice to be served. Those involved had confessed their guilt, and the Commission turned to the woman for a final statement regarding her desire for an appropriate punishment.

“I want three things”, the woman said calmly. “I want Mr. van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband’s body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial.

“Second, Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can be a mother to him.

“Third, I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. And, I would like someone to come and lead me by the hand to where Mr. van de Broek is, so that I can embrace him and he can know my forgiveness is real.”

As the elderly woman made her way across the silent courtroom, van de Broek reportedly fainted, overcome by emotion. And then the silence was broken when someone began singing, ‘Amazing Grace.’ Soon others joined in singing the familiar hymn, that the entire courtroom was filled with singing.

Lord, open our eyes that we may do good rather than evil, that we may sow love instead of hate, that we might sought forgiveness rather than revenge. This is my prayer.

(*photo from israelmyglory.org)

Mountains of Challenges

(I was asked by my aunt in California to give an inspirational message for their virtual church. Here is what I shared.)

It is October. In only a couple of months, this year will end. And what a difficult time it has been this year 2020 to many of us, if not to all of us. I know many of us would rather forget this year and just want it to go away. The funny thing is, this year could not even claim the notoriety it will be known for, as COVID is named COVID-19 and not COVID-20.

The past several months was a constant struggle. It was a like an unending mountain climb. It was one challenge after another. However, these mountains of challenges can strengthen us and can fortify our commitment.

In 1923 when a reporter from New York Times ask George Mallory, an English mountaineer, why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, his answer was simple. He said, “Because it’s there.” What he’s saying is, it was there waiting to be conquered.

Mount Everest

Mallory’s first 2 attempts to climb Mount Everest end up in failures. But he did not give up. On his 3rd expedition to climb Everest, he never came back. He and his companion was last spotted in an upper ridge about 250 meters below the summit. Did he finally make it to the summit? We don’t know, for he did not survive to tell us the story. One thing for sure, he is committed to his cause.

There are some stories in the Bible of people who went up the mountains. One of them is David. But David did not climb the mountain for mountaineering nor for physical recreation. He ran to the mountain to escape and to save his life. This was during the time when he was running away from King Saul who wants to kill him. We can say that David was going through a difficult time in his life. One of the places he stayed is the wilderness of Ein Gedi, where there are rugged hills and stony cliffs.

Ein Gedi

During that time that he was running from one mountain to another, and was hiding from one cave to another cave, that he was inspired to write this:

I look up toward the mountains.
    Where can I find help?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the maker of heaven and earth. Psalms 121:1-2

For us Christians we should view these mountains of challenges in a different perspective. These difficult trials provides us the chance to realize that God never leaves us and it gives us the opportunity to witness how powerful our God is.

When I was growing up in Sampaloc Manila, I have posters on the walls of my tiny room. I could have a poster of my favorite basketball player Robert Jaworski. I don’t know if any of you even knew him. Or I could have a picture of a famous movie star. My favorite during my high school days was Phoebe Cates, but I didn’t have a poster of her either. Instead, my posters are photos of beautiful landscapes with inspirational message in them.

The poster beside my bed was a photo of a huge rock mountain. It is actually a butte that towers over a plain. I did not know at that time what mountain it was and where it was until I came to the US a decade and a half later. I found out that the rock mountain on my poster was aptly named the Devils Tower, and it is located in Crook County, Wyoming. On my poster, underneath the photo of this rock mountain are this words: Faith moves mountains.

Yes, my brothers and sisters, there are no mountains high enough that the devil can throw in front of us that our God cannot move.

Devils Tower

Matthew 17:20 – “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Few years ago, we were blessed to visit Israel. During one of our trips our bus was traveling to Bethlehem, and I saw that Bethlehem was a hilly region. I could only imagine that in one of those hills are where the shepherds were when the angels appeared to them. But the tour guide asked us to look beyond Bethlehem hills and direct our sight to a strange-looking mountain in the distance. It was truncated and cone-shaped.

It was a strange-looking mountain because it was man-made. The mountain was named Herodium, a fortress that Herod the Great constructed, about 5 kilometers southeast of Bethlehem. This was the same King Herod that tried to kill Jesus by slaughtering all the male infants in the region.

As history recorded it, when Herod the Great, was searching for a place to build his home and fortress, there was not a mountain high enough for him to build this structure. Instead there were two hills near each other at the site where he wanted it.

So what did Herod do? He cut down one hill and with an army of laborers he placed the pared hill on top of the other hill to make it higher, one bucket of dirt and rocks at a time. He literally moved a mountain.

Herodium

When Jesus and his disciples were having discussion about faith, they were probably looking at this Herod’s mountain, which was hard to miss in the Judaean desert. Its dominating presence was a constant reminder of an oppressive yet very powerful regime. It was a common knowledge of that time how Herod moved a mountain.

So when Jesus told his disciples that if they have faith as small as a mustard seed, they can tell a mountain to move and it will move, He was telling them that they don’t need an army of laborers to move a mountain like what King Herod did. That if they have faith they can be greater than King Herod the Great. With faith they can be more powerful than the most powerful king of their land. With faith they can be mightier than the mightiest ruler of their time.

Yes, our God is powerful and He can move mountains. And if we have faith in Him there should not be any mountain of challenges that we cannot conquer.

May God bless us all.

(*photos from the web)

Amazing Grace

When I was asked to give a message to my home church in the Philippines via Zoom last month, they also asked if my daughter can give a special music for their virtual church service. We recorded her playing the piano and send them the video. Friends from New York and New Jersey also asked for this video and played it in their virtual worship services.

I’m sharing it here too. Blessings to you.

(Music piece is “Amazing Grace,” piano arrangement by Joel Raney.)

Who Will Roll Away The Stone?

(I was invited by my home church in the Philippines to give a message during their virtual church service through Zoom and this was viewed via Facebook live. Here’s what I shared, though it was in Tagalog.)

Good morning to all of you, though it’s night time here where I am. Thank you for inviting me to share the word of God today. It is strange that when there is a time of travel restriction and stay-at-home order, that’s the time I am able to go back to my home church. In fact I have been worshiping with you for more than 2 months now. We must remember that the church is not the building in Sampaloc. The church is us, the group of believers wherever we may be.

Unprecedented Time

We are living in an unprecedented time. Never in our lifetime have we seen so many parts of the world placed in lockdown. For you people in Metro Manila you have been in community quarantine for more than three months now, and I know you are longing to get out.

Never before in my lifetime have I witnessed the police guarding stock of toilet paper. Who could have imagined that I would go to the bank teller asking for money and I was wearing a mask? We have problems right now that we never knew we would have. Like, can I trust my wife to give me a haircut? Or, how many type of dish can I make out of a can of sardines?

More seriously now, yes we have problems in this world currently that we don’t have an answer for, and we’re looking for someone who can help us solve them. As a worker in the medical field, I have witnessed first hand the deadly effects and devastation of this COVID 19, especially in the place I work – in the ICU.

