“Peter, do you love me?” Three times asked. Three times answered. (See John 21) Once for each time Peter had denied his Lord. You’d think the lesson had been learned. But when Peter had a vision filled with food that he refused to eat, it took another three times before he got the message.(Acts 10) We could say that Peter was consistently stubborn. But maybe Peter is not so different from us.
Fear not. Do NOT be afraid. Be strong and courageous. The Bible is filled with such messages. Over and over, God’s people need reminders to look beyond fear and find faith. Go and preach the Gospel. Go out into all the world. Go make disciples. Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Pray without ceasing. Run the race. Don’t give up. Ask. Seek. Knock.
God is not annoyed or afraid of repetition. He uses it when speaking patiently to us. He welcomes it from us in prayer. Sometimes, I feel like I’m “nagging” God about certain things. After all, He already knows my needs, so why am I bringing the same request for the 19th time this month? Except God not only knows about my need, He knows my tendency to get discouraged and distracted. God doesn’t need to hear my request again, but He wants to hear me ask. More than that, He wants to hear me ask with confidence, knowing that He HAS heard and WILL provide– in ways and times I cannot know.
God hears. God knows. God cares. It’s worth repeating! It’s worth asking– again!
Have you ever had someone give you “the silent treatment?” Or have you ever been angry or disgusted and refused to talk to someone? It can be very frustrating. You may ask a simple question– even look the other person in the eye–only to face a wall of silence. Silence of this type can be oppressive. It is less an absence of sound than a presence of something heavy and dark.
God spoke through His prophets, messengers (angels), and sometimes, in visions throughout the days of the Old Testament. But then, He was silent. For four hundred years! There were no new messages, no prophetic visions– just a gloomy silence. There was still noise in the world– chaos, confusion, war, debates, chattering, gossip– but no word from God. He had spoken for thousands of years, and His laws and the words of the prophets still stood, promising a coming Messiah, a rescue and a redemption for the nation of Israel. But then, nothing.
Imagine how much more glorious it must have been when the angel hosts announced the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds! After such a long silence, they must have nearly exploded with the joyous news! The shepherds, already frightened by the sudden appearance, must have been held in thrall to hear voices from the heavenly realms– something that hadn’t been heard or even heard of for over a dozen generations!
And that’s how it often is–after a period of silence, the sound comes spilling out in a mad rush. Feelings, thoughts, announcements, all waiting to rush out in an explosion of sound and excitement. The silence is over! The heaviness is lifted. The dam has burst, and the words pour out in a great flood.
When Jesus– the Word of God– arrived, He spoke to many. He told parables and spoke words of healing and kindness and even warning. But at His trial, He refused to answer many of the questions that were posed. He dared to give “the silent treatment” to Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees. People who had refused to listen to Him during his ministry suddenly wanted answers. But He had already spoken and told them everything they needed to know.
Not so with His disciples. He spoke to them plainly and promised them a “counselor.” The Holy Spirit would speak, and would teach them how to speak. There would be no more “silent treatment” for those who knew the Spirit. No need for angelic messengers or prophetic visions (though God could still choose to use them as well)–God’s Spirit would dwell in the hearts and minds of His people.
And yet, we often feel that God is “silent” in our own time. But is that really the case?
Have you ever given God the “silent treatment?” How long have you held in resentment or doubt over something God did or didn’t do; a prayer He answered in a way that left you feeling hurt or confused? Is there a wall of silence on your part? It may not even be full silence. Is there some issue or topic you refuse to bring to prayer? Some secret desire you won’t discuss with Him? How does it weigh down the rest of your relationship?
I have found myself holding things back, keeping silent about things in my life. It stunts my growth and hinders my prayers. But when I finally break my silence, pouring out the full measure of my fears, confusion, and deepest desires, it is like a weight sliding away, and light breaking through the clouds. The joy and relief are overwhelming. (See Psalm 32 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+32&version=ESV) What the psalmist says about sin can apply to doubt, anger, or confusion, as well. Unconfessed and unspoken, it will weigh upon us.
Don’t give God the “silent treatment.” He already knows all that you would keep back from Him. Silence doesn’t “treat” anything– real healing comes from open communication with the Great Physician. Don’t wait four hundred years– or even four hundred seconds! Let the words (and maybe the tears) flow…And don’t be surprised if your silence is replaced with singing!
Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun, Which is my sin, though it were done before? Wilt Thou forgive those sins through which I run, And do them still, though still I do deplore? When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done, For I have more. Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I have won Others to sin? and made my sin their door? Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun A year or two, but wallowed in a score? When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done, For I have more. I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun My last thread, I shall perish on the shore; Swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Sun Shall sine as it shines now, and heretofore; And, having done that, Thou hast done, I have no more.
A Hymn to God the Father John Donne, 1623
I enjoy studying the poetry of John Donne. https://www.biography.com/writer/john-donne Even though he lived 400 years ago, he wrote about very timeless and personal topics. Donne lived during a time of religious tumult and persecution. Born into a Catholic family, he later converted to Anglicanism and became a powerful preacher, as well as a poet, and lawyer. Throughout his life, he wrestled with deep theological questions of sin, guilt, redemption, and death. Yet he did so with wit, humor, and passion. The poem above, written during a long illness and near the end of his life, is filled with puns on his last name, Donne. Would God’s redemptive work ever be “done” in “Donne?” He struggles with the knowledge that his sins, having been forgiven, must be forgiven again and again. Does God never say, “Enough! I am done!?” What about stubborn sinful habits? What about sins that have led others to sin? What about last-minute, unconfessed sins?
The real question is, “How sufficient is God’s Grace?” Does God sprinkle out Grace sparingly on each sinful act, or does Christ’s blood cover All? Do our stubborn, habitual acts of rebellion pile up to a point where God cannot forgive? Having forgiven us once, twice, seventy times seven– is there a limit to His willingness to pour out Mercy? Theologically, the Bible is clear. The answer is a resounding, “NO.” God will not withhold His Grace from those who have sought it. God will never be “Done” with “Donne.” Nor will He be “done” with any of us who have chosen to follow Him. But in his all-too-human logic, Donne jokingly suggests that though God “hast” done/Donne, He “hast not” done/Donne. In other words, while Donne “belongs” to God– he has confessed his sins, and eagerly seeks to follow Christ, he still wrestles with fears that his small sinful acts prove that God does not fully “have” him– that He still lives separated from God.
But the final sin of the poem is fear– fear that somehow, at the last, Death will prevail, and Donne will “perish on the shore,” rather than be taken into Heaven. He pleads that Christ’s blood (“Thy Sun/Son”) will be sufficient; that God’s promise of eternal life will indeed hold true, and that the work of salvation is indeed “done.” In the end, the poet hopes that “Thou hast Donne.” And he must trust that God’s promises will hold, for “I have no more.” Donne cannot stop death, he cannot do anything to save himself from sin, but he can be “done” with worry and trust in “Thy Sun/Son.”
I am strangely encouraged by Donne’s poem. We all have moments of questioning and niggling doubts. And even though we “Know” the truth, our fears and emotions can play tricks on our mind. But Donne, even while putting such doubts and fears on paper, takes them to the Source of Hope. This is not a poem of accusation or despair. It is an honest and passionate desire to hear God’s calm assurance. And it is part of a long tradition that runs through the Bible. Jacob literally wrestled with an angel of the Lord (Gensis 32), Moses argued with God about going back to Egypt (Exodus 4), David questioned God (Psalm 10); even Jesus asked God, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27). But in our doubts and questions, God’s still, small voice echoes, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5), “My Grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39).
God’s work is ongoing, but it is also “done”– it is complete, whole, sufficient, and eternal. And even if we occasionally wonder and even question, we can choose to rest in His promises. Just as the poet concluded, if God “hast” done/Donne, “I have no more”– he needed to have no other fear of sin or sin of fear. And through Donne’s poetry, God’s assurance is being passed on– the work continues to be “Donne!”
36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)
The Pharisees in the New Testament seem to spend a lot of time judging and criticizing everyone. They rail at Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath, they grumble about His disciples not following the ritual hand-washing customs, and they are constantly critical of Jesus for “hanging out” with sinners and undesirables. We shake our heads and lament how narrow-minded they were. But I have to wonder what would happen in today’s world if Jesus were walking among us today. Would He “hang out” at our churches? Would He praise those who spend their time pointing out the hypocrisy of others? Would He be a “social justice” warrior?
