September 30th, 2021

Blue Laws

Luke 23:56b “But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”

Observation: Jesus had been crucified, after which Joseph of Aramathea had removed the body from the Cross, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a garden tomb. John expands the story to tell us that Joseph was helped by Nicodemus who brought seventy-five pounds of aloe and spices (Jn. 19:39) which they applied as they wrapped Jesus’ body with strips of the cloth. Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, along with others (Jn. 19:25) watched Joseph and Nicodemus place the body in the tomb, then returned home to prepare their own spices and perfume for a more proper burial. Then the Word says, “ … they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”

Application: They took a day off? These women had just watched the degradation and execution of the king of the universe, yet they waited twenty-four hours before going back to the tomb to perform more complete burial services on the body. His own mother, His dear friend Mary Magdalene and others faced the most urgent task, the most important privilege of their lives, but they took off a day for rest? What in Heaven’s name could have caused this bizarre behavior?

Simply, obedience to the commandment. God had said, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work … the Lord blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” (Ex. 20:8)

Does it strain credulity that these women would delay the most monumental engagement of their lives? With today’s frenetic pace, don’t the weekends become consumed with tasks I couldn’t get to during the week … mowing lawns, shopping, cutting firewood, beach parties, harvesting grain? Oh, I may take a couple of hours to attend church, but do I really observe a Sabbath rest? And what of that hugely important business meeting scheduled for Monday morning? Would I think twice about flying through two time zones to be available for it? What exactly are the most important things of my life? The answer is found in what I do, not what I say.

Should these women have blessed God by tending to His body even as they violated the very commandments He died to fulfill? I wonder: what would I have done in their place? What do I do today when my to-do list contains entries far less profound? Do there remain any blue laws of the heart?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, this verse causes me to mournfully reflect upon my commitment to You. You love the commandments and You honored them to the smallest detail. Make me like You, Lord. Forgive my casual approach to that for which You gave Your life.

September 29th, 2021

Heavenly Waiter

Luke 22:19, 20 “This (bread) is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.” “ … He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’ ”

Observation: Jesus and the disciples have just shared their last Passover. Also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, they were following a centuries old custom mandated by God Himself as commemoration of that long ago night when God’s death angel had passed over the homes of devout Israelis in search of Egypt’s firstborn.

Application: Thus was born a new church tradition: communion with one another in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice of a beaten body and shed blood. As Christians we are told to maintain this custom until He returns, when He says He will once again eat the Passover meal.

The phrase, “ … a new church tradition” ought to chill the heart. For most of us, that really is what communion has become: a tradition. The details may differ—a wafer here, a broken cracker there, or a loaf pulled apart. Juice in this place, wine in that. But it’s tradition none-the-less. In such mists of darkness, what is it that I think I am commemorating? Do I simply remember the night that the Son of God served as a heavenly waiter? Do the wafer and wine simply remind me of a memorable evening at table, a peaceful respite preceding His arrest?

In the sheer roteness of remembrance, my heart and spirit can become dulled. Just as the long-married couple may recall the exquisite delight of the wedding bed but rarely experience it afresh, so I, if I try hard, can push through cobwebs of my mind to catch a faint glimmer of what it is I am truly to remember.

It is not the fellowship meal itself that matters. What I must press in hard on is that He died. He interrupted ancient Jewish custom of killing a blameless Passover lamb to personally become that sacrifice for me and stepped willingly forward to be butchered in my behalf. It isn’t communion I am to recall; it is sacrifice. He is like the larger-than-life action hero stepping in front of a train called sin and death that’s hurtling toward me as I lay bound on the tracks ‘round the bend. But instead of being impervious to pain like a true action figure, He died. Still, in His horrific death, I live. My life is now in Him. He is my hope of glory. My own Passover lamb, slaughtered on an altar, has rescued me from death’s certainty.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, forgive me for allowing traditions of the communion ceremony to dim recollection of the very thing You call me to remember. I want always to carry within a consciousness of Your sacrifice for me. Thank you, Lord, I love You.

September 28th, 2021

Jackpot!

Matthew 26:14 “Then one of the twelve … the one called Judas Iscariot … went to the chief priests and asked “What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?”