I would like to review a story in the Bible, where people had a situation and they asked who could help them with their problem? I entitled our study today as “Who will roll away the stone?”

Mark 16: 1-3: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

Extravagant Burial

It was Sunday morning, and the women, the two Marys and Salome, were on their way to Jesus’ tomb. The mood among Jesus’ followers were doom and gloom. Their Messiah died, and many of them went into hiding. They went into self imposed quarantine. I am not sure if these women were the only ones with quarantine pass so they went out, but the men were afraid to go out not because of a virus, but because they were afraid for their lives. These women’s hearts were broken, yet they would like to show their devotion to their fallen leader by anointing his dead body with fragrances.

It was the custom of the Jews to anoint the dead. The anointing of perfume was not to do mummification, but to put spice and fragrances to cancel the bad smell of decomposition. The most common spice used to anoint the dead is myrrh. Where else have you heard about myrrh? If you said that it was one of the wise men’s gifts given to Jesus when he was born, then you’re absolutely right. Do you see the theme here? Jesus was a baby destined to die.

We may ask, was Jesus’ body not given proper burial rights before being buried that the women have to do it again? Let’s read:

John 19: 38-40: After this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury.

One hundred pounds of spices (some Bible version says 75 lbs; the original Bible manuscript in Greek says 100 litras). That’s a lot of spices! Twenty pounds of spices was the usual burial custom in those days. Forty pounds was for the rich. So 100 pounds was really extravagant. I read that it is estimated that the cost of 100 pounds of this mixture of myrrh and aloes would cost about $150,000 (7.5M pesos) in today’s market. Those men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, gave Jesus a burial fit for a king.

Do we have that extravagant devotion? Do we give honor to God that is fit for the King of Kings? But even how extravagant our devotion to God is, one thing for sure, we cannot out love the Lord. Do you know what extravagant love is? This is extravagant love – when Jesus exchanged his divine and royal crown for a crown of thorns and gave His life for you and me.

Very Large Stone

So back to those women, why did they have to go? I don’t think these women thought that the anointing of Jesus’ body was not done right or not enough, but rather they only wanted to show honor and respect to their fallen Savior in their own little way.

So while the women were on their way, they asked: Who will roll away the stone? This implies that they alone cannot roll away this stone.

me trying to move a large stone in Jordan

Archeologist have found many tombs around Palestine that they believe were first century tombs. Most of the time the opening of the tomb was blocked by a stone. It could be a large mill-like stone, though some experts say that it could also be a square rock that can slide. Though to me when the women said “roll” away, original Greek word apokylio, it must be circular that it can roll like a wheel.

The books of Mathew and Mark said that it was “very large.” If we say it should cover 4 to 5 feet of tomb entrance, then a disc stone would have a diameter of at least 6 feet. That rock could weigh 1.5 to 2 tons. That weight alone even though it can roll like a wheel, would be hard to move.

But there’s another factor that was found by archeological diggings: usually the groove where the stone rolls was in an incline or had a deep ditch where it would drop. Meaning, it may be much easier to close it, but a lot harder to open it, as you have to roll it against an incline or lift it out of a deep rut, and put a wedge to keep it open. In a conservative estimate, you need more than 10 strong men at the least, to roll away the stone.

One more factor, according to Matt 27:66, it was closed with a Roman seal and thus cannot be opened without the permission of the Roman authority. Besides, there were Roman soldiers guarding the tomb. A usual Roman guard unit is 4-16 men, most of the time 4 men stay on guard while the rest sleeps, and they change shifts every few hours, to keep them fresh.

We must give credit to these women, even though their faith was imperfect as they did not expect that Jesus would be alive as He told them He would, yet they went out anyway even if they knew there would be barriers in accomplishing their mission.

So they asked, “Who will roll away the stone?”

People have the same question today? Who will help us if we get sick of this virus? Who will provide us our daily provision? Who can stop this world pandemic? Who will release us from our quarantine? Who will roll away the stone?

Rolled Away For Us

But when they came to the site, what did they see? The stone was already rolled away! How? Let’s read:

Matthew 28: 2-4: There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

No need for ten strong men, one angel is enough. No need to put a wedge on the stone, for the angel sat on it. No need to contend with the Roman guards for they became like dead men. Heaven took care of their problem!

The women seeing that the stone was rolled away, came in to the tomb, and the angel told them that the Jesus they were looking for was not inside the tomb, for He is alive!

Yes my friends, we serve a risen Savior. Our God is alive! The tomb was empty! That stone blocking the entrance of a tomb was rolled away!

I believe that the stone at the entrance of the tomb was not rolled away so Jesus can come out. What? Before you accuse me of teaching heresy and false doctrines, just hear me out first.

Remember when He appeared to the disciples when they were inside a house with closed door? Let’s read:

John 20:19: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

The disciples were staying at home and in lockdown. Doors were closed and locks were securely fastened, yet suddenly Jesus stood among them. How? He came through the walls! I believe Jesus when He was resurrected, can verily come out of the tomb even with the stone locked in!

But why was the stone rolled away? It was not that Jesus can come out. It was for the women and His disciples to come in inside the grave, and see that the tomb was empty. The stone was not rolled away for Jesus. It was rolled away for us, so we can believe.

Are we still asking who will roll away the stone? The stone of this pandemic. The stone of our failing health. The stone of our unemployment. The stone of our financial difficulties. The stone of our broken relationships. The stone of our addiction. The stone of our day-to-day struggles in life. The stone of our unbelief.

If we are asking the question “Who will roll away the stone?” then we are asking the wrong question. The answer is already clear.

The question for us is: “Do we have faith to believe that God can roll away our stone?”

David wrote a psalm during the time that he was running away from King Saul. Or maybe he was just doing social distancing from the king and his soldiers. During that time he was hiding from one mountain to another, staying in one cave to another. And he wrote:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalms 121:1-2

Faith Moves Mountains

Few years ago, we were blessed to visit Israel. During one of our trips our bus was traveling to Bethlehem, the tour guide asked us to look beyond Bethlehem hills and direct our sight to a strange-looking mountain in the distance. It was truncated and cone-shaped.

It was a strange-looking mountain because it was man-made. The mountain was named Herodium, a fortress that Herod the Great constructed, about 5 kilometers southeast of Bethlehem. This was the same King Herod that tried to kill Jesus by slaughtering all the male infants in the region.

As history recorded it, when Herod the Great, was searching for a place to build his home and fortress, there was not a mountain high enough for him to build this structure. Instead there were two hills near each other at the site where he wanted it.

So what did Herod do? He cut down one hill and with an army of laborers he placed the pared hill on top of the other hill to make it higher, one bucket of dirt and rocks at a time. He literally moved a mountain.

When Jesus and his disciples were having discussion about faith, they were probably looking at this Herod’s mountain, which was hard to miss in the Judaean desert. Its dominating presence was a constant reminder of an oppressive regime. It was a common knowledge of that time how Herod moved a mountain.

