Sometimes God answers right now!
Acts 12: The house was packed with praying friends.
Herod decides it’s time to put the followers of Jesus in their place. He murders one of them, James, brother of John. Then he arrests Peter, intending to publicly execute him. However, Herod has heard some of the stories of miracles and he well remembers how the body of Jesus somehow escaped the tomb so he assigns sixteen guards to the fisherman. Two are actually chained to him. Meanwhile, the Church prays like it’s never prayed before. God hears and sends an angel to rescue Peter from the jail and the clutches of wicked Herod. Poor servant Rhonda gets the laugh line every time this story is told. She gets so excited that their prayers are answered that she leaves Peter standing in the street. I’m sure she laughed about it herself in the years to come. When God answers prayer like that, in such a surprising and timely way, even the most faith filled prayer warrior might get a bit confused. I can just imagine years later as various people who were present at that prayer meeting gather with friends for prayer. Someone brings a seeming impossible request, maybe with a bit of defeat already mixed in. That’s when one of those prayer warriors from this passage speaks up. “Don’t count God out. Why, I remember a time when Peter was being guarded by sixteen soldiers….” Everyone already knows the story but no one wants it to stop. Answered prayers feed faith. We need to cherish some of the really good answers and draw strength from them. In fact, we need to use them to encourage those who need a “faith-lift” as they pray over some difficult situation.
Take Away: Answered prayers feed faith.
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.
Awe, Mom, not yet!
John 2: This isn’t my time. Don’t push me.
Jesus begins his public ministry, calling disciples and preparing for all that’s to come. However, there are also some family concerns. For one thing, there’s a wedding invitation for him and his new disciples. Apparently, the groom is a relative of Jesus and not only is Jesus there but so is his mother. The banquet is a big deal and when the wine starts to run low the groom and his family are in jeopardy of losing face because of it. It’s their job to provide the refreshments and to run out of wine is unthinkable. Mary, the mother of Jesus, realizes what’s going on and turns to her son, telling him to take care of it. Jesus declines to help, saying, “Mother, this really isn’t any of our business and I need to keep a low profile right now.” His response flows off his Jewish mother like water off a duck’s back. In fact, she doesn’t even respond to her Son. Instead, she looks to the nearby servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” With that, she walks off, returning to the wedding party. Jesus is, of course Lord: King of kings. He’s also his mother’s Son. If there’s a passage that illustrates the humanity of this God-man I think it’s this one. He’s not ready to start working miracles, but if that’s what his mom wants, well, he’ll do it for her. Aside from this being the inspiration for a Mother’s Day sermon that’s bound to get rave reviews from all the moms in attendance I don’t know what to do with this observation. Still, I think it adds a whole new dimension to the story.
Take Away: It’s important to remember the humanity of Jesus.
When Jesus shows mercy
Luke 18: Jesus! Son of David! Mercy, have mercy on me!
On the outskirts of Jericho a poor blind man spends his day listening for the sound of footsteps that he might beg for some loose change from some passing person. On this day, though, voices raised in excitement are drawing near and he begins shouting out the question, “What’s going on?” Finally, someone responds, “Its Jesus of Nazareth, the miracle worker. He and his disciples are coming this way.” The blind man begins shouting at the top of his voice, “Jesus! Son of David! Mercy, have mercy on me!” Several tell him to be quiet and the sound of the crowd nearly drowns him out anyway. He shouts all the louder, “Have mercy on me!” Then, a calm, authoritative voice is heard. Jesus is right there in front of him. “What do you want from me?” he asks. The blind man answers, “Master, I want to see again.” “Okay, do it,” Jesus replies. Light, color, and movement flood in as sight is restored. As I read this story, I’m the blind man. Life is empty, desperate, and hopeless. Then, Jesus passes by. In my own words, I shout out “Have mercy on me!” And he does. Thank you, Lord, for your light giving mercy in my life.
Take Away: Its mercy we need and its mercy we receive from the Lord.
