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Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Super Dangerous Thought

This morning I prayed through this text:
Luke 18:9–14 (ESV)  He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
As I prayed, I was challenged by the reality that self-righteousness is a danger for me and for anyone deeply immersed in ministry or church life. This is a super dangerous thought: “I am not like other men.”

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Beyond Our Comprehension

John 11 is a well known text but examination often yields new insight into the heart of God and his ways of drawing us to himself. 
As I read this morning the word “so” caught my eye. Look at v. 5-6:
John 11:5–6 (ESV) Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 
Jesus stayed two days longer because he loved them. He had something even better in mind for this family by delaying than if he had shown up immediately and healed Lazarus.

Jesus was acting, not only for the good of Lazarus, Mary and Martha but also for the good of the disciples. After Jesus explains to the disciples that Lazarus is already dead he says this:
John 11:14–15 (ESV) Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 
Jesus’ purpose in not being there sooner was, “so that you may believe.” Their faith was a greater good than Jesus’ showing up “on time” to heal Lazarus before he died. 

Obviously, Mary and Martha don't get what is happening. They couldn’t, nor could the disciples. They could only put together facts as they saw them. The facts as the disciples saw them were this:
John 11:7–8 (ESV)  Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 
Let me paraphrase, “Jesus, we can't go back there, that is crazy talk. Usually you seem really smart, but this is not wise. Reconsider.” Then, when it’s clearly decided that they are going in spite of their “wise advice,” Thomas nobly says, “let us also go, that we may die with him.” Those were the facts according to the disciples. 

The facts as Mary and Martha would see them would likely be, “Jesus, Lazarus is dying. I know you've healed other people. We've seen you do it and we've heard the stories, so please this is really bad. If you don't get here soon it will be too late.”

Once Jesus arrives and encounters Martha, we can see her wrestling for perspective:
John 11:21–23 (ESV) Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Let’s use our imagination a bit to think more about what is going on in Martha’s mind, “Jesus, yes, I know he will rise again. I know that's supposed to give me hope for the future. And I'm looking forward to that. But what about now?” What she didn't need to say because this was well known then, was  that without a man to care for them they would have a very difficult time providing for themselves. “Don't you care that we are now going to be destitute? Are we to become beggars in the street? Of course, we are sad and we will miss him, but it's way, way worse than that.

Jesus answer to Martha is not so different from God’s answer to Job. Job's question, Martha's question, and often our question is, "why? Why God did you not intervene and do something about this soul crushing pain that is ravaging me right now? And just like with Job, and with Martha, and with us, he doesn't answer the why question. Rather, we can summarize what God said to Job, and what Jesus says to Martha, and what through them God says to us like this, "I am enough. You are looking for a temporary fix to your current pain. And I understand that. But what I am showing you is that because you have me, that supersedes everything else. I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Soon Jesus we will weep for complicated reasons, but part of it is his pain. He grieves with us. But he is saying to her and to us. “I'm making death irrelevant.” The key to making it through an average difficult day or the worst of heartbreaks is actively, not just saying so, but to actively with tenacious faith hang on to Jesus. You will not know why things are happening. But you will know the one who does know why and that will be enough. Perhaps part of the reason that God doesn't tell us why what is happening is happening is that we couldn’t possibly understand it. For God is always doing a thousand different things in any one incident and all that he is doing is so intricately conceived that we could not possibly fathom it. If he were to start explaining it to us, it would not help us, it would be beyond our comprehension. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Needing Both the Words and the Image

Mark 9:33-37 records a simple incident where Jesus and his disciples were traveling to Capernaum and upon arriving he asked them about what they had been discussing along the way. Whether he supernaturally knew what they were saying or simply heard them is not clear, but they were “busted” as we might say. They didn’t respond to Jesus’ question. To tell the truth was too embarrassing, because they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. They clearly knew this was not a good thing for them to be arguing about. They knew this was contrary to who Jesus was and what he was modeling and teaching. But in this heightened emotional state, their embarrassment, Jesus rather gently teaches them. He sat down and gathered them around. This was no longer casually hanging out this was Jesus saying, “Get over here guys, sit down and let’s think this through. I want you to hear me well.” And then he simply said, “if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” It’s almost like he was saying, “your ambition to be the greatest in and of itself is not really the problem. The problem is you don’t understand what it means to be great. You think it greatness means that people do what you say and serve you. The opposite is true. Greatness means you put yourself last and you choose to serve all.” 
Then he took a child and put the child right in front of them. You have to visualize the scene. They were already sitting around talking and before Jesus says more, he brings in the child and prominently places the child in the middle of the room as it to say, “pay attention here. Look at this child. This is a big part of what you need to understand.” Then with everyone watching. Jesus takes up the child in his arms. The disciples were clear on the reality that Jesus was the greatest, and here he is, doing what apparently all of them were hoping to avoid. In their thinking, caring for children was something lesser people did, but not greater people. Then with all looking Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me but him who sent me.” The work of God is to serve those who can’t do anything for us. The work of trying to be great or trying to advance ourselves in the traditional way of thinking is to try to network with those who might be able to help our career. The work of the kingdom is to quietly serve those who like children can’t help our career or advance our image.
We likely can’t quite grasp what this image of seeing Jesus care for children did for them. It would be an image they couldn’t forget, probably a lot like their image of seeing him wash their feet as recorded in John 13. We need the same image to stun us that we too might not forget. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” We need both the words and the image to get this message that is so contrary to what comes naturally to us.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"Lord, To Whom Shall We Go"

