Welcome to the March 2015 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, March 2015
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort them that are in any affliction, through the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound unto us, even so our comfort also aboundeth through Christ. But whether we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or whether we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which worketh in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: and our hope for you is stedfast; knowing that, as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so also are ye of the comfort. For we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning our affliction which befell us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, insomuch that we despaired even of life: yea, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raiseth the dead: who delivered us out of so great a death, and will deliver: on whom we have set our hope that he will also still deliver us; ye also helping together on our behalf by your supplication; that, for the gift bestowed upon us by means of many, thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf." 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, ASV
When Phil the groundhog or any of the other animals around the nation and world proclaim that spring is right around the corner or that winter will last much longer at the beginning of February, we all know that winter will last until March 20th no matter the weather outside. We do, however, expect the weather to be in keeping with normal by the time we reach March 2nd. We should be seeing spring-like temperatures here in Texas. The wildflowers should be making their first appearances. I should be able to open the windows of my house for at least a few hours every day. We, like so much of the rest of the U.S., are experiencing below normal temperatures and dreary days here in Texas, and the weathermen are promising at least one more cold front this week. It seems like winter will never end.
That's even truer for those who are farther north where they are not only getting cold weather and drizzle, but so much snow that they've been trapped for days. Mothers are going crazy with children home for yet another snow day. Economic numbers will be very low as retailers report lagging sales in those places where people can't use the roads due to ice. The problems will not end with the warming temperatures as melting snow will cause flooding on roads. In places where the piles of snow have been mixed with road grime and dirt, the spring thaw will leave behind piles of waste that will have to be removed. The school children who have enjoyed the free days home from school will grumble well into the summer when they have to make up those classes they've missed. Winter will end, but even when it does it will seem to go on and on and on in other ways.
Have you ever felt like God has answered your prayer and yet the prayer has not yet been answered? That might seem like an odd question, but I think there are times when we know God is working through our needs, but it seems to be taking a long time for winter to become spring. We want the miracle like we see in the Bible. We want to be immediately healed. We want to get that new job today. We want our broken relationships to be repaired with ease, but things like this aren't that easy.
Sometimes the healing happens too slowly for us and we get impatient for wholeness. How many times have you had a cold seemed to last forever? You feel better after just a few days and thank God for healing but the cough is never ending. What about the hiring process at that new job? I have a friend who saw answered prayer when was hired for a job; he even began the early stages of working for the company. However, a week or so later, the project he was hired to lead has been put off for weeks, perhaps months. He thought his job situation was fixed, but now he has to wait. He is filling his days with substitute teaching and he's prayerfully considering a new job search. We might think that God has mended our broken heart, but some hurts go very deep and relationships aren't fixed that easily. In these, and other situations, we wonder, "Will this ever end?"
Paul understands that God has heard his prayers and that He is working through the problems, but he also knows that God's timing and solutions are always right. He knows His suffering has a purpose and that even if the affliction continues it will help him to help others deal with their afflictions. His story encourages us to be patient as we wait for our answered prayers to be fully answered. He gives us something to think about as we do so. Why do we have to wait? What is God doing with my life in the here and now, in this continued affliction, that will help someone else tomorrow? What lessons might I learn from the wait?
It is about trusting God. He knows what we need and when we need it. He knows the best way to answer our prayers. Sometimes the answer will take a very, very long time. Dis-ease is rarely healed overnight. The job hiring process can take months, even years. Relationships need time. When we are patient (I know how hard that is!) we find that in the end everything is better than we can ever imagine, not necessarily because God will perform a miracle, but because we will be transformed by the process. Winter will end, spring will come, and though it might still be rough for a time, the world will have been cleansed and made new in a way we might never expect.
"And he spake a parable unto them to the end that they ought always to pray, and not to faint; saying, There was in a city a judge, who feared not God, and regarded not man: and there was a widow in that city; and she came oft unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest she wear me out by her continual coming. And the Lord said, Hear what the unrighteous judge saith. And shall not God avenge his elect, that cry to him day and night, and yet he is longsuffering over them? I say unto you, that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" Luke 18:1-8, ASV
The birdfeeders are empty. I have some food that I can use to fill at least a few of the feeders, but I haven't had a chance to do so yet. I was reminded of my failure by the chirping squirrel outside my window. I hear them once in a while, but this one is definitely trying to get my attention this morning.
Tigger has gotten into a new habit lately. He has always preferred to be in the same room as I; he will even more ten feet from the office into the studio just to be near me. He will usually settle on a pillow I have here for the cats, or he will lay nearby in the sunshine. Several times a day, however, Tigger will get up from his nap, walk over to me, rub my legs with his cool, wet nose and then sit at my feet. He is not a lap cat, but on these occasions he sits so that he is touching me in some way. It is usually inconvenient because he sits in a way that makes it impossible for me to do my work. He has even sat down on my feet. He will stay there until I acknowledge his presence. I have to pet his head and talk to him, and then he'll get up and move back to the pillow or sunshine.
Last night Tigger followed me into my room where I was going to read my daily devotions. His desire for attention was insatiable. I tried to get him to sit on my lap, but that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted more than a place for him to sleep; he wanted me to pet him, to talk to him, to put down my book and focus on him. He was definitely trying to get my attention last night and it was funny to watch.
Kids are the same way. Parents will tell you that children can be very creative in the ways they try to get our attention. I couldn't spend five minutes alone in the bathroom when my kids were small or do the dishes without having someone pulling on my pant legs. The worst came when I tried to talk on the telephone; children seem to desperately need something at that very moment or think it is the best time to start singing their favorite bible school songs. Like the chattering squirrel or pesty cat, children will do anything to get our attention.
The bird feeders will be refilled. I put down my book last night and Tigger got my undivided attention for a moment. He will again. I didn't always respond immediately to the antics of my kids, but they always had enough of whatever they needed. I didn't need any of them to work so hard to get my attention; I was always aware of their presence even if I did not acknowledge it immediately. Their persistence was never necessary, although as with the judge, their persistence caused me to stop and pay attention.
God He knows. He knows what we need and when we need it. He knows the best way to fulfill our needs. It might seem as though He is ignoring us and that we have to be persistent to get Him to answer. God doesn't mind. While the judge in today's story answered because the widow was pesty, God answers our prayers because He knows what we need. This story reminds us that we can trust in God because He is better than the judge. He's better than me, and if I will go out of my way to fill the bird feeders, pet Tigger or take care of my children, how much more will God do?
Scriptures for Sunday, March 8, 2015, Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 2:13-22 (23-25)
"But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord." 1 Corinthians 1:30-31, ASV
I get a lot of those emails from foreign dignitaries (or usually their recently widowed wives) that claim to have millions of dollars that they need to smuggle out of their country before it is stolen by the evil government and they want to use my ministry as a beneficiary. They promise that they will give me a huge percentage of the money for my trouble, and ask only that I give them some important information so that they can begin the process. These emails always focus on their humble desire to support the great work that I'm doing.
These emails sound wonderful. Imagine what I could do with millions of dollars! I could do more than write a few words of inspiration and instruction every day. I could open a retreat center. I could publish my own books. I could share my windfall with other ministries that are doing incredible work in the world. I would try to glorify God with every cent of that gift and hope that it might help change lives and create faith. It is tempting to answer, "Yes."
But I'm not foolish; I would not fall for the scheme because I know that it is too good to be true. I have to admit that I considered the possibilities the first time I got one of these emails. I did a little research on the Internet to see if there was any truth to what was written. It didn't take very long before I found websites revealing the truth of these offers. Someone has been doing this for a very, very long time. They build a relationship with the victim and slowly gain their confidence. Eventually they ask for a bank account number or other personal information. Some even claim that they need a few dollars (or a few thousand dollars) to pay for the legal fees, which they can't afford because the money is tied up until the transaction is complete. They sign with official titles and use real names, making it seem as if it is legitimate. It sounds too good to be true, and it is.
It amazes me that anyone would fall for these schemes, and yet they do. The schemers have ways of making people believe that what they say is true, or ways to make people think that something bad will happen if they don't cooperate. I heard a story about some scam that is often targeted at old people. The schemers claim that the people have won a lottery and that all they need to do is send a filing fee. Eventually the victims end up sending large sums of money, often several payments over time. When promises stop working, the schemers threaten the victim and the money is sent out of fear. The victims are often those who can't make decisions; they have mental issues or are desperate. Some are simply greedy and think that they can beat the conman. It is foolish to think that it could be true, but our fear, desperation and greed can make us see things from a skewed perspective. A few kind words and a promise can offer hope to someone who is anxious for salvation.
Hope is a tough thing to find in our world sometimes, especially if we pay attention to the evening news. The stories are all about death and destruction, the latest terror or economic upheaval. There are stories of fires and shootings, disease and suffering. I regularly see stories about the latest scam and how to avoid falling victim. Even the lighter news is disturbing because it shows us that we live in a world that is upside down and confused. That which is good is bad and that which is bad is good. We don't want to hear just warm fuzzies; we need to know what is happening in the world for our safety and well-being, but some days I would rather not know. Sadly, they are trying to make us wise but in reality most of the news actually makes us afraid, desperate or greedy.
Unfortunately, in our modern age, the words of our mouths are filled with things that are displeasing to God. Death is not a good thing; it is not what God desires for us. He has created us to glorify Him with love and life. We live in a world filled with sin, the Law shows us how we are separated from God by our words and deeds. But we have set aside what God says is good, right and true. We ignore God's Law because that's just not the way we do things anymore. The news shows us in very dramatic ways where sin leads us: into death. And while the Law will never save us, for it is only through Christ where we can have eternal life, remembering God's Law will help us to walk more safely in this world in which we live.
The Psalmist shows us the only way we can live righteously for God: "Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me." Only with God's help, God's hand in our lives, will we ever be kept blameless.
The final verse of this passage is often used by pastors to begin their sermons. It is a prayer that the words they speak will be heard and that those listening will be blessed by the message. Preaching is a very difficult thing to do: to plan the right message for the people to whom it is being spoken. It always amazes me how many ideas can come out of just a few scriptures. If you attended twenty churches on a Sunday using the same lectionary, you would hear twenty different sermons, messages addressed to twenty unique communities. Even among the listeners at one church, you will find they've heard something different than you. Pastors are sometimes truly surprised to hear as people are walking out the door the messages they've received from the sermon preached. The wonderful thing about preaching God's grace is that it isn’t the words that the preacher speaks that will touch them, but God's Spirit that will do the work. We have to trust in this miraculous and mysterious truth, that’s why preachers ask God to bless their words and the hearts of those listening, so that He will be glorified in both the speaking and the hearing.
There is a universal language when it comes to faith. No, I don't mean that we can all hear words in other languages and understand everything we hear. While the gift of tongues is very real, that's not what I mean by a universal language. Music comes close, because it is in music that we share in the emotion of the words spoken. An Italian opera can move a person to laughter and to tears even if they do not know a word of Italian. A Christian can attend liturgical worship in a foreign country and understand what is happening even if the words spoken are not in their own language.
But the Psalm speaks of a more basic universal language: that of creation. The psalmist writes, "The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork." He also says, "There is no speech or language where their voice is heard." God can be seen in the beauty of a rose garden anywhere around the world. He can be experienced on the top of any mountain. His handwork is seen in the sunset as it follows the path of the earth's rotation. Every star screams "glory" and every wave mutters "power." Everything that God created points back to Him.
However, we are reminded that we need more than the creation to have a relationship with our Father in heaven. Those who think it is enough to worship God on the mountaintop miss the beauty of dwelling in God's Word. The commandments as we hear them in today's passage are not simply a list of things we should and should not do. It is a covenant between God and His people. It is important to establish a relationship, to build up trust in one another. In the case of the Hebrews, God did not sit down with them before taking them out of Egypt. He didn't say, "If you do this, that and the other thing, then I will save you from this slavery that has you bound." No, God saved them first, taking them out of bondage and into freedom. It was then, and only then, that He made the covenant with them. They knew He was a deliverer, that He could save His people. They knew they could trust Him. Then God taught them how to live in this new community together.
