The carried cross
Luke 14: Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.
Jesus is now one of the most famous people in all of Israel. Everywhere he goes he’s accompanied by a large crowd. On this day, to everyone’s surprise he stops, turns, and addresses them all. There’s nothing gentle about what he says to them. If they want to really follow him and not just be tagalongs they have to let go of all else. Family ties have to be loosed. Claims to self-sovereignty have to be renounced. These are hard enough words, but then he adds, “If you won’t shoulder your own cross you can’t be my disciple.” These Jewish people absolutely hate the cross. It’s not only the instrument of cruel execution but it’s the symbol of their humiliation under Roman rule. The cross not only means death for the one who is so unfortunate as to be hung on it, but it’s also the means of grinding to dust the pride of the entire nation. Those who are following Jesus in hopes of seeing a miracle or at least getting a free meal need to rethink their discipleship. To this day the decision to follow Jesus should be a thoughtful one. Long after the memory of seeing a “miracle” fades and the meal has been digested the cross remains. The occupied cross becomes for Christians the symbol of God’s love for us. The empty cross becomes the symbol of resurrection and hope. The carried cross is the mark of our continued sacrifice and commitment to Jesus.
Take Away: Am I a tagalong or a genuine follower of Jesus? The answer is found in my willingness or unwillingness to take up the cross.
Luke 13: That’s when you’ll find yourselves out in the cold, strangers to grace.
I find this phrase, “strangers to grace” a chilling one. Jesus says that a lot of people think that because they hang out in the right places and associate themselves with the right people that they have it made. When the curtain of history falls they think they’ll be just fine and they’ll have a place at the table. The trouble is that their level of “knowing” falls far short of the requirement. To know Jesus is vastly superior to knowing about Jesus. His disciples live in a personal relationship with him. They don’t just hang out in the vicinity but, instead, enjoy a spiritual intimacy with our Lord. I can’t think of anything worse than depending on “proximity religion” when a personal, cherished, living relationship is available. It’s only at that level, as I live as a friend of the Lord, that I enjoy being a “friend of grace.”
Take Away: I want to be well acquainted with God’s grace in my life.
Do you think copiers pick up on our stress level?
Luke 12: What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax.
Most Sundays I arrive at church early, meeting with friends for coffee and prayer. Usually, as we’re praying I can hear the church “waking up” as folks start arriving. Generally, I like what I hear. I’m a real fan of happy chatter, children playing, folks sounding glad to see one another. Sometimes, though, I can tell that the morning isn’t going well for some. They’ve met with some issue or another on the way to church. Maybe there’s some family argument going on. Others have things to take care of when they get to church. They arrive and want to get past the friendly greetings as quickly as possible so they can hurry and make copies before their class begins. I appreciate their dedication but wish I could get them to relax a bit. In the passage I’m reading today Jesus notes that some people are always worried about one thing or another. His examples aren’t just frivolous stuff either. They’re concerned about having food to eat and clothes to wear. In soothing tones our Lord points to how God supplies the needs of nature and assures them that they’re more valuable to him than all else. I understand that life brings unexpected, last minute concerns to us so I’m not being critical of those folks who anxiously wait for the copier to warm up. Still, I have the idea that their day will go much better if they’ll make it their practice to join us in prayer, enjoying some quiet time in the presence of the Lord before launching into a busy Sunday morning.
Take Away: If I view the Lord as a stern unyielding judge I have every reason to be stressed – if I see him as my loving Heavenly Father I can rest in the assurance of his provision for me.
Persisting in prayer
Luke 11: Ask and you’ll get; Seek and you’ll find; Knock and the door will open.
