Day 15: The Story of Three Gardens Ends In a City -

We’ve journeyed together now through three gardens over these three weeks. A Garden Of Creation, a Garden of Sorrow, and finally, wonderfully, a Garden of Resurrection.

All of humanity’s stories began in a garden, but this chapter of our story, this ‘present age’ as the old Hebrew teachers called it, will end in a City. One day, a new Heaven and a new Earth will come, in glorious fulfilment of God’s faithfulness, and we will begin an eternity in the City Of God as our great new story begins with Him.

That city is described in glittering detail in John’s Revelation, but I am sure that even in our wildest imagination we cannot begin to fathom what it will be like. Lit by the light of His glory, with gates that will never be shut, we will enjoy His presence, no longer through a glass dimly, but knowing in full, even as we are now fully known.

But the journey to that city makes its way through these three gardens. And so do our lives.

If we do not journey the Cross, we cannot live the story of the Resurrection. We cannot have the Kingdom if we do not embrace the King. Our lives lead through our Creator’s gardens to His city of Hope, but we must embrace that journey of sacrifice and hail Him as the one and only King of all.

The good news of the Gospel isn’t just that the King died for us all, or even that He rose again. The good news is that He’s also good in all of His ways. The good news is that He is love, and His justice is marked by His mercy.

The good news is that anyone can enter in, but that road leads first to a cross.

We join with Him as we also lay down our lives at that cross, a symbol of shame and suffering, now transformed to an emblem of everlasting hope. We bring all of our lives, the good and the bad, what we’re proud of and what we’re shamed by, what we’ve achieved and what we’ve lost, and we cast our crowns, so worthless in the light of His glory, at His nail-scarred feet.

All of humanity stands, there on the level ground, in front of the cross of Christ. And we must all die with Him there, leaving our old lives, ruled by the sins and desires of this present age.

But then we rise with Him. Though we long for the age to come, we rise now in its power, because that power is His and was won by the greatest sacrifice. We live in this present evil age as citizens of the age to come; we walk through the gardens of sorrow, but we are heading for the city of His glory, where all of our tears will be wiped away and we will dwell in His presence forever.

Our journey is the Cross. But our story is the Resurrection.

Thank you for joining me for these reflections and for this story of three gardens. I write these final words here on this Good Friday, but I know, with all of my heart, that Sunday is coming and that though our journey may at times be painful, our stories are headed to hope.

May the Lord bless you as you allow Him to rewrite a new story over your life this Easter season.
Tre Sheppard

Day 14: When God Gets In Your Boat

It probably started as a fairly normal workday for Peter. The commotion at the shore would perhaps have been a welcome distraction as the crowd appeared, jostling to hear from and to get a look at the man from Nazareth as He spoke.

Peter was washing his nets, a task he’d done many times before, when suddenly, the teacher got into his boat and asked Peter to push out a little from the shore so He could speak to the crowd.

There was more than one boat there on that shore that day, but Jesus got into Peter’s, and nothing would ever be the same for him again.

It wasn’t long before Peter was on his knees wrestling with a miraculous catch of fish, almost sinking his boat, and begging Jesus to leave him:

“Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!” Luke 4:8b (NIV)

Instead, Jesus invited Peter to join him and cast his net for fish no more. So Peter dropped his nets, left his boat, and followed Jesus into the pages of history.

When God gets in your boat, your life will never be the same.

Amongst themselves, Peter was the unofficial leader of the disciples, speaking often and never hesitant with his opinions. Sometimes, Peter had an uncanny knack for cutting right to the truth and sometimes ... well, I’ll just point out that he’s the only person in history who was interrupted and told to “be quiet!” by all three members of the Trinity at some stage in the Gospels.

He waded into conflict, he bravely spoke up; he even once, briefly, walked on water with Jesus. But on the night before the crucifixion, Peter denied Jesus no less than three times, just as Jesus had said he would.

Devastated with his denials, Peter hid himself away while his friend and rabbi Jesus was beaten, crowned with thorns, stripped naked and finally nailed to a bitter cross where He would breathe His last.

When Mary, the Magdalene, came breathlessly to the door with the news that the body of Jesus had been taken, Peter ran with John to see. Finding nothing but an empty grave, he left to return to hiding. His life was in danger, he’d denied his rabbi, and nothing mattered anymore.

Peter was there when Jesus appeared to the disciples and he was there when Thomas was encountered in his doubt and set free, but his angry denials of Jesus must have still been ringing in his ears, because on one day after the Resurrection, by the sea of Tiberias, Peter decided to pick back up the nets he’d thrown down years before. He decided to return to fishing.

Peter must have felt that his denials had disqualified him. Surely he expected that something amazing was coming now that Jesus was risen from the grave, but perhaps he felt it was something he would no longer be part of.

He’d failed. It was over. God had gotten in his boat and Peter had blown it in his fear.

Of course, he was still a leader, so the others joined Peter that evening, and they fished through a long night, their nets empty as the sun began to rise.

But then they heard a voice from the shore:

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. John 21:5-7 (NIV) 

It’s an incredible scene the other disciples find when they reach the shore with their miraculous catch: the risen Saviour and a soaking wet disciple, sitting beside a breakfast fire. And in that charged moment, Jesus reinstates Peter, demonstrating that His love and grace expressed on the cross meant that Peter was no longer disqualified, regardless of his denials, his betrayals, his sin or his shame.