Notice that the Ten Commandments do not begin with "do not" rules. They begin with relationship building rules. It is about putting the One who saved them out of Egypt first in their life, and then those whom God has appointed as our elders. The last few commands are the "do not" rules, but they are meant to be relationship keeping rules. The things we do against other people are the things that cause the brokenness of our world. When we murder, commit adultery, steal, lie and covet our neighbor's things we build walls between one another. These rules are not given to make our life harder. They are given to keep us right with our neighbors and therefore right with God. In the end, if we keep the first commandment, keeping God first, we will by His nature not disobey the others because we will want to please the One who is our Savior and Deliverer.
We are reminded during our Lenten journey that He did not just deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt, He delivered us from death. He did that while we were still sinners, which seems so foolish, but is the reality of God's grace. He loved us so much that He died for us.
There are many who consider themselves wise in this world, yet there are those that have rejected the one thing that is true, which is God. He is sovereign and He is faithful. We know this to be true because He has laid faith on our hearts so that we can believe in the cross of Christ, that ridiculous measure of His love for His people. Through such horror, God showed His love and mercy to the world, saving us from sin and death. Yes, this all seems foolish to those who have no faith, to those who are perishing. But to those of us who are being saved it is the foundation of all we believe.
It is funny that even though it takes knowledge and maturity to truly understand the theological concepts of Christianity, most children understand God's grace better than the adults. We seem to lose a sort of innocence and trust that is found in a child's heart as we grow older and more knowledgeable. Yet, much of the world has missed out on the true wisdom of the Gospel because it seems like foolishness and weakness. The foolishness of God is truly the wisdom of life that can only be seen through faith and trust.
What is wisdom? What is power? What type of leader should we follow? Do we go toward the charismatic leader who seems to be wise and powerful? Do we follow the one who has seemingly miraculous powers, doing whatever he asks because he is able to provide for our every need and desire? Or do we follow the leader that is humble and faithful to God's Word?
The people in Paul's day had their own idea of what they expected from a leader and a community of believers. Paul tells us that the Jews were looking for miraculous signs and the Greeks were looking for wisdom. We ask ourselves again, what are miraculous signs and what is wisdom? The cross does not fit into our worldly understanding of miracles and wisdom. For the Jews, the cross means the person hanging from 'the tree' is cursed. It is a sign from God that the person is not blessed or right. For the Greeks, the cross is not a wise way to create a group of followers. It is, indeed, foolishness to the world.
But, we learn that Jesus turned the world upside down. What we see as foolishness is actually the wisdom of God, for it is in the life of that one perfect man that we find true peace and forgiveness. It is in His death that we find life. In God's kingdom the weak are the ones who have power because they are given power and wisdom based on God's grace, not on their own abilities or work. In God's kingdom, the wise are those who look to the cross for salvation, not to the things of this world.
What gives Jesus the power, wisdom and authority to do this for us? That's what they wanted to know in the Temple in the story we hear in today's Gospel lesson. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover, a time of pilgrimage and sacrifice. The courtyard was filled with people, filled with merchants and filled with moneychangers. The merchants and moneychangers were a vital part of the festival because they offered the necessary items for the worshippers. The pilgrims could not carry their sacrifices with them, and they needed to change their money to the Temple coin. It was good that there was a marketplace in Jerusalem for them.
If the marketplace had been outside the gates of the Temple, we may not have seen this story in our Gospel texts. Though Jesus did fight against heartless worship, He was not arguing against the pilgrim offerings at the Passover feast. This was not just a time of pilgrimage for Jews, it was an opportunity for foreigners to get to know and understand the Hebrew God. The nations were welcome in the outer courts of the Temple to pray and learn and perhaps even choose to become a Jew.
Jesus was disturbed that the priests had so little respect for God's grace to the nations. The sales were going on in the only place that pilgrims from other faiths and nations could enter. The marketplace made it impossible to pray and learn and choose the God of Israel. The place of prayer for the gentiles and sanctuary for those who could not enter into God's presence became a den of thieves. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes Isaiah who wrote, "...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." By filling the outer court with merchants and money changers, the gentiles had no place to experience the presence of God and to hear His word. Jesus was standing up for the people of every nation which God loved, too.
It doesn't seem very wise for Jesus to create such a ruckus at the Temple, especially during such an important time for the Jews. His actions made worship harder for many of the pilgrims because they could not get the animals or coins they needed to enter the Temple. The episode also attracted attention to Jesus, attention that was unwanted. John places this encounter early in the story, while the other Gospel writers make it later. Many scholars think it probably happened multiple times, with John showing an early event.
The leaders in the Temple, who benefitted greatly from the marketplace, asked Jesus who gave Him the authority to do such a thing. When asked what sign He would give to prove His authority, Jesus said, "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days." This is the first time Jesus talks about His death and resurrection, but they see it as a boastful claim that He will rebuild a temple of stone in three days. How could He rebuild a building that took forty-six years to build? He was not referring to a copy of God’s image built in stone. He was referring to the real thing: Himself. It was not until much later that the disciples realized what He meant that day; after the resurrection the disciples remembered and believed.
The Temple is Jesus. He died and was raised so that we can present living sacrifices to God: our hearts, our hope and our lives. But that's just foolishness. Why would a God of love demand such a high price for our failures? God seems to take the most incredible situations and make them work for His glory. Grace is found in the Law, as God promises to bless us for generations for the obedience of our forefathers, but the greatest moment of grace came when Christ died on the cross. But Paul saw the doubt of men. Why would Christ have to die? Why did God require blood sacrifice? What possible benefit could the world get from the cross? How could one life make up for all our failures? It is easier to think that we can do it on our own, being obedient to the letter of the Law or to think we can ignore the Law completely and see God in the trees and the sun and the mountains. It is easier to see God in our good works that meet the needs of our neighbors. It isn't so easy to see that we need a Savior and that Jesus is the One.
But then we see the stories about how people are duped out of their hard earned money by schemers who prey on the weak and we realize that our problems are much too hard for us to deal with by ourselves. The elderly couple needs someone who will watch their finances and keep them from responding in foolishness, fear and desperation. We need someone who will restore us to the God who loved us from creation, to save us from ourselves.
The law of Jehovah is perfect, restoring the soul. The testimony of Jehovah is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Jehovah are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of Jehovah is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Jehovah is clean, enduring for ever: The ordinances of Jehovah are true and righteous altogether. Best of all, the Law points toward Jesus; this is the Word we are called to preach, no matter how foolish it might seem.
Are we speaking this foolishness that Jesus is the answer we seek? Do we call people to recognize their sin and point them to Jesus the Savior who saves us from our failure to live up to God’s expectations? Or are we like the wise ones in Paul's day seeking signs and earthly wisdom rather than the cross of Christ? Have we allowed our own marketplaces to make it impossible for those outside our own faith communities who seek God to pray and learn about Him? Have we taken advantage of those who are afraid or desperate by giving them a false hope and phony promise?
God is revealed as we live according to God's Word and Law. He is manifest in our relationships with our neighbors and in creation. We see Him revealed in all these things as we put Him first, keep Him as our God, love Him above all else. The Jews went to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, but today we are called to worship at a greater one; for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the true Temple. He saved us and invites us into His eternal covenant where we will dwell forever in a relationship with Him.
Some people don't want to hear about a God that demanded such obedience that His Son died on the cross, to them it is nothing but foolishness. Yet, it is in those very words that we are saved. We want pleasant signs-like healing and miracles-but we refuse to see the suffering and pain. We follow after wisdom and intelligent teaching, but we ignore the foolishness of the cross. The truth of God's purpose is a stumbling block to many and unfortunately, we think it is more important to sell ourselves than to give our visitors what they really need. God is not glorified by those who claim to be righteous. He is not glorified by a Temple full of moneychangers and sacrifices. God's grace is found in the pure Law of God, for it is the Law that points to our need for Jesus.
The Law was a gift, a sign that shows us God's care and concern for our health and safety. The Temple was a gift, a sign that reminds us of God's presence among His people. Even more so, however, our Lord Jesus Christ is a gift, because He is the Law in flesh and His body is the true Temple. In Him we truly see God's care and concern for us and His presence among His people.
"And working together with him we entreat also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain (for he saith, At an acceptable time I hearkened unto thee, And in a day of salvation did I succor thee: behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation)." 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 (ASV)
I have to admit that there are many days when I simply say, "Come, Lord Jesus."
It is so easy to get caught up in the sadness, anger, hurt and pain that is all around the world these days. Everything is upside down: good is bad and bad is good. Dis-ease is rampant. The news is filled with stories that will strike fear into the hearts of almost everyone. The weather is depressing. Too many of us are struggling with our bills. Relationships are broken. The world is going to hell in a hand basket, so they say. We are divided. We love conditionally and with reservation. We can't talk to one another honestly for fear of offending someone or hurting their feelings. Everything is upside down and the only One who can fix it is Jesus.
I know that our problems are relatively inconsequential when you think about the problems at other times throughout history, especially for those of us in the United States. As I've heard many people say, we deal with "first world problems" while people in other places and in other times deal with things that are so much more. Can you imagine living in Europe during the plague? What about living in Africa when tribal leadership was selling tribe members to the slave traders? Was life better in Pompeii in those final moments than they are today?
Anger? Have you heard of the monarchs from around the world who were willing to kill anyone to get their way? Hatred? Have you heard of the wars that have taken place since time began? Fear? Imagine what it must have been like to worry about the latest epidemic that was sweeping the known world. We can see that there were times throughout the history of the past two thousand years when things were worse, far worse, than they are today.
Here's the thing: those horrific events happened to a relatively insignificant number of people at a particular time. The plague affected Europe but the rest of the world remained free of the disease. The wars of the past sound as though blood flowed like oceans, but the battlefields often had just a few thousand people. There were evil monarchs, but at the same time there were also rulers in other countries who were doing good things for their people and the world. In other words, though these events seem larger than life to us today, the people who experienced them did not have to worry about so many things at the same time.
See, the world has become a very small place. A plague can spread quickly because one person can spread the disease across the world before we even know they are sick. We hear about every war, every battle, and every death. We can watch the news twenty-four hours a day and see the evil that is happening thousands of miles away from us as if it is right next door. Everything is so immediate. We hear about a fire even before the firemen are on sight. We can send out an email before the anger has cooled. It is so easy, and even expected, that we'll break relationships without working through problems. It is no wonder that we feel so much anger, hatred, and fear in this topsy-turvy world.
It would be so easy to be depressed. It would be so easy to lose hope. We cry for our Lord Jesus to come quickly because we know only He can save us from this time. While this is true, God is longsuffering. He knows there are those who still need to hear the Gospel message. He knows the work we still have to do. While it would be convenient for the world to end today so that we can live in eternity forever, God knows that today is not the day. It is not time for Jesus to come. Instead, it is time for us to shine His light all the more.
We want Him to come so that we can begin dwelling in the eternal life He has promised, but here's the reality: we already do. As Paul says in today's verses, now is the day of salvation. God has already finished the work. We are saved. We have eternal life. It isn't just a promise, it is a reality. But it is only a reality for those of us who are saved. Too many people still need to experience the saving grace of God so that they too might dwell in heaven with us. We want Christ to come, and He will in His time and His way. Until that day, we are called to a life of hope and peace, to trust that God will work through our problems and help us into tomorrow. No matter what difficulties we face today or tomorrow, we can trust that our God will be there in it all.
"And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? Every one that cometh unto me, and heareth my words, and doeth them, I will show you to whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who digged and went deep, and laid a foundation upon the rock: and when a flood arose, the stream brake against that house, and could not shake it: because it had been well builded. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that built a house upon the earth without a foundation; against which the stream brake, and straightway it fell in; and the ruin of that house was great." Luke 6:46-49, ASV
I was in a store yesterday and notice peaches on the counter. Modern shipping has made it possible to have good fruit available year round, but off season fruit is never quite as good as that which we get when it can be picked off local trees. The peaches I've seen recently are obviously not locally grown, but it is getting close to time for the first fruits and they are beginning to look like they might be tasty. Unfortunately, fruit like peaches is usually picked before they are ripe because they ship better, so they are never quite sweet and juicy.
Whenever I see peaches on the shelf, I carefully pick one up and smell it. It brings to mind something I learned a long time ago from listening to Jim Carcione, the Green Grocer, on the news out of Philadelphia. Jim was syndicated out of California where he ran his own produce business. His reports helped people from all around the nation better understand the fruits and vegetables in their grocery store. He gave tips on how to pick the freshest produce, how to store it, how to prepare it. He talked about what was in season and what you should avoid. I couldn't quote very much of what I learned, but I'm sure that I'm still following his advice thirty or more years later.