After teaching the disciples to pray Jesus tells them a story to illustrate how persistence in prayer works. A man goes to his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night asking to borrow some food so he can feed an unexpected guest. However, the neighbor calls out through the closed door that he’s in bed and he doesn’t want to wake up the whole family to answer the request. The man at the door, though, is persistent and is also somewhat perplexed. His need is real and his friendship with his neighbor is genuine. Not only that, but he knows his friend has the resources to meet his need. Perplexed or not, his faith in the good will and resources of his friend is unshaken. He doesn’t know why his friend doesn’t respond right off, but he persists, knocking again and again until his neighbor responds. Now, this story is told by our Lord to teach us to stay with it when we pray. The minor detail of the reluctant neighbor being in bed, etc. isn’t what this story is about. Obviously, unanswered prayer isn’t the result of the Lord taking a nap. The role of the Almighty is not in play here. This little illustration is about us. When I have a need, I can go directly to the Lord with that need. I go in assurance that he welcomes me to do so, and in faith that he has all the resources necessary to meet that need. With good will and faith I ask. On those occasions when the answer doesn’t come, Jesus tells me that it’s not against the rules for me to ask again. After all, like the man in the story, my need is real and I’m certain that my Neighbor can meet that need and that he’s my friend. I don’t understand why he hasn’t yet responded, but I do understand his good will toward me. So what do I do? I ask again: humbly, in faith, and probably with a bit more urgency. Asking again doesn’t show a lack of faith. In fact, it’s an affirmation of it.
Take Away: It’s nice when prayers are answered immediately, but when they aren’t it is okay for me to ask again, and again, if necessary.
Luke 10: Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.
When their friend Jesus arrives everyone at Martha’s house is excited. They love Jesus and they can’t think of anything better than spending some quality time with him. Mary is quite literal about that. She stays in the room where Jesus is, hanging on his every word. Martha, though, feels a sense of responsibility to make her guest comfortable. In fact, she’s frustrated with her sister for not pitching in and helping with the meal Martha’s preparing in honor of Jesus and his disciples. It’s as she busies herself with these practical matters that frustration grows to the point that having Jesus there becomes secondary to her feeling of aggravation. I can just imagine it: many people, including Mary, are in the living room listening to Jesus when the door bursts open and there stands Martha. Without meaning to, she interrupts Jesus, demanding that he order Mary to help her. Our Lord responds to her with an ever so gentle rebuke. I’m so glad that his rebuke is a gentle one because I identify with Martha. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no cook and I’m certainly not known for having the gift of hospitality. However, I do sometimes get so focused on the nuts and bolts of things that I miss the big picture. Maybe you’re like that too. Maybe you can’t give yourself fully to the worship service because the guy running the video keeps getting the words out of sync. Maybe you spot cobwebs under a pew or notice that one light bulb in the chandler is still burned out. If you tend to focus on stuff like that you have to join me in appreciating the fact that the rebuke Jesus gives to Martha is, at least, a mild one.
Take Away: Sometimes it takes a bit of self-discipline to focus on Jesus rather than some of the minor distractions of life.
The other view of Jesus
Luke 9: The appearance of his face changed and his clothes became blinding white.
In Jesus we see God and man. He is, at the same time fully God and fully man. As he goes about his ministry he does so as man. Here’s humanity as the Lord intended. Jesus trusts and obeys his Father implicitly. He performs miracles, not by drawing from his power and authority as God, but as a man who relies on his Heavenly Father and is thus empowered to do miracles. Then, we arrive at the Mount of Transfiguration. For a short time it’s God in this God-man who’s evident. There’s light such as the disciples have never seen. Then, there’s fellowship with two spiritual giants of the past, Moses and Elijah. The Lord God in the person of Jesus discusses the coming events in Jerusalem with two great men of the past. I’m not saying I understand all that’s going on here. Still, it’s my feeling that throughout most of our Lord’s ministry I see, in Jesus, humanity as was intended at Creation. In this case though, I see God breaking through in such a way that skin and bones can hardly contain him. The disciples experiencing this are speechless. Now, more than 2000 years later I read of this event and struggle to find words to describe what I see happening.
Take Away: The Jesus I see on the Mount of Transfiguration is the same Jesus he always is, but here, I see him in a way I haven’t seen him before.
How much I have and how much does what I have have me
Luke 8: There were also some women in their company.
The ministry of Jesus is in full swing here in the North. Jesus teaches, heals, and performs other miracles. He’s now traveling from place to place leading a large band of dedicated followers. Of course, we see the disciples in that number but also several women are in his entourage. These women, we’re told, have stories of deliverance to tell. They’re also major financial supporters of this ministry. I think it’s instructive to remember this as I read later on of Jesus telling the rich young ruler to give it all away and then follow. Apparently, these women are, at the same time, wealthy and followers of Jesus. They haven’t been instructed to give it all away. As I think about this I realize that the problem isn’t how much money the young man has, but is, rather, how much the money has the young man. These women who accompany Jesus use their resources for his work. I think it’s important to realize the balance that’s required of us who follow the Lord. Anything that comes between him and me needs to be cast off. All else is to be laid at the feet of Jesus, a part of my living my life in him.
