Thursday, December 4, 2014

You don't know what it's like to be me.

Last night, two channels owned by the same company showed vastly different events happening literally blocks from one another. On NBC viewers could watch the lighting of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller center. Over on MSNBC (and every other cable news channel) viewers could witness protests that erupted just a few blocks down the street after a grand jury decided not to indict the officer involved in Eric Garner’s death. For many on social media, the disparity between the two videos was astounding.

At about the same time around thirty of us gathered for our weekly ritual of Bible study in a small classroom at Southland Baptist Church. We had our Bibles open to Job 9 and discovered that Christmas celebrations and protests over injustice may have more in common than we realize.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, Job was a righteous man who came under tremendous testing. His family died, his wealth vanished, his health failed so that by the time we find him in chapter 9, he is sitting in an ash heap with festering boils all over his body. He complains to his friends that God is too far removed from life on the ground to understand what it is like to be a suffering human being.

He laments:
     God is not a man like me – someone I could answer –
        so that we could come together in court.
     Oh, that there was a mediator between us;
        he would lay his hand on both of us. (9:32-33)
     Do you, [God], have physical eyes;
        do you see like a human?
     Are your days like those of a human,
        your years like years of a human,
        that you search for my wrongdoing and seek my sin? (10:4-5)

It’s a bold complaint to say the least, one most of us would consider sacrileges if it wasn’t right there in the Bible. That God includes this protest in the pages of Holy Scriptures surprises us. What should surprise us even more is that God listened to Job and answered his plea.

Job cried out, “God, you don’t know what it is like to be me.”

At Christmas, God answered, not with defensiveness, but with grace: “You are right Job. I don’t, but I am sending one who will find out. I’m sending one who will indeed be able to lay a hand on both of us, so that the gulf between us might be spanned.”

When I watch the news and the reaction to the news and the reaction to the reactions of the news, I get the feeling that almost all of us are standing around shouting out Job’s protest to one another.

African American’s are saying to their white neighbors, “You don’t know what it’s like to walk down the street as a black person, especially a black man, in America.”

Likewise, police officers are saying to those they are called to protect, “You don’t know what it’s like to go to work every day and risk your life to protect and serve.”

Both, I suppose, are correct. Most of us live out of our own perspective with little attempt to understand another’s point of view. At least, I know that's true for me far too often.

When we are accused of not being able to understand another’s perspective our tendency is to resort to defensiveness. Instinctively, we seek to protect our own point of view.

What would happen this Christmas, however, if we followed the pattern of Jesus? What would happen if we left the safety of our group, our people, our place and walked alongside a neighbor, black, white or brown, police or civilian, and simply asked, “Tell me, what it is like to be you?”

We might just discover that the Mediator between heaven and humanity can work through us to mediate between neighbors here on earth.


15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. – Romans 12:15-18

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Getting Our Political Speech Right

This summer, my congregation has been studying the book of James on Sunday morning.  In James 3:9-10, James diagnoses one of our greatest inconsistencies as Christians.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
As several church members have admitted, nowhere is this inconsistency of speech more apparent than in our political discourse. One of our problems is that we fail to remember that our politicians are actual people. Most of us don’t personally know our politicians so verbally attacking them feels more like attacking an idea than a person.

While any particular politician may function as a symbol of his or her party’s platform, that politician is first and foremost, a person. A person who, as James reminds us, is made in the image of God. If we are to take James’s word seriously, we must recognize that God takes our speech about other people seriously, even our speech about politicians.