The one thing I do remember, and it is funny how often I say it to myself is, "If it looks like a peach and it smells like a peach, it is a peach." That's why I always pick one up and sniff it. I sniff a few other fruits, too, because I've learned that if you can smell it's sweetness than it is good. I'm almost certainly going to buy them if they smell right. The best times are when you can smell the peaches without even picking them up. I go right to the display if I can smell them as I'm passing.
I had a substitute teacher in Junior High for a few weeks; our regular teacher broke his leg while skiing during Christmas vacation. I can't say that I remember much from the Geography class from either teacher, but there was one thing that the substitute drilled into our heads. He told us, "Raisins are dried grapes. Prunes are dried plums." I'm not even sure why it was important to our lesson; I am not sure it even had anything to do with geography. It became a bit of an inside joke, I think. It is a silly thing to remember, but for some reason it continues to pop into my head, particularly if I'm in the dried fruit aisle at the grocery store.
Do you have any witticisms, proverb, sayings, principles, rules or other statements that come to mind as you go about your day? Was there anything your father said that you still remember or something you learned from a teacher that has stuck with you? Is there a favorite movie quote or line from a book that reminds you of an important lesson that has helped you through life? Is there a scripture verse that comes to mind just when you really need it, to help you have hope when you want to despair? I really don't think the substitute teacher's lesson has made any difference to the way I live, but the Greengrocer certainly helped me buy better peaches. Does God's Word do the same for you? Do those verses you remember spur you into action? It is not enough to know the scriptures. It is not even enough to know the scriptures so well that they come to mind during our day. The scriptures are living words, words that can transform us and guide us into living the righteous lives God intends for us. They call us to action!
"Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name." John 20:30-31, ASV
I lead a bible study that meets every other week. We are studying the writings of John the Evangelist, his Gospel, letters and the book of Revelation. The goal of our working through these texts is to see the parallels. Though modern scholarship has suggested that some or all of it wasn't written by John, we are following the traditional perspective that goes back to the earliest church fathers that John was the author of all five. We've already seen some pretty strong connections; even if the books weren't written by John, they were written by people who learned from him.
There are many different bible studies or books we could use for this study, which would make it less overwhelming. I have used several different resources as reference and it seems like everybody who writes about the Gospel of John has a different understanding of what he was trying to say. John has a theological and spiritual depth that is not found in the synoptic Gospels, which focus more on reporting the historic and religious story of Jesus Christ. One is not greater than the other: we need all four Gospels to get a complete understanding of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, John gives us a perspective that is often misunderstood by so many. The neo-Gnostics tend to use John to prove their points, but John was actually writing to refute the Gnostic heresy of his day.
I have found it interesting how one study sees John writing in light of Jesus being the Temple of God. Another study shows His words and actions through the story of the Exodus. I am sure that I could have found more theories and perspectives if I kept looking. It probably would have been better if I had not decided to use so many resources, and yet, I'm learning so much that I never knew. I'm sure our bible study on Thursday will be an interesting discussion and I'll hear more points of view from the group. The more we learn, the more we know we don't know everything.
John seems to have several themes that run through the Gospel, particularly the number seven as it relates to the "I AM" statements and miraculous signs. While there are seven "I AM" statements that are usually the focus of bible studies, I discovered through study that there are more than seven that build on the theme of Jesus Christ's divinity. These statements are best understood in the context of John's story. We see Jesus the Bread of Life provide bread to the crowds. We see Jesus the Light of Christ give light to a man born blind. Each statement punctuates the things that Jesus is doing and teaching, building to the reality that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
This study became overwhelming when I started looking into the miraculous signs. I have been studying, learning and teaching the Gospel of John for decades and all my resources consistently referenced the same seven miracles. I've recently discovered new ideas on this topic with differing opinions. Some have suggested that the commonly known miracles can't be signs, while signs aren't exactly miracles. It has been confusing, to say the least. I don't agree with the opinion, and while I'm willing to study the idea more, it has become a distracting focus.
That's the problem. We can get so caught up in these distractions that we miss the real reason for bible study. I think John would be disappointed that we spend so much time focused on these ridiculous details while missing out the purpose of his Gospel. He told us why he wrote. I am sure he purposely picked certain statements and miracles to make a point, but I think we spend much too much time trying to fit John's work into our theories. We count the statements and miracles or signs of Jesus and assign a number to make it more spiritual or fulfill a theological expectation. Seven is a good number and has a powerful significance, but it is not what is truly important in the Gospel of John.
All John wanted to do was to tell us the reasons we should believe. He wanted to offer a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ as the One, the Son of God. Faith in Him, and in Him only, will guarantee us the life that God has promised in His eternal Kingdom. I still want to study some of these other ideas, to see the depth of spirit and theology that is in the Gospel of John. It has become so much easier, though, since I stopped focusing on these details and remembered to see it all through the eyes of faith.
"But I say unto you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloak withhold not thy coat also. Give to every one that asketh thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. And if ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? for even sinners do the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? even sinners lend to sinners, to receive again as much. But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil." Luke 6:27-36, ASV
We live in a difficult world. Oh, I know, we are incredibly blessed to live in this day and age with all its advantages. Science has given us the means to live long and healthy lives. Technology has made the world so small that we can be friends with people across the world. We have so much leisure time thanks to inventions and innovations that make our work quick and easy. There is so much about the world that seems topsy-turvy, but we are not the first generation to make decisions and judgments that are not for the best interest of mankind and that go against God's good and perfect will for His people. We are human and we have a very narrow vision when it comes to our self interest. Many of the decisions we make seem positive and life affirming, but we soon discover why they go against God's plan for the world because they end up being destructive to individuals and society in general.
The worst part is how we deal with people who see the world from a different perspective. Again, I am sure that we are not the first generation to make enemies out of our neighbors for ridiculous reasons. I read a lot of historical fiction from England in the middle ages, and most of the war was based on small, selfish, greedy men that were slow to compassion and forgiveness and quick to hatred and violence. The conspiracies within the courts created enemies where there should have been allies and friendships. How do you live so close with someone and hate them so much?
Watch one of those daytime court shows and you'll see it. The small claims court cases are often between neighbors who can't find a way to live together. A tree branch can begin a feud to rival the one between the Hatfields and McCoys. The litigants hate each other with a passion, so much so that they are willing to do anything to get back at the other for real and imagined conflict. They become certain that every bad thing is the fault of the neighbor. Those who should be friends are enemies, and they treat one another as if it is war.
The animosity is often worse between strangers. Have you ever read the comments under a political or religious article on the internet? There are always a few people who make intelligent, well-informed comments, but most of the conversation is filled with hatred and anger. Everyone has an opinion, and those whose opinion differs is considered an enemy, and our enemies deserve everything we can throw at them. It might seem harmless in the anonymity of the internet, but false accusations quickly become accepted truth. There is too much hatred in the world, most of which has no grounding in truth.
We are simply human and no matter how good we think we are or appear to be, there will always be someone who seems to be an enemy to us. They have selfish motives, or at least seem to from our point of view. We all know someone who has hurt us in some way, whether willful or accidental. We all know someone that drives us crazy for one reason or another. It is a fact of life: we don't get along with everyone. Personalities clash. Unfortunately, it does not take much for these relationships to go from quiet disregard to anger and hate. It doesn't take much to make an enemy. We attack one another verbally, physically or emotionally, thinking this is the only way to overcome the differences. Yet, Paul writes that we should bless our enemies, not curse them.
Being a Christian is not an easy thing. Christ died so that we will have eternal life, and that life begins the day we are saved by His grace. Unfortunately the joy and perfection of eternity that is ours today is muddied by the reality of the world in which we still live. We aren't called to separate ourselves from the world, or from those we do not like. Instead, Jesus Christ gives us the gifts and the strength to overcome our natural tendencies so that we will Christ-like. When our flesh wants to hate, we are commanded to love. When our mouths want to curse, we are commanded to bless. This is a difficult thing.
Yet, Paul would have us speak well about our enemies. Jesus took it a step further, telling us to do well by our enemies, to love them and serve them. Instead of suing our neighbor for a tree branch or calling other commentators names, the Christ centered response is to love and encourage them. Our example might just bring transformation and peace. It isn't enough to put on a facade, to be kind in public; true love for enemies reaches into the depths of our hearts. Our worst sins against our enemies happen in the places no one sees, but God sees and He knows when we curse those we hate. Let us love our enemies as Christ. We too were enemies, but even worse, we were enemies of God until Christ died on the cross for our sake.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 15, 2015, Fourth Sunday of Lent; Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
"For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him." John 3:17, ASV
When I think of the Exodus, I picture a rag-tag mass of people just wandering in the desert for forty years, no direction or purpose. While that is true in a sense, they were far more organized. They became a nation of nomadic people, and while they did move often in those forty years, they weren't constantly in motion. They followed the pillar of cloud in the day and fire in the night as God commanded, but they also set up camp for times.
They were forced to wander because they did not trust God at Mount Sinai. While Moses was receiving God's Word for His people, they built a golden calf to worship. This caused God's anger and a promise that the unfaithful generation would not enter the Promised Land. By the time they made it there, the men and women who left Egypt had died, leaving only their children and grandchildren. There weren't many places to go in that desert, so it is likely that they camped for long periods of time between movements. We know that they were not happy; they grumbled constantly about the lack of food and water. The journey was meant to teach them to trust in God. It was a hard earned, and shortly held, lesson. God's people have fallen to unfaithfulness so many times. When they did, God used the world to help them to look to Him again. Whether it was war, exile or oppression, the suffering they faced was given as a gift to bring about repentance and faith.
We can easily get caught up in ourselves, whether it is our victories and dreams or our suffering and pain. It becomes so important to us that we lose sight of that which is more important: God. The Hebrews turned from God and Moses over and over again. In today's story from the Old Testament, we see the aftermath of one of those moments. Numbers 21:1-3 tells the story of their first battle as a new community under God's grace. The king of Arad attacked the wandering nation as they passed near to his land and captured some of them.
Their prayer was typical of our human prayers, Israel vowed a vow to God: "If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities." It wasn't enough for their people to be set free; they wanted to destroy those who had harmed them. God gave the Canaanites over to the Hebrews and they completely destroyed them. It was by God's hand and will that it happened, but as with all victory, the people became caught up in their success. They had the power to defeat a great enemy!
When it was time to move on, Moses led them the long way to avoid Edom. They people were not thrilled by this route; they were impatient and thought it to be a waste of their time. Besides, why shouldn't they go into Edom and use their new found strength to take what they needed? They could find fresh food and water, eat something besides manna and quail. As is typical with human complaint, the Hebrews exaggerated their needs. "Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread." They were sure they were going to die.
They weren't going to die. God provided for them, the manna filled them, and they had enough to survive. They didn't want to just survive, and their desire turned them away from God. God was disappointed by their lack of faith and trust. The Hebrews wanted control. They, perhaps rightfully, felt helpless. Moses had led them into the wilderness away from their homes and everything they knew. Perhaps their life was not comfortable. They were oppressed and worked to death as slaves to the Pharaoh, and they hated their life. When Moses led them out of Egypt they were excited to be alive and free. But the Promised Land was not right around the corner. Their wandering in the wilderness became such a burden that they began to look back on their sojourn in Egypt with fond memories. It had to be better in slavery than starving and thirsting lost in the desert. Even though God was providing them with all that they needed - safety, food and water - they hungered and thirsted for Egypt.
Have you ever taken a long road trip with small children? Have you ever done it with older children? Even adults quickly lose interest when stuck in a car for hours at a time. No matter how good the destination, within hours they begin complaining. "It is too hot." "It is too cold." "He touched me." "She touched me first." "I'm bored." "Are we there yet?" You can fill a hamper with all their favorite snacks, but they are never satisfied. You can bring all their favorite toys, but they want the one that was left on the playroom floor. What parent hasn't threatened the whiners? "I am going to turn this car around and we won't get to do the fun thing we were going to do!"