Jesus told his disciples: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

What Jesus was telling his disciples is that faith, is much powerful than what Herod can do. With faith they can be greater than Herod the Great. With faith they can be mightier than the mightiest ruler of their time.

Yes, our God is powerful and He can move mountains. And if we have faith in Him we can do that too. And if God can move our mountains, we should never be asking anymore, “Who will roll away the stone.”

(*most photos taken from the web)

The Power Pickpocket

(The following discourse was prepared for a local congregation.)

Have you ever been pickpocketted? When I was in high school, I lost 200 Pesos on my way to school. I knew I passed through a crowd during my commute. I was supposed to pay something in school with that money. It either fell out of my pocket or someone picked my pocket.

In the past I heard that when you land in Manila International Airport, you would be greeted with something like this: “Welcome to the Philippines, the only Christian nation in the southeast Asia. Please beware of pickpockets.” I am glad that this had changed for the better.

A few days after I first arrived here in the US, I was walking alone in the streets of Morristown, New Jersey, a relatively quiet town, when a stranger greeted me, “What a beautiful day, isn’t it?” I was taken aback. First of all, in Manila where I came from, you don’t talk to strangers on the street. Secondly, nobody in the Philippines talk about the weather, for it is the same the whole year through. And lastly, when a stranger talks to you, check your wallet if it’s still there.

Our story today is about someone who pickpocketted Jesus of His power.

Let’s read the story in Luke 8: 43-48.

Jesus just arrived from the other side of the lake, and probably landed in the town of Capernaum. Perhaps his boat was still far from the shore when a crowd of people already gathered to meet him.

Ruins in Capernaum

Have you ever been in a crowd? Maybe like in a sporting event, or a concert, or in a very crowded bus or train? During my time in Manila and also in New York City, when I rode the train it was so crowded that I could almost exchange faces with the people around me. And even if the train was moving I didn’t have to hold on to something, for I was propped up as we were packed like sardines.

That was how it must have been when the crowd gathered around Jesus, for the Bible said it almost “crushed” Him (Luke 8: 42). The Greek word used to describe it was sumpnigo. Interestingly, it is the same word that was used to describe the thorns “choking” the seeds that fell on the thorny ground in the Parable of the Sower.

One lesson for us is if we don’t have a deep foundation, the crowd and the cares of this world could crush and choke us.

Invisible Woman

Then a woman pushed through the crowd to get close to Jesus.

Who is this woman? We don’t know her name or her age. I would guess that she was not very old for she was still menstruating, and I will get into that. But we know that she’s been suffering for 12 years. Perhaps in the beginning of her illness she was seeing all the doctors that were recommended to her. From one doctor to another, were only met by disappointment after disappointment. According to the account of the Gospel of Mark, “she suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors.” In the end she used all her money and was broke, but still did not get well.

What was she suffering from? According to the Gospel writers she was “subject to bleeding.” I would surmise that it was some kind of vaginal bleeding like having menstruation. Yet this one did not stop, and has been going on for 12 long years! If you’re bleeding that long, you would be anemic, weak and fatigued.

As a doctor, I would speculate that her illness was most probably not cancer. Because she was still alive after 12 years. I think it was some kind of a benign uterine growth, like fibroids. This causes vaginal bleeding even between menses, and particularly can have very heavy menses. That’s why I think she was younger and not of menopausal age.

If you have uterine growth like fibroids, no medication can treat it. No kind of concoction would work. Only taking out the fibroid by surgery or doing hysterectomy will cure it.

Do you have an illness that no doctor can help? Have you been suffering despite all the medical interventions? Are you desperate for a healing? Maybe you can relate to the story of this woman. It is my prayer that this message is for you and that you find encouragement in this story.

Besides the physical ravages of bleeding for 12 years there’s another aspect of her suffering. She was socially exiled and emotionally isolated.

According to the Mosaic law, if you have bleeding, you are considered unclean.

“When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Whoever touches them will be unclean; he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening.” (Leviticus 15:25-27)

All she touched or sat on was considered unclean. People who had contact with her or with what she touched were considered unclean. This woman had been longing for human touch, and she probably had not received a hug for 12 years!

Why does being soiled with blood considered unclean? It is the Universal Precaution rule. If you work in the hospital today you will don on gloves, gown, goggles if you are handling blood or bodily fluids. This is to protect yourself from contacting disease or also from spreading the disease.

Before people discovered and learned about bacteria and viruses, or how a disease is spread, God already provided rules among His people, the ancient Israelites, on how to prevent spreading diseases. That’s why in the Mosaic law, you are considered unclean if you touch a dead person or an animal carcass, or if you touch an open sore. All pots that critters crawled on must be destroyed. God knows about the bacteria and how they cause diseases even before men discovered them! God is so wise.

A couple of hundred years ago, doctors who did autopsy in the morgue came to the hospital ward to examine patients without thoroughly washing their hands. They probably just wiped them. This was before the era of discovering the bacteria. Then they have observed that those patients nearer the door get sicker or die more frequently than those farther away from the door. Why? Who do you think the doctor touched first after coming from the morgue? The doctors were spreading the bacteria!

This is not Divisoria, but a market place in Jerusalem

Let’s go back to our story. To be considered unclean for 12 long years was like an imprisonment, punished by banishment from humanity. Or she must have gone incognito, and became an invisible woman, that nobody recognized or noticed her when she went out of her home.

Then she heard about Jesus and His miracles of healing. And she learned that Jesus was coming in this part of town. So she decided to see Jesus. Even though she had no business of going out in a crowd, for all she would get contact with would become unclean. According to the law, if she touch Jesus, she would make Him ceremoniously unclean.

Yet this woman was determined to elbow, push and claw her way through the crowd. Though pale and weak, nothing would stand in her way. She was unshakable on her mission. She believed that if only she could touch Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed.

She finally reached Jesus. She approached Him from behind, typical of the modus operandi of a pickpocket. Then she stretched out her hand.

Healing Wings

If you’re going to touch somebody in a crowd, isn’t it easier to touch the shoulder or back? Why stoop down and touch the hem of the cloak? We may think that like a pickpocket, she does not want Jesus to feel her touch, so the edge of the garment would do. But there’s more significance to this edge of the garment.

In the Mosaic Law, God instructed His people about the corners, or fringes, of their garments. In Numbers 15: 38-39 it says:

 Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God.

It seems like a strange instruction for us but in the Ancient Near East culture, the corner of a person’s garment represented his identity; it was a symbol of who he was and what he stood for. It is like an insignia, or perhaps a monogramed initials on the shirt.

In the story of Ruth, when she was seeking marriage to Boaz, she asked him to spread the corner of his garment over her (Ruth 3:9). It was a request for him to identify with her. The same Hebrew word means “wing” or “corner of a garment.”