What are we to do, then, in political discussions about politicians with whom we disagree, often vehemently? Here are some basic suggestions.
  1. Avoid personal, ad hominem attacks. None of us know the motivations of another person. While it is easy to assume that our political opponents have nefarious reasons for their actions, the far more likely explanation of their deeds is that they believe their party’s platform is the best course of action for the country. There’s no need to label a person as evil for simply holding a different political position than you do. Remember, James calls that kind speech evil!
  2. Take time to listen to the other person’s point of view. Recall James’s admonition earlier in the letter: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19). This applies to politics! When we understand another person’s point of view, we still may not agree with their policy decisions, but we will tend to see them as actual people with legitimate concerns. This alone will help lessen the temptation to verbally assault our political opponents.
  3. Focus the discussion on policies not personalities. Slandering people is easy. It is the political discourse of the lazy. It’s also 100% unhelpful. Life is complicated. The problems our country and this world face are multifaceted. We actually need good discussion about solutions. Good discussion focuses upon policies and not people. What policies do you disagree with? Why do you disagree with them? What policies do you think would be better? Where are points of agreement?
  4. Pray for your political opponents. Few actions help us remember that others are made in God’s image better than praying for them. If Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies, then it makes sense that we should pray for our political opponents, as well. And as one wise woman noted last night at Prayer Meeting, “What a difference it might make if we replaced all the mean spirited words we say about our political opponents with prayers!” I say a hearty “Amen” to that!
Looking over this list, I realize that living this out would not only help us take James’s words seriously, but also Jesus’s, who commanded us “In everything, do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do you share the Almighty's zipcode?

Right now in our country, a debate is raging concerning who belongs within the borders of our nation. While the answer to that question is more complex than most of the sound bites we hear on the news, it has me thinking about a discussion Jesus once had with a young religious man in Luke 10:25-37 concerning who belonged in the kingdom of God.

The man started the conversation by asking Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded by giving the man an opportunity to showcase his own knowledge by asking him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

The young quickly rattled off from memory the very Old Testament commandments that Jesus would say were the greatest of all: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Ask anyone in the crowd that day if the young lawyer resided in the kingdom of God and they likely would have said “You bet.” But Jesus knew better. He knew that having the right information in one’s head is not the same thing as being the right kind of person. So while our Savior acknowledged that the man had read the scriptures well, Jesus made clear that reading well wasn’t the key to participating in the Kingdom of God. One must also do what one has read in order to truly live.

That is after all what the young man asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus had caught him in his own words. This man knew what was right, but he didn’t do what was right. He liked the idea of loving God and loving others, but he didn’t actually like the practice of caring for other people, not once those people became up close and personal. If he’d had a computer, he probably could have clicked that he liked the Torah, and he liked loving God, and loving others. He might have even had a blog that talked about all the different ways a person could love God and love others. The problem was, he didn’t do any of them.

 The sharp, young lawyer realized that Jesus had exposed his hypocrisy, so he attempted to justify himself by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” It was one of those questions with no answer or rather a question with a thousand answers. This is a classic move by a hypocrite. When someone corners them into some possible action, they attempt to get into a big discussion about any number of details because frankly, talking is easier than doing. “Who is my neighbor?” was a question that could lead to endless amounts of talking. The religious leaders of that day spent lots of time talking about it. It was a question about boundaries – a question of who’s in and who’s out.

In that way, the question “Who is my neighbor?” is really the question of “Who isn’t my neighbor?” The young man basically wanted to know “Where does my neighborhood end? Where is that line that separates us from them? Where is the border that distinguishes those for whom I am responsible from those for whom I am not?”

You see, another favorite pastime of the self-centered is figuring out the bare minimum amount of work that is required in order to be considered a good person. Jesus wanted to expose this line of thinking as contrary to the life of faith. So he continues the conversation by telling a story. What initially looks like an answer to the man’s question ends up being an extended opening to another question. Jesus wants to move the conversation from asking, “Who is my neighbor?” or “Where does my neighborhood end?” to the far more important inquiry “Am I a part of God’s neighborhood? Am I a resident of the coming Kingdom of God?”

Jesus does this by first exposing the unhelpfulness of “Who is my neighbor?” kinds of questions with the story of a man who became a victim of the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbed of even his clothes, beaten, and left for dead we find ourselves with a man who has no identity other than his need. Is he neighbor, someone I know, or a foreigner? It’s hard to tell with all the bruises on his face. Is he a Jew or a Gentile? A respectable man or an outlaw, himself? Without clothes or other cultural markers one can’t be sure. It reminds us that the vast majority of the ways we divide one another up are pretty artificial. Naked and in need we’re all more alike than we care to admit.