Many of Jesus’s miracles were done quietly and without pretense. No one criticized “what” Jesus was doing. No one said, “you shouldn’t be healing people,” or, “how dare you turn water into wine.” Instead, they criticized “how” Jesus did His miracles and what He said about Himself, others, and God. In the book of Luke, we have a story that doesn’t even involve a miracle. Jesus was invited to be the guest of a Pharisee. Jesus didn’t turn down the invitation. He didn’t start out criticizing the host or the food. But when a woman crashed the party– a woman known all around town for her sinful ways–and made a scene, Jesus didn’t recoil in horror, order her to leave, or stop her from making a fool of herself. The Pharisee, believing that he had “unmasked” Jesus as a charlatan, concluded that Jesus didn’t “know” what sort of woman she was. But Jesus, breaking His silence, ended up “unmasking” the Pharisee, instead.
Jesus “knew” what sort of woman made such a spectacle of herself–one who needed compassion and forgiveness. Jesus knew exactly “who” and “what” she was. But He also knew who created her, loved her, and wanted to redeem her to become someone better. Moreover, He knew what kind of man Simon (the Pharisee) was. He started out with a parable about cancelled debt and a question. Simon answered the question correctly, but he had missed the point. Simon “knew” the woman was a sinner; he didn’t recognize that he was a sinner, too! Simon thought he was smarter and holier than Jesus. He didn’t know himself, and he didn’t recognize Jesus as God in the Flesh.
How often I make the same mistake! I think I “know” who God wants me to love and honor– those who say all the right words and wear the right clothes and belong to the right church. But if I want to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, I will have compassion on the people who most need it; I will be ready to forgive those who owe me the most; I will spare judgment where I do not “know” all that God knows about someone else.
It is easy to lift up in prayer those I admire; those to whom I am already close. It is more difficult to pray for those who persecute me, or taunt me about my belief in Christ. It is difficult to withhold judgment about why they may dislike me or why they distrust Christians in general. It is tempting to pray for their “exposure” or punishment, rather than their well-being. It may be unpleasant to spend time with them or take them seriously. But it is essential that I do, with God’s help, what I would not do in my own pride and limited knowledge. Otherwise, like Simon, I am showing only how little I love the one who died for me– and the person I choose to hold in judgment and contempt.
I have a lot of work to do in this area. Just today, I read a news snippet about a political office-holder; one with whom I heartily disagree. My first instinct was to pray that she be ousted from office in the next election, and publicly scorned. And perhaps that will happen. But my first priority should be to pray that she would be protected in her current role as public servant, and that God would give her wisdom and discernment in the months ahead. Not because she is a “better” person; but because Jesus died for her. If she were the woman in this story, would I be another Simon the Pharisee? I pray not.
Just before writing this, I found a spider crawling on my shoulder. I’m not a big fan of spiders. This one wasn’t huge or furry or anything, but it startled me. I didn’t scream, but I did jump, and frantically brushed at my shoulder, and then stomped on the spider a couple of times for good measure as it tried to crawl away.
Spiders are not uncommon. They eat other annoying insects, and many are not harmful to humans. But they are “creepy.” They have all those legs and eyes and they hide in corners and drop down from ceilings. Some of them jump and some bite. There are a lot of “creepy” creatures in this world– spiders and snakes, rats and lizards, worms, and bats, and scorpions, roaches and fleas, and more. “Creepy” critters startle us; they scare us in the ways that they move, in the noises they make, and in the threat of danger– diseases, poisons, filth…
This time of year it is not unusual to see “creepy” creatures in movies and decorations and costumes for Halloween. Another type of “creepy” sighting involves things associated with death or near-death– ghosts, zombies, skeletons, ghouls, vampires…Their creepiness comes from the idea that Death has power over the living. The idea that Death stalks among us causes fear. Death is an enemy we cannot conquer. Everyone has to taste death and the unknown that follows. Everyone has a skeleton in life, but a skeleton walking without muscle or skin is terrifying to us. Everyone has a soul, but a soul without a body (or a body without a soul) makes us fearful–will that be our fate? What kind of existence would that be?
I am not a big fan of “creepy” stories and horror flicks. I don’t like being frightened for entertainment, and I have never understood why such things appeal to others. Recently, though, I heard from someone an explanation that made me think. They said, “I enjoy watching horror films and reading scary books because I know, no matter how scary it gets, that Good will always win out in the end.” Well, all right. I still don’t want to watch spooky stuff, but I can agree with the sentiment of the speaker.