Take Away: Having money isn’t the big deal. The big deal is when my money has me.
A ruined dinner party
Luke 7: I forgive your sins.
It’s intended to be a formal dinner in the home of a community leader. However, some of the formality is waved off. After all, Simon thinks Jesus ought to be impressed and humbled that a common person like Jesus is even invited to the home of a Pharisee. Then, to Simon’s surprise this disgusting woman has managed to slip into the room. Some servant will pay the price for that! She ruins Simon’s nice dinner party. Not only is he scandalized that such a person would dare enter his very house, but she’s dominating the moment. With all this foolishness going on how can he properly impress his guests? Jesus is obviously uncomfortable with her groveling at his feet, but he’s clearly moved by her sorrow. Maybe Jesus doesn’t know her story? Its then that Jesus speaks first as a teacher and then as a Savior. This woman is overwhelmed by her sins. Simon has missed the point because he doesn’t see himself as a sinner. Jesus then turns his attention to this poor, grieving woman and says the greatest words she’s ever heard: “I forgive your sins.” Simon hears blasphemy, she hears salvation. In this story, do I best identify with Simon or with this miserable sinner?
Take Away: We tend to see ourselves as the “good people” in Gospel stories, maybe, though, we’re supposed to recognize ourselves as those who aren’t so good.
Drinking from a fire hose
Luke 6: Our Father is kind; you be kind.
Reading the Sermon on the Mount is like trying to get a drink from a fire hose. It’s not like the parables in which there’s a story followed by the lesson. Instead, there’s one wonderful, challenging, powerful concept after another. As I try to write a devotional for each chapter of the New Testament the challenge is not finding something to write about. Rather, it’s trying to dip into the huge stream of material and grab just one concept out of all the concepts and get my mind and heart around it. Right now I’m focusing in on how our Lord says we’re to relate to our enemies. I can’t help but note that Jesus doesn’t talk about how we’re to respond “if” we have enemies. He apparently takes it for granted that some folks aren’t going to like us and some will go so far as to wish us harm. What am I to do about such people? First, Jesus says, I’m to pray for them (“respond with the energies of prayer”). Second, I’m to return good for evil (“practice the servant life”). Third, I’m to have genuine love for them (“love your enemies”). Fourth, I’m to go easy on them (“be easy on people”). Fifth, I’m to realize I’m not so wonderful myself (“wipe that ugly sneer off your own face”). The key to my relationship to my enemy, according to Jesus is “kindness.” The measure of that kindness is the kindness our Father shows to us. “Oh Lord, let me live a life that reflects your kindness to me, even when I deal with people who aren’t very kind to me.”
Take Away: The Lord is quite interested in how we treat people who don’t treat us well.
So where’s Jesus now?
Luke 5: As often as possible Jesus withdrew to out-of-the-way places for prayer.
This statement about the prayer habit of Jesus sticks out like a sore thumb in this passage. It feels as if it was just tossed in after the fact, maybe written while Luke was thinking of what to next tell us about the ministry of Jesus. We’ve just heard Jesus preach while sitting in Simon’s boat and then watched as, under the command of Jesus, Simon and partners have caught a huge haul of fish. Now Jesus is healing a man with leprosy and soon he’ll be surrounded by people seeking healing and with Pharisees seeking arguments. Right in the middle of all this action is this one liner about Jesus slipping away for prayer. Obviously, this is more than random filler from Luke. He wants me to connect the mighty acts of Jesus with his secret prayer life. As his teaches and heals God’s power flows out of him. In his secret prayer life God’s power is replenished in him. This is no chance thought of Luke’s. Rather, he’s providing me with insight into the power source of our Lord. Another devotional thought here is that in spite of the fact that Jesus is a busy man he makes time for prayer. When the last needy person has been satisfied and these new disciples find themselves and Jesus finally alone they expect to enjoy some quality time with their Lord, or at least some down time before it all starts again in the morning. James and John look around and realize Jesus isn’t there. “Where’s Jesus?” they ask. “He’s down by the lake,” Peter answers, adding, “He said something about needing some time alone.” This is to become a daily pattern that the disciples will come to expect. If it’s good for Jesus it’s good for me too.
Take Away: There’s always time, and the necessity, for prayer.