Observation: It was two days before Passover, and the chief priests and elders assembled in Caiaphas’ palace, plotting Jesus’ arrest and death. Their quandary was this: they dare not arrest Him in the midst of Passover crowds for fear of causing a riot, but they didn’t know where to find Him at night. Judas’ offer of betrayal was the perfect solution.

Application: Jackpot! Imagine the smiles of delight dawning on the schemers’ faces. It surely never occurred to them that one of the twelve could be so tempted. A member of Jesus’ inner circle? One who had walked with and watched the Master for three years, a betrayer? “This is our lucky day,” they must have exulted; “We never imagined this could be so easy!”

The important thing to notice is that Judas went to them. His sin was at his own initiative, to accomplish his own dark purposes. Until now the disciples had been uniformly watchful of possible harm, steering stress-inducing crowds away from Jesus, trying to shield Him from wads of adoring children and even from cities that might harbor harm. Yet now, one of the twelve consciously chooses to reverse course. Judas’ inner blackness erupted into his consciousness and he purposed to commit history’s most profound betrayal.

What can be said for Judas? What, indeed, can be said for me when I commit my own dark calumny? Shall I blame someone else? Adam blamed. Eve blamed. Even Willie Horton famously blamed the fact that banks having money was the reason for his thievery. With temptations ever before me, is my dark yielding the fault of the one through whom temptation comes? Of course not!

When I surrender to temptation, I am exactly like Judas. He took betrayal’s initiative because of what was in his heart, not because he was confident that the high priest was looking for a hired gun. He simply knew he wanted money; his sinful heart did the rest. There will always be neon in Time’s Square and prostitutes in shadowy doorways. There will always be pornography on the Internet and profit to be made in business dealings designed to cut integrity’s corners. But my yielding to such temptations is always my fault. No one else can rightly be blamed when I fail. I am the guilty one.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You took my sin upon You; You took my guilt. Willingly, for no reason but love You have chosen to remake me from the inside out. Forgive me, Lord, for not walking fully and consistently in the freedom You proffer. Fill me afresh Holy Spirit, that I might walk in Your empowering love.

September 27th, 2021

Country Boys’ Bling

Matthew 24:2 “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Observation: Four verses earlier Jesus had mourned over Jerusalem’s coming destruction, saying He had longed to protect her “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Then He had said, “Look, your house is left to you desolate.” (Matt. 23:38) As if to punctuate the point, He then left the temple for the last time, leaving it desolate indeed.

Application: Could anything be more desolate than the thing Christ has left? Hosea 9:12 says, “Woe to them when I depart,” and depart He had.

The disciples, naturally, still didn’t get it. Like me, they still too often viewed things through fleshly prisms. They were impressed by the beauty of the building itself (v. 1), and it was indeed magnificent, built with gleaming white stones and adorned with artwork and fancy bling unequalled anywhere. Like country boys come to the big city, the disciples’ focus was outward. Jesus, though, never valued external edifices. When He wept, it was for lost souls. His grieving was always for the human heart bereft of relationship with its creator. The temple structure, sumptuous as it was, had been sullied by prostitutes and money changers; it held no attraction for Him.

As if to emphasize the point, He said that every stone would be thrown down. He wasn’t foretelling the temple’s eventual rot; the passing centuries would not merely cause decay; that would be far too passive an end. No, this particular building had a laser-guided weapon aimed at its heart. He had in mind a proactive, aggressive, intentional destruction, one that would be accomplished by God Himself, just as it would be God who three days later would grasp the thick temple veil in His mighty hands and rip it from top to bottom.

With God’s language being crystal clear, why am I so like the disciples, enamored of outward things? Why do flashy cars and big houses capture my attention? More to the point, why do I hope others might be similarly impressed with my holdings? I must confess how easily captured I am by such foolishness. Like a child building a high tower with blocks, all will come crashing down when the younger sibling approaches to purposely smash it. The issue isn’t simply that those things won’t survive into eternity, but that God hates my focus on them even now. Seeing my wrong priorities, He promises to intentionally throw all those things down ‘til nothing remains save my utter reliance upon Him.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, in Your pursuit of a voluntary lover You find it necessary to lay siege to every system, every thing, that I have lifted above You. The very thought of that takes my breath away, yet I want more than anything to cooperate with You. Make me like You, Lord.