The grace and love of Jesus is still the same for us today. Perhaps we’ve made choices that we feel disqualify us, or we’ve chosen paths that led to sorrow and shame, or we’ve broken every promise with furious denials.

Maybe there was a time when we felt God was in our boat, but we blew it too … and now He feels distant and we feel the heaviness of our shame, our denials, and our sorrow.

Easter is the truth that Jesus still stands on the shore of our lives, waiting for us to fling ourselves into the water, making our way back to His hope and His dream for our lives.

If you’re still breathing today, He’s waiting. Your journey is not yet written in full. Your past does not define you. Your name is on His heart and your future is in His hands.

Your story isn’t over and He’s not finished with His favour on your life.

The water waits.

Come and have breakfast with your Saviour on the shores of hope renewed.

Day 13: The Man Called Didymus

He was a disciple, chosen by Jesus. But history remembers him for his doubt.

His name was Thomas, though he was also called Didymus, as we discover in John’s Gospel.

It’s not until the eleventh chapter of John’s account that we hear him speak. Jesus, knowing that His friend Lazarus had died, plans to return to Judea and to raise Lazarus from the dead. His disciples don’t know Lazarus is dead yet, but they fear the journey because of the previous attempts on the life of Jesus there.

As they try to convince Jesus not to go back to Judea, one solitary voice is raised in certainty and support.

Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” John 11:16 (NIV)

These are not the words of a doubter. These are the words of a man of conviction and courage, a man ready to give his life for a cause, a revolutionary whose time had come.

But Thomas isn’t remembered that way.

After the extraordinary events of the third Garden, where a garden of remembrance had instead become a garden of resurrection, Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared to them.

We don’t know why he wasn’t there, but I suspect his courage and conviction had fled in the face of the circumstances and he had followed. He’d watched his King disgraced, tortured, mocked and finally murdered on a cross. Perhaps he couldn’t even bear to be with the others as the pain was still so great.

This was not the revolution Thomas had imagined,  I expect. He was clearly ready for death and glory, but he wasn’t prepared for the brutal loss of Jesus, especially as Jesus had gone so willingly to His execution.

When the others found him and excitedly told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas replied with the words that have marked him for history:

“Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe it.” John 20: 25b (NIV) 

“I will not believe it.”

How does someone go from willing to die to refusing to believe?

It seems impossible.

But then we remember our own capricious nature, so easily shaken by unexpected circumstances, just as sure as leaves are blown through a garden by the storm. When we don’t see what we’d hoped, our hearts so often turn to the place of doubt.

It’s not that hard to understand the doubt of Thomas.

But a new world had dawned in that third Garden. A Saviour had risen, and even the darkest doubts were no match for His glorious grace and love.

Jesus didn’t leave Thomas alone in his doubt for long.

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” John 20:26-28 (NIV)

Thomas may have been gripped with doubt. But Jesus wasn’t shaken by the doubt of Thomas. In fact, it became the point at which He encountered Thomas most deeply, transforming him in his place of weakness.

They called Thomas Didymus sometimes. It means ‘twin’ or ‘double’ so he may have been one of a pair of twins. But he might been called ‘double’ because he swung between two points so quickly, blown by circumstance… perhaps it was his nature.

But after this encounter with Jesus, Thomas was no longer marked by his doubt, and, in fact, went on to be martyred for the Gospel in India many years later on a courageous journey to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

It’s an extraordinary story of Jesus meeting doubt with grace and love. Jesus had enough faith for the doubt of Thomas and He hasn’t changed.

Jesus isn’t shaken by our doubt either. The resurrection in the third Garden means that all of our doubt, all of our fears, all of our questions can become a place of encounter with His presence.

Easter is the wonder of Jesus meeting us all where we are, even in our questions, because He doesn’t want to leave us there, stuck with our doubts, suffering in our shame and defined by our sorrows. He’s writing a new story of faith and courage and we’re invited to take our role amongst the pages.

Day 12: The Past Is Just Prologue

She wasn’t a whore.

She had a complicated past, and who doesn’t? But she wasn’t that.

Not that it mattered. A woman with seven demons was always going to have a burden to carry, a cross for life.

In a culture where she had little power anyway, she had lived robbed of even the singular role of being a dutiful wife by her affliction. Her future was written, her past was the prologue, her story unremarkable… just another woman, tainted by rumour and malady, destined to be forgotten.

Until one day she wasn’t.

Jesus encountered her somewhere, somehow, and in a moment, set her free. Every demonic bondage fled in the presence of Love perfected and suddenly her past would no longer write the story of her future.

Mary. Or as she is sometimes called, the Magdalene.

Before Jesus, her life had been a grim reminder of the darkness that grips the human soul, beset by demons but still inconsequential, mattering to no one.

But she, like all of us, mattered to Him. And after Jesus set her free from the demons she’d been tormented by, she became one of the other followers He had beyond the Twelve.

She was there when He died. She was there when He was buried. And when the other disciples deserted Him and hid in fear, she stayed… to the bitter end.

She had nowhere else to go. The only freedom, hope and acceptance she’d ever known had been as His follower and His friend.