Not all frightening things in this world are “creepy.” Cancer, blindness, aging, loss of a loved one, job loss, homelessness, loss of reputation, betrayal, false arrest, slavery to addiction, abuse, starvation–all are scary realities that can leave us overwhelmed, afraid, and even feeling hopeless. Nothing we can do will eradicate the threat of hardship, suffering, and death that await us all. We can make plans to “cheat” death, or build walls against getting hurt or suffering loss. But we cannot banish the threat or the fear of “what if..”, nor can we slay Death.
The Good News is that Death doesn’t win in the end. Death seems like the final word, but we can endure even this, knowing that “Good will always win out in the end.” God has not destined us to be skeletons, but to be saints–awakened to new life, cleansed of all sin and disease, and eternally Alive in Him! I can be startled by the spider, “creeped-out” by a skeleton, and knocked down by a debilitating disease. But I can turn the page, open my eyes, look up, and keep going, knowing that God is on His Throne.
And there’s more good news–Life, Hope, and Love are always with us. No spider, skeleton, sickness, or other threat will ever find us alone; none will ever take God by surprise; nothing can separate us from God’s Loving Care.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)
7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 5:7-11 (NIV)
6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As I look out the window today, I see an array of autumn colors–yellow, red, orange, green, brown, and even purple leaves against a vibrant blue sky. Autumn is full of changes; changing leaves, changing temperatures, changing wardrobes. I love living in an area where the seasons change dramatically. I don’t always like the drama, however. We’ve had warm days, wet days, cold days– sometimes all three in the same day! But I do like the variety– snow in the winter, colorful leaves in the fall, new life in spring, and summer trips to the beach or the shady woods.
It isn’t only the weather or the trees that change. The times are changing– literally–we will be turning our clocks back this weekend, “falling back” to conventional time after several months of “daylight savings time. Our neighborhood is changing–the bank down the street just changed its name, and a couple of new businesses are opening, as a couple others close. We are experiencing life changes. My husband and I are in the “autumn” of life– feeling the slow creep of age, in good ways and bad. We enjoy spending time with our kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, as they embark on new adventures and challenges of “becoming.” We don’t enjoy the aches and pains and slower pace we now find ourselves adopting, but we appreciate the wisdom of life lived and learned. We have aging parents who are facing their own decisions, many of which will involve us in one way or another.
God watches over all these changes. He sees them, orders them, anticipates them. God is the master of renewal, redemption, and restoration. God can move mountains, heal diseases, restore relationships, and raise the dead! And, unless we allow God to change our very nature and give us new birth through His Son, we will miss the greatest change of all.
But God never changes. The same God who formed me in my mother’s womb is the God who will be with me as I take my last earthly breath. The same God who formed the oceans and spoke galaxies into being is the God who whispered frost onto the grass this morning. This God is faithful through every season of the year and every season of life. I will not wake up tomorrow to find that there will be no more winter or spring seasons, or that the grass has all turned purple, or that God’s word is no longer true and powerful. And there will never be a time when I cannot trust God’s Sovereignty, His Mercy, or His Love. God’s promises are eternally sure; His Faithfulness is everlasting; and His power is limitless. God will never quit; He will never grow tired; He will never be “confused” about the road ahead; He will never resort to “plan B.”
Very soon, the colorful leaves will fall, the morning frost will be replaced with snow and ice, and my fall jacket will have to give way to my winter coat and gloves. In time, my gray hair will turn white, and my wrinkles will multiply. Someday, my great-grandchildren may find my name carved on a stone and wonder what I sounded like or what kind of person I was. But God will still be the same as He was in the days of Noah, and King Solomon; the same God who watched the fall of the Roman Empire, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the first Moon landing. That’s the God who hears my prayers– and yours. He can be trusted. He is faithful.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
I’ve been very blessed with a large extended family–in-laws, cousins, step-cousins, half-cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, second cousins–well over 600! (and counting). I’ve spent a lot of time recently attending family events, and each one has been happy, encouraging, and invigorating. I know that is not always the case in families. Some families argue; some won’t even speak to each other. And there is not perfect harmony, even in the best of human families. We’ve had divorces and divides, too; but mostly, as my one cousin is fond of saying, “We like us.” We like belonging to a family, but even more, we like belonging to our family. As our family grows, it is becoming more diverse, and we like that, too. Many years ago, most of our family members were farmers from a small area in southwestern Michigan. Now, our family includes truck drivers, mechanics, teachers, architects, coaches, doctors, office managers, car salesmen, nurses, dispatchers, accountants, chefs, shopkeepers, ministers, photographers, cosmetologists, pet groomers, medical transcriptionists, cinematographers, artists, dancers, contractors, factory workers, and yes, some farmers, too. We have family members with varying skin tones and ethnic backgrounds, and differing physical and mental abilities. And we LIKE “us.”