When God spoke of making a covenant with His people, He pictured Himself as spreading the corner of His garment over Israel (Ezekiel 16:8)—a symbol of identifying with her as His bride.

In the story of David when he was running away from Saul, one day Saul fell asleep at the mouth of the cave where David and his men were hiding. David sneaked in and cut off a corner of King Saul’s robe, but “afterward David’s heart struck him” (1 Samuel 24:5). These pangs of remorse seem strange unless we realize that he had defaced an important symbol of Saul’s identity and God-given kingship.

So important were the corners of a man’s garment for the Jews that the Old Testament closes with a prophecy of the Messiah that references the corners of His garment: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2 KJV. Again, the same word means both “wings” and “corners of a garment”). At the heart of the Messiah’s identity would be healing for all who have faith in Him.

So when this woman reached out to the hem of Jesus’ coat, it was more than just for healing, but she was identifying with Him and what He stands for. She was embracing that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has healing in His wings.

This woman was not the only one healed when they touched the edge of Jesus’ garment. In Matthew 14, when Jesus was in Genneseret, perhaps after people heard this woman’s story, sick people lined up by the road where He would pass, and all who touched the edge of His coat were healed.

When this woman touched Jesus’ garment, “immediately” she felt that her bleeding stopped. She was instantly healed! And she felt it. But somebody felt it too. Jesus felt it too.

Then Jesus asked around who touched him. The disciples thought that Jesus was being silly. Why asked who touched him when we knew that a crowd of people was almost crushing him. But Jesus said “I know that power has gone out from me” (8:46). The Greek word translated “power” (NIV) or “virtue” (KJV) is dunamis, from which we get our English words “dynamo,” “dynamic,” and “dynamite.” That must have been a power surge that left Jesus. And He was looking for the power pickpocket.

Why did Jesus want to confront the woman and make her secret known? I can think of two reasons. The first one was to release her from the burden of uncleanliness and to take away the stigma. It was to make known to her and to the people around that He accepted her, and that she does not need to be incognito or invisible anymore. Secondly, to let her know that it was not the magical power of His cloak, but it was her faith in Him that healed her.

Ironically there were many people around pressing upon Jesus. But they have only brushed and casually touched Him. Are we one of those people in the crowd? Always in church, sits in the pew every week, present in all the church’s activities, and yet we have not really reached out to Jesus with that touch of faith.

I pray that we be like that woman – who have that elbowing-and-clawing-my-way kind of faith, that nothing-can-stand-on-my-way kind of faith. And that we reach out to Jesus. Be identified with Him and who He is. And that we embrace the Messiah, our Savior, who has healing in His wings.

This is my prayer.

A street in Jerusalem

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(*all photos taken during our visit in the Holy Land a couple of years ago)

More than Tylenol

It was the height of flu season. I was working that weekend, and I was in the hospital for 36 hours straight. We had several patients in the hospital that had complications from the flu. There were five on ventilators due to respiratory failure from Influenza A in our ICU. Two of them were on ECMO.

ECMO is short for extracorporeal membrane oxygen or also known as ECLS, extracorporeal life support. It is an intervention to provide adequate amount of gas exchange or perfusion in patients whose heart and lungs have failed to sustain life. It is done by placing a large bore catheter in the patient’s central vein or artery, where the blood was sucked out from the body, then ran through a machine to bathe it with oxygen, then flow it back to the body.

Saturday morning, I got a call from another hospital for a woman in her 40’s who had Influenza A and who was rapidly deteriorating. She went into respiratory failure and was placed on ventilator. They want to transfer her to our hospital for possible ECMO.

We rarely have two ECMO patients at the same time in our ICU. Even one patient on ECMO makes us busy, so two was really demanding. But a third one at the same time? That never happened before.

I made some phone calls to verify if we have a machine for a third patient and if we have enough resources and staff to handle a third ECMO. After confirming, I was given the green light to accept the patient.

Additional ICU and ECMO staff were called to come in. I called the interventional cardiologist-on-duty who would assist us to put the Avalon catheter, a dual-lumen catheter half as big as a garden hose that goes from the jugular vein and through the heart. The cardiologist in turn called the cath lab to prepare for the arrival of this patient.

Avalon catheter in correct position (image from web)

The patient was flown in via helicopter to our hospital and went straight to the cath lab where me, my ICU and ECMO team, as well as the cardiologist and his cath lab team were waiting.

We were ready for the challenge and eager to make it happen.

While we were doing all this, our patient’s oxygen saturation was only in the 70-80% (below 90% is perilous) despite maximum ventilator support, so we knew we needed to work fast.

However problem struck. Working for more than an hour, we had difficulty placing the Avalon catheter in good position. We tried different approaches with different instruments, but cannot get the ECMO flow going.

I called my other partners over the phone and I probably disturbed their quiet Saturday afternoon off, but I needed some opinion of what else we could do.

After deliberation, we decided that we cannot sustain this patient on ECMO. Perhaps it was her vascular anatomy, or perhaps there was a big clot in her vein. Whatever the reason, we could not proceed.

I went out to the cath lab’s waiting room, and gave the sad news to the patient’s family that we couldn’t do the ECMO. All I could say was that we tried and gave our best, but it was unsuccessful.

I felt that we betrayed this patient and her family. After I thought I moved heaven and earth to get this patient to our hospital, only to end up like this was really deflating.

The worse part was, I knew that without ECMO, this patient had little to no chance of surviving and possibly could be dead in a few hours.

We transferred the patient to the ICU, but we left the big neck catheter in place even though it was not hooked to the machine. We have to wait for the heparin (anticoagualant) we gave when we attempted to start the ECMO, to wear off before we can pull the catheter out.

After about half an hour in the ICU, I was informed that the blood test showed that the heparin had worn off and I can remove the catheter with less risk of bleeding.

When I pulled the Avalon catheter out, I applied direct pressure in the patient’s neck to control the bleeding. I did this for 30 minutes. I was alone in the room with the patient most of that time, with the nurse intermittently coming in and out of the room to adjust the IV pumps or to check on the patient.

All along while I was holding pressure, I was watching the monitor which showed that the patient’s oxygen saturation was staying in the low 80%. I thought death was imminent.

During the time when I was alone with the patient, I felt helpless and defeated. I failed her. We failed her.

Then a thought came to me: I don’t save lives. It was not up to me. Only a higher power determines who will live or die. That’s when I fervently prayed.

With my hands on the patient’s jugular holding pressure, I turned my thoughts to heaven: “God I am nothing, but an instrument of Your healing hand. I failed. But You never fail. I don’t know this patient personally, but I am personally praying for her. Please heal her in my behalf, and let me witness Your awesome power. Amen.”

How many times have we prayed for a sick loved one? But do we really believe God would heal them? Do we add the phrase, “if it is Thy will,” so we wouldn’t get disappointed?

As a doctor, sometimes, I put more faith to the medical intervention than God’s healing. Like when I was bedridden earlier this year due to a bad viral infection, it seemed I had more faith in the Tylenol that I took than in God to take away my fever.