One of the good things the Internet has done is open a window into our global neighborhood. While their once might have been a day when we could assume someone in Ghana or Syria or Columbia wasn’t our neighbor, that day is gone. A neighbor, as it turns out, is anyone God places in our lives who is in need.

As the story unfolds, Jesus continues to challenge assumptions by warning that just as it’s not always easy to recognize who our neighbors are, it is equally difficult to pick out those who are the neighbors of God. The two obvious residents of God’s subdivision, a priest and a Levite (perhaps coworkers of the young lawyer) each take turns happening upon the wounded man and each for reasons unknown, pass by on the other side without rendering aid.

Both of these men probably had good reasons for not rendering aid. It was dangerous. It was costly. Maybe they had important church meetings they needed to get to. Plus, there were other ways of helping besides actually helping. Ways that didn’t require so much risk. When they got back to town they would definitely blog about this, how dangerous the Jericho road had become. The Levite had even taken some pictures with his cell phone he was going to post to Instagram. The priest was going to start an online petition to get some lights installed on that stretch of highway. They’d start a Facebook group to protest the violence. They might even make a small donation to the local Jerusalem rescue mission and encourage the folks down there to open a branch on the Jericho road.

The Levite and the priest likely weren’t bad people. They were people like us. They were the equivalent of a Sunday School teacher and a deacon. No doubt, their hearts struggled with the decision to stop or not. Why didn’t they? Jesus doesn’t say and his silence indicates that their motivations for refusing to show compassion were irrelevant . . . whether ill or well intentioned, the outcome was the same. In Jesus’ eyes, idle compassion is no compassion at all.

In contrast to the Priest and the Levite Jesus introduces a Samaritan. For the original listeners, the Samaritan was a clear outsider, a religious heretic, and one whose country men have already shown themselves hostile to Jesus and his disciples just the chapter before. But this Samaritan acts against type and actually does something good. In fact, he does much good. Having compassion on the man, he tends to his wounds, places him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn where he cares for him all night long. He then gives two full days worth of wages to the inn keeper with the promise of more. To put that in perspective: If you make $50,000 a year, that’s like shelling over $400 on this complete stranger, and then leaving your credit card at the Hampton and saying, the man can have access to it the rest of the week! Jesus’ version of compassion is anything but idle.

Unlike the Levite and the Priest, the Samaritan practiced true compassion. He didn’t just like the idea of being compassionate. He didn’t just feel pity for the man and move on. He was a compassionate person. At the core of his character was this fruit of the Spirit – as a result, his actions flowed naturally from his character. Selfish characters are always looking to discover the absolute minimum that’s required to feel good about themselves. Truly generous people are always on the lookout for new opportunities to be generous to others. The question for us isn’t what’s the least I do to inherit eternal life, but how can I have more of the kingdom of God in my life right now. One of the clearest ways is to practice compassion towards those in need.

The young lawyer mistakenly believed he was already living in God’s kingdom, he just wanted to know what the dues were. Jesus said the kingdom operates from a different set of standards altogether. Who is a neighbor in God’s kingdom? Remarkably, not the ones with the best theology. Not the ones with the best answers. Not even the ones who send the most religious e-mails or quote the most Bible verses on their Facebook or Twitter feeds. No, the one who shared the same zip code as the Almighty according to Jesus was the one who shared in the Lord’s compassion for the wounded man. Even the lawyer could see that. The question remains though, did he go and do likewise? I wonder, will we?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Kevin Durant, a basketball player for the Oklahoma City Thunder just won the NBA’s MVP award. This award put him in elite company. A high basketball player has about a 1 in 11,300 chance of making an NBA squad. The chances of a high school basketball player growing up to be the NBA’s MVP is even more of a longshot: 1 in 8 million.

In an emotional speech, Durant thanked his mother for all she did to help him succeed in life. That included among other things, going without food on occasion so that he and his siblings would have enough to eat. That story is far too common. The odds of a child being food insecure right here in the United States: 1 in 5. Globally the number is closer to 1 in 4.

No mom should have to go hungry so her children have enough to eat. One way to make sure that happens in fewer households here in the U.S. and around the globe is to give generously to the Texas Baptist #LoveMomEndHunger campaign. 100% of the money given to this offering gets distributed to hunger alleviating ministries around the globe.