Jesus likened the Kingdom of Heaven to a family– it is made up of many members, but we are all brothers and sisters “in Christ.” And, like a family, we are supposed to like “us.” More than that, we are supposed to LOVE one another! We are to be there for each other, in good times and bad; in mourning and in rejoicing. “For better, for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health..” It shouldn’t matter if our brothers and sisters live close by or halfway around the world; whether they belong to our local congregation of “that other church across town.” And it SHOULD matter when we see some of our family members being persecuted or facing hardship while others live in comfortable apathy.
But Jesus went even further. We are to love those who are not “US.” We are to show love and mercy to those who don’t “belong.” We are to reach out to those who dislike, despise, and even persecute us. The way we treat each other as “family” and the way we treat those “outside” will either attract or repel others, and it will show whether or not we have learned to love as Jesus did.
God “Likes” us. He wants to share life with us –any of us who will respond to His call. And God LOVES us. He treats us with the same compassion and love, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, or how we’ve responded (or failed to respond) to His outreach.
Clearly, there are those who do not like us; who do not wish us well. And God does not call us to be victims, dupes, and doormats for abusive relatives or strangers. We are to Love– but wisely, and with the strength of God. Liking someone does not obligate us to betray our conscience, or enable abusive and immoral behavior in others. Loving someone may mean setting boundaries where they are needed. But it also may involve tearing down false walls of fear and “inconvenience” that we’ve been using to excuse action.
Who can we reach out to this week, extending the kind of welcome and acceptance we give our family? How can we begin seeing more of “us” in the people we meet, and less of “them?” And, if there are family members (either our birth families, or our church families) with whom we have a broken relationship, are there ways we can make a move to try to mend fences? How can we set wise boundaries, while tearing down false ones? One sure way is to begin praying– pray for those we meet, whether or not we consider them “family.” Pray for those who have hurt us– and those we have hurt. Pray for those who seem different and hard to understand or accept. Pray for God to bless them, encourage them, meet their needs– Pray that God will give us wisdom, opportunities, and strength to reach out.
The other day, someone complained that she couldn’t “hear” me because we were both wearing face masks, due to COVID restrictions at the doctor’s office. I remarked that the masks didn’t cover her ears, but I know what she meant. Not only did the mask cover my mouth, which limited my volume, but, more importantly, it covered the lower half of my face, so that she couldn’t see my lips or read my facial expressions. Nor could I see hers. It is terribly frustrating to be sitting half-face-to-half-face!
Effective communication is up to 90% non-verbal! That means facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, etc.. When we cannot see fully “face-to-face” we lose a lot of our ability to understand and interpret what someone else is saying– even if we can hear the words.
The same is true in communication by phone or social media. Someone can read my words or listen to me talk, and still be confused about my meaning. Am I being serious or sarcastic? Am I fully engaged, or just “throwing out” words? How can I know if someone has understood what I’ve said or written?
We crave the intimacy of “real” communication– talking and being “heard;” listening and being engaged with another person’s thoughts and feelings. Knowing that someone else understands and sympathizes. Someday, our human limitations will be removed. The Apostle Paul writes about it this way:
12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)
The Apostle John also comments:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
1 John 3:2 (NKJV)
What an amazing promise! The next time you are having a “face-to-face” conversation with a friend, imagine what it will be like to be able to talk and share that kind of intimacy with God! And then, when you pray, remember that God ALREADY sees and hears you with perfect clarity and understanding!