The people exaggerated the dangers they faced in the desert, especially since they had the God of creation, the God of their forefathers, protecting and leading them. All they could see was what they had left behind. Sure, they were slaves, but they had food other than manna and quail. God had to remind them that they were not in control. This story of snakes is hard for us to accept. It doesn't fit with our modern expectation of God. Why would He do such a thing? Why would He send dangerous snakes into the midst of His people? Why would He allow so many to die? The poisonous snakes were a way of getting the people's attention before they did more harm to themselves, perhaps even rebelling against Moses and returning to Egypt. Would Pharaoh welcome the slaves back with open arms and a huge barbeque? No, they would go back to their own deaths, and it would be alone, without God. If they turned back to Egypt, they turned their back on God.
The snakes got their attention. The people went to Moses and asked him to pray for them. Moses did pray and the LORD heard their pleas. Did He remove the snakes? That certainly would have been the most logical and loving solution to the problem. But in His mercy, God did not remove the poisonous snakes. Instead, He commanded Moses to create a bronze snake on a pole. When the people were bit, they could look at the snake and be healed. Ironic, isn't it? Looking to the very thing that brought death brought them healing and life. God gave them the sign so that they could have a visible reminder of His salvation and deliverance.
We often ask ourselves why God would allow Jesus to die. Again, it doesn't fit in with our modern expectation of God. It seems illogical and unnecessary. God could have saved the Hebrews by removing the snakes and He could have saved us by removing from our lives that which continually leads us astray. Would it have worked? Would the Hebrews have kept their eyes on God if they had no snakes to remind them of His saving grace? Would we keep our eyes on Jesus if we had no reason to be saved? God gave us a sign so that we could have a visible remind of His salvation and deliverance.
Jesus reminds us of this parallel in today's Gospel message. The book of John shows clearly how Jesus is better than Moses in every way. He is better than the Temple that Moses established because He is the Temple. He is better than the Law which Moses received from God because He is the Law. He is better than the prophet because He is the I AM. In today's passage, Jesus tells Nicodemus that Moses lifted up a bronze serpent to save God's people, but the Son of Man would be lifted up to a greater salvation. Look to Him and have eternal life. Have faith in the only Son and you will have eternal life.
John 3:16 is probably one of the most beloved and most quoted (and perhaps even misquoted) verses of the scriptures. Yet, there is so much more to this passage. This is a message about light. Jesus Christ is the light, and without Him we live in darkness. John 3:16, is a wonderful message, a message that many people have used to share the love of God with the world. As a matter of fact, when you see "JOHN 3:16" in the end zone of a football game or on a billboard, you know exactly what it means. We worship a God of love.
This is so very true. Here is where the Christian message begins to trouble us. This God who loves us so much sent His Son to die for us. How can this be? How can the world see love and grace in this horrific death? Why couldn't God do it in a different way? Why couldn't He let us do it our way so that we wouldn't have to suffer? Wouldn't more people believe if we could show them this God of love? They reject a God that allows the snakes to keep biting without seeing that it is in His gracious act that we repent and return to Him. John 3:16 is worthless without the rest of the story. John 3:17 says, "For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him." We are saved by the blood of Christ, shed for us and for all those who believe, and by His cross we are set free to live in God's kingdom for eternity. John 3:16 means nothing without the truth that Jesus saves us from ourselves. He who was without sin was raised so that the world would be saved from that selfishness and pettiness that destroys.
The world looks at the cross and sees it as a horrific torture device and not a symbol of freedom and glory. Yet, as you read the witness of John, you will see that the cross is where Christ was glorified, because it was on the cross that He was perfectly obedient to the will of God. It was there the world was saved, not in the empty tomb. Our salvation rests in the One hanging on the pole, and it is to Him that we are to look for healing and peace.
When we are in trouble God does hear our cry, but His answer is not always the answer we are looking to receive. Sometimes the best healing is the worst thing we can imagine: death. Sometimes God gives the redemption that will be eternal instead of a temporary return to whatever we think is normal. Those in faith who face death have not been forgotten by their God, but have been given the greatest healing possible: eternal life. And so, when we experience the healing hand of God, whether it is when we get over the flu or when someone we love breathes their last, we are called to join together with all people who believe in the One who was raised on the pole, to praise God for His enduring love that lasts forever. He redeems His people, in so many ways, and for this we give thanks.
Paul begins today's epistle lesson with a rather strong statement: "You were dead." They weren't physically dead; this isn't the first scene from some early version of a zombie movie. As a matter of fact, they were probably living a fairly decent life in Ephesus. They were dead not because their heart stopped beating and their brain stopped working. They were dead in their sin; they did not believe in God.
There is a very real 'us versus them' attitude in the words of this epistle. The "you" in verse one is directed toward the Gentiles, those who lived according to the desires of the flesh, following the ruler of this world: the devil. In verse three Paul refers to the Jews who were called to be God's chosen nation.
Yet, in this passage we see that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Paul writes, "...we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest..." Jew and Gentile are the same; we are all condemned by our will. We are typical selfish and self-centered human beings and we will naturally reject God for our own sake. This is the very reason why it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die on the cross. The world is full of human beings who are sinners in need of a Savior. Just as the savior to the Hebrews in a desert was the very thing that brought them the pain, so too it would take a human to be lifted up to bring healing and pain. Who would have thought that it would be the Son of God hanging on a cross?
It is on the cross where we truly see the God of mercy. Could God have removed the serpents from the camp of the Hebrews? Of course He could, but He didn't. Instead He gave them a way to be healed. Could God forgive us without the cross? Why didn't He find another way to save us from our troubles? I don't think I have the answer to that question, for I do not know the mind of God. I do know however, that when I'm in the midst of trouble brought on by the consequences of my own sin, the sins of others, or the grace of God sent as serpents to draw me back into His presence, it is the cross where I can most clearly see God's love. I see my sin and my sinful nature and I see His mercy and His grace. Any freedom I have, or peace, or joy, or hope, or even faith has nothing to do with me. It is a gift from God, given not because I've done anything right, but out of His deep love for me. As a matter of fact, I was dead, and He died so that I might live.
The eternal life that comes from faith given by God is not just something to look forward to in the future. As a matter of fact, that eternal life is also in the here and now. It is a life that is lived in thanksgiving and praise. The psalmist sings, "Let the redeemed of Jehovah say so, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the adversary." We've been set free to praise God and glorify Him to the world. That is our witness and our purpose. There is hope in a world made up of typical human beings who fail to trust God. His name is Jesus.
"Put on therefore, as God's elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to the which also ye were called in one body; and be ye thankful." Colossians 3:12-15, ASV
A great and ferocious lion ruled over the animals of the forest. He was hungry after a long day of unfruitful hunting, but fell asleep anyway. He was disturbed from his sleep by a tiny mouse that scampered across his massive form. The lion caught the mouse and was about to pop the mouse into his mouth when the tiny creature begged for mercy. "Please forgive me! I did not mean to disturb you. If you let me go, I promise that I will return the favor one day." The lion laughed at the mouse, wondering how something so small could ever help him, but let him go. The mouse ran away to safety. Hunters later captured the lion and tied him to a tree. The tiny mouse appeared and gnawed through the rope until it was loose enough for the lion to escape.
Imagine the fear of that tiny mouse when it was caught in the claws of the ferocious lion. It would frighten me so much that I probably would not forget the feeling. Even after escaping, I would be always looking over my shoulder, wondering if or when the next danger would strike. How could the mouse know for sure if the lion would have mercy the second time around? It is better to avoid the danger than to take the risk.
But the mouse had made a promise. I'm sure at the time the lion laughed at the ridiculous nature of the promise. What could a mouse do for him? How could a mouse serve a lion? The lion decided to let the mouse go anyway; despite his hunger, the mouse would have been little more than a crumb anyway. The big ferocious lion quickly learned what a mouse could do for him. Salvation for the lion came from this most ridiculous place. The mouse, having promised, took the risk to approach the lion and serve him out of mercy and gratitude. Kindness begot kindness.
Jesus Christ doesn't call us to be kind because it will pay us kindness later. I belong to a group that meets in a national chain bakery for bible study. I usually get there early so I can buy breakfast and get all my materials set up before the other ladies arrive. This morning I watched a young lady hold the door open for an elderly woman. They were not together, but both walked toward the counter to order. The elderly lady stepped back and let the young lady go first while she thought about what she wanted to order. After the young lady gave her order, the cashier asked if she wanted anything else. She paused, looked toward the older woman and then said, "Yes." She called the woman over and told her to order. "I want to buy your breakfast," she said. It was absolutely spontaneous; I could see it in her eyes. They parted ways without even telling one another their names. The young woman wanted nothing but to do a kindness.
We are blessed to be a blessing, and the reality is that when we are a blessing to others we too are blessed. I can't help but wonder about those two women. How did this random encounter change their day? How did it affect the people who crossed their path today? What was going on in the older woman's life that she needed to experience the love of a stranger? I don't know whether the young woman was a Christian or not, but it doesn't matter. For some reason God laid the thought on her heart and she did what she had to do. She agreed and obeyed. God will work out the rest.
We are called to a life of kindness which includes forgiveness, mercy and love. Sometimes it is very hard because we find ourselves in frightening and ridiculous situations. What difference would it have made if the lion had said "No," and eaten the mouse? I doubt the consequences of our lack of kindness would be as great as death. Yet, we may discover, as the lion, that the stranger we gave mercy is the very person who will help us discover peace.
"And behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, Lord, have mercy on us, thou son of David. And the multitude rebuked them, that they should hold their peace: but they cried out the more, saying, Lord, have mercy on us, thou son of David. And Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, What will ye that I should do unto you? They say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened. And Jesus, being moved with compassion, touched their eyes; and straightway they received their sight, and followed him." Matthew 20:29-34, ASV
Have you ever noticed how distracting your windshield can be if you notice that it is there? I noticed something on the windshield of my car as I was driving one day. It was right in my line of vision, just a tiny chip or bug stuck to the window. It did not matter how small it was, once I noticed it was there, it was nearly impossible to keep my eyes off of it. I could get my eyes to watch the road, but they were always drawn back to that one tiny spot. Whenever I was looked at it, the rest of the world became fuzzy. I had to forget about the spot and keep my eyes on the road to finish my journey safely. I found the only way to forget the spot was to concentrate on my destination.
We are all on a journey in this life. For Christians, our destination is eternal life with our Lord Jesus Christ. The journey is not always easy, and we will face 'spots on our windshield.' Sin, pain and doubt are among the difficulties we may run into. The people we meet, both good and bad, can keep our focus away from our Lord. Our physical needs and desires can be very distracting. If we keep our eyes on those things rather than road on which we are traveling and the destination to which we are going, we will go off course and even face danger. We need to keep our eyes on Jesus who is both the road and the destination.
We have a sort of blindness when we are focused on the wrong things. I certainly can't see what's coming at me on the road, or even if I am driving properly, if I keep looking at that spot on my windshield. I have been blessed however, with excellent eyesight and imagine it must be very frustrating and difficult to do everyday tasks with vision problems. I can't imagine what life would be like if I couldn't see anything, but fortunately there are wonderful resources and medical treatments for those who have vision trouble in our world today. Even those who are completely blind can live productive, independent lives.
Things were different in Jesus' day. A blind man would not have been trained in any field because of his lack of sight. They were even ridiculed and condemned for their illness: the religious claimed their blindness was a punishment for the sin in their lives. The family of the blind would most likely find them a place to beg, near the city gates or along a trade route, and dump them there while they did their daily business.
Jesus healed several different people who were blind, including the two men in today's story. Jesus heals a different kind of blindness in us. He gives us vision to see His love, mercy and grace. He helps us to see things with a new perspective. He opens our eyes to the spiritual life and the destination of our journey. He saves us from ourselves and draws us into His life so that we will be with Him eternally. The two blind men might not have been able to see with their eyes, but they saw Jesus Christ as the One who could set them on the right path. Unfortunately, the desires and needs of our flesh all too often distract us, but with God's help and forgiveness, we can focus on the One who will help us on our way.