After 30 minutes of holding pressure the bleeding stopped. I left the room and went to see other patients, especially the new ICU admission, a young man in his 20’s who had a bad asthma attack, so bad we had to place him on a ventilator.

As I was busy attending to other patients, I was just waiting to be called back to that particular patient if she goes to cardiac arrest or expires.

More than an hour later, I went back to the room of our failed ECMO patient. I looked at the monitor and her oxygen saturation was 100%. I was amazed! The respiratory therapist told me that she even titrated down the oxygen level on the ventilator to almost half as the patient was really doing good.

I had no other explanation but one: God heard my prayer.

I went down to my call room to be alone. With tears welling in my eyes, I uttered a prayer of thanks. Never would I doubt the power of God again.

He healed my unbelief.

********

Mark 9: 23 -24: Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

*Post Note: Our failed ECMO patient survived. She even did better than the two patients we had on ECMO.

Texas Mission

Last week we were down in Texas. I did not attend a medical conference. It was not for a vacation or leisure trip either. I was there for some very serious work.

My family and I volunteered to join Your Best Pathway To Health (YBPTH), a non-profit organization that provides a free mobile mega clinic. There were medical, surgical, optical, and dental services offered, all free of charge to patients. There were also mental health, physical therapy, massage therapy, haircuts, financial planning, and lifestyle counseling among other services provided in that event. (See their Facebook page here.)

It was our first time to join this organization’s humanitarian mission, though they have already served in many other cities in the past, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Antonio, and Phoenix. This year it was held in Fort Worth, Texas. The free services were offered to people who could not afford medical care or had no medical insurance.

mobile-hospital-lines-1

photo credit: CBS news

In this event, people started lining up outside the building even the night before the clinic opened. I felt bad for the people who lined up for many hours, only to be told that they have to come back the next day as we were already full for the day.

Though if one clinic was full, for example the dental clinic, which appeared to be the service that most people lined up for, then we suggested to them that they go to the medical or vision clinic instead. Yet, there were still some, that sadly to say, we had to turn away completely, for we just could not accommodate them all. The mere number of people who lined up and were willing to wait several hours in line substantiates that there is a great need for these kind of services.

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photo source: YBPTH Facebook

The event was held at the Will Rogers Auditorium in downtown Fort Worth, which was converted into a mini-hospital, complete with operating suites. Minor surgeries and even cataract surgeries were performed here too.

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photo source: YBPTH Facebook

There were dentists, optometrists, ophthalmologists, internists, family practitioners, pediatricians, OB-GYNs, an ENT, orthopedists, podiatrists, a cardiologist, and a GI doctor present. I was the lone pulmonogist in the team. Below is a photo of my own cubicle.

IMG_7199

Since consultation to the Pulmonary Department was not that overwhelming, I assisted also in the Primary Care Clinic, as they were swamped with many patients there. Afterall, I am an Internist still. I probably have done more breast exams (for patients with breast lump complaints) and rectal exams (for patients with rectal bleeding complaints) in that 3 days alone than what I have done in the past 10 years of my practice now as a lung specialist. I declined to do PAP smears though and referred those patients to Women’s Health, as I have not performed that since I was in residency 20 years ago.

At the end of the event, in my estimation, I was able to see 100 to 120 patients. It was tiring to say the least, yet it was fulfilling.

We knew that there would be no monetary payment when we joined this mission. The only thing we got for free was lunch, which by the way was also provided to all the hundreds of patients seen. We even had to pay for our own airfare and hotel, and use our own vacation time to join this event. But the smile, or the simple “thank you” from the patients, and the satisfaction that we helped somebody was enough for our reward.

Yet to say that I did not receive any payment at all would not be true. There was one patient who gave me a large bar of chocolate as a present, and another one gave me a freshly home-baked loaf of bread. Those simple gifts were more valuable than my professional fee.

My wife was assigned in the Vision Department, assisting in the Optical services, and they were even busier than the medical department. My son, who is 15 years old, was in the Patient Assistance and Transport Department, and he probably was the busiest among us three, as he was walking and accompanying patients into the different clinics the entire duration of the event.

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photo source: YBPTH Facebook

The clinic ran for two and a half days, and at the conclusion of the event, the final report was that we had seen a total of 6,805 patients. That was an impressive number of people served.

Many local news media covered this event, so we were instructed on how to answer questions in case we were interviewed. As you know, health care is a hot political issue in this country, and an overzealous reporter might drag us into answering a touchy subject.

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A doctor being interviewed. (Photo source: YBPTH Facebook)

We were directed that we should avoid any political statements, and that when we were asked why we had volunteered and why we were giving all these medical services for free, our answer should be: Because we wanted to be the hands and feet of our Lord Jesus. Nothing else.

In truth, that was really the very reason we volunteered. To God be the glory!

Of Pigs and Demons

(The following is a discourse I gave in a local congregation.) 

On June 8, 2015, a major highway in Ohio was shut down for 8 long hours. The reason? There were several hundred pigs running wildly on the road. According to the news, a trailer truck carrying 2200 piglets crashed and tipped over. Even though a couple hundred pigs died in the accident, the majority survived, but were set loose. People in the neighborhood took several hours corralling the piglets. About 1500 piglets were recaptured, but a few hundred were not, as they had escaped into the nearby forest. I’m not sure if there are still sightings of pigs running freely in that part of Ohio even today.

Our Bible story today is also about 2000 pigs running wildly. Let’s read Mark 5:1-20.

Crossing To The Other Side

The story opens when Jesus was getting off the boat, but I would like to go several verses back to what leads to this story, Mark 4:35-36.

After a long and tiring day of teaching, Jesus told his disciples, “Let’s go to the other side.” They were on the sea of Galilee, and Jesus told his disciples to cross to the other side.

This other side is not just the other side of the lake, but for the Jews during that day, it was really known as the “other side,” referring to a Gentile territory, a place to avoid. The whole region was known as Decapolis as it was composed of 10 cities. But in Jewish tradition it was also referred to as the “land of the seven,” pertaining to the 7 pagan nations that were driven out of the land of Canaan during Joshua’s conquest.

But why go to the other side? Because Jesus wanted to minister there too. Because the other side needed a Savior too.

What is the other side for us today? The other side of the world? It does not need to be, for it could be the other side of the fence. Or the other side of the street. Or the other side of a room. Hostile or not, someone on that other side needs to hear the message too.

The Sea of Galilee is not really a sea. It is a lake. It measures 64 square miles, nearly the size of Washington D.C. The lake is 700 feet below sea level with semi-tropical weather around its coasts. The lake is bounded by high mountains with snowy peaks especially on the east side. So the rising warm air from the lake can collide with the rushing cold air from the surrounding mountains, causing large temperature and pressure changes and giving rise to sudden violent storms.