There is a flip side to this, however. Imagine that your thoughts and “hidden” comments are also uncovered and known by all. One of the dangers of living in a digital, global age is that we feel free to post our immediate thoughts and feelings without regard to how they may be received and interpreted. We post things and say things that we might never say “face-to-face.” We spew out indignation, sarcasm, arrogance, snide criticism, and offense, assuming that others will admire our cleverness or our virtue, rather than seeing our selfish conceit and our rush to judgment. We spill out all the supposed “wrongs” done to us, but we excuse our own wrongs and failings– even brag about them.
Someday, we will see how very hurtful, selfish, and short-sighted we have been– and so will everyone else. This will shock or embarrass many of us, but God will not be surprised or upset– He has already known the worst about us. And He still listens to us and speaks words of compassion that we often ignore or dismiss. Someday we will not only hear the words, but see the compassion, love, and mercy in His eyes as they meet ours.
That’s the image I want to take into prayer today– and every day. Even though I can’t see it today, it is already eternal reality!
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Mark 4:35-41 ESV
I’ve been reading through the Gospels this month, and one of the phrases that has stood out for me this year is “ye of little faith.”(or “you have so little faith!) Jesus uses this phrase to chastise His disciples, as well as the crowds– they claim to want miracles, yet when Jesus does miracles, they seem astonished almost to the point of fear. Or they attempt to “explain them away.”
We live in a world of possibilities– when we are young, we see possibilities everywhere. “When I grow up…” we imagine ourselves as astronauts, or world leaders, or Olympic champions. As we grow older, our world of possibilities grows narrower. We become cynical (or more aware of our own limitations!) and, while we long to see miracles, we neither expect them nor ask for them. We know some difficult or unexpected things are still possible, but we tend to see more “impossibilities.” “My health will never get better.” “My boss will never listen to me.” “I can’t…”
One of the biggest roadblocks to becoming a Christian (and to continue to grow in faith) is to accept that NOTHING is impossible for God. We set limits on God’s ability, His willingness, His goodness–we expect to be disappointed, disillusioned, and disheartened. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy– we end up disappointed, disillusioned, and disheartened in others, in ourselves…
Yet, God has given us an entire book filled with miracles and impossible events that are meant to show us that He is the God of the Impossible; the God of Miracles. From the beginning, God has demonstrated His willingness to make a way when there seems to be no way. From Noah and the Flood, to Abraham becoming the Father of many nations, to bringing Joseph from a pit to becoming the second-most powerful man in Egypt, to the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery…the stories abound. Whether sending food from heaven, water from a rock, or fire from the sky, God’s power is on display throughout the Old Testament. The crowds following Jesus grew up hearing these stories. But after four hundred years of silence, they seemed to remember what God COULD do, but doubt what God WOULD do for those who call on Him.
Jesus walked on water, healed the sick, turned water into wine, cast out demons, raised the dead, and much more. And still the people wanted “proof.” But we are not so very different. Not only do we have all the stories of the Old Testament; we have all the stories of Jesus’ miracles. Yet we still wonder whether God will hear and/or answer our prayers. And it doesn’t take 400 years of silence to cause us to doubt. Sometimes it is four hours, or four days, or four months of seeming silence.
Nothing is impossible with God. There are some things that are not productive; some things that are not part of His plan. Imagine Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego praying that God would not allow them to go into the fiery furnace? That wasn’t the plan. Instead, God chose to do the unexpected, the unthinkable–the impossible. He rescued them IN the fire– caused them to come through without being singed. Imagine those who prayed that Lazarus would recover from his illness. That wasn’t the plan. Instead, Jesus did the impossible– raising Lazarus after four days; after the funeral, after the burial, after all possible hope was gone.
God excels in the impossible. He delights in it. What impossible situation are you facing today? God may not choose to remove the situation. But He can take an impossible situation and turn it into a miraculous victory. Not because we demand “proof” of His divinity or power. But because His plans are bigger and better than what we can comprehend.
I’ve shared a bit about one of my current struggles. My Mom is in her 88th year, and her health is failing. She is very independent and lives alone. My siblings and I are being “stretched” in trying to help Mom navigate several decisions and several changing conditions. God has not taken away her health issues, or conveniently provided an easy transition or simple answers to our questions. But He has been “with us in the fire.” That doesn’t mean that I understand all that Mom is going through, or how best to help her from moment to moment. And I’m not asking God to provide a dramatic “rescue” for Mom as she navigates this part of her journey. But I trust that God has already seen the end from the beginning– none of the “setbacks” or “unexpected events” we face can take God by surprise or leave Him unprepared to use them for His glory and our ultimate good.