"After these things I saw, and behold, a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, a voice as of a trumpet speaking with me, one saying, Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must come to pass hereafter. Straightway I was in the Spirit: and behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting upon the throne; and he that sat was to look upon like a jasper stone and a sardius: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, like an emerald to look upon. And round about the throne were four and twenty thrones: and upon the thrones I saw four and twenty elders sitting, arrayed in white garments; and on their heads crowns of gold. And out of the throne proceed lightnings and voices and thunders. And there was seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God; and before the throne, as it were a sea of glass like a crystal; and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, four living creatures full of eyes before and behind. And the first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face as of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. and the four living creatures, having each one of them six wings, are full of eyes round about and within: and they have no rest day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come. And when the living creatures shall give glory and honor and thanks to him that sitteth on the throne, to him that liveth for ever and ever, the four and twenty elders shall fall down before him that sitteth on the throne, and shall worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and shall cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power: for thou didst create all things, and because of thy will they were, and were created." Revelation 4:1-11, ASV
There is a phenomenon that happens occasionally (rarely seen) as the sun is rising or setting. Caused by the perfect conditions of temperature and humidity, the light flashes green for a second or two when the edge if the disc of the sun is just barely visible on the horizon. The green shows because the light is refracted as through a prism, separating the colors. In normal conditions we see reds, oranges and yellows as the sun sets or rises, but at the brief by extraordinary moment there can be that flash of green. It is even possible to see blue, which is even rarer.
The advent of the digital camera with high speed shutters has made capturing this incredible moment a little easier, but it is still miraculous when it is captured. Imagine trying to catch something that lasts only one second when you don't even know if it will happen! Many who happen to capture the photo do so by chance, a happy accident. There are a few photographers who have learned to understand the science of the green flash, who patiently wait day after day in the right place for the right moment. Whether by chance or hard work, those who manage to take a photo of the green flash are blessed with something extraordinary.
The woman leading our Sunday school class yesterday talked about a moment after her sister-in-law died. Her pastor asked her husband about her favorite bible passages. The woman had three bibles, all heavily marked with underlines and notes. Her husband laid them on the desk, opened each one and said, "You tell me." She obviously loved all of God's Word and choosing a favorite for her proved to be impossible. I think the same would be true for me. Though I keep my bibles unmarked, they are worn with wear from reading and studying the pages. Check the archives of this devotional and you will discover more than fifteen years of writing, each day focused on some bit of God's Word. Were they all favorite passages? Certainly not! As a matter of fact, some of them were very difficult to read, study and share. Each passage in its time met a need, and we all know that we need far more than just comfort and encouragement. Sometimes we need to be challenged; sometimes we need God to knock us on our knees in repentance, pleading for forgiveness. As you read through the archives, however, you'll see that there are some passages that I've used more than others.
I'm not sure how many times I've used today's passage, but it is one of my favorites because it is an image of heaven. John tells us how we will spend eternity praising God for His goodness and mercy. We will take the crowns given to us by His grace and lay them at His feet, giving back to our Father that which He has given us: everything. Would we get bored doing the same thing over and over again throughout eternity? I don't think so. We might think the things of the world are exciting, but what could be more exciting than dwelling in the presence of God, living as His children and heirs to His kingdom forever?
As an artist I have always imagined how I would paint the scenes from the Bible, especially this one. How do you put onto paper, "...there was a rainbow round about the throne, like an emerald to look upon." What could this mean? A rainbow is made of many different colors, light refracted into all its hues. How could it look like the green of an emerald? John was trying to put into words that which is impossible for our human minds to even comprehend: the magnificence of God! I wonder if John caught a moment like the green flash when light is so perfectly refracted to give the human eye a glimpse of something miraculous, which on earth is so rare and lasts only a second, but in heaven is eternal?
"For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Wherefore take up the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; withal taking up the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one." Ephesians 6:12-16, ASV
Spring is right around the corner and many of my favorite Facebook pages are beginning to warn of the dangers that come with the warm weather and outside activities. More people will be making treks to parks for hiking and other activities. I'm particularly excited about the wildflowers that are beginning to bloom throughout Texas, especially the bluebonnets. Some are saying that this will be a good year for them. Reports are reminder adventurers that the warm weather brings out dangers such as snakes and flash floods; we should have fun but always be watchful for the things that can harm us.
One page posted a picture of a mass of fallen branches just off the bank of a river. The title said, "Sharp eyes will see it." You've probably seen similar pictures with hidden animals. It often takes enlarging the photo and hints from others who have spotted the hidden object. That is especially true of today's photo, but even that didn't help. Most of the respondents complained that it was impossible; some even suggested there was nothing to see. The page administrators finally reposted a cropped picture that they re-colored, making the animal obvious. I am usually fairly good at these games, but I was very surprised when I actually saw it. The point was to show a good example of effective camouflage, and it was a good example. Even after I knew where to look, the snake was all but invisible to my sharp eyes. It made me wonder how many animals I've missed during my own adventures in the wilderness.
I think, sometimes, that we try so hard to see something that we convince ourselves that we are seeing it when we really are not. Even after seeing the actual snake, the original photo seemed to be filled with other creatures. The real danger was still almost invisible. When we look around the world in which we live, we see danger around every corner, but too often we do not see the real dangers that can destroy us. Yes, there are reasons to be wary, perhaps even frightened, in today's world. There is real violence, real war, real greed and hatred. We don't know who might want to hurt us physically, emotionally or financially, so it is valuable for us to keep our eyes open in watchfulness. However, too many of us forget to keep our spirits open for those who want to harm us spiritually.
We'd rather say that Satan and his minions don't exist; we'd rather think that they are a fairy tale meant to frighten children or coerce faith. How can there be evil in a world controlled by a loving God? The truth is, the true battle to be waged is one that we can't even see. Satan is real, but he is very good at pointing out the dangers that might hurt our bodies but will never hurt our souls. Meanwhile, he twists God's word and manipulates the world in a way that can cause us to turn away from the only One who can save us. Like those of us who could not find the snake in the picture, we are so busy looking at the wrong things that we miss the real dangers of spiritual wickedness. It is good to be watchful for the worldly dangers that threaten our lives, but let us never forget to be prepared in spirit, through prayer, worship and the study of God's Word. Our greatest protection from the true dangers is the God who is greater than the evil that threatens to steal our salvation and our faith. He has promised that we will be with Him forever and He is faithful; keep your eyes on Him.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 22, 2015, Fifth Sunday of Lent: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:[32-34] 35-45
"For the Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." Mark 10:45, ASV
My bible study group recently worked through a study on Psalm 119. This psalm, the longest of the psalms, is filled with words of law. It is an uncomfortable psalm for many of us, first of all because it is twenty-two stanzas of eight verses each that seem to say the same thing over and over and over again. How many times can someone say "I love your law," especially those of us who understand God's grace?
What we learned, however, is that the psalmist is not repeating the same words over and over again. It is hard for us to see it in English, and particularly hard because some of the Hebrew words can be translated with the same English word, but each word has a unique and different meaning. The psalmist is repeating the same thing over and over again, but it is not as repetitious as you might think. Each stanza gives us a fuller understanding of what it means to be obedient to God. With words like statutes and commandments, it might seem like it is simply about obeying rules, but the reality is that it is a far more, all encompassing trust and obedience to God and His Word.
Without walking too far from the lessons of this day, let's look at Psalm 119:9-16 a little more closely, seeing the words more clearly to understand how it fits into this next to last Sunday in Lent.
"Wherewith shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word." The word translated "word" in this passage is a Hebrew word that means "spoken word." In other words, the speaker understands that following God means hearing and obeying that which has been spoken about Him.
"With my whole heart have I sought thee: Oh let me not wander from thy commandments." The word translated "commandments" is best translated "all God's law." This refers to everything God has commanded, not just a specific set of rules. This is about more than being a perfect law-abider; it is about being all God has created and redeemed us to be.
"Thy word have I laid up in my heart, that I might not sin against thee." This word is the best word. "Word" in this verse should be translated "promise." See, we can't be perfectly obedient to anything on our own strength or power, but God has promised to guide us and lead us in the right way. He has also promised that He will not abandon us when we fail.
"Blessed art thou, O Jehovah: Teach me thy statutes." This word, "statutes," refers to the boundaries. It is often used in reference to the ritualistic law, but God lays out all sorts of boundaries for us in His Word. Those boundaries are given to keep us safe, to set us on the right path, to keep us close to Him. We all need boundaries and we ask God to teach us the limitations of our humanness.
"With my lips have I declared all the ordinances of thy mouth." This word, "ordinances," refers to justice. True justice, biblical justice, is that which adheres to what God intends for His people. As much as we do not like to consider it, God has returned a verdict: we are sinners in need of a Savior. That's what Lent has been all about - discovering the truth of our failure to live up to being the people whom God intends us to be.
"I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, As much as in all riches." The word "testimonies" refers to the work of God in the world, the witness of all the good God has done. When we are troubled by our sinfulness, we can look back to the story of God and His people and see that He is faithful to His promises. He will save us because He has promised.
"I will meditate on thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways." Here the psalmist makes a commitment to be obedient to God's authoritative rule. The "precepts" are official orders properly appointed by God. He is the authority over our lives and His Word is the one to give our full attention.
"I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word." Here we return to the words in verses 9 and 12. Obedience to God's boundaries and spoken word is not a burden; it is a joy and a delight to follow God, no matter where He leads and no matter what He calls us to do. And sometimes He calls us to do very hard things. But when He does, we can trust that He has given us all we need. His Word is enough to keep us on the right path and take us where He wants us to go.
James and John were important to Jesus and they were witnesses to the miraculous and incredible things Jesus did. They were called to join Jesus and immediately left their father Zebedee and his boat to follow Him. James and John were invited, along with Peter, to go on the mountain to pray when Jesus was transfigured. We hear about James and John when the disciples were walking toward Jerusalem. The people in one Samaritan town refused hospitality to Jesus; they asked Him if He wanted them to call down hellfire on the town. They were zealous and loyal. They believed and lived their faith passionately. They also thought they were pretty important. They were bold enough to ask Jesus to do for them what they wanted.
Jesus had authority over heaven and earth but He did not have the authority to put James and John into such seats of honor. The reality, which they did not yet understand, is that the seats they desired would never exist. They thought Jesus would be an earthly king like David, who would rule over Jerusalem and Israel to save the people from the oppression of the Romans. The irony here is that Jesus just finished telling the disciples that the Son of Man, Jesus, had to suffer at the hands of the world, condemned to death. He told them that He would be mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed in Jerusalem. Jesus would never sit on that type of throne they expected and desired. It would not take long before He was hung from a cross, a much different end to His ministry. They had no idea that the cup He would drink and the baptism He would be baptized with would offer only suffering and pain.
They were willing to do anything for Jesus, but in doing so they wanted a promise. The problem is that they were making vows about something that they truly did not understand. They were willing to follow Jesus anywhere, but they did not expect that it would mean following Him to a cross. They told Him they were able to follow Him. Jesus said, "You will."
This prophecy came true for James. Just fourteen years after the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, James was beheaded in a lame attempt to halt Christianity. He was the first Apostle to be martyred, the only one of the eleven whose death was recorded in the scriptures. He indeed did drink the same cup and suffer the same baptism as Jesus. James boldly asked Jesus for the wrong thing, but he continued to live out his life of faith and then he died for the sake of the Gospel. We may make the same mistakes, thinking our position or our experiences merit us greater attention or honor.
Jesus called the twelve together and said, "Ye know that they who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you: but whosoever would become great among you, shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you, shall be servant of all."
We all want to be important. In our walk with our Lord Jesus Christ, we have opportunities to hold positions of authority. We are elected to the council or asked to teach a Sunday school class. Many of us have jobs in the world that give us the responsibility of leadership. Our relationship with Christ should show in the way we take upon those responsibilities. We aren't called to these positions to rule over people; we are called to serve them. Jesus Christ was the Servant King, one who did far more than He ever asked of His disciples. He went to the cross and died for us. Now, those of us who are in Christ Jesus, by the forgiveness that comes from His blood, walk in His light and do His work with joy. We should not allow our position in God's Kingdom become one where we consider ourselves more important than another. We are called to be servants, knowing that Christ did it first for us.
This kind of humility comes from obedience to God's Word, the kind of obedience we are encouraged to do in today's psalm. It isn't simply about being righteous by our works, following a list of rules, but truly understanding that God is the authority and that He lays down boundaries that are for our best interest. God's verdict is right and His Word is true. He has made us a promise and it would do us well to remember it and to remember that He has already been faithful.
His faithfulness has been manifest in the most spectacular way. While we deserve His wrath for our failure to live up to our commitment to His Law, God chose to lay His wrath on the One who kept it perfectly. Jesus Christ did not deserve to go to the cross, but He did so in humble obedience to His Father, taking upon His shoulders that which we rightfully deserved. He fulfilled the greatest promise of all: He won for us eternal salvation by defeating death and the grave.