Jesus and his disciples encountered such a strong storm as they were crossing it, that the disciples, most of whom were experienced fisherman who knew the lake like the back of their hand, were terrified that they would not see land again. They feared that they would perish. They cried to Jesus for help.

Jesus commanded, “Peace be still.” And all was quiet again.

Some of us may be going through some storms of life right now. Just remember, the Prince of Peace is on our boat. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

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A hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee

My Name is Legion

As Jesus and his disciples reached the other side, they got out of the water and were immediately met with another stormy situation.

In Mark 5:3-5 it is described how terrifying yet pitiful the condition of this man. He was alive yet he lived among the dead – in the graves and tombs. People tried to bind his hands and feet but he was so wild and strong that he broke the chains. He would shout and the people would hear his blood curling cries every day and every night. He cut himself with stones. He was naked, only covered with dirt, mud, and blood. What a terrible condition!

Jesus was still far off when this demon-possessed man came running to him. The disciples might have run in the other direction, but Jesus was ready to meet this man. The man fell on his knees in front of Jesus.

Did this man come to Jesus on his own volition despite under the power of the demons?Perhaps this man knew despite his cloudy mind that Jesus was his only hope. Maybe he knew that the only one that could free him from the slavery of the devil and has come to deliver him.

Then the demon within the man spoke to Jesus, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”

Even the demons knew who Jesus was. But whether they acknowledged or were subservient to that authority, is another story.

In the background of this, there is an ancient superstition that you can have spiritual power over another if you knew or said their exact name. This is why the unclean spirits addressed Jesus with His full title: Jesus, Son of the Most High God, not as a confession of Jesus’ authority, but a desperate attempt to gain control over him.

Jesus asked, “What is your name?” Now Jesus was not playing to that ancient superstition. In reality, Jesus knew each demon, their name and their rank. So when the demons answered “My name is Legion,” they were not giving their exact name. Yet Jesus still had power over them.

Legion is a Roman military unit that is about 6000 men. Whether this man has really 6000 demons, is not clear. What we know is that they were many. And so when the demons answered, “My name is Legion,” they were saying we are many and outnumber you. Were they trying to intimidate Jesus?

This is what I know, with Jesus on our side, we are never outnumbered. Even if its you against the world, with Jesus on your side, you always have the advantage.

Because Jesus was more powerful than the demons, He commanded them, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” Then the man was free.

Dark Encounter

It was a Friday night. We were attending a prayer meeting in our church in the Philippines and I was about 12 years old at that time. My father was out-of-town for a conference, so it was just my mother and us kids that went to church that night.

My mother had a part in the service. She gave the opening prayer, so she was sitting in front. The speaker was a lay person and was just starting his sermon when suddenly, a young lady a few pews in front of where I was sitting, started screaming in a voice that sounded non-human. She stood up and ran wildly to the pulpit and tried to attack the speaker.

The church members realized what was happening and sprang into action. Strong men in our church tried to hold down the lady who was acting strangely. It took at least 7 or more of them to control her. It was clear her strength was more than human.

But you know what? When she attacked the speaker who was a small man, the speaker, with one swiping motion, sent the lady sprawling to the floor. I want to believe that power was not coming from a human too.

They took her to a room at the back of the pulpit, the Pastor’s room, and there several members of our church tried to drive the devil out of her. You need faith to be inside that room. I was not one of them, for I may have been too young then, but more so, I was too afraid.

Even though I was not in that room, I heard what happened inside that room as it was relayed to us by those who were inside. They said that the demon-possessed woman was looking fiercely at everyone inside the room, and that was the most intimidating situation they had ever been in. But I want to believe that when the woman looked around her, it was her who was intimidated, as what she saw was not the frightened brethren, but the angels of God surrounding the brethren.

She also uttered that it was too bright in that room, and that she hated the “blinding” light. I would like to believe that it was not the 100W bulb that she was pertaining to, but it was the truth that our church had that she hated, for the devil is the prince of darkness. I am sure as well, that the blinding light was not coming from the light bulb, but from the presence of the Most High.

After some time of intense prayer, the devil left. Interestingly, when the demon left the woman, the door banged three times. Were there 3 demons in her? We don’t know. What we know was it left her.

After that event, there was a spiritual awakening in our church. The members became more active. For one we realized that since the devil was attacking the church, we must have the truth, and that angers him. The other thing was we realized that with God’s power, we can defeat the devil.

Deviled Pigs

Back to Jesus’ story, the demons requested that they would not be sent outside of the city but to the pigs instead (verse 12).

Nearby was a herd of 2000 pigs. As I’ve said, this was Gentile territory, that’s why they had pigs, as Jews would not raise pigs, for they were unclean. This story is full of the ritual of uncleanliness: the place of Decapolis – a pagan territory, the man living in graves, having an unclean spirit, and then the unclean herd of swine. But God can make even the most unclean clean. “Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,” Isaiah 1:18.

So the legion of demons were sent to the pigs. If there were 6000 demons, they went to 2000 pigs, so there were more demons than pigs. That’s the real “deviled ham.” So the pigs ran to the cliff and made a swine dive into the lake and drowned.

Iowa has the most pigs in all the US, so we could be considered experts. Every pig farmer would tell you that pigs can swim. Pigs may not fly, but they can swim. In fact, they are good swimmers for short distances.

Then why did those pigs drown? I don’t know, but perhaps the lesson for us is that even if we think we’re strong and can swim against the tide of temptation, if we allow the devil to take hold of us, we will drown.

Can you imagine the horror of the pig herders? The horror of the owners of those pigs? Losing 2000 pigs, that’s a lost livelihood!

When the town people came, the man was seen sitting, clothed, calm and on his right mind. The people, when they saw what had happened to the man, were afraid (verse 15). Were they more afraid now that the man was calm and on his right mind than when he was wild and fierce?

Then the saddest thing happened in this story: the people asked Jesus to leave their town (verse 17). Were they more concerned of their lost material possession or their lost livelihood? Or were they afraid of Jesus’ power and what He could do to them and their town, and they don’t want any part of that? What a more pitiful state they were in, than the demon-possessed, for they rejected Christ.

The most tragic state to be in is to believe that we don’t need a Savior.

The 13th Disciple

That term “sitting” is significant (verse 15). In Luke 8:35 it tells the “man is sitting at the feet of Jesus”  – a term usually used to picture somebody taking a posture of a disciple. What the gospel writers are saying is that this man became a disciple of Jesus. Thus I consider him the 13th disciple.

In fact he wanted to come with Jesus (verse 18), but Jesus said no. This is one instance that Jesus said ‘no’ to a request. To some disciples he said, “Come, follow me.” Not to this disciple.

Instead he was sent out and given a commission: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (verse 19). Besides being the 13th disciple, he was also the 1st missionary that was sent by Jesus.

Is there something that the Lord has done for us? Has He shown us mercy? Should we also tell our family and friends?