September 26th, 2021

Shovel at the Ready

John 12:19 “ … See, this is getting us nowhere.”

Observation: Jesus had entered Jerusalem to the adulation of great crowds made all the larger by those clambering to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. In growing alarm the watching Pharisees said, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him.”

Application: Is it possible to feel some sympathy for the Pharisees? Accustomed as they were to being the center of religious attention, they now found themselves sidelined and irrelevant. Their centuries of control and denominational traditions had been undone by the never-before-seen miracle of a man once dead who now lived again. Offended and afraid, they made plans to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus (v. 10).

Their minds were truly messed up by fear. What could they think might be gained by killing a man whom Jesus had already decided should live? What would the crowds have done if Lazarus had been raised yet a second time, or a third?

“This is getting us nowhere,” they said. They found themselves in a hole but refused to quit digging. Sinking ever deeper with each shovelful of dirt, increasing darkness enveloped them so completely that they lost all sense of reason. Remembrance of their original purpose finally and completely extinguished as they gave voice to their spiritual impoverishment. “This is getting us nowhere,” as though their goals, their plans, were supreme.

I have been in such a place where fear of this thing or that was so overwhelming as to utterly squeeze out the last remnant of light. In that season I, too, could only focus on achieving my own ends. Without so much as a backward glance to consider what God’s purposes may have been, my present darkness became overwhelmingly evident. “Where is this getting me?” I wondered. “This setback wasn’t in my plans. What can I do? Who can I kill/reject/gossip about/blame?”

The darkness accompanying fear eventually becomes complete. If not challenged by the light of faith, all is lost. Here is what Jesus says: “Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light (vs. 35, 36).

Prayer: Lord, there are still areas of my life where I seem to keep a shovel at the ready. Forgive me for my willing embrace of darkness. By a fresh act of my will, I choose to lay down all such self-destructive tools and turn once again into Your light.

September 25th, 2021

Hedges and Parked Cars

Luke 19:4 “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see Him … ”

Observation: Zacchaeus was in a Jericho crowd as Jesus approached. Being too short to see Him, Zacchaeus climbed a tree for a clear view of the Master.

Application: The point of the story is not that Zacchaeus was wealthy and a tax collector, though he was both. It matters not that he was short and that he chose a fig tree to climb, although he is famous for each. What is striking is that he pressed through all obstacles to gain a clear view of Christ. As a result, Zacchaeus proclaimed that his life would henceforth be lived in new-found humility: “I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

That was it. No confession of faith. No walk down an aisle. No baptism. Jesus simply responded, “Today salvation has come to this house … ” (v. 9)

If I were to color this chapter it would be in starkly contrasting blacks and whites, no shades of grey. Further along, Jesus tells the parable of servants whose master was going to a distant country to be appointed king. The story contains a long passage describing his entrusting three servants with money to invest ‘til his return, but the nugget that surprises me is the seemingly random insertion of verse 14, “But his subjects hated him…(and said) ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’ ” After the master returned and appropriately rewarded the three servants for their investment acumen, Jesus abruptly breaks stride to say, “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and kill them in front of me.” (v. 27)

Ouch. That seems harsh, doesn’t it? What had these poor wretches done? They had simply made a decision, “We don’t want this man to be our king.” So death would come. Not a beheading in an unattended prison basement, but death in the presence of the king himself. Death by their own decision to reject his kingship.

How did salvation come to Zacchaeus? By his own decision … by forcefully choosing to press through hedges and parked cars…to do anything it took simply to see Jesus. He hadn’t heard new truth; there was no sermon playing on his iPod. Jesus wasn’t teaching that day, He was merely walking by. Small decisions … to climb a tree or to reject a king … result in life or death forever. Eternity is determined in my simple decision.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I am undone as I think about the eternal implications of that moment in time when I climbed my own tree for a better view. But there are so many others, Lord, so many I love … stir them to choose well before it’s too late.

September 24th, 2021

Milkweed and Cockleburs

Matthew 20:6b “He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”

Observation: Jesus’ question comes early in the parable of workers in the vineyard. The landowner had hired workmen early in the day for a fair wage. Then, apparently needing more workers, he had gone again at the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hours to hire still more at the same daily rate promised the original hires. His payment of identical wages for very dissimilar labor tested the hearts of those hired first.