And here, now, in this third Garden, she finds the stone rolled away. In desperation she runs to find Peter and John. They come to investigate, but finding the tomb empty, they leave bewildered.

The Magdalene stays. Weeping, shaken by His crucifixion and now distraught at the loss of the body of Jesus she had come to anoint in death, she refuses to leave the last place she knew He was.

She refuses to leave the one person who’d ever shown her that her past was not her story.

“They have taken my Lord away” she said when the two beings clothed in white asked her why she wept.

You see, for Mary, Jesus wasn’t just the Lord… He was her Lord. Her deliverer, her hope, her rabbi, and her friend. And now He was gone.

Even when she thought she was being questioned by the gardener, she promised that wherever His body had been taken, she would get to Him, somehow.

She’d found Hope, finally. And she wouldn’t let go.

Then He says her name.

Mary.

And she knew that voice. It was the same voice that set her free from the demons before and suddenly He was there. Again.

Alive.

And then before she perhaps grasped the enormity of the moment, she was rushing back to tell the others.

She was running into History.

Of all the people in all of the world, Jesus chose this woman to be the first preacher of the Resurrection story that would shape all things forevermore. Her past was just the prologue, it only set the scene; it just made the rescue all the sweeter and the story even more miraculous with hope.

Mary the Magdalene, was not a whore, but it wouldn’t have mattered to Jesus if she had been one. She was just a woman carrying the weight of the world, suffocated with her demons, lost in the darkness, but found by Jesus. Her story was rewritten with Love eternal, risen from a fight to the death against all of the works of our sin and our shame.

She wasn’t her prologue. Instead, she was the first herald of the Resurrection.

Her demons weren’t bigger than her risen Lord and her past wasn’t bigger than His future.

And neither is ours.

No matter our past, no matter our burdens, no matter our sins, no matter the measure of our shame, it’s all just the prologue to our real story: that once we were lost, but now we have been found.

Our story is the Resurrection, and hallelujah… He is risen indeed.

Day 11: The Longest Day  

All hope was lost.

In just over 24 hours, their world had collapsed. Awakened by loud voices and an armed crowd, they’d watched as Judas kissed Jesus and then stepped back as the King of Kings was bound like a common criminal in the darkness.

There was a flash of quick violence. Peter swung his sword wildly, cutting off an ear of one of the men who’d come to take Jesus away, but Jesus told the disciples to stand down.

And then He did what He always does… He reached out His hand to heal.

Even though this man had come to take Him to a horrific death on a lonely cross, Jesus healed his wound. And then He was led away like a lamb to the slaughter.

In the hours that followed, they realised that Judas had betrayed Jesus, that Peter had denied Him, and that they had all deserted Him in fear, leaving Him alone to face not only death, but all the sorrow of the world.

And so it was Saturday.

They didn’t know it yet, but death was defeated. Sin was forgiven. The cost of our shame was borne. The whole world had changed.

But today they were caught in the between. Between the moment Jesus cried out “It is finished” and the moment Mary would breathlessly tell them, “I have seen the Lord!”

They were wracked with doubt, shaken with fear, and, surely, broken by hope denied. Hiding away, scared for their lives, they must have been trying to make sense of the past three years. They must have felt that all they had dreamt was dead and gone, that the promises they’d believed were dust, that the hope they’d dared to hold on to had slipped from their grasp as surely as life had from His body.

The world had changed. But there would be a long day of grief, sorrow and fear before they knew it.

The in between is devastating… the long Saturday of silence between the angry cries of “Crucify Him!’ and the wondrous calls of “He is alive!”

We often rush from Good Friday to Glorious Sunday so quickly, perhaps without understanding the desert of hope in that place of the yet unseen victory. We long for resurrection, but we can’t bear that death comes first.

As we journey now, towards the third garden, the Garden of the Resurrection, I want to reflect here in the in between.

Where death has been conquered, but we still live in its fear.

Where shame has been covered, but we still feel its sharp rebuke.

Where life is waiting to burst forth, but we still live in the acrid tang of decay.

The truth of Easter is that we never have to stay in the in between again. We never have to live in the gap between all hope destroyed and all hope renewed. We may feel that way as we face sorrow, disappointment, fear, loss… but just as it was true that Saturday so long ago, our feelings in those long days and the darkest of nights are not the end of our story.

For there is a much deeper story being told.

Resurrection will rise with the new morning, and the world will be made new. Our hopes will be met, all promises kept, and, at the darkest moment, our Hero will come… because He’s already proven His love and now we can live in His light.

Today we can leave the in between forever.

Because now, our story is the Resurrection and nothing will ever be the same again.

Day 10: The Last Night Of The World

It was the last night of the world as they knew it.

The events set in motion in that second Garden would mean that everything, for everyone, everywhere, would change forever.

It had already been an long week and an eventful evening. From the wonderful chaos of the entry into Jerusalem just a week ago through to the bewildering meal where Jesus washed their feet, it must have been overwhelming for the disciples.

They must have sensed some electricity in the air, but it wasn’t enough to keep them awake… even when Jesus asked them to watch with Him through the night.

They slept.

So He prayed alone.   

There in that Garden, as the night intensified around Him, the Son of God prayed with such passion that He began to sweat blood. He cried out to God, calling Him, “Abba” as He wrestled with what lay ahead.