I hope you will give generously this year. The lives of children and their mothers will be changed for the better if you do.

Learn more and give at 

 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat – Matthew 25:35

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The more important task

This week my daughter spent the bulk of her week working on state standardized tests. These tests are a big deal in our schools with teachers stressing over them as much if not more than the children. As a result, many, many hours have been spent in preparation for test day. It's not just third graders who take tests. Much of our lives are spent taking exams. There's all those tests in school, entrance exams, exit exams, licensing exams, etc. Like I said, there are a lot of tests in life. For every test we take there are even more hours spent preparing for those tests.

It's understandable that many Christians approach the Christian life as if it is one big exercise in test preparation. They spend countless hours and endless effort trying to figure out all the right doctrinal  answers to every conceivable theological question. Because this is the preparation period, they often compare notes. The stress must be high, because when two of them disagree on an answer, they can get very upset with each other. Friendships have been severed, churches have been split, and wars have begun over two people, both committed Christians, arriving at different answers to some theological question.

Now, thinking right thoughts about God is important, but from what I can tell, there's no extensive entrance exam (or exit! depending on your perspective) when we finish this life other than whether or not we have acknowledged Christ as Lord. While lots of the topics we discuss and disagree over are important, they pale in comparison to God's chief concern for our lives: that we love one another.

Take for instance Paul's discussion in Romans 14-15 concerning the issue of whether or not Christians should be able to eat certain foods or not. This was a big issue in Paul's day. Paul had a strong opinion about that topic. He believed that there were no dietary restrictions for any Christians. And yet, in these chapters, Paul recognizes that there were Christians who held a different position than he did. Remarkably, Paul didn't spill much ink attempting to convince these Christians to think like he thought. Instead, he writes to the people who already shared his opinion challenging them to show deference to those who held a different opinion!

At least in the example provided in Romans 14-15, at the end of the day what mattered most wasn't one's answer to the test question, but whether or not one had practiced love towards your neighbor. That's a far cry from the way so many of us approach theological questions or even the Christian life as a whole.

What difference would it make in our lives if we thought of the Christian life primarily as the practice of loving one another instead of a life spent practicing for some final, cosmic exam? 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday: The man in the ditch

In John’s gospel, Maundy Thursday begins with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. When Jesus gets to Peter, Peter refuses. It’s remarkable how difficult it is for good, religious people to receive help and care from other people. They are used to being in the position of being the helper not the helped. Whether we like to admit it or not, being the helper is a position of power. It’s a good kind of power, mind you, but it’s power nonetheless. Being the one who is being helped places us in the position of being powerless. Most of us hate being powerless.

I was reminded of this recently during a conversation with a group of preachers. We were talking about all the different ways we preach the parable of the Good Samaritan. Usually, when we preach that passage, we preach it from the perspective of those who either give or refuse to give help. We preachers are always calling people to be like the Good Samaritan, to be the kind of people who help their neighbors. While these are good sermons, they are ultimately sermons about using our power for good.

While that is an important and essential point of the lesson, one of my preacher friends suggested that the passage could also be preached from the perspective of the man in the ditch. This is a sermon about being powerless. This is a sermon about receiving help, even from unlikely sources. The man in the ditch was likely a Jewish person. What did he think about being helped by a Samaritan? He may have been so near death that it didn’t matter that it was an enemy who offered him help. On the other hand, the ethnicity of his helper may have tormented him more than the beating. The text doesn’t say. I know plenty of people who are willing to help people they don’t actually like but would be beside themselves if they had to receive help from those same people. Remember, the helper is the one with the power. All of us have people to whom we’d rather not grant the power of service.

Peter didn’t want to cede power to a God who was willing to make a fool of himself in front of others. I confess that I’m the same. I want a God who keeps to protocol. I want a God who avoids embarrassing me in front of other people. What I get is a God who doesn’t care about such things. He is a God who cares about me, though. The question is will I receive his help? What if his help comes from a source that embarrasses me? What if his help comes from someone I consider an enemy?