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.
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.
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.
Mark 8: Keep a sharp eye out for the contaminating yeast of the Pharisees.
Huge, undeniable miracles are being worked by Jesus every day. He’s just finished feeding 4000 with just seven loaves of bread and he’s about to give sight to a blind man. Meanwhile, his approach is angering the most religious people: the Pharisees. One of their number demands that Jesus do a miracle for him. Jesus refuses and promises that this man will never see one. You’d think that Jesus and the Pharisees would be best friends. These religious leaders are knowledgeable, committed, and faithful. Many of their traits fit perfectly with Jesus’ call that people take up their cross and follow him. However, instead of being some of the most exemplary disciples in the world they become the source of pain and division. They end up killing Jesus and then, after the resurrection, trying to kill the Church. Jesus, after his encounter with this specific Pharisee, warns his disciples about the danger of being contaminated by them. It’s a very short journey from being radically in love with Jesus to being radically in love with one’s beliefs about Jesus. It’s all too easy to take one’s eyes off him and to start looking around at other followers and deciding that they don’t quite measure up. Just down the page from this incident, Peter first confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and is almost immediately told by the Lord that he’s acting as Satan. Listen, it’s easier than we think it is to be contaminated by the yeast of the Pharisees. Long after their branch of Judaism has dried up, their legacy of division lives on.
Take Away: I want to love Jesus and avoid being too much in love with my opinions and beliefs about him.
Power packed words
Mark 5: Don’t listen to them; just trust me.
Jesus arrives in the seaside village by boat and is greeted by a large, enthusiastic crowd. One of those seeking our Lord’s attention is a respected member of the community, Jairus. His daughter is very sick and he asks Jesus to come and heal her. Jesus agrees, but along the way a woman “steals” a miracle, touching the fringe of Jesus’ clothes. This delays Jesus and, while everyone else is enjoying the miracle the woman experienced, Jairus receives the bad news that it’s too late and his daughter has died. It’s now that Jesus tells Jairus to ignore their words and trust him. The Lord goes to his home and in a private audience raises the twelve year old back to life. The words of the Lord to Jairus speak to my heart today. How often the voices of circumstance or experience sadly report that there’s nothing that will help and I might as well throw in the towel and cope as best I can. In the midst of discouragement Jesus says, “Don’t listen. Don’t give up and don’t doubt. Instead, look at me. Focus; remember who I am and what I can do. Remember that I love you and I wouldn’t let you get into this situation if I didn’t have the authority to see you through it. Trust me.” These brief words to Jairus are packed with power and hope.
Take Away: Remember who Jesus is; look to him even in the impossible moments of life.
Friends of Jesus
Mark 3: His friends heard what was going on and went to rescue him, by force if necessary.
We don’t know anything about Jesus’ life from his childhood until he appears on the scene to begin his ministry. Apparently, he has some friends who like him and want to protect him. As Jesus explodes in popularity they’re concerned about him. People are constantly crowding in, bringing their needs to him, and demanding his attention. Jesus doesn’t even have time to eat. His friends decide that Jesus has gotten carried away by all that’s happening. If necessary, they’ll act unilaterally to rescue Jesus from the crowds. As far as I can tell nothing ever comes of it. When the mother and brothers of Jesus show up he turns it into a teaching moment: “he went back to teaching.” On one hand, I see here that Jesus knows what he’s doing and doesn’t need me or anyone else to explain things to him. On the other hand, though, I’m taken with these unknown friends of Jesus. In a day when everyone wants a piece of Jesus here’s a group of people who only want to take care of him. On this day, their conclusion is wrong, but I’m impressed with their hearts. I understand that I’m a needy person and that the greatest needs of my life can only be met by my Lord. At the same time, I want to be his friend. It’s not that I think he needs me to protect him, but I do think he appreciates it if I just want to be in his presence; to enjoy just knowing him, no miracle required.
Take Away: Am I a friend of Jesus?