A few weeks ago, our nine year old and I were eating breakfast before church on a Sunday morning when the subject of the Lord’s Supper came up. She said to me, “Dad, I know that we are supposed to eat the body of the Lord Jesus and I’m ok with that, but I don’t want to eat the intestines.” We had recently read John 6 with her and what it said messed with her, which is precisely what Jesus intended. Maybe you find her response inappropriate, or feel that it’s not right for me to relate the story. But I like her response, far more than my initial response as I started reading this morning, because I missed it entirely. In spite of the fact, that this chapter contains one my favorite scenes in all of the Bible, I literally read over the shocking words of the text and I didn’t see them. 

To get the full impact of the incident, you need to start reading beginning at John 6:22. But the trouble, if you will, starts in verse 51 where Jesus says:

John 6:51 (ESV) I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Some listening to him took issue with that last phrase. But rather than relieve the tension, Jesus ratcheted it up big time:

John 6:53–58 (ESV) So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Jesus shared all this publicly without much further explanation. What happened next is fascinating. When many of his “disciples" heard it, they said, “this is a hard saying; who can listen to it? Jesus explained his words a little but not enough to their liking. They were offended because Jesus didn't talk in a way that fit their grid of how the world worked. They wanted him to fit in to their way of thinking. They were not yet willing to give him control to the extent that they would allow him to set the direction of their lives. And so in v. 66 “many of his "disciples" turned back and no longer walked with hm.” 

Careful reading and interpretation are important here. It’s easy to conclude that when the text speaks of “disciples” in both v. 61 and v. 66 that Jesus was talking about the 12 disciples, Peter, James, and John and the others. But that's not accurate. Both of these instances refer to a larger group of people following Jesus around and listening to him teach. If we miss this, we miss a distinction in the reaction to Jesus that I think is the real treasure in this text. In v. 67 the text says that Jesus asked to the twelve, “do you want to go away as well?"" Here, Jesus spoke specifically addressed those twelve guys, distinguished from the larger group of disciples, many of whom turned back after they didn’t like what they were hearing from Jesus. 

Verses 68-69 are two of my favorite verses in the Bible, but to get them, you have to have followed carefully what's happening up until this point. 

John 6:68–69 (ESV) Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

In contrast to those who were offended and walked away, Peter answered for the group and essentially says something like this to Jesus, “I don’t get what you said. That sounds like crazy talk. I have no idea where you are taking us. But where else are we going to go? If you aren’t the answer, then we don’t know where else to turn. It is obvious to us that you have the words of eternal life and we will trust you even though we don’t understand you.” The difference is stark, though it may look similar from the outside. But those who walked away insisted on Jesus towing the line on their preconceived ideas of what it means to follow God. When he diverted from that direction, they bailed. The twelve said to Jesus, "we are in, no matter what. Though no go with me, still I will follow.”

Friday, October 6, 2017

From an Honest and Good Heart

The parable of the sower never fails to challenge me when I slow down and study it and ponder it. The application of the parable of the sower, especially when you consider what comes immediately before and after it, is about how we hear God's word. 

At the end of the parable in Luke’s version Jesus says in Luke 8:8, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In beginning to explain the parable he says, that it had been given to the disciples to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others he would speak in parables so that “seeing that may not see, and hearing that may not understand.” 

In each of the four kinds of soils, the initial act is their hearing of the word. In he first, the devil snatches it away immediately. In the second, when persecution comes because of the word they fall away. In the third, the cares and riches and pleasures of life choke the word in them and their fruit, though there is a beginning, does not mature. But then there is good soil which represents those who hearing the word, please read this slowly, "hold it fast in an honest and good heart." What does that mean? What is our role in seeing this happen? 

It's not a simple task to determine interpretively what each of these soils represent. Do these describe people who are ultimately believers or unbelievers? Does only the first soil represent unbelievers, the first and second, or the the first three? Please note this, only if there is an actual crop is there any benefit to the farmer. It’s not a simple thing to make a determination here. We certainly don't earn salvation by the way that we hear.

My thinking is that a person that has not been converted will be more like the person who may hear this parable and not think much about it beyond the moment. They are those whom Jesus describes as seeing but not seeing and hearing but not understanding. On the other hand, if the parable haunts you. If you when you stop and think about it and you are troubled by it and you are convicted about how you hear and take in the word of God, then I think that's a really good sign because God disciplines those he loves. Looking at it from that standpoint, it would seem that all four of these stages can happen to genuine believers. There are times we pick up the word of God to read or hear a sermon and it simply bounces off. We don't take it in at all and though we heard it, it does us no good. There are other times that we take in a passage of scripture and are excited about it at the moment, but then when we seek to actually live according to the scripture, we give up when it gets hard. Furthermore, our fruit bearing can be blocked by distractions; by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life and our spiritual fruit does not mature. 