I can just imagine the people from this man’s hometown who saw him before like a wild beast and helped chain him down, now seeing him sane but on fire for the Lord. Those who have heard his wild cries in the night, were now hearing his wonderful story of redemption. Those people who were afraid and were running away from him before, were now drawn to this unusual bearer of good news. They must all be wondering, “Was this the same man?” And as the scripture said (verse 20), they were amazed. Amazed of how Jesus transformed this man.

When Jesus came back to this territory of Decapolis perhaps some months later (Mark chapters 7-8), the people were ready to listen. They even brought their sick for him to heal. We read that there was a multitude of people who gathered that after being with Jesus for 3 days, they refused to leave. This was when Jesus fed 4,000 people.

Why had this part of town become more receptive? I would like to believe that some of those people had heard the testimony of this 13th disciple, the man Jesus freed from the Legion, and they wanted that same transforming and saving power too.

When Jesus met this man, he did not see a demoniac. Beyond his frightful appearance Jesus saw a man who needed to be saved. He saw a man who would be his next disciple. He saw a man who would be a missionary for Him.

If Jesus can transform this demon-possessed man, He can transform you and me.

For One Lost Soul

We always heard, “Let’s come to Jesus and live.” But the truth of the matter is, we don’t come to Jesus. Jesus comes to us. He’s always the one initiating to meet us. He’s always the one searching for us.

As in this story, Jesus came all the way across the lake to meet this man. When Jesus made that trip, He foreknew that it would take all night to cross the lake. He foreknew that He’ll even encounter a storm. He also foreknew that the people on the other side of the lake were not ready to receive Him and He would be sent away.

But Jesus made the trip anyway. Why? Because there is one wretched man on that other side that needs salvation. He ministered to no other person on the other side of the lake, except for one man. He made the trip and crossed the lake for just one man.

I believe that if there was only one man who had fallen into sin, and if that was me, Jesus would leave heaven and die on the cross just for me. If it were you, He would do it for you.

That’s the God we serve. He’s searching for you and me. He’s coming to this part of town to meet us. Be ready to meet Him. This is my prayer.

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Waiting by the Sea of Galilee

(*photos taken last year)

Rolling Stone

(The following is an excerpt of a discourse I gave in a local congregation last month.)

We’ll be discussing rock and roll, and rolling stone, but in a way different subject matter the popular world knows today.

Mark 16: 1-3: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

It was Sunday morning, and the women, the two Marys and Salome, were on their way to Jesus’ tomb. Their hearts were broken, yet they would like to show their devotion to their fallen leader by anointing his dead body with fragrances.

It was the custom of the Jews to anoint the dead. We may ask, was Jesus’ body not given proper burial rights before being buried? Let’s read:

John 19: 38-40: After this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury.

One hundred pounds of spices. That’s a lot of spices! Twenty pounds of spices was the usual burial custom in those days. Forty pounds was for the rich. So 100 pounds was really extravagant. I read that it is estimated that the cost of 100 pounds of this mixture of myrrh and aloes would cost about $150,000 in today’s market. Those men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, gave Jesus a burial fit for a king.

Then why did the women have to go? Do they think that Jesus’ body was not anointed properly that they have to do it again? Who can relate here, that what you have done is not enough? The dishes were not done right. The kitchen was not sparkling enough when you cleaned it.

I am not taking a swipe on the women. For I don’t think these women thought that the anointing of Jesus’ body was not done right or not enough, but rather they only wanted to show honor and respect to their fallen Savior, in their own little way. They wanted to show their love too.

The anointing of perfume was not to do mummification, but to put spice and fragrances to cancel the bad smell of decomposition. One of Jesus’ gifts when He was born was myrrh, a spice to anoint a dead body. Do you see the theme here? Jesus was a baby destined to die.

Back to our story. While the women were on their way, they asked: Who will roll away the stone? This implies that they alone cannot roll away this stone.

Archeologist have found many tombs around Palestine that they believe were first century tombs. Most of the time the opening of the tomb was blocked by a stone. It could be a large mill-like stone, though some experts say that it could also be a square rock that can slide. Though to me when the women said “roll” away, original Greek word apokylio, it must be circular that it can roll like a wheel.

The books of Mathew and Mark said that it was “very large.” If we say it should cover 4 to 5 feet of tomb entrance, then a disc stone would have a diameter of at least 6 feet. That rock could weigh 1.5 to 2 tons. That weight alone even though it can roll like a wheel, would be hard to move.

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me and a large stone in the Holy Land

But there’s another factor that was found by archeological diggings: usually the groove where the stone rolls is in an incline or has a deep ditch where it will drop. Meaning, it may be much easier to close it, but a lot harder to open it, as you have to roll it against an incline or lift it out of a deep rut, and put a wedge to keep it open. In a conservative estimate, you need more than 10 strong men at the least, to roll away the stone.

One more factor, according to Matt 27:66, it was closed with a Roman seal and thus cannot be opened without the permission of the Roman authority. Besides, there were Roman soldiers guarding the tomb. A usual Roman guard unit is 4-16 men, most of the time 4 men stay on guard while the rest sleeps, and they change shifts every few hours, to keep them fresh.

Despite all these factors, these women came to the tomb, and expect that they can somehow open the tomb. Do we have the determination and dedication of these women? Their faith may be imperfect as they did not expect that Jesus will be alive as He told them He will. But they were determined to go. They know that there would be barriers to do their mission, but they still continue.

Sometimes we feel unsure with our plans or mission. Should we carry it out anyway and hope that everything will work out fine? Just like those women did.

So they asked, “Who will roll away the stone?”

But when they came to the site, what did they see? The stone was already rolled away! How? Let’s read:

Matthew 28: 2-4: There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

No need for ten strong men, one angel is enough. No need to put a wedge on the stone, for the angel sat on it. No need to contend with the Roman guards for they became like dead men. Only one angel, can be such a powerful force to contend with, how much more if God would send ten thousand of them!

The women seeing that the stone was rolled away, came in to the tomb, and the angel told them that the Jesus they were looking for was not inside the tomb, for He is alive!

Yes my friends, we serve a risen Savior. Our God is alive! The tomb is empty. That stone blocking the entrance of a tomb was rolled away!

I believe that the rock at the entrance of the tomb was not rolled away so Jesus can come out. What? Before you accuse me of teaching heresy, just hear me out first.

Remember when He appeared to the disciples when they were inside a house with closed-door? Let’s read:

John 20:19: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Doors were locked, yet suddenly Jesus stood among them. He came through the walls! I believe Jesus when He was resurrected, can verily come out of the tomb even with the stone locked in!

But why was the stone rolled away? It was not that Jesus can come out. It was for the women and His disciples to come in inside the grave, and see that the tomb was empty. The stone was not rolled away for Jesus. It was rolled away for us, so we can believe.

Are we still asking the same question right now? Who will roll away the stone? The stone of our failing health and illnesses. The stone of our broken relationships. The stone of our financial difficulties. The stone of our addiction. The stone of our day-to-day struggles in life. The stone of our unbelief.