I’ll never forget the first time I was in Jerusalem. I was walking down an alleyway in the old city when I heard a child cry out, “Abba! Abba!” and turned to watch a tiny boy leap into his delighted father’s arms. The intimacy and depth of that love was startling as I heard that word used as it was designed… not just as an old translation from my well-worn Bible, but a living utterance of a child encountering his Daddy. I understood in a new way just how profound the love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was in that moment.

For all of eternity, they had existed together in that ‘Divine Dance’ of beautiful intimacy, complete connection, and perfect love.

And on this night, Jesus was agonising over the fact that they would be separated at the cross for the first time in eternity, on the last night of the world as it was.

Jesus didn’t agonise over the physical pain He would face as He was beaten, scorned and finally nailed to a rugged tree. He wept over the separation that He would endure. And then He resolutely chose it.

He chose that separation so that we could finally be reconnected.

In Ephesians 5, Paul writes about this very thing in verses 31 and 32:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.

When I was 23, I stood in front of my family and my friends and promised my life forever to a girl who had been a complete stranger to me just six years before, when I first met her. We shared nothing. We weren’t family. We had no history before that first meeting. One day I didn’t know her at all, but here I was now, leaving all I had ever known to marry her and start a new life together.

The woman who would become my wife went from being a complete stranger to the closest person in all of history to me. Every other relationship in my life, including my parents, siblings, and friends became secondary to that one relationship with her.

That’s what Paul is writing about. And astoundingly, he’s saying that’s exactly what Jesus did for us.

Jesus left the most intimate, most perfect, most complete connection of all eternity so that He could rescue us.

He gave it all away for love. For us.

It was the last night of the world as it was. Love made a choice in a Garden and then Love kept His word.

He would give it all for us.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

Easter means that the last night of the world ended in darkness but also that a new world would soon dawn, breaking into a glorious new day of Hope for every heart, everywhere, forever.

Day 9: A Truth, A Song, A Garden…

As the night fell, Jesus and the disciples headed for the Garden of Gethsemane.  

It must have been a bewildering evening for the disciples. Jesus had washed their feet and fed them, which was shocking behaviour for a rabbi, and unheard of for a king. I’m sure they were used to Jesus doing things that were unexpected, but none of them could be prepared for what was coming before this long night in the second Garden would be over.

I imagine that as they were walking to the Garden, the disciples must have been mulling over the events of the evening in their minds. For Peter, it had been a hard night already. He’d told Jesus in no uncertain terms that he’d rather die than disown Him. But Jesus had told him the truth that before the morning came, Peter would deny Him three times.

I’m deeply moved by this moment in the Scripture still. I have no idea what tone of voice Jesus used, but I can’t imagine it was easy for Peter to hear what was coming. Even more, Jesus knew exactly what the rest of that night would hold… not just Peter’s denial, but the betrayal of Judas and the scattering in fear of the others.

He knew all of it was coming. He knew that He was going to the cross for ones who’d deny Him, leave Him, and even betray Him. 

He knew it all, and yet He walked into the darkness of that night towards the second Garden and all that would follow.

He had no illusions about the nature of who He was saving. 

He still doesn’t. 

He knows us all. He knows us more intimately than even we know ourselves. 

Jesus knew all the lies, betrayals, broken promises, and selfishness that would come, not just that night, but across history from all us, and still He chose us when He chose the cross. 

He walked into all of our darkest nights and paid everything so that morning could come again for all of humanity.

People sitting out their lives in the dark saw a huge light; sitting in that dark, dark country of death, they watched the sun come up. Matthew 4:16  (The Message)

But before He left with the disciples for that second Garden, they sang together.

Both Matthew and Mark’s account say that after they’d eaten, Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn and then went out to the Mount of Olives. They were headed for the second Garden, but more than that, Jesus was heading towards the kiss of betrayal that would lead Him to the cross and the burden of all that we’ve done. 

Still, even in that moment, Jesus joined in one of the most beautiful marks of humanity: music. He shared in our most beautiful creations just as He would carry our darkest horrors and shames, bearing our sorrow and our sin on a cross.

He entered in to our lives and embraced our humanity, with all its wonder and all its darkness, just as He joined in with the disciples in that song on that darkest of nights.

I’ve always wondered what song they sang. 

Easter means that one day, I’ll ask Him face to face.

Day 8: This Is My Body, This Is My Blood

Growing up in the South of the United States as a preacher’s son, I took communion more times than I could possibly remember.

Since we were Baptists in the South, our communion was definitely a grape juice and wafer affair. All of the deacons would line up and pass a small plate with little unleavened wafers down the row, before handing over a specially designed tray that held tiny glasses filled with ruby red grape juice that we dutifully chose a glass from and passed on. At one of the churches I grew up in, we even had small holders built into the pews for the tiny glasses to be placed into after we drank from them.

I didn’t find it strange or funny at the time… it was just what we did. It was a common part of our worship. It was tradition. It felt normal. It was built into our lives.

It took many years before I began to grasp just how significant that sacrament was, how extraordinary it was that we joined with millions of believers in its practice, and how deeply it would affect my heart when I began to consider it from a fresh perspective.

