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.
Letting the Pharisees have it
Matthew 23: They talk a good line, but they don’t live it.
This is the chapter in which Jesus nails the Pharisees. In line after line he pronounces judgment on them. They, who know more about the Laws of the Old Testament than anyone else, have strained all the grace and mercy out of it, leaving only a brittle, unyielding, damning crust. They load people down with all that while stripping away the very essence of God. Rather than pointing the way to a living relationship with a good, loving, and gracious God they point to rules and regulations and assured failure and doom. To say it gently, Jesus thinks these rule-making, burden-loading, grace-denying individuals are bad people. We Christians need to pay careful attention to this. We understand that living in the Lord means that we abstain from some things and pursue others. However, if that approach becomes the dominant one; if keeping all the rules becomes the definition of who we are in God; if we come to believe that “knowing about” God is our primary calling, then we’ve taken a dangerous step toward the religion of the Pharisees. In contrast to that brittle religion our Lord pictures God’s desire for people as being like that of the mother hen who extends her embrace to her chicks. If we lose sight of that and make the “hard side” the main element of our relationship with the Lord we have more in common with the Pharisees than we might want to think.
Take Away: Christianity is more about love and grace and mercy than it is about knowing all the right things and keeping a list of rules.
Really, it’s God’s business and not mine
Matthew 20: Can’t I do what I want with my own money?
Jesus tells the story of a man who hires day laborers. Early in the morning he hires a group, promising them a certain wage. As the day goes on, he continues to add workers with some only working the last hour of the day. When the workers are paid, all receive the amount promised the workers who first hired on and have worked all day long. Some of them complain that since they worked longer and harder that they should be paid more. The answer is that they’re being paid exactly what was agreed when they were hired and it’s no business of theirs what the boss does with his own money. This, I think, is a picture of God’s grace to us. I understand that no one is deserving of God’s blessings, but obviously, some are more deserving than others. However, the Lord wants to bless each and every one. At the Judgment there will be some who gave their lives to Jesus while they were young and then served the Lord many years. Others will be there who barely made it in, maybe due to a death bed conversion. The grace of God will be extended to all who were willing to receive it. After all, it’s his grace and he can do with it whatever he wants.
Take Away: The very definition of grace includes the concept that it’s given to the undeserving.
The way to forgiveness
Matthew 12: If Satan banishes Satan is there any Satan left?
It’s really about the Sabbath. The religious leaders have taken “Remember the Sabbath day” and turned it into a heavy burden laid on the backs of the people. Even picking a piece of fruit to eat is considered to be a transgression. Jesus responds with examples from their own law and history proving that they’re wrong. He goes on healing people, even on the Sabbath. When a demon-afflicted woman is set free the critics of Jesus sputter that he must be in cahoots with the devil. Our Lord responds that if they say that about him what do they say about their own exorcists? Beyond that, it’s a silly contention anyway. If Satan casts out Satan there wouldn’t be anything of Satan left. He then deals with the opposite side of the same coin. If the Holy Spirit is the One who forgives sins and we cast the Holy Spirit out of lives, how can we ever expect to be forgiven our sins? Its serious business isn’t it. We’re sinners in need of forgiveness. There’s one who forgives. Throw him out and we’re left without hope. Stated differently, there’s one road to forgiveness, if I refuse to travel that road, there’s no way I can ever arrive at forgiveness. The way to God is abundant and grace-filled, offering hope to the worst sinner. Still, it’s the only way. I can take it or leave it, but if I leave it, I’m left with nothing.
Take Away: We have, in Christ, hope abundant, but aside from Christ we have no hope at all.
The banquet table of God’s grace
Matthew 8: This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions.
