Giving credit where credit is due
Acts 3: Faith and nothing but faith put this man healed and whole right before your eyes.
Peter and John are on their way to a prayer meeting when they encounter a pitiful lame man at the Temple gate. Peter has no money but he does have faith in Jesus’ power to heal. By that faith the man is wonderfully healed. This healing causes quite a commotion and a crowd gathers. It’s now that Peter brings a quick sermon giving Jesus all the glory for the healing and calling on his listeners to put their faith in this Jesus who makes a real difference in people’s lives. As I watch all this unfold I can’t help but wonder how good a job I do of giving Jesus the credit. Here’s what I think: Christians do a wonderful job of giving the Lord credit for organized, intentional ministries. We make sure that people helped through official channels know that we’re ministering to them in Jesus’ name. On the other hand, I don’t think we do a very good job when we minister in unofficial ways. I fear that often people just think we’re nice folks because we take it for granted that they know we’re acting as representatives of Jesus. We need to develop a better strategy along these lines. I need to come up with a line to say when, for instance, I stop to help my neighbor carry some bit of heavy trash to the curb for pickup. When he says “thanks” I need to be ready to say something about my being a follower of Jesus and I just try to do stuff I think he’d do. It may not always be appropriate and it’s probably not a time for me to preach a sermon like Peter does in this passage, but then again, helping carry a worn out clothes dryer to the curb isn’t as big a deal as healing someone like he did.
Take Away: Christians need a strategy for giving Jesus the credit for simple acts of kindness they do it his name.
Loved by God
John 16: The Father loves you directly.
Jesus has prayed for his disciples and he’s going to pray for them again. In fact, his great High Priestly prayer is about to begin. Still, he encourages his disciples to “make your requests directly to him” promising that the Father is ready and willing to hear and answer their prayers. The reason for this is because of their relationship with Jesus. Three years earlier they met Jesus. Some were out in the wilderness where John was baptizing; others were in Galilee as they went about their daily activities. They’ve now followed him for three years and during that time they’ve come to believe Jesus is the Son of God. In these final hours before everything changes, Jesus tells his disciples that the Father is quite pleased with them for believing in his Son. They’ve left all to follow him and they’ve loved Jesus and trusted in him and, because of that, their relationship with the Heavenly Father has changed in a wonderful way. From now on, when they pray to the Father, they’re authorized by the Father, himself, to pray in the Name of Jesus. They’ve loved Jesus, and now, the Father loves them all the more for it and they’re about to reap the benefits of being people who please the Father. I’m nothing close to equal to Peter or James or John, but I have this in common with them: I too love, trust, and follow Jesus. Because of that, in spite of my unworthiness and failure to really understand all that it means to me, I have the assurance that the Father “loves me directly.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I’ve had just a taste of it and what I’ve tasted is very good.
Take Away: It’s a powerful thing to be a person with whom the Father is pleased.
Journey to sight
John 9: “Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him.
His journey to physical sight contained multiple steps. He began the day blind, listening to a conversation between Jesus and his disciples about himself and his pitiful condition. Then, Jesus turns his full attention to himself. The Lord takes common dirt, spits in it to make a sort of mud plaster, and sends him to “Sent Pool” to wash. He obeys and he sees! Now, he finds himself at the heart of an inquiry being conducted by the religious leaders. In amazing callousness they’re more interested in the fact that the healing took place on the Sabbath than they are in the healing itself. When the once blind man is asked about his healer, he says he is a man named Jesus. Later on, he’s had time to think about what has happened, and when he’s asked a second time about his healer, he upgrades him from merely being a man who made mud to proclaiming him to be a prophet of God. Then, when he’s pressed on the issue yet again, he decides his healer ought to have disciples, that he’s a man from God. Finally, when he literally sees Jesus for the first time at their second meeting, he worships him. His journey to spiritual sight has taken multiple steps and he’s now ready to worship. Obviously, this spiritual journey is extraordinary. Still, in this story we’re reminded that people come to the Lord step by step. Who knows? My part in someone’s journey might simply be to direct them down the block to “Sent Pool.” Someone else will help them at other key points of their spiritual journey.