See, Jesus knew He had to die, and He said as much to His disciples. But He ended His lesson with a promise. "...after three days he shall rise again." The cross was not permanent; His death was merely temporary albeit very real. Jesus died to pay the price for our selfishness, our self-centeredness, our self righteousness, but He rose again on the third day, securing for us the promise.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that even though Jesus Christ was the Son, the one and only, He was obedient, giving up the glory of heaven to become flesh to live, serve and die for the sake of the world. "...and having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation..." Our obedience to God's Word, the Word made flesh who has fulfilled every meaning of God's Law, is our response to that which He did for us. The source of our salvation calls us to a life of humble service; following in His footsteps, perhaps even to our own death.
What an incredible promise we hear from Jeremiah in today's text. The promise of this new covenant was fulfilled in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in His death at the cross. His resurrection and ascension gave us the hope of eternal life. He forgave our sins and promised that we would live in His light and life by His Power. He gave us that power at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon all flesh. Now God dwells within the hearts of His people, those who believe in Him, molding and reforming us each day. We know Him because He has written Himself into our hearts and our minds with His Word.
Isn't that enough for us to want to be like the psalmist? We have been given a great treasure to hold in our hearts, a treasure that will help us be true to God's word and delight in His Word. He is the authority whose judgments are right, but even more He is the One who is faithful to His promise. Our Lord may call us to hard work in this world; we might have to humble ourselves in ways that are difficult and unexpected. We might, like James, have to follow Jesus even unto death, but we do so with the knowledge that He has already won for us the victory over death and that we will be raised in Him in new life to live with Him forever.
"For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that ye may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen." Ephesians 3:14-21, ASV
I was named after my aunt, my father's sister. Just like her I am a Margaret who was nicknamed Peggy. I don't know the story as to how she was named, whether it was after a family member or for some other reason. It is possible, even likely, that a line of Margarets probably began as a mother named her daughter after Saint Margaret. While modern parents find many creative ways to name their children, traditionally Christian children were often named after saints. I have no idea if that is true in my own family line, but it is interesting to think that someone, somewhere, at some time, thought St. Margaret was worthy of a namesake.
Her story, as many of the stories of the saints, is an interesting one. Certainly much of it is based on myth and legend, although understand those stories is usually a hint of reality. Margaret was born in the third century in Antioch, the daughter of a pagan priest. Her mother died when she was very young and she was raised by a Christian nursemaid who encouraged her to become a Christian. Her father disowned her, so the nursemaid adopted her. She helped shepherd her foster mother's sheep in the country outside Antioch. Olybrius, the prefect of the Roman Diocese found her to be a comely young woman and pursued her as a wife, her dowry to be simply her renunciation of her faith. She refused and he had her arrested and tortured. During the torture the stories say, Margaret experienced many miracles, including a story about Satan as a dragon that swallowed her whole. She pricked its stomach with her cross and the dragon spit her back out. After multiple tortures, Olybrius finally had her beheaded. She died in 304 at the age of fifteen.
My life certainly does not look anything like that of Saint Margaret. I was blessed to be born in a Christian family where I was encouraged to live in faith and trust in God. I have not been forced to choose faith over life as she did, and I pray that I will never face that moment of decision. I also pray that if I do, I will have the strength and will to stand firmly in the faith that God has given to me. I know that it will only come with the power of the Holy Spirit and I trust that God will help me if it should happen. Sadly, however, human will is pretty powerful, as is fear, anger and uncertainty. God loves us beyond our imagining, but loves us so much that He has given us the freedom to even reject Him.
That's what Lent is all about, isn't it? We fast and pray, study and worship to realize our own weakness as we seek our own control. It is a time for looking to the only One who can save us, truly save us, and to learn to trust in Him. We do have strong wills, and we are independent willful people. In Christ, however, we've been given something stronger and we are called to follow the will of God. He knows what we need; He knows what is best for us. He even knows the best time and way to save us from the terrors of the world. Margaret's strength was her faith in God and her willful trust that He would guard her, even unto death. She suffered greatly, but in doing so stands as a witness to God's mercy, glorifying Him even as she was beheaded. I pray that I will be so humble and faithful if that day ever comes for me.
"For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward." Romans 8:14-18, ASV
I have seen several stories recently of couples discovering through photos and videos that they had crossed paths long before they met. In one story, a photo of children playing at the beach shows another family in the background. They were looking through family photos just before their wedding, and realized that the man's family who lived hundreds of miles away had photographed the woman's family who lived closed to the beach on a vacation. In another photo, a couple realized that they had visited Disney World on the same day when they were young. The latest story I read tells the story of a couple that is seen crossing paths in a video, taken at a water park. They did not meet until sixteen years later when they were set up on a blind date; they eventually married and had children of their own.
There are those who are calling this miraculous, destiny. They are meant to get together because they did something once a long time ago in the same place at the same time. I think, however, that the miracle is in the fact that it was caught on film or video. See, it is highly likely that we've crossed paths with many people that we eventually meet in life. One commenter said that his wife and he went to the same concert five years before they met. There is no photographic proof, but they both have memories of that day. The memories are separate, but connected. How often do people discover that they went to the same school, only to realize it at some time later with the exclamation, "I didn't know you went there!" I have a friend who married a friend who was only a year or so behind me in High school. We certainly crossed paths on a daily basis for at least a few years but we never knew each other until much later. It would be funny to look closely at yearbook photos to see if somehow, one day, we got caught on film at the same time.
I suppose it is more meaningful for those couples who end up married in the end, but the world is a much smaller place than we will ever really understand. We cross paths with many people in a day, people at work or school, people at the grocery store. Is it really that odd to think that two children who both went to the zoo during spring break might one day meet and be married? The real gift here is not that they happened upon one another years after the crossing, but that they discovered a shared memory that connected them to one another in the most miraculous way.
Did you know that we have a snapshot that connects us to every other Christian in the world? We are connected by God's Word and His Spirit, and we know this by the picture that has been drawn for us by the writers of the scriptures. Can you imagine how many people whose path you cross every day who is a brother or sister in Christ? You might never know. Of course, we hope that we are known by our love and faith, but most people we meet at the grocery store or the water park will never see enough of us to know. Sadly, our actions in the world often leave a question hanging whether or not we are Christians. Our words, our lack of compassion, the way we respond to difficulty often show us to the world in the most negative light. We are sinners, there is no denying it. Miraculously, however, God has called each of us by faith to believe and live as His children in the world.
We will one day be together forever in the presence of our God, Father and King whether or not we ever meet the Christians that cross our path on a daily basis face to face. We can know this by the shared memories we find in the scriptures. His story is our story; His memories are our shared memories. This is absolutely extraordinary, isn't it? When you are having a particularly difficult time, remember that He has already prepared for us a life that will bring us joy and peace forever. And if you need a reminder, open the good book, the Bible, and see your story unraveled in a miraculous way.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, he taketh it away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he cleanseth it, that it may bear more fruit. Already ye are clean because of the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; and so shall ye be my disciples." John 15:1-8, ASV
I get it. As a matter of fact, I've fallen prey to the numbers game. You can find this in so many areas of life. We consider ourselves a success if we have enough dollars. Businesses are successful if they have enough customers. Even churches count their success by the number of people sitting in the pews. On Facebook, success is counted by the number of likes, shares and comments, especially by the number of people who "like" the page. I have to admit that I follow my statistics occasionally. I'm disappointed when I see that someone has "unliked" my pages and I'm elated when someone "likes" it. It makes me feel like my work, both art and writing, is not posted in vain when someone acknowledges it. Every like, share and comment means greater visibility, which means more likes, shares and comments. It is easy to get caught in the trap of believing that the numbers are the fruit of our labors and to pursue the numbers rather than focus on the gift and the work we are called to do.
We focus on the fruit, or what we believe is the fruit. When Facebook did its great purge last week, many page holders complained. Despite the reality that the purge removed many people whose accounts had been unused for long periods of time, some of them had even died in the past few years, page holders complained because in the click of a button they lost thousands of followers. They preferred having the numbers rather than knowing their work was actually being seen. Now, it doesn't help that Facebook does control what ends up on people's newsfeeds and that they offer to page holders the opportunity to buy more exposure. We are cynical about everything that Facebook does because we are certain they want our dollars. Many use Facebook as a source of income, like businesses or professionals, and it is important for their success, and survival, that they are visible to as many people as possible.
Of course I'd love to have thousands of followers! I'm not so interested in fame and I'm not looking for financial success. However, I would like to know that what I create has an impact on the world in which I live. I want to see lives transformed and know that people have experience the saving faith of Christ. I want to see the fruit of my labors, which we all know isn't really the like, share or comment. The fruit is changed lives.
Here's the thing: I can't do it. I work hard, I write for hours, I paint whenever possible, but it is never my work that changes a person. It is God's Word that gives them faith and hope and joy. It is God who saves. I can look at my fruit all the time, worrying about numbers and complaining about a purge, but it won't accomplish anything. Focusing on the fruit won't produce fruit. As a matter of fact, sometimes focusing on the fruit, and the numbers, sometimes causes us to lose touch with the source.
Jesus reminds us that He is the vine. The vine is the source of all that is needed to produce fruit like water and nourishment. Without the vine, a branch can do nothing. The branch's job is simply to let the power flow through from the vine to the fruit. We don't much like this idea because we want to have an active role in everything we do. We also want to measure our worth by what we do and produce. The problem is that we begin to see ourselves as the source; we take credit for the fruit and forget the One who has really done it all. Worst of all, we reap the glory that belongs to the God who gave us everything we needed to accomplish the work He has called us to do.
Instead of focusing on the numbers game or our fruit, Jesus reminds us to cling to the source of our everything. Look at the vine, listen, learn, rely. Be a branch through which God's power and His Word can flow into the world where it will produce fruit beyond our imaging. We may never know how many people are really impacted by God's grace through our lives. I might only see one or two likes a day, but I trust that God is reaching who He means to reach through me, producing a harvest that will be to His glory. Oh, I'll still worry and wonder about the numbers game, but I pray God will continue to remind me to focus on Him and to cling to the vine that is the source of all goodness. He will produce the fruit that is transforming by His life-saving grace.
"Even as the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you: abide ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is my commandment, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you. No longer do I call you servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I heard from my Father, I have made known unto you. Ye did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that ye should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that ye may love one another." John 15:9-17, ASV
Spring has sprung in Texas and the wildflowers are beginning to blossom in radiant colors. They can be seen in vast fields in the countryside and in patches along the roadways. We can even find them popping up in the city. I love to take day long adventures in search of the perfect photos. Sometimes it is difficult to know when to go. The flowers are blooming a little late this year because we had colder weather this winter. A week or so ago we still wondered if the season would be a good one. In the past few days, however, people have been posting amazing photos on Facebook of fields in their neighborhoods. It is time to begin the hunt.
The flowers are beautiful, but the only way to truly enjoy them is to get out there and be where they are. Photos make the experience last, but there's no way of taking the wildflowers home. A flower cannot survive apart from the plant, and the wildflowers are particularly vulnerable when cut. The roots provide important nutrients that the flower needs. Some flowers might survive in a little water, but they are small and delicate. All flowers will die, but removing them from the field will quicken the end. In yesterday's devotion we were reminded that we are the branches and if we lose our connection to the vine we will not be able to produce any fruit. Today we are reminded to not just stay connected, but to abide in our God and in the community He has formed around our Lord Jesus Christ.
We don't last very long if we are cut off from others. We can think of it in terms of community. We depend on each other for many things. Fishermen depend on farmers to grow grain for bread and farmers depend on fishermen for fish to eat. The people depend on firemen and policemen to keep them safe and the firemen and policemen depend on others to produce food and the other things they need. No man is an island; we all need others to help us through each day. Children need mothers, parents need employers, Christians need pastors, and we could go on.
In the Old Testament, Israel was often referred to as a vine. Planted by God to bear fruit, the vine was not always productive for the Lord. The Israelites did not stay connected, to each other or to God. By the time Jesus was born, the temple leaders had things very confused for the people. They were burdened with laws they could not keep, while the leaders pretended to keep them. The people were being oppressed by the Romans and by their own leaders and they were far from God. They were always lacking in some way; they were like a dying vine trying to stay alive in their own way.