In these early days of our Lord’s public ministry his popularity and reputation soars. He’s not only preaching the greatest message ever heard but he’s also performing miracle after miracle. His name’s on everyone’s lips. In Capernaum a Roman officer comes to ask Jesus to help his servant. This man, a conqueror, impresses us with his humility and his love for his slave. Even more impressive, though, is his faith. When Jesus offers to accompany the Roman to see his slave the Roman suggests that Jesus just give the command, then and there. Jesus is surprised at such a depth of faith from an “outsider.” Later in this same chapter he’ll chastise his Jewish disciples for being afraid in a storm; after all they’re supposed to know more about how God works. This officer, though, surprises Jesus with his simple trust. Not only does Jesus do a “long distance” act of healing, he also comments that this Roman soldier is among the first of what will be a flood of “outsiders” who’ll place their faith in him and be counted among heroes of the faith like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I love this story because it’s about me. You see, that Roman captain might have been one of the first, but I’m one of those who followed his lead. Jesus predicted this and now I’m one of the outsiders who have made their way to that “banquet table of grace.”
Take Away: How blessed to be invited to the banquet table of God’s grace.
The Perfect Sermon
Matthew 5: Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
In one glorious Sermon Jesus sums up the life to which God calls us. In every word we hear pure gold. It’s in retrospect that I realize that this beautiful, perfectly constructed Sermon challenges me at every level of my life. This chapter of the Sermon touches on everything from how to be blessed, to heavy topics like murder, adultery and divorce. Jesus deals with the promises we make and our relationships with our enemies. Obviously, the religion he teaches isn’t merely about “me and God.” Just about every word in this perfect Sermon is about “me and you.” It concerns my relationship with people I like (and maybe like too much according to the section on adultery) and people I don’t like (I’m to settle things with my old enemy quickly before things get even worse). He sums up this first part of the Sermon by teaching me to live “generously and graciously.” Rather than protecting my turf I’m to think the best of people and be generous in my dealings with them. This pretty Sermon has teeth. It’s supposed to work out here in the real world. And, just so I clearly understand the measure of this gracious, generous life style, Jesus tells me that I’m to treat others in the same gracious, generous way God treats me. I need to spend a whole lot of time here at the Sermon on the Mount.
Take Away: The Christian life is as much about “me and you” as it’s about “God and me.”
God, golf, and grace
Zechariah 10: They’ll get a fresh start, as if nothing had ever happened.
I’m not a golf historian, so I may not have the story right, but I understand that in days of old a golfer who had not had the opportunity to warm up on the driving range was allowed to declare his first shot off the tee to be a “mulligan.” That meant it was going to be a practice shot and wouldn’t count. The “mulligan” morphed into an after-the-fact point of grace, first, for the opening shot only and then to any one tee shot during the round. I’ve even played golf with some folks who took however many “mulligans” they wanted. My response has always been, “You can take as many second shots as you want as long as you don’t brag about your score!” I’m reminded that out in real life we don’t get many mulligans. Once in a while we do, for instance, when the traffic cop lets us off with a warning. However, if my poor driving has resulted in a car wreck the clock can’t be turned back and there’s no mulligan for me. God’s man Zechariah has good news for Israel. The Lord’s going to give them another chance. He’s going to gather this scattered nation from all the places where it’s landed and give it a fresh start. We serve a God who graciously gives nations and individuals second chances. When I confess my sin and failure and return to the Lord, I find that he delights in forgiving me and restoring me to his family. In golf, the mulligan is just an unofficial part of a game. With God, it’s the real deal and it happens only because of his grace.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Sorting out a passage and finding at its core: grace
Haggai 2: From now on you can count on a blessing.