The first communion happened just before Jesus headed to the second garden for His final visit before the cross. Though He had repeatedly explained to His disciples what was coming, it seems that they truly didn’t grasp the significance of the moment as they shared that last supper with Jesus.

No matter how we view that meal through the lens of our culture or history, it is a curious moment. Jesus blesses and then breaks bread and says, “Take it; this is my body” and then He takes a cup of wine, blesses it as well, and offers it to them saying, “This is my blood” and they drink it.

Jesus tells them, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

Eating and drinking… we all have to do it. We can’t survive without it. It’s probably humanity’s most common denominator. We eat and drink, or we die.

When we do eat and drink, the things we take in become part of us… food and drink sustains us, refreshes us… it keeps us alive.

I sometimes suspect that we’ve taken a practice that should be our everyday experience and we’ve made it a religious tradition. I believe that Jesus was telling the disciples that every time they eat and drink, we should remember Him. That taking Him in, allowing Him to sustain us from the deepest place, allowing His presence and indwelling to fundamentally reorder our lives should be so common to us that is like eating and drinking.

I think Jesus wanted us to realise that without sharing in His life, in our every day, we’re not truly living at all.

Ironically, I think knowing this makes the practice of communion even more sacred. I see it now as a powerful symbol of what should be happening in my every day, my every moment. I recognise that when I drink that thimble of grape juice with a tiny wafer, I’m embracing the fact that I need Jesus in every part of me, in every moment; that something as common as eating becomes extraordinary when I remember what He gave so that I could finally, truly, completely, live as I was created to live; reconnected to my Creator, fully awake in His presence.

Easter is the reminder that we didn’t join a religion or a moral modification programme. Instead, we are invited to eat and drink in the risen life of the King of Kings in the most ordinary of our moments, in the most difficult of our circumstances, in the most common of our hours. We entered an all or nothing relationship so much greater than any religion or tradition…

We must share in His life so that we can truly live as surely as we must satisfy our hunger and our thirst.

Our deepest hunger will only be satisfied with His presence. Our greatest thirst will only be quenched with His life.

So eat, drink, and remember…

Day 7: A different sort of King

I’ve always found it curious that surely many of the same people who were waving palm branches and crying out “Hosanna!” must have been among the mob shouting “Crucify Him!” only a week later.

How could things have changed so dramatically in the space of just a few days? How could they possibly be so fickle?

I think it had everything to do with perspective.

For centuries, the Jewish people had waited for the promised messiah to come. They had developed strong ideas around what he would do when he appeared and nearly all of those ideas were based on political power and cultural identity.

They wanted to be defended. They wanted their culture protected. They wanted to have their way of life the way they wanted it to be. And most of all, they wanted what they believed to be real power.

But Jesus had come with a very different sort of power. Here was a King who washed His follower’s feet. Here was a King who promised that He would raise the temple in three days if it was destroyed. Here was a King who cleared the outer courts of the money changers because He wanted it to be a place of encounter with His Father rather than a venue for transaction. Here was King who didn’t just see the poor and broken, He healed them and loved them and, shockingly, became their friend.

The people’s perspective was focussed on getting Jesus onto a worldly throne.

Jesus, instead, had set His perspective towards a brutal cross.

That path would lead Him in the days ahead to a night of agony in our second garden: Gethsemane. It was a place that Jesus and the disciples visited often, to draw aside perhaps, and to find some peace and quiet away from the crowds clamouring for a king.

It’s so beautiful to me that most wondrous and powerful King in all of history sought solace in a garden rather than a throne room. That the place He felt nearest to His Father was in a place alive with life, rather than covered in gold and precious stones.

He was a different sort of King.

But sometimes, just like those fickle crowds of Jerusalem, we want to make Jesus fit our perspective. Perhaps we can imagine asking Him for a favour from His royal hand, but we can’t fathom what it would be like to walk daily with Him, growing in our love as we draw closer to Him as our friend and our saviour. Maybe we’re happy with a perspective of Jesus as good teacher, but we bristle at the thought that He is God.

We may even find it easier to approach Him as mighty King because we fear what intimacy may reveal of us if we let Him inside the most secret places of our heart. It’s easier to keep Him at arm’s length when He’s on a golden throne and not meeting us in our sorrow and fear.

But Easter reminds us that the King came in love; that His grace was as gentle as His purpose was relentless… and that regardless of our perspective, His was always focussed on us.

As He enjoyed that second garden with His disciples during the week before the cross, surely He knew that the shouts of praise would soon be replaced with the harsh cries of “We have no king but Caesar!”  and “Crucify Him!” because He wasn’t the King their perspective demanded.

Still He set His perspective on us.

Still He journeyed toward the cross.

He had set His heart on us and nothing would dissuade Him.

Day 6: Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord

It began with a wild celebration.

There were so many people in the streets, it must have been electrifying. As they waved their palm branches and shouted “Hosanna,” I wonder if anyone found it odd that the famous prophet-king they were celebrating had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey?

Word had spread that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem and the anticipation of this great man who could do marvellous miracles had grown to a fever pitch. The city reverberated with shouts of joy and acclamation, because if the rumours were true, this Jesus was the long awaited King all of Israel had been waiting for.

He wasn’t the first supposed messiah or king to enter the city. Many others had claimed to be that blessed one, and they’d all been defeated or executed or exposed as frauds. But there was hope running riot in Jerusalem that day and the doubters and Pharisees could not silence it.