So here is my proposal: May we learn to pray before we read scripture or study scripture or listen to a sermon: "Father, please grant that our hearts may be good soil. Help us to hear your word well. Help us to hold your word fast in an honest and good heart. May we increasingly grow in our understanding of what that means. And then Father, may we then, because of your word growing in us, patiently bear fruit, which we know can only happen as we remain connected to you.

Friday, September 29, 2017

From Worship to Fury

Reading slowly can cause phrases to jump out at us that we otherwise miss. Luke 4:16-30 provides a vivid image of Jesus that can prompt our worship if we read slowly enough to capture what’s really happening here. Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. We are right to try to imagine what that was like for him and for those who’d known him as a boy. Many of us know what it feels like to go home and the rush of thoughts and feelings that can bring. More importantly this image can immediately break through our well worn image of Jesus that is not all that tangible to us. Jesus can seem like an idea more than a real person. Putting ourselves in the scene can help to get us past the idea-stage to the person-stage.

By God’s grace, as I read very slowly today I was more tangibly able to see Jesus as he stood up to read in the synagogue and as he unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written. These mundane details help us see that Jesus was a real man. He had thigh muscles to help him stand. He had the tactile experience of unrolling that scroll and finding the place in the scroll. When we see these and ponder them, it grounds the person of Jesus more in tangible reality for us and our faith in him grows. Furthermore, this simple incident means that Jesus learned to read just like any other boy or girl in that time. There’s no reason to think the ability to read was just dumped into his brain as a fully formed ability. This was part of the limitation he willingly chose in taking on human flesh. He had to learn just like anyone else how to walk, how to talk, and how to read. When we see this, our amazement at him grows.

This is a rich passage. The implications of v.18-19, quoted from Isaiah are massive for both his ministry and ours but we can’t focus on that here. Let me direct your attention to what happens after.

The atmosphere was pregnant with anticipation. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Perhaps they could not say why, but the impression was that everyone present could sense something momentous was going on. Someone reading from a scroll and sitting down to talk would have been a routine occurrence in the synagogue. But everyone present could sense something different was happening that day.

Now notice the reaction beginning in v. 22. All spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph's son?” One moment all spoke well of him. All of them marveled, there was a sense of wonder and aliveness to everything he said, they marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. We don't fully appreciate the wonder of that. But, may we also be stunned because he was so perfectly faithful to be exactly who he was, that one moment they were praising him for his gracious words and then, within a few moments, “all in the synagogue were filled with wrath and they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.”

May we be stunned by this image and may our confidence in Jesus grow. This would not be the last time in Jesus’ life a crowd of people would move from worship to fury in the space of a very short time.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Bible Jesus Read

Today I finished my reading of the Old Testament in the chronological path through the Bible I'm following this year. Perhaps, if you have been reading along with me, you are breathing a sigh of relief. That’s understandable. Much of the prophets in particular are obscure to us because they are often more difficult to understand. Yet today in this final day of reading i’m reminded of Philip Yancey’s description of the O.T. He called it, “The Bible Jesus Read.” It was also the Bible the apostles read as well. Peter knew the reading from today so well that he quoted from it freely in his message on the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. 

But perhaps most American believers could not, off the top of their heads, say much about what is in the book of Joel. If we remember anything, we might remember that it talks about locusts, but why is likely a mystery. 

The first line of the book says, this is “the word of the Lord.” This is “the word of the Lord” just as much as the gospel of John, Romans, or the epistle of James. The book is an instance of how God lovingly warned and passionately pursued the wayward world. As Hebrews 1:1 says, 

Hebrews 1:1–2 (ESV)
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .  

The book is one of those many ways that God pursues us with passion and creativity. it does in fact use locusts as an image of the judgment of God. It is an urgent word to alarm us into paying attention. 

The stern words that seem harsh and negative in the O.T. prophets are always an act of passionate love. These words are never an instance of God just telling people off because he is angry. Jesus is the final version of this “word of the Lord” and he is no less passionate or fierce at times in his tone. Look at how John the Baptist spoke of him. 

Matthew 3:11–12 (ESV)
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Before closing, I don’t want you to be deprived of knowing about a tender call to repentance in the book. Here is more evidence that God’s most fierce warnings aim at wooing wayward people to himself. But if we don’t first hear the warnings, like those that precede the verses below, we will not be able to taste the sweetness of this wonderful news of grace. It is the good news of the gospel, right here in this little known book. 

Joel 2:12–14 (ESV)
12  “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, 
“return to me with all your heart, 
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13  and rend your hearts and not your garments.” 
Return to the Lord your God, 
for he is gracious and merciful, 
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; 
and he relents over disaster. 
14  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, 
and leave a blessing behind him, 
a grain offering and a drink offering 
for the Lord your God?

Archive of Reflections on the Chronological Bible Reading Plan

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