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If we are asking the question “Who will roll away the stone?” we are asking the wrong question. The answer is already clear.

The question for us, is: “Are we going to allow God to roll away our stone?” A large two-ton stone is nothing to God. It should be nothing for us as well.

For God have told us in Matthew 17:20, Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.

God equipped us to move mountains. We should not be asking anymore, “Who will roll away the stone.”

(*photos taken in the Holy Land)

 

No Chance Encounter

(The following is an excerpt from a discourse I gave in a local congregation. Thoughts were inspired after standing in a spot pictured below.)

Simon, after an 800-mile long travel, in a dream journey of a lifetime, finally arrived in Jerusalem.

He was warned of the large crowd especially during Passover time. But that day, he saw a different event. Even though the streets were crowded with lots of people they were making way for this unusual procession. There were no wailing sirens or flashing lights to warn people to make way, but there were Roman soldiers shouting with their glistening swords that part the crowd like the Red Sea.

Then Simon saw a man, so bloodied in his face, head, and back, carrying a beam of a cross, being led by the soldiers. Simon realized, he was witnessing a man being led to his death by crucifixion.

Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but they perfected it. Crucifixion was a punishment mostly reserved for those sentenced with insurrection or rebellion. Mostly people crucified were people subjugated by the Romans.

The weight of the whole cross was about 300 pounds. But usually the one being crucified carry only the cross beam, which in itself weighs about 100 pounds. They carry this to the place where they will be executed.

But even that weight of the cross beam was too heavy for this man condemned to die, as Simon witnessed. Perhaps he was weakened from all the lashes he received in his back. Perhaps he was already too weak from the blood loss from the wounds in his head and body.

Simon saw that the man carrying the cross fell under the weight and cannot stand anymore. Next thing Simon knew was that he was being ordered to carry that man’s cross.

But why was Simon chosen? Was it really random or by chance that he was picked? Romans will not let a Roman citizen carry the cross. They only let Jews or a foreigner do it. And Simon looked like a foreigner. He stood out of the crowd. He definitely looked like a stranger in Jerusalem. Was it the way he dressed? Or was it something more obvious?

Simon was most probably dark-skinned. In a more blunt way of saying, he was black.

First of all he was from Cyrene, a country in North Africa. We know that these people were descendants of Ham, the third son of Noah, who was believed to be the ancestral father of black people. The name Ham, many scholars believe meant “black.” This is supported by the Hebrew and Arabic evidences, in which the word “chamam” means “to be black.”

Another support is in Acts 13:1, it mentioned a man named Simeon (Simon) who was called the black man, who was one of the teachers in Antioch. Whether this was the same Simon from Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross is hard to prove. What we know though, is that Acts 11:19-21 mentioned that the first Christians who preached in Antioch were from Cyprus and Cyrene.

In all likelihood, Simon was picked because he looked different. Discrimination is not something that we only have today. Even in those times it already existed.

But Simon was not pick by chance. I believe God has destined him to carry the cross for a special reason. Same thing that God picked those who were being discriminated and ostracized during those times: the Samaritans, the tax-collectors, the Publicans, the lepers, the sinners. God chose those who the world see as unwanted, and use them in a special purpose for his divine plan.

If God does not discriminate, who are we to discriminate people whom we think are different from us?

Back to Simon, when he was picked by the Roman soldiers, he was reluctant. The Bible said in Matt 27:32, he was “forced” or “compelled.” Meaning, he did not volunteer. Most likely he even refused!

But can you refuse the Romans? There was a Roman law called lex angeria stating that if a Roman soldier tells you to carry his pack or a load, you must carry it for 1000 paces (1 pace=2 steps), which is really close to our current mile. After 1 mile, you can bring down the load and you can go on your business.

But Jesus in his teaching in Matthew 5:41, said that if a soldier demands you to carry his pack for 1 mile (pertaining to lex angeria law), carry it for 2 miles instead. That was Jesus said! So if someone ask you a favor, do it beyond what you are being asked. Not out of duty, but do it out of love.

I am not sure Simon heard of this Jesus’ teaching, that he would be willing to carry the cross for more than a mile.

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Station V, Via Dolorosa: spot where Simon carried the cross

But I get it, not just because the cross was heavy, and it was not even his cross to carry, Simon has other reasons to be reluctant. One is that if he carry that bloodied cross, he would contaminate himself with blood and he would be deemed ceremoniously unclean by Jewish law. He then would not be able to participate in the Passover feast, which was the very reason he came to Jerusalem in the first place.

Sometimes we have our own plans, and all of a sudden we are being diverted to do something we don’t want to do. Just like Simon. But God has a plan for us. We just have to trust Him.

The other reason, why I think Simon was reluctant to carry the cross was, can you imagine the humiliation of carrying the cross of somebody you don’t even know? The humiliation of being associated to somebody condemned to die.

Simon’s experience was: from dream to nightmare, from holy to horrific, from going to the place of worship to going to a place of execution.

But as Simon followed Jesus carrying the cross and being led by the Roman soldiers, something happened to him. It changed him.

Simon have looked into the bloodied face of this man and their eyes met. The look that peered through his soul. The look of love and forgiveness, despite him being led to his death. Surely, Simon thought, this Man was different.

As he was following Jesus with the cross, he have heard him speak as recorded in Luke 23:28 “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” Surely, Simon thought, this Man was different.

Something changed the heart of Simon. I believe that after they came to Calvary and he was told by the soldiers that he can bring down the cross and was free to go, he stayed in the crowd and watched what would happen to the Man whose cross he carried.

Simon witnessed of how this Man forgave those who were crucifying him, praying “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He saw this Man die and how He cried “It is finished,” and how he uttered “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Surely, Simon thought, this Man was different.

From an unwilling cross bearer, Simon became a willing faithful follower.

Simon realized the fact that his hands and his shoulders and his body that were stained by this Man’s blood did not make him unclean, but rather that very blood cleansed him of his sins. Simon can claim that he was literally washed by the blood of the Lamb.

How sure are we that Simon became a follower of Christ?

In Mark 15:21 it mentioned Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus. The book of Mark was written about 25-30 years after Jesus died. The fact that Mark mentioned the names of his sons, implied that his sons became known to the early Christian church. That means they became pillars of the church, because their converted father introduced them to the Savior whose cross he carried.

Also in Acts 11:19-21, which mentioned those early Christians from Cyrene, and we may wonder, why were the earliest Christians from a place 800 miles away from Jerusalem? I want to believe that those were converted by Simon when he returned home to Cyrene. Even Paul in Romans 16:13 greeted Rufus, Simon’s son, whom Paul said was ‘picked by God to be his very own son.’

Yes, Simon was not picked by the Romans by chance, but rather God picked Simon. And it was not a chance encounter, but it was a destined encounter.

May the story of Simon, inspire us for our own fateful encounter.

(*photo taken in Jerusalem)