The King was finally here.

He’d set everything right. He’d defeat their oppressors. He’d liberate them all. He’d prove unconditionally that the Jews were God’s chosen people and He would set up a glittering kingdom for them right there from Jerusalem that would rule the world. After centuries of waiting, slavery, bondage, exile and brokenness, the Jewish people would now be the glorious citizens and rulers of a kingdom with no end.

When a conquering king entered a city, a celebration was to be expected. This was the moment the new king would show his wealth, his majesty, and his awesome power.

And yet, here He was. Riding a donkey.

Surely a grand white horse would make more sense?

But Jesus was a very different sort of conqueror and an incredibly different sort of King.

Expectations are funny things aren’t they?

When our expectations aren’t met exactly in the way we’d hoped, we often find ourselves angry or disappointed, clamouring for what we thought we deserved.

And just like the people cramming into the streets for a view of the promised King, we too come with our ideas and expectations of what Jesus must be like. We want Him to fix everything, prove us right, defeat our enemies, provide our deepest desires, and most of all, fit into our expectations of what sort of saviour we think we need.

And then He comes. And He’s not at all what we expected.

All four of the Gospel accounts retell the story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The writers knew it was important for us to see the expectations placed upon Jesus, the faith that He would finally be the promised one, the belief that He would set the people of Israel above everyone else, the excitement at the political future of power ahead.

But Jesus came to be a servant to all. He didn’t come to be the political messiah the people thought they wanted. He came to be the sacrifice everyone, everywhere needed.

He came to Jerusalem not to rule, but to die. He rode in on a donkey because the trappings of a king don’t make a king.

The choices of a king make a king.

And this King, this Jesus, had made the choice to give everything for everyone at rugged cross that was only a week away.

Day 5: Our Journey is the Cross, but Our Story is the Resurrection

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 
Genesis 3:21 (NIV)

It’s a brief moment in the story of this first Garden, but it’s a tremendously important one. We understand it more when we read the context of the covering made for Adam and Eve a few verses previously in the Creation account:

The man and the woman were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Genesis 2:25 (NIV)

They felt no shame.

It’s a powerful thought, isn’t it? For most of us, our lives have been tainted by shame, whether from our own actions or those of others.

This scripture isn’t making the point that they weren’t ashamed of being naked, it’s making the point that they felt no shame because there was nothing to be ashamed of. They were naked because they didn’t need to cover themselves. Indeed, the very concept of shame was unknown because they hadn’t yet allowed sin to enter their world.

It’s always important to remember that God made humanity to live in a Garden of paradise, without shame, completely connected to Him in absolute love for eternity.

Anything less than that is less than who were dreamt to be by God.

Adam and Eve needed no covering because they had nothing to hide until sin and shame entered the story through their choices.

But God loved Adam and Eve so much that He didn’t leave them in their shame. He made them a covering.

Now the garments of skin came God made for them had to come from an animal. And this is the moment death first enters the story of the first Garden. An animal died so that Adam and Eve could cover their shame.

In our lives, we can all know things we wish we could cover. We all know the places we’ve failed and we carry the scars and pain… so we try to cover it ourselves.

Of course, it doesn’t take long for us to realise that we can’t truly cover our shame, so we try to numb the shame, or ignore it, or just pretend it doesn’t exist, and we sink deeper into our secret history, lost without any hope of freedom.

But even here in the very first Garden, God was making a way for us to be restored. Even then, God was making a covering for shame. It would be costly. It would mean death. It surely broke His heart when one of His glorious, innocent creations lost its life because of the actions of others, but He loved the man and woman He’d made above all else.

He’s still the same loving Father.

It was that relentless love that sent Jesus to us, to live as one of us, but without a moment of shame, because He never did anything to be ashamed of. Jesus never needed a covering; instead He would become the final covering of all of our sin and shame at the cross.

That journey to the cross was long and arduous, but the death that occurred there for us, to cover for our sin and shame, is not the end of Easter. In fact, it’s the journey that opens us to the real story… that His resurrection means that we can live free, alive in His love, without shame as we walk in His grace.

Easter is a journey to the cross. But, most of all, Easter is the story of the Resurrection.

As we journey together towards the morning where we celebrate His glorious triumph over the grave, remember that, though this story does have a horrible wrenching death, it’s above all a story of extraordinary love and life.

Yes, we journey the cross. In fact, we must journey the cross and embrace it with Him.

But thank God, we live in His Resurrection!

In that first Garden, the first death covers the shame of Adam and Eve. It is a glimpse of the moment in all of our stories when the real Hero would finally appear, wrestling Death itself to the ground, and then emerge victorious from the grave, covering all with His love eternal.

Easter means we get to live in the light of His love and His wondrous life, joining again the Divine Dance we were created to share.

Day 4: The Love Problem

At the bottom of everything, after all the stories are told, the messages preached, the theology sifted, the music stilled, the memories faded… at the very foundation of the Easter story, we find love.

Love is why.

Love drove creation, love fired the heart of choice, love submitted to the cross, love broke free from the grave, love gave all of itself away, and somehow was found even stronger than the death that we believed would swallow everything.

Love triumphed over all.

Because love was more than why. Love was also who.