Application: The story is a familiar one, and its ending point an important test of both my heart and that of the Jews who had been originally chosen by God. Yet I am captured by the question, “Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?” In verse 3 Jesus said the landowner “saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.” Again in verse 6 he “found still others standing around.”

Why this seemingly critical evaluation of how the unemployed were described? The report could as well have read that the men were in the marketplace seeking work, but instead there is a decidedly pointed tilt toward emphasizing their shiftlessness. The Lord’s criticism of this posture speaks clearly of His evaluation of how they were spending their time. In the next chapter comes reinforcement of the same theme, this time applied to an unproductive fig tree. Jesus’ hunger caused Him to approach a fig tree only to find it barren of fruit, so He addressed the tree, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered (Matthew 21:18–19).

From all this it seems clear that I ought to be productively engaged. After all, was I not created to work? Didn’t God intend from the beginning that I work in the garden? Um, no, that was a trick question. Such fleshly reasoning can creep in to steer me away from God’s best.

I was created for fellowship with God, not to pull weeds in an already perfect garden. I was created for intimacy. His design of me was that I would press in to know Him, to love Him, to enjoy His presence. At the end of the day it isn’t His evaluation of my straight-as-an-arrow furrows that will bless Him, nor His survey of land kept free of milkweed and cockleburs. His evaluation of me will turn on one thing only: like the fig tree, has my life produced what He intended, or have I spent my days laboring in sweaty pursuit of lesser ends? Have I pressed into relationship with Him, or settled for the world’s affirmation of my success?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I don’t want Your evaluation of me to ever be that I was standing around doing nothing. No matter the work of my hands, help me to keep my mind, will and emotions fully focused upon You.

September 23rd, 2021

Doggy Biscuits

Luke 18:1 “Then Jesus told His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

Observation: Jesus had in the previous chapter stirred an expectation that the end of the age would come suddenly: In Noah’s day the routines of life were interrupted in an instant by the closing of the ark’s door (17:26–27). Immediately after Lot left Sodom, its fate was sealed (17:28–29). Then Jesus told the disciples they should always pray and not give up, illustrating the point by the parable of the persistent widow whose repeated petitions finally prevail upon even an unrighteous judge.

Application: How often have I read Scripture wrongly, with a mindset of using it to meet my own needs, my own expectations? The “suddenlies” as illustrated by the ark’s closed door and Lot’s departure from Sodom seem to have about them an expectation of immediacy that is not in the text.

I understand these events hold horrible consequences for many. Anyone not on the ark will drown; those remaining in Sodom will burn. Those who have not fully entered into Christ will live in eternal damnation when He suddenly returns.

Yet though suddenlies and certainties are not the same thing, I often confuse the two. For example, over the long sweep of two thousand years His return has been so long delayed as to have become suspect to many. But the point of these passages is to stir me to pray. Constantly. Without giving up. Not because He is immediate in response to my petitions like a lapdog who eagerly jumps when summoned, but because His promises never fail. His part is not to leap for the treat of my approval like Rover for a biscuit; rather, the onus is mine to pray and, in praying, to never give up.

How easily I lose heart when my wish for a suddenly is wrecked against His certainty. While it is true that suddenlies do come, they are on His timetable, not mine. And the truly maddening thing about this reality is that God’s timetable is administered by One who lives outside of time. So I petition for a sudden deliverance from this or that affliction while He calls me to pray and to not lose heart. While I hold out the promise of a treat if He will but respond to my command to roll over or sit, He holds out the absolute assurance of faithfulness if I will but pray constantly and not give up. I am miserable in contemplating the gap between those two things.

Prayer: Lord, Your promise in Luke 18:7 is to bring about justice for Your chosen ones who cry out day and night. Forgive me for the times when my poor priorities have kept me from among Your chosen ones. Lead me today into decisions that put You first in all things.