“Temple fever” is sweeping the nation as governor Zerubbabel and his people give themselves to the rebuilding project. One group that’s especially energized is the priests who’ve served without a Temple. They’re sure things are going to be much better once the Temple is restored. Haggai comes teach them a core spiritual truth and he does so by asking two questions. Question number one has to do with imparted holiness. If meat from a sacrifice is put into some priest’s pocket, it will make his robe holy, but what about other foods then touched by the robe? The priests respond that there’s no ripple effect concerning what other foods the robe might touch. Therefore, those foods remain unholy. The second question concerns the flip side of things. If a person touches a corpse, becoming ceremonially unclean and then touches various foods, do they also become unclean? The answer is “yes” – the “uncleanness” is imparted to whatever that person touches. Haggai then tells them that the sacrifices they’ve been making haven’t been proper because of their spiritual failure. The sin of not rebuilding the Temple has impacted all they’ve done, making them all worthless. Even as a person who touches a corpse makes all they touch unclean, so has their disobedience concerning the rebuilding of the Temple had a negative impact on all their religious practices. The flip side, which I wish Haggai had more clearly stated, is just as disturbing. Just offering proper sacrifices in the rebuilt Temple isn’t going to have the hoped for ripple effect of making the entire nation holy. It’s like the robe touched by the sanctified meat. It’s made holy but that’s as far as it goes. Touching other things with that robe won’t make them also holy. In other words, rebuilding the Temple isn’t a cure-all. Still, the prophet has some wonderful, and educational, news. From the moment they returned to God he began to bless them. His blessings weren’t a result of their making the right kind of sacrifices; in fact, they weren’t the right kind. Rather the blessings were the result of his grace. As I read this especially confusing little passage I come away with a better grasp of this truth: sin has contaminated our entire lives, making us exempt from any hope of self-manufactured holiness. Even when I return to God, my renewed commitment to him will still come up short because of the contamination of sin that has ruled my life. However, I’m not without hope because of God’s grace. He blesses me, not because I’ve managed to restore all that was broken but because he chooses to respond to my surrender to him with wonderful grace.
Take Away: The blessings of the Lord are the result of his grace.
The God of grace
Nahum 1: He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.
Even as the prophet prepares to deliver his sermon of condemnation on the mighty nation of Assyria he can’t help but rejoice in the grace and mercy of God. This same God who declares his judgment on those who reject his claim on their lives has nothing but good news for those who turn to him for help. In fact, the Lord is drawn to such people. I love the fact that even in these portions of the Old Testament that appear to be focused on God as Judge of the World that there are these beautiful word pictures of him as the God of Grace. Nahum declares that “no matter how desperate the trouble” that God is more than willing to “recognize and welcome” all who come to him. In an uncertain world I need such a Savior. I’m reminded in this passage that I don’t have to come to God and convince him that I’m worthy of his help in my life. Instead, I see that he stands ready to extend his mercy to me. In the parable of the prodigal son, the returning son expects to have to make concessions, to take a lowly role if he wants to, once again, have a place in the Father’s household. Instead, the Father runs to him, embraces him, and immediately begins celebrating his return. Hundreds of years before Jesus ever tells this story, Nahum understands this about God, declaring, “He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.”
Take Away: The Lord stands ready to extend his mercy to us.
Why Jonah Runs
Jonah 4: I knew you were sheer grace and mercy.
Jonah runs because he understands what God’s all about and because his heart doesn’t beat with God’s heart. He knows that in spite of the message of condemnation and destruction the Lord gives him to preach that the very reason he’s sent to Nineveh is that God doesn’t want to destroy that city at all. Here are the things Jonah knows about God: his attitude toward lost people is one of grace; he delights in being merciful, he’s not easily angered; and he’s rich in love toward the lost. Jonah also knows that when it comes to judgment God always stands ready to change his mind. Since Jonah knows these things about God and since he’s so out of sync with God, he’d rather be dead than be instrumental in God’s extending mercy to his enemies. Also, Jonah knows that many of his countrymen agree with him. Once people find out that Jonah went to Nineveh to warn them and that he’s instrumental in God’s deciding not to destroy them his life won’t be worth a plug nickel. It’s a miserable thing to be filled with hate and to be used as an instrument of God’s love. I see here that God loves the lost to the point that he’ll do almost anything to reach them. If he has to use a hard-hearted prophet and a big fish to do it, then that’s what he’ll do. If I’m going to be a partner with God in what he’s doing in this world, I’m going to have to allow him to love people with that kind of abandon through me.
Take Away: The Lord loves the lost to the point that he’ll do almost anything to reach them.