We weren’t won by a concept. We weren’t freed by an idea. We weren’t given hope by a plan.

We were saved by a Saviour. By a someone.

And that someone is Jesus.

Love is why He came. Love is why He died. Love is why He defeated death and broke the chains of sin and shame. Love is why He reaches out to us still, longing to restore us to who we are meant to be: beloved, unashamed, freed… family.

And Jesus did it all because love is who He is.

In the 4th chapter of John’s first letter, verses 7-10, he says:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (NIV)

God IS love. And Jesus is the image and demonstration of that love, not just to cover our sins, but to enable us to live through Him.

To live through Love… that’s how we are meant to live.

It’s who we were always born to be.

It’s all too easy to think that sin is our biggest problem, that our rejection of God stems from our sin and that if we could just sort sin, we’d be fine.

But there is a deeper layer.

In John’s gospel, he writes:

…God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (NIV)

 In the Greek language there are three commonly used verbs for love: ‘agape’, ‘phileo’, & ‘eros’.

Phileo is the sort of love we have for friends and others. Eros is the love that is shared in a romantic relationship, and Agape is most powerful form of love possible…

Agape is love that will sacrifice anything or suffer all things for, and embrace completely and overwhelmingly all things of, the object of that love. It’s generally only used to describe God’s love for us, the highest form of love.

Of course, in the verse above, the Greek verb,  agape, is used to describe the love God had for us in sending Jesus. But just three verses later, in John 3:19, we find out humanity’s response to such love:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (NIV) 

God loved us. We loved darkness.

Incredibly, the Greek verb used here to describe the love humanity had for darkness, is also agape.

We were created to love. We were given choice. We used that choice to love the darkness self sacrificially at any cost.

Fundamentally, we don’t have a sin problem. We have a love problem.

Our sin is a symptom of our misplaced love.

In that first garden, we were created to love and we’re still wired to love… so we will love. Even if we love the wrong thing. We will love until we sacrifice everything. We will love at any cost.

We will love, even if it destroys us.

Sin is the symptom of us loving the darkness instead of God. And that symptom of sin has brought us all such pain and horror throughout humanity’s story.

We needed to solve our love problem. We failed horribly with our attempts. But our loving Father chose love above all and sent Jesus to show us how to love again. He did it by an act of such extraordinary sacrifice, filled with such agape love, that our sin symptom can be forever transformed by His love restoration.

The miracle of Easter is that even in the sorrow of that first Garden, God was choosing to love us still, and to put into place a love story of salvation at great cost.

He didn’t just send Jesus to save us from our sins. He sent Jesus so we could be restored by love to love again.

From the bottom of it all to the moment we join the voices crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ it’s always been about love. So today we raise our hearts and our eyes from our sin, to His love… to love that wouldn’t leave us, to love that would restore us, to love that will carry us to hope.

 

Day 3: The Choice To Love

Of course we know that the story of that very first Garden is marked by sorrow. Placed in paradise, and given purpose with the command to care for it and enjoy the gift of creation, humanity instead chose sin and rejection.

I remember the first time I began to understand the impact of the choices humanity made then and continues to make now. As I read and re-read the story of Eden, I began to wonder, “Why did God give us a choice at all? Why didn’t He just make us obey Him?”

It took some time, but I realised the question I was truly asking was, “Why did God give humanity such power?”

When we look at the suffering in the world, the pain and injustice, and the way that humans treat one another, we do find ourselves with brokenness in our hearts and blood on our hands as humanity.

But more than that, when we personally look at the years of our lives, we almost certainly find moment after moment when we hurt another person, or found ourselves wounded… when we chose money or things or power over loving another… when our selfishness drove us to choices that ended up breaking the heart of someone or scarring their lives… or perhaps we find ourselves living with the pain from indifference or abuse from someone else.

All of that pain and suffering stems from the choices that we have made. Choices that we were able to make because God gave humanity such power: the power to choose to love or to choose to reject God and His love.

But the reality is that without choice, there can be no love. Love only exists when we can choose to give it away or withhold it. If we cannot choose, we don’t truly love and in fact, can never truly love.

Love exists only where the choice to not love is also possible.

The wonderful thing about my relationship with my wife is that she gives her love to me freely. The way that we interact with one another impacts the nature of that love, and she is always free to withhold love from me.

But she doesn’t withhold her love.

Instead she loves me through every circumstance we face together, even when she could choose not to do so, and that is what makes her love so beautiful.

If she were a robot, programmed to act like she loves me, no matter the circumstances, then it wouldn’t be love and it wouldn’t be treasured. We wouldn’t share a relationship, we’d simply share a working agreement.

In the same way, we were created to be powerful, complex, and connected beings. And our connections were meant to be marked by love… love that we choose to give… love that we want to give… love that we delight in giving.

If we are required to love, it’s no longer love at all.

Of course this means that the most powerful Being in all of the universe, God, opened Himself up to rejection by giving us choice. It’s astounding to realise that God’s heart was big enough in Creation to make room for us to choose to love Him or not.

God designed us to be loved and to love… and in that first Garden, He gave us the power of choice to love Him in response. Sadly, we chose not to love Him, rejecting His blessings, and soon found our world in a heart-breaking state of sorrow.