A cut flower dies because it is cut off from its life source. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve became perishable like cut flowers because they were cut off from their life source. Throughout the history of God's people, they were always like a cut flower or a broken branch but Jesus came to change all that. He laid down His life so that our relationship with God, our life-giver, would be restored. Now, we live in Christ and with one another, bearing good fruit for His glory. We can't do it alone. With the love we have for one another, living in community, we are able to care for each other as Christ commanded. In the love that Christ gives, and the love we have for one another, we will stay connected to the true vine and live.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 29, 2015, Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion: John 12:12-19; Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:26-15:47
"But I trusted in thee, O Jehovah: I said, Thou art my God." Psalm 31:14, ASV
It is difficult to write about Palm Sunday (and next week Easter) when we have not really completed the journey to get there. Especially hard is the Passion text, which most churches will read this Sunday so that everyone will hear the story of what our Lord Jesus Christ did for us two thousand years ago. His suffering, humiliation and death is the foundation of our forgiveness. He paid the price for our freedom. He willingly went to the cross for our sake. Writing about the Passion today seems like putting the cart before the horse. We still have to get through the next nine days of our Lent disciplines. We have more readings to help us get to the place of understanding Jesus and why He did what He did. We still have to attend the Last Supper, and then we can join Jesus in the garden, where today's Gospel reading begins.
It is good to reflect on these passages so that we will remember everything He did for us. He did not just teach us how to be good Christians or heal those who were sick. He did not just come to be a rabbi or earthly king. Jesus came to take upon His own sinless shoulders the wrath of God and in doing so provided the way for grace to restore our relationship with our Father. This is it; this is the reason we've been walking this Lenten journey. It is the reason we have hope. It is the reason we have faith.
Despite the centrality of the Gospel text to our lives and our faith, I don't want to linger on it today. Hindsight is twenty-twenty vision, so we know the whole story. We know what happens at the end. We know that even as Jesus died on the cross, He lives and in Him we have life. However, sometimes it is good for us to walk the journey completely, waiting and watching as if we are ignorant of the future. Sometimes it is good to put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived it. They didn't know what would happen on Easter. They didn't even know at this point in the story what would happen on Good Friday.
Whispers of real danger were beginning to run through the people who were witnessing the actions of Jesus. He had done amazing things, including the impossible raising of Lazarus. The leaders were nervous because the people were crying out for a savior. They wanted a king that would save them from the Romans and make the nation great again. This kind of talk threatened the lives and lifestyles of those in control. It was not just selfishness and greed that made them hostile to Jesus; they knew a revolution would be dangerous to the people.
John writes, "But a certain one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, nor do ye take account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not." He may have been a man who was afraid that he would lose his own power and authority, he also perceived the danger Jesus posed to the nation of Israel and he wanted the council to consider everything. What he didn't consider is that the path they were taking was exactly according to God's plan. They thought that killing Jesus would end the danger. Killing Jesus would do something more extraordinary.
Zechariah reveals to us the promise of Easter. Our King is indeed coming, and has come, but it isn't the kind of king that they expected in Jesus' day. He is the King willing to spill His own blood to set us free from the real oppressor: sin and death. This is reason for us to rejoice. Unfortunately, those who were there on the first Palm Sunday did not really understand the meaning of this promise. They rejoiced as Jesus went into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, righteous and humble, because they thought that Jesus would deliver them from the Romans. The cheered as He entered the city, threw down palms and their clocks to lay the way. Even His disciples did not understand until after the Resurrection.
He could have done everything they wanted. He could have called down legions of angels to defeat the Romans. He could have pushed Herod off the throne; He could have even defeated Tiberius and toppled the entire Roman Empire. But that was not His purpose. He humbled Himself even unto death, giving up the glory of heaven for the torture of the cross to serve you and I. We did not deserve His love and grace; we will never deserve His love and grace. He did not do it to reward us for our goodness. He did it because our Father the Creator made us good and though we were the ones who were unfaithful, He desired restoration. God sent Jesus so that we could be saved from ourselves, forgiven for our sins and set free from sin and death to live in His Kingdom forever.
The leaders were worried on that first Palm Sunday because it seemed as though the world was willing to follow Jesus. They cried out in celebration as He entered the city, praising God for finally sending the Messiah. The jubilation did not last very long, however, which will see in the continuing story of Jesus' Passion. They were easily turned by rumors and lies. They were shocked by the words and actions of Jesus who did not act like one who was determined to take the throne. He acted like One who set His feet on a path that led nowhere except death. Wisdom incarnate was foolish in their minds and they looked for another who would do what they wanted and expected the Messiah to do.
I read a cartoon about the Triumphant Entry that showed someone waving and crying out in praise and thanksgiving. "I love a parade" the character said. Another character answered, "Even if it leads to the cross?" The first character said, "I'm not thinking about that right now." This is not the attitude of today's devotion. We aren't ignoring the Passion because we don't want to think about it; we are walking in the footsteps of our Lord and He hasn't reached that point. Yet.
See, it was just as difficult for Jesus to accept the acclamation of the crowds on the first Palm Sunday. He knew what they didn't know. He knew that His purpose was not as they expected. He knew that within days those screaming fans would be persecuting Him. We are different because we understand that they are celebrating for all the wrong reasons. They think they've found a king; we know that we've been sent the King. They think that they've found a savior; we know that He gave up everything to be our Savior. They thought that they found someone who would honor their wishes; we know that He obeyed only God. We see the parade through the eyes of the Resurrection. We also know the only way to get there is through the cross.
I try to imagine how Jesus felt during those final days. He may have received their praise and worship on Palm Sunday, but He knew it would not last. Beneath the confident facade was a man who knew that His true purpose was just days away. I don't think we can even imagine the pain He was experiencing deep in His heart. He loved every one of those people who were crying out and throwing palms. He loved every one even though He knew that they would all abandon Him in just a few days. He loved them so much, and us too, that He carried each of our burdens with Him to the cross.
The psalm for today gives us some idea of what might have been running through Jesus' head. Despite His willingness and obedience, Jesus still sought the Father's mercy in the garden when He prayed. The words may have been ringing in His head for days, perhaps even weeks. The burden on the cross was incredible, but He carried a hard burden in those days preceding it as He watched the crowds follow Him with praise knowing that soon they would abandon Him. Even so, Jesus trusted God and walked in obedience to God's will. He did this for me. He accepted the praise as well as the humiliation, the triumph and the letdown. He gave Himself into God's hands, accepting the suffering for our sake.
As we walk through Holy Week, read the Passion story daily. Reflect on it. Hear God's grace in the midst of the horror. Feel the pain that Jesus experienced both in His body and in His spirit. Walk with Him, remembering that Jesus did it all for you and me. The disciples, crowds and leaders did not know how the story will end, but even though we have twenty-twenty vision, we must see the sacrifice of Jesus with the same eyes as those two thousand years ago to appreciate that we, too, were among the crowds who honored Him one day and rejected Him the next. Even His closest friends did not know how to deal with the reality of Jesus' life and death. How can we expect to understand our own place in this story if we do not experience it as they did? So, let us walk with our Lord and see it through His eyes, to know it through His heart, to experience it in His presence as if we were there. Then we will see as they did, and remember when He is resurrected what He truly did for us all.
"Now there went with him great multitudes: and he turned, and said unto them, If any man cometh unto me, and hateth not his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. Whosoever doth not bear his own cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, doth not first sit down and count the cost, whether he have wherewith to complete it? Lest haply, when he hath laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all that behold begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, as he goeth to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and asketh conditions of peace. So therefore whosoever he be of you that renounceth not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple." Luke 14:25-33, ASV
We moved into our current house nearly three years ago. A short way from our house is a development of duplexes that has been under construction since before that time. We watched as several buildings were started and finished on the property. It seemed as though the development was finished when another building was begun. Construction was very slow on this one, and though it seemed to have a similar shell as the others, I wondered if perhaps it was a special building for the development. It was right near the pool and other amenities, so I thought it might be a small community center. The construction was odd, and then it stopped completely. The building sat for nearly two years without any change; they weather barriers began to flop in the wind and it started falling apart in other ways. I noticed a few weeks ago that work crews are back; the building is now being repaired and completed. It appears to be another duplex, not a special building.
There are plenty of reasons why a builder might have to put a project on hold; although I am sure there isn't a good enough excuse for the homeowners who lived right next door. They had to look at the eyesore for nearly two years. An unfinished construction site is not safe and even in a gated neighborhood provides a place for misbehavior. It certainly did not enhance property values or trust in the builder. If the company can't finish one building, will it be willing and able to deal with problems in the other buildings? We don't know what happened. We can't be certain that the construction stopped because the builder ran out of money, but it is certainly the most likely possibility. It is difficult to believe that a company that had already build a bunch of other buildings could not finish one.
How many of us, however, get started on a project and we think we are prepared for every contingency only to discover unexpected problems along the way. "The Money Pit" was a movie starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long about a couple who bought their dream home from a man who turned out to be a con artist. They paid very little for the house but it didn't take long before they realized that the problems were much worse and went far deeper than they expected. All homeowners, even those who buy new houses, know that there is work to do to make it a home, and they were prepared to do some work, but the house began to fall apart the minute the papers were signed. Hilarity ensues, but in the end you see what happens when you begin a project without counting all the costs. I have to admit that we've discovered a similar reality in our house, and while it is not falling into the ground, we have put a lot of money into upgrading and repairing. We knew it when we bought it and while we have accomplished much, there is a great deal more to do and too much money to spend.
We like to think that Christian faith is easy: all we have to do is trust in God and He will take care of us. While there is truth to that understanding, we are reminded by today's text that it isn't that easy. There is a cost to following Jesus. The cost to our salvation comes at the hands and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Beyond that, however, the cost that we forget to count is that following Jesus means making priorities that are outside our nature. Our instinct is to do whatever is necessary to survive, but God calls us to trust that He will be faithful to His promises. The martyrs understood; they knew that it was not necessary to fight those who will hate and kill them because they follow Jesus. They knew that if they died, they would live because God was waiting for them. The cost of following Jesus was giving everything over to God, including flesh, blood and life.
Are we willing to do that? Are we willing to put Jesus as our priority and trust that God will take care of us even in death? Are we willing to set aside our selfishness to do what He is calling us to do? Are we even willing to set aside everyone we love and put Him first? That is the cost of following Jesus. It is a hard price to pay, but we discover that when we are obedient and willing to put God first, He makes room in our lives for everything else. When we put God first, even our relationships are better because they are founded on the love and grace of God. The cost might be great, but the benefits are more than we can imagine. Best of all, they are eternal.
"And he said, Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parables. And he said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them. And he saith unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how shall ye know all the parables?" Mark 4:9-13 (ASV)
The kids are both grown and I don't have grandchildren yet, so holidays like Christmas and Easter are hard to plan. It is silly to do what I used to do for them, filling stockings or baskets full of candy and toys, but the 'toys' they want are too expensive to buy enough to fill a stocking or basket. Since Victoria lives so far away, I send her care packages on a regular basis, boxes filled with her favorite things from Texas and other silly things to make her smile. Her latest box arrived today, but she won't be able to access it until tomorrow. She's excited to see what I might have sent her in anticipation of Easter, to see what little surprises might be there.
Of course there are treats. I don't care how old they get; I will give them treats until there are grandchildren to spoil. It is a little harder for Zachary since he's still living at home. I asked him the other day if he needed Easter surprises. He said "No," but when I asked if he wanted Easter surprises, he looked at me with puppy dog eyes and said, "Yes?" I laughed and knew that there'd be something here for Easter morning. I know it is silly, but it is all in good fun. I'm sure Victoria will be surprised, although she probably has an idea about at least a few things in the box. I know what she likes and I buy what she likes. She is hoping for one thing in particular and it is there. She probably already knows. While there are surprises, she'll pull at least those few things out with a knowing smile.
Sometimes it is hard to keep surprises. When children are very little, Mom and Dad can easily discuss presents while the child is in the room. As they get a little older, it sometimes takes some creative coding to discuss these things in a way they will not understand. Soon, however, surprises must be discussed when and where they will not hear because they begin listening for clues. They know and understand the meaning of key words and phrases, and pay attention so that they might figure out the surprise. It takes a sort of faith to know that Mom and Dad might be discussing as important as presents for some special event.