Take Away: Clearly, there is a crisis point in which people declare Jesus as “Master” in their life, but there are also plenty of other less dramatic points in that journey too.
John 6: He said this to stretch Philip’s faith. He already knew what he was going to do.
Those living around the Sea of Galilee are going crazy for Jesus. They follow him from place to place and when he isn’t around he’s the topic of conversation. Jesus is a celebrity. When Jesus sets up shop on a grassy hillside near the lake, the crowd swells to thousands. It’s at this point that Jesus calls Philip over to ask him where they can buy food to feed this huge number of people. Philip, practical to the core, quickly does the math, responding to Jesus that even if there was a bakery nearby that there’s no way that they can buy enough bread for this crowd. In an aside, the gospel writer tells us that the Lord already has a plan and that they only reason he asks this question to Philip is for Philip’s own benefit. Philip, though, at least at first, misses the lesson altogether. He quickly estimates the size of the crowd, considers the cost of bread, and comes up with a figure of 200 silver pieces which, rather being enough to pay the cost of actually feeding the people, would at least give them a bite to eat before going home. Apparently, Philip is a fine bean counter. He’d probably have been a better choice for treasurer than Judas! Still, Jesus knows what he’s doing. He knows that Philip is a practical person and that he needs to learn to trust the Lord to meet needs beyond his resources. Know what? I think I’m Philip and maybe you are too. I’ve sat in church board meetings in which the first response to everything wasn’t “Do you think this is what the Lord wants us to do?” but, instead was, “Can we afford it?” Philip needed to have his faith stretched. We practical people do too.
Take Away: We need to be people of faith first.
Slowing down, looking around the garden
Luke 24: So thick-headed!
The blazing truth of the resurrection is so bright that it overwhelms everything else in this passage; and well it should. After all, it’s the center piece of the gospel message. Still, since I’ve been here many times before I can afford to shade my eyes and look around a bit. Somewhere around the third or fourth level of importance I see a bit of a theme here. Right after the resurrection Jesus reminds the women that he told them that all this would happen. “Then they remembered Jesus’ words.” Then, the women to go the disciples with the best news ever told, but “the apostles didn’t believe a word of it.” Peter, though, goes to the tomb. He “walked away puzzled, shaking his head.” Later, Jesus himself joins two disciples on the way to Emmaus. They’re so clueless about everything that he calls them “thick-headed” and “slow-hearted.” That night Jesus appears to all his disciples at once, but “they still couldn’t believe what they were seeing.” All of this takes place following the resurrection. These people, followers of Jesus, his friends, his disciples, his supporters, struggle to get their heads and hearts around what this is all about. So, I sit here more than 2000 years after the fact reading, once again, the story of the resurrection. I can draw from a rich tradition of theology, doctrine, and scholarship of the Bible. Still, I wonder: do I really get it? Have I gotten so used to the blazing light of the resurrection that I fail to embrace it? If so, I need to stop everything else and go back to the garden and spend some time there.
Take Away: For the resurrection to matter to me I have to take time to get my heart around it and fully embrace it.
Big faith, little faith
Luke 17: There is no “more” or “less” in faith.
They’ve seen Jesus do amazing things. On some days he’s healed so many people that they couldn’t even keep track of them all. He’s fed thousands and walked on water. He then explains it all as the result of faith. They’re convinced so they ask Jesus to give them more faith. His response is that with faith there’s no such thing as more or less. You either have it or you don’t. A “little bit” of faith is as powerful as a “lot” of faith. At least that’s what I hear Jesus saying in this passage. At other times, though, Jesus talks about people having “great” faith and he sometimes chides the disciples for having “little” faith. Here’s what I think Jesus is saying: when I have faith I believe God can do anything. When I have great faith I apply that belief in some extraordinary way. It’s not my faith that’s large or small. Rather, it’s my application of what I already believe that can be “great” or “small.” Like the disciples, I don’t really need to believe in God more. I already believe that he is Almighty and acting in the world. However, also like the disciples, I do need to trust him with more of my life, even the areas that are so big and menacing that I tend to be overwhelmed by them.