18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Luke 18:18-27 ESV via biblegateway.com
I love that Jesus didn’t just give pithy answers to questions, but often went in roundabout ways to explore the motives behind them. I also love how He would use others’ questions, mixed with parables, metaphors, or other figurative language to stimulate further thought. And His parables and word pictures, while short and simple, have layers of meaning that cause us to ponder deeper issues.
The “Rich Young Ruler” in the above story came to Jesus with a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering the question, Jesus seems to get distracted by the young man’s greeting. “Why do you call me ‘Good?'” Did the young man really think that Jesus was better, or wiser, or more righteous than the religious leaders of the day? Or was he trying to flatter Jesus? Or did he think that Jesus would see him as an equal (or even superior) when he found out how righteous the ruler was? Jesus got to the heart of the greeting– “No one is good except God alone.” And therein lies the true answer to the ruler’s question, as well. There is nothing anyone can do to be “Good” enough to inherit eternal life.
Jesus could have said this, but would the young ruler have accepted this answer? Probably not. His question betrays an assumption that he WAS good enough– that he had already done all that was required and that Jesus would surely be impressed and announce to the crowd that here was an example of someone who was worthy of eternal life. Instead, Jesus led the man through his pride by naming a few of the commandments– the very ones the ruler was so sure of. Indeed, this seemed to be exactly what the ruler was hoping to hear– proof that he had “passed the test.” Ironically, he was addressing Jesus as “Good teacher, ” but seemed to miss that fact that he was also addressing the only One who is truly Good! Jesus–God in the flesh — the very one whose death would guarantee that anyone would “inherit” eternal life. This young ruler doesn’t want Jesus to be his “Lord” and “Savior,” he just wants Jesus’s opinion.
But then, Jesus pulled the rug out from under this man’s assumptions. “One thing you still lack.” One thing…I’m sure the young ruler thought it would be a fine point in the laws or traditions he know so well– some minor point that could be cleared up with a gift or a small offering. I find this a fascinating statement, because it is followed by “sell all you have and distribute to the poor…” It seems like such an oxymoronic statement. You lack one thing, therefore, you must give away all that you have. How is that possible? Because the “one thing” the rich man lacked was not an object; not something he could check off a list of “things I can do to impress the religious leaders.” This man lacked humility; he lacked a self-awareness of his own need. And he lacked the understanding of what it means to “inherit” eternal life. No one “earns” an inheritance. Even someone who is rewarded with an inheritance must trust in the goodwill of the person writing the will, and will only inherit under the terms of the will. Jesus’s “terms” were not that the man had to become destitute or spend the rest of this life as a beggar. But faced with the choice of his comfortable life in the here and now, or eternal and abundant life in heaven on God’s terms, this man chose earthly wealth and spiritual poverty.
Almost lost at the end of Jesus’s surprising answer are the last two phrases, “and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This man wanted eternal life as an extension of his comfortable life on earth. He did NOT want eternal life enough to sacrifice his present comforts or his preconceived notions of “goodness.” He did not want to follow Christ– he only wanted to consult with Him.
I find it uncomfortable to hear about the young ruler’s rejection of Christ. I understand the initial shock of the disciples as Jesus uses the illustration of a camel going through the eye of a needle to compare with a “rich” person coming into the kingdom of God. Wasn’t Abraham wealthy? Wasn’t Solomon rich? What about King David? If riches make it impossible to follow Christ, who can gain eternal life? Thankfully, Jesus redirects the focus– it’s not about the riches; and it’s not about what we “do”– it is God’s “Good” pleasure to give eternal life to those who choose to “follow” Him.
“Good Teacher and Lord, help me to remember this lesson as I come before you in prayer. You have not asked me to ‘earn’ my inheritance. It is your gift to answer my prayers as you see fit; to be the Lord of my life; to be merciful and gracious to me; to prepare a place for me to live with You for eternity. What you ask of me is that I ‘follow’ you– that I listen to your call; that I accept Your “terms” of inheritance; that I share Your Grace and Mercy with those around me.”