September 22nd, 2021

Choices

Genesis 3:24 “After He drove the man out … ”

Observation: Adam had sinned. The uncreated God had created the most idyllic place on the planet to express the fullness of His love for this created being. God’s great passion had been for relationship with Adam, yet by his sin Adam had pushed God aside in pursuit of a lesser satisfaction, something forbidden. So the Word says, “ … He drove the man out … ”

Application: Is there anywhere in Scripture a phrase more fraught with anguish than this one? This “driving out” was no afternoon in the park in which God hitched white horses to a cart for Adam’s last tour of a beautiful place. No, this driving out surely conveys an aggressive, forceful, threatening advance against a suddenly puny man now reduced to terror-filled sorrow. This is the picture of a very great God looming in all His awfulness, marshalling fearsome cherubim and a flaming sword of judgment to force a terrified man from the only place of safety and delight he had ever known. This was the unrequited love of God jealously responding to Adam’s violation of their relationship. Surely the watching universe recoiled in horror as the broken heart of God drove Adam not just from His sight, but from His fellowship.

What thoughts might have tumbled through Adam’s mind in that moment? Whatever they were, I can be sure they were each brand new. He had never before felt fear or known loss. The security of eternal love was ripped asunder, fully exposing Adam to consequences the blackness of which he hadn’t previously had the capacity even to consider. And for what? All because he treated something else as more important than God Himself.

Why do I do it? What is this awful thing within me that knows God’s deepest desire is for intimacy with me, yet retains the capacity to choose lesser pursuits? What is this surging force that lets me choose so unwisely when God’s greatest desire is that I press deeper into Him, into Christ? My capacity for choice is my source of greatest pleasure when I choose well and of utter despair when I do not.

I am comforted by remembering the last time the Father touched Adam. Genesis 3:21 says God made garments of skin with which He then dressed Adam and Eve. Even in the midst of broken intimacy, He dressed them. Did His hand linger on Adam’s shoulder after Adam had stepped into his new suit? Did He pause to gaze lovingly into Adam’s forlorn eyes? I have seen that gaze and felt that touch. I have known His kindness in the midst of my most cavalier choices.

Prayer: Father, thank You for these images of Your passionate love. Forgive me, Lord, for putting anything above a whole-hearted response to Your love. By Your Spirit, whisper to me each time today that my choices hurt Your heart.

September 21st, 2021

Usefulness

Job 42:10a “After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord made him prosperous again … ”

Observation: Job had finally come to the end of himself. Admitting that he had spoken “of things [he] did not understand, things too wonderful for [him] to know,” (v. 3) he concluded, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (v. 6) God then turned His attention to Job’s critical friends and told them Job would pray for them and that He would accept Job’s prayer and not deal with them according to their folly. Once his friends humbled themselves before Job and received his prayers, the Lord made Job prosperous again.

Application: Verse 10 continues by saying that the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. I wonder: Is the point of this passage to show me a pathway to prosperity? It may seem so; after all, wasn’t that the result? But have I really waded through forty-two long chapters waiting for Job to find just the right pitch of intercessory fervency that his fortunes might be restored? Perish the thought! Job has no “if-then” promise held before him … no suggestion that if he did the thing God wanted in just the right way, then he would prosper. Indeed, the blessing God promised wasn’t Job’s at all. It was instead a commitment to flood Job’s friends with grace, not Job himself.

At the end of this very long book of suffering and trials, Job had finally come to the place of worshipping God in the midst of travail, rather than with a view toward being delivered from it. He had reached such a point of submission that he could finally be useful to God by praying for now-repentant friends. Even in praying, though, it wasn’t for Job’s sake that his friends were to be forgiven; God said in advance of the prayer that He would accept Job’s prayer. Whatever Job prayed was going to be fine with God.

The passage contains nary a hint of the content of Job’s prayer. But we know it wasn’t necessary for him to gin up a certain fervor, or to achieve soaring eloquence or sufficient volume or to emote just so. Job, this instrument of God who had been pressed and stressed, crushed and humiliated ‘til he had no more thought to claim his “rights,” was finally the perfect vessel to minister release to his captive friends. In this moment, the story is clearly not about Job; he could neither see nor imagine the coming blessings of God. He simply repented, and in that repentance found his own full acceptance by God.

What is my motivation when I pray? It is only when I come to the end of myself that God finds me a useful instrument in any circumstance he chooses.

Prayer: Father, cause me to become like Your servant Job, not anticipating ever greater benefits from my commitment to You, but simply yielding. Let me see the cross of Christ afresh, so I might identity more completely with Him.