Take Away: Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.
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.
Exactly, what prayer was that?
Luke 1: Your prayer has been heard.
For Zechariah it’s an once-in-a-lifetime event. He’s the priest who’ll enter the sanctuary and burn incense before the Lord. As he carefully and reverently goes about this task he sees movement to the right of the altar, then, out of nowhere an angel of the Lord appears. Zechariah would run if he could, but instead just stands there, eyes wide, mouth open, face to face with an archangel. The angel speaks reassuringly, and, to the old priest’s surprise, calls him by name. Then this angel adds, “Your prayer has been heard.” I wonder what thoughts raced through Zechariah’s mind in that instant. Here’s what I think: I imagine the old priest thinking, “What prayer is that?” You see, there was a time in his and Elizabeth’s lives when they prayed for a child most every day. They were young then and all the other couples they knew were having babies. However, time was passing and they remained childless. The years passed and they were no longer a young couple. They prayed about this less and then they gave up, disappointed but trusting God with their emptiness. Now, years later, when Gabriel says, “Your prayer has been answered” my guess is that the “baby prayer” is the farthest thing from Zechariah’s mind. Zachariah might have forgotten the prayer, but God hasn’t. Now, at the time that seems way too late for this senior adult couple, God is about to move. Once again I’m reminded that God’s ways aren’t my ways and his schedule isn’t my schedule. Beyond that, I see that God’s ways are the right ways and his time is always the right time. This realization has plenty of practical applications in my life today.
Take Away: Never doubt the power of prayer.
Mark 11: Pray for absolutely everything.
Jesus is a man of prayer. He prays in public and he prays in private. He teaches his disciples to pray. On this final trip to Jerusalem, he drives the sellers out of the Temple grounds because they’ve turned the Temple into a place of business instead of it being a “house of prayer for the nations.” After the miracle of the fig tree Jesus points the disciples to faith and prayer, remarking that the results can move mountains. Then, he teaches his listeners to not only ask in prayer, but to also forgive that they might be forgiven. Prayer, then, for followers of Jesus is central. Our places of worship are to be focused on prayer. We’re to deal with problems and disappointments by going to prayer. As we pray, we’re to allow the Lord to help us see our own hearts and to respond as he wants us to. It’s impossible to be truly Christian yet not pray. As the disciples asked we also ask: “Lord teach us to pray.”
Take Away: Prayer is the key.
Mark 9: Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!
The man is desperate to get help for his son who’s possessed by a demon causing the boy to have dangerous convulsions. He brings him to Jesus, pleading for help. However, Jesus is absent at the time. Some of the disciples, though, have had experience with such things. They’ve been commissioned by Jesus to do exactly what needs to be done. However, in spite of their efforts the condition of the child is unchanged. Just as the father is about to leave Jesus arrives and asks what’s going on. The man explains the need. As the boy is again thrown into a seizure, Jesus asks how long this has been going on and the man answers, adding, “If you can do anything, do it…help us!” Jesus calls the man to faith reminding him that there are no “ifs” in faith. I love the answer of the desperate father. For the sake of his son he’ll banish all the “ifs” and replace them with belief. Then, with transparent honestly, he pleads “Help me with my doubts!” Oh how I identify with this good man. With the hard facts so close at hand he struggles to get a grasp on absolute faith. As he says these words, he has a son trashing about on the ground and, right before him he has Jesus, the Miracle Worker. With every fiber of his being he wants to be doubt free. Apparently, that’s good enough for Jesus. An honest struggle for faith is enough faith for the impossible to happen. As I struggle with the hard realities of life in view of the claims of God’s grace and mercy I’m often like that father. Happily, I’m reminded here that the Lord does, indeed, help us with our doubts. Even a struggling faith has power in God’s eyes.
Take Away: An honest struggle for faith is enough faith for the impossible to happen.