The message that Jesus had to give the world was a surprise. In this passage, the word 'mystery; is used. In other versions it is translated 'secret.' We normally think of secret in negative terms, as a bad thing. We teach our children they should not keep secrets. Yet, sometimes secrets can be fun, like digging through that basket on Easter morning to discover a treat that they did not expect. The mystery of Jesus is not a bad secret, but is more like an insight which is given only to those who will hear it, those who have faith. Too many listened to Jesus and did not see that He was speaking about things beyond this world: the kingdom of God. They only heard stories about farmers that really made little sense in their world. It is even harder for us today since most of us have no real experience with many of the examples that Jesus used. Yet, in faith we hear these stories and we understand that Jesus is talking about our relationship with God and with one another. Only those with ears that hear will recognize the truth found in the stories. We have ears because God gives us the faith to hear His Word.
"On the morrow a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried out, Hosanna: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel. And Jesus, having found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, Fear not, daughter of Zion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass's colt. These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him, and that they had done these things unto him. The multitude therefore that was with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb, and raised him from the dead, bare witness. For this cause also the multitude went and met him, for that they heard that he had done this sign. The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Behold how ye prevail nothing: lo, the world is gone after him." John 12:12-19, ASV
We have spent the last few weeks journeying with Jesus as He made His way toward the cross, learning what it means to live in His shadow and to follow Him in His light. We stand at the edge of the end of His story. A few years ago, I followed the footsteps of Christ during Holy Week. We will do so again this year, looking back on those devotions with new eyes. For the next few days, we will follow the footsteps of our Lord Jesus from the moment He rode triumphantly into Jerusalem through His final words, the New Covenant, the betrayal and denial, the trial and death and then finally to the moment when He was raised again into new life. We will experience His Passion day by day and watch as He went from triumph to agony to even greater triumph.
Any kind of story, whether it is literature or performance, follows a pattern. There is a beginning, middle and an end. The beginning of the story sets up the information, such as characters, setting and plot. The middle of the story takes us through the story, developing characters and story line. We see the plot thicken as we progress through the pages and a conflict is created that needs a conclusion. At the end of the story, we see the resolution of the conflict.
The Bible is the Story of God and His people. We have a beginning. The book starts with "In the beginning" and tells of God and creation. Throughout the book, we see the development of Israel and the world around them. We meet many characters, each having a purpose in the story. The conflict that is developed throughout is the desire of God to be close with His children but our sin stands in the way of that relationship. Jesus Christ is the conclusion to His story.
For three years Jesus ministered to God's people, teaching them how to live according to the promise of God. The Gospels are filled with stories of His healing, teaching and loving. He was loved by many, but not by all. The Word He spoke was difficult to understand and accept by those who were set in their thoughts and ideas. The people thought they knew God and thought they were living a godly life. However, Jesus came to share the truth.
Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus began to show the people, particularly those close to Him, that there was only one way for us to be able to live according to God's promises. There had to be one final sacrifice. He had to die. His disciples and the people did not understand when Jesus spoke about death, because they saw His life as triumphant. They saw Him as a king among men. A few, by the power of God, understood.
The life and ministry of our Lord Jesus was filled with incredible signs, wonders and teachings. From the first miracle at Canaan when he changed water into wine, to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and everything in between, Jesus showed Himself to be different from anyone the world had ever seen. When He taught in the temple and on the hillsides, people were amazed at the Word as it became alive before them. He helped people understand that there was a better way of living and that there was a deeper meaning to the scriptures.
Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus' ministry was at its peak; He had a large following. The crowds gathered to listen to Him speak about the kingdom of God. The people constantly sought Him to heal their illnesses and cast out their demons. The people saw Jesus as the answer to their prayers. They sought a Messiah, someone who would set them free from the oppression of the Roman invaders of their land. There was talk about making Jesus king of an earthly kingdom. They wanted to be a free nation again and live as they did during the Golden Age of Solomon their king. Their image of the Messiah was misplaced; they tried to convince Jesus to take the world by force; it would have been easy for Him to do. Though His followers were not a mighty army, they were willing to do anything for Him. By the time He rode into Jerusalem, the people were in such frenzy that it would have taken just one word from Jesus for them to rise to fight. Jesus had other intentions. He rode into Jerusalem as a king but not in a chariot with fine horses and swords. Rather, He rode into Jerusalem as the Servant King.
As the Passover of His third year of ministry approached, Jesus knew the time had come for Him to fulfill the promise of His Father. It was time to go to Jerusalem. Jesus sent His disciples to a village with the instructions to get a colt that is tied there. The owners asked, "Why are you untying the colt?" The disciples answered, "The Lord needs it." We will discover this week that Jesus was always in control. Though the world thought that they were leading Jesus, Jesus was willingly following the path that God had ordained. Every physical need was already answered, every desire fulfilled before spoken. There is much more to this week than the incredible provision of God. Jesus did all this to complete His mission, which reached far beyond this world.
Palm Sunday was a day of rejoicing; the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem celebrated that the Messiah had come! In the midst of this joviality, a plot was being hatched to rid the world of this menace; many were threatened by His work, by His miracles, and by His words. However, on this day, Christ was honored as king.
***As you can see, we will be doing things a little different this week. I will write for the next eight days as we follow the daily footsteps of Jesus. I will not be writing Midweek Oasis on Wednesday; rather we will focus solely on Holy Week stories through Resurrection Day.
"And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, he hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs. And he answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever. And his disciples heard it. And they come to Jerusalem: and he entered into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and them that bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold the doves; and he would not suffer that any man should carry a vessel through the temple. And he taught, and said unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? but ye have made it a den of robbers. And the chief priests and the scribes heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, for all the multitude was astonished at his teaching. And every evening he went forth out of the city. And as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Rabbi, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou taken up and cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that what he saith cometh to pass; he shall have it. Therefore I say unto you, All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. And whensoever ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have aught against any one; that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your trespasses." Mark 11:12-26, ASV
Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem the day before to shouts of acclamation from the crowd. It was a holy week for the Jews and the streets were crowded with pilgrims; the festival of Passover was just days away and many people were in town for the feast. This was a time of remembrance, and to be cleansed in the Temple by sacrifice. It was difficult to travel many miles with the animals needed for the sacrifices. Local vendors set up booths to offer birds, sheep and goats for sale for the convenience of the visiting worshippers. Moneychangers offered Temple currency in exchange for the foreign coins that were not acceptable. The market was set up within the walls of the Temple, in the Gentile court. This area was established so that people from all over the world, of every faith, could seek God's grace and pray in His Temple. This was the only place they were allowed to enter, but the market made it impossible for them to worship God there.
It was a holy week, but the Temple looked more like a mall on Black Friday than a worship space on a Holy Day. The merchants were not always honorable, especially the moneychangers, who cheated the people with high exchange rates. While their presence was necessary and approved by the leaders, it was not godly or merciful. Sin after sin was causing disgrace in God's house. Worst of all was that the Temple was no longer a place where the nations could come to know the true God; it was a place where the works of men took precedence. Jesus' harsh words made the Jewish leaders more upset about the work Jesus Christ was doing in their town.
After the Triumphal Entry, Jesus spent time in the Temple and was upset by it all. He kicked the sellers and the animals out. He overturned the tables of the money changers. He watched, taught and healed within its walls. Jesus' words had a way of cutting right to the heart of matters. The fire of hope that burned in the hearts of those who were following Him was spreading like wildfire. Yet, He still had much to accomplish the people had to learn about true faith in God. The leaders, already hardened against Jesus' ministry and teachings, began plotting His arrest. Unfortunately, the Pharisees did not understand the kingdom of God, so they were not seeing Jesus for who He was.
I suppose that's why we have this odd story about the fig tree. Jesus was hungry on Monday morning as they walked toward Jerusalem for the day. He went to the fig tree and found it was fruitless. Mark tells us that it wasn't the time for fruit, which makes the story seem out of character for Jesus. Why would He curse something before its time? The reality is while it was not fig season a tree in full leaf should have had fruit. This tree, from a distance, appeared as though it was ready for harvest, but Jesus discovered that it was fruitless. The disciples were shocked the next day to see that Jesus' curse had killed the entire tree, even to the roots.
It seems like an odd story, but it is a foretelling of what would happen with Israel. From a distance they seemed ready to be in full 'leaf'. They should have been bearing fruit for the world. However, as we can see from the story of Jesus clearing the Temple the leaders were more worried about the marketplace than the spiritual welfare of those who sought the Lord, both Jews and Gentiles. They misrepresented the God they were called to serve because they did not understand Him. They were not merciful or gracious. They were hypocritical and greedy. They were all show, arrogant without humility. They were leading the people on the wrong path. The people, as we'll see in the coming days, were unwilling to believe the hard things Jesus taught; they went quickly from praise and adoration to wrath and rejection. It was not hard for the leaders to turn them into an angry mob.
They were all like the fig tree; they appeared to be fruitful, but there was no fruit. Jesus' curse on the tree would find fulfillment in the tree, but was also a warning to Israel and to those who claim to believe in God today: those who appear to be religious but reject Jesus will not bear fruit and will be cut off from the true life that is found in Him. The leaders were already plotting to remove Jesus and the crowds were beginning to question His words. They were still excited, but cleansing the Temple was shocking and frightening. They wanted a Messiah, but they didn't want someone who would mess with their religion. It was their heritage and their hope. They wanted a king who would fight the Romans, not the leaders of their faith.
"And it came to pass, on one of the days, as he was teaching the people in the temple, and preaching the gospel, there came upon him the chief priests and the scribes with the elders; and they spake, saying unto him, Tell us: By what authority doest thou these things? or who is he that gave thee this authority? And he answered and said unto them, I also will ask you a question; and tell me: The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or from men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say, Why did ye not believe him? But if we shall say, From men; all the people will stone us: for they are persuaded that John was a prophet. And they answered, that they knew not whence it was. And Jesus said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things." Luke 20:1-8, ASV
The bible shares more words about the Tuesday of Holy Week than any other day in the history of the world. This was a day of controversy and stories. The day began with the surprise at the fig tree, as the disciples saw that Jesus' curse came to fruition. They were amazed, but Jesus taught them that they would be able to do anything if they did so with faith. They would need that faith as the days wore on, as they saw the leaders growing bolder with their threats and the people gradually stopped following Jesus.
Jesus spent time in the temple teaching. He was a great storyteller; the people sat mesmerized when He spoke the word of God in ways that touched their life and experience. He used examples of their everyday life: vineyards, yeast, animals, clothes, building, treasures, farming, friends and money. He used the things with which they were familiar of this world to share the Kingdom of God. The crowds were drawn to Him and the children delighted in His presence. The parables of Jesus always had a spiritual message, but were presented in a tangible way so that the people who heard them with a heart of faith understood the promise of God for their life. The disciples desperately tried to understand the changes they saw in Him. In many ways, the crowds were becoming confused because the sweet stories of hope were becoming warnings of woe to those who would not listen.
Meanwhile, the leaders continued to plot against Jesus. They sent men to catch Him with His words in crimes against the state so that they might have him arrested. His authority was questioned. He was set up with the question about taxes. Jesus warned of false teachers and the end of the age, so that His children would recognize the times as had been prophesied throughout the scriptures. He seemed untouchable, but the more He spoke, the more the leaders were more determined to be rid of Him.
The leadership often heard the stories of Jesus as condemnation against their position. They were threatened by Jesus' focus on submission, poverty and forgiveness. They were offended by His insinuation that their obedience was not righteousness, but rather was the act of self-righteous hypocrites. With every word, they became angrier at what they heard and their hearts hardened even more. I have heard it said that the same sun that melts ice hardens clay. Those who had the heart to believe understood that the Kingdom of God was about power in our weakness, hope in our affliction and repentance from our old ways of life. Many did not hear the grace of Jesus' message and they sought a way to end the ministry of this man, Jesus.
The day ended in Bethany, where Jesus and the disciples spent their nights. Matthew and Mark tell us that this was the night a woman came and anointed Jesus with pure nard, a very expensive perfume. The disciples were upset, especially Judas, that she would waste so much money on such an extravagant deed when they could use the money to feed the poor. Jesus told them to leave her alone. "For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she poured this ointment upon my body, she did it to prepare me for burial." It is no wonder that the disciples were becoming confused and frightened. Despite all Jesus' words, they still expected Jesus to become King, but He spoke about death.