But the story of Easter is that He chose to love us still. In fact, in that first garden He began to set in place a pathway for us to be restored through such an extraordinary act of love that all of humanity’s story would hinge upon its marvellous arc.

 

Day 2: Created by Love for Love

Our story begins in a garden. In fact, all of our stories begin in this very first garden.

At the pinnacle of creation, after God had raised mountains and flung stars into space; after He lit up the daytime with the glorious warmth of the sun and set the night aglow with the soft shadow of the moon; after He set the seas roaring with waves and filled the earth with animals and birds of all varieties… He paused and saw that it was good.

In fact, that phrase, “And God saw that it was good” is a repeated refrain in the retelling of the creation story of Genesis. We see that God was pleased with what He had made… and then He wanted to share it.

In Genesis 1:27 it says:
So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. (NIV)

Those are astounding words and an even more astounding thought:

We were created in the image of God.

When I look into the faces of my children, I see the image of my wife and me. I see it in the way my son smiles and in the quick flash of my daughter’s blue eyes. I hear it in their easy laughter and in their voices when they sing. I feel it when we embrace and I know I am holding a part of me in my arms.

Because they are created in my image, I long for them to know how extraordinary I find them. I long for them to know just how delighted they make me when they do even the simplest of things. But most of all, I want them to grasp just how profoundly they are loved because they were created from the love that I shared with my wife and it is that love that raised them through the good and the bad times, health and illness, joy and disappointment, wonder and sadness… it is that love that will always be a constant.

The deepest theme of the creation story is that when God had finished making a paradise, He wanted to share it. The relationship of the Trinity between the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit is often described by the word ‘perichoresis.’ It’s actually a word that was invented to try to describe the incredible intimacy of love and divine joy that is shared in the Trinity.

When love is so powerful, it must be shared… and it was from that place, that perichoresis that the creation of humanity sprung. In fact, Richard Rohr explains the concept of perichoresis as ‘The Divine Dance,’ an extraordinarily intimate connection flowing within itself.

The wonder of the creation story is that we were invited into that divine dance.

God had created a paradise. He wanted to share it. He created us to enjoy it and to be loved by Him within it. He created us to join the dance of love eternal.

All of our stories spring from that place… the truth that you and I are created by love, to be loved and that no matter what our lives look like now, if you look closely, you can still see our Father God’s image in everyone.

The Easter story begins in that garden of paradise, that Eden. Our Father created us with love to be loved and Easter reminds us that just like a good Dad, He longs for us to know how deeply, profoundly and sacrificially we are loved so that we can be who we were always dreamt to be.

Easter is the glorious truth that when Jesus looks at us, He can see the image of our Father in us still and He was willing to pay any price to bring us back into that divine dance.

Day 1: Come and See

I want to invite you on a journey for the next three weeks.

More specifically, I want to invite you into a story of three gardens. In all of the wondrous rolling vista of the scriptures, these three gardens are unique places where decisions were made and history was written… where eternal love was expressed in Creation, where human suffering and shame was taken on by a man who was also God, and where an earth shattering turn in the tale changed everything, for everyone, forever.

It’s a beautiful, but painful, story. It begins with great joy and travels through great heartache, but it ends, as all good stories do, with a hero saving the ones He loves. And then it begins a new story altogether… one that you and I are still experiencing as we live our daily lives transformed by the greatest sacrifice the world will ever know.

As we approach Easter, we want to take these days to prepare our hearts to celebrate that heroic sacrifice of Jesus. But more than that, we will get to dive deeper into His love as we recount the story together. So we’ll have 15 instalments in this story of three gardens, all designed to be a brief read and reflection to start your working day, while giving you space to relax on the weekend before we come to worship and enjoy Jesus together on Sunday.

Gardens are a special place… they can be perfectly manicured and controlled or wild and riotous with colour and life. They are a place of sights, sounds, and glorious smells, often filled with laughter and play, but sometimes marked by the silence of sadness and remembrance. They may be large or small, they may honour achievements or history, they may be public or private, but they all share one common theme: life.

Gardens are places that show off life itself… from the rich earth that holds a tiny seedling to a mighty willow tree that shades a quiet corner… from the beautiful colours of the flowers that appear in spring to the bright ochre shades of the leaves that fall in autumn… from the green Irish grass of the summer to the cold bare ground of the winter… yes, even then, life is at work in a garden.

Our story will take us through the beginning of life, through a bitter winter of suffering, and end (begin) in an extraordinary resurrection moment… a thread that began in the first Garden and came into full view in the last one.

It’s always at this time of year that I begin to imagine what my garden will look like in a few months. Winter has done its worst, and as I look out my back doors, my garden looks tired and beaten. The colours are muted, the flowerbeds astray, the lawn almost anaemic with the effects of the coldest season. But I know that under the ground, there are seeds waiting for  the sun. I know there are bulbs in the corner patch that will rise again when the mercury in my thermometer does. I know that life has not been beaten, and that even the death of so many plants in the winter will make a way for new life when the cold winds finally cease.

Easter is the moment we remember the springtime of all humanity… that just when it seemed our garden was destroyed, beyond repair, covered with death and shame, the sun returned and life burst out of the grave. And as we enter this season, we get to once again embrace the life of Jesus, even as we journey His death for us.

So together, let’s come and see…