Maundy Thursday reminds us that to be a part of Christ, we must be willing to receive not just the help we want from God but also all the help he wants to give: even when his help embarrasses us; even when it exposes the worst parts of us; even when it reveals the parts of us that we keep hidden from everybody else like our preference for power over powerlessness. Especially then. To be a part of Christ requires that we yield all of our lives to him, even the ugly parts. So today, on this Maundy Thursday, before you get to Christ’s commandment to love one another, first you have to be willing to take off your shoes and let him wash your feet. 

So, where in your life do you still need to receive the Savior’s love? From whom might you need to receive it?

Peter said, “You shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me”- John 13:8.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

13th day of Lent: Conviction

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Mark 12:1-12

Key Verse: Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them - Mark 12:12

Jesus' story could not have been more pointed. Those God entrusted to care for his people had abandoned their vocation and rejected God's rule in their lives. Not only that, instead of heading the message of the prophets, these rebellious leaders had killed the messengers of God.

The religious leaders of Jesus' day knew Jesus' story was about them because his story stood in a long line of similar condemnations of Israel's leaders. Ezekiel told similar stories about the shepherds of Israel who fattened themselves off of the very sheep they were commissioned to care for. The religious leaders not only recognized the nature of Jesus' story, they recognized themselves in it.

We call that recognition conviction. We can respond to conviction in one of two ways. Jesus presents the first response in his favorite sermon, "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near." The chief priests and the teachers of the law modeled the second, "They looked for a way to arrest Jesus because they knew he had spoken the parable against them."

What's your first response to the convicting word of God? Repentance? or attempting to silence the voice of God?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

12th day of Lent: Authority

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Mark 11:27-33

Key Verse: “Jesus said, "Neither will I tell you" - Mark 11:33.

There was a day when many people thought of God primarily as a heavenly disciplinarian or a divine curmudgeon. In this view, God was constantly out to get you and perpetually in a bad mood. Fortunately, many churches and preachers have moved away from this view of God. It doesn't, after all, square very well with the God who gave himself up for our sake.

That being said, there is an opposite error that appears to being making the rounds today, that is God as perpetually accommodating. We've mistaken God's kindness, love, and forbearance for subservience. We mistakenly thought that because God has come to serve us in the person of Jesus Christ God is at our service to do for us whatever we please.

Jesus, the kindness of God embodied, nevertheless proves prickly to our demands. Ask him something he doesn't want to answer, and he won't. Christ didn't come to accommodate us. He came to save us. There is a big difference between the two.

The Pharisees were right to ask questions about authority. The question, "Who is in charge?" is an excellent one for prideful humans to ponder. Their trouble was not the question, but rather their refusal to be open to the actual answer. Jesus was, and they were not.

If we're honest, we're not always open to that answer either.

Monday, March 17, 2014

11th day of Lent: Ask for whatever you want

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Mark 11:20-26

Key Verse: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours" - Mark 11:24.

If I were permitted to edit the Bible (which I'm not!), this might be one of those verses I'd be tempted to cross out. It is, after all, a verse that self-serving religious leaders have used to enrich their own coffers by urging their followers to simply name and claim the richest of blessings from the Lord. They are always quick to add that a donation to their ministry wouldn't hurt the cause.

Honestly, my frustration with this verse results from a more intimate place. Who of us haven't cried out to God for something in prayer only to have that prayer go seemingly unanswered? I know I've been there. In such moments, we're left wondering if the trouble was a lack of faith on our part or a lack of hearing on God's.

It helps a little to know that even Jesus had requests that went unfulfilled. In just a few days he will pray as fervently as anyone has ever prayed, "Take this cup from me." The cup would not be taken away from Jesus till he'd drunk is suffering dry.

Why the promise, then? Why did Jesus tell us that if had even the faith of a mustard seed we'd move mountains?

Jesus' prayer in the garden helps us understand. He began that prayer not with his request, but with a name, "Abba. Father." Jesus encourages us to ask our Father in heaven for what we want because he knows that more often than not, God longs to give us the desire of our hearts. So while it's true that this verse doesn't "work" like a vending machine works - put in your coins, push the button, and out comes your heart's desire - it does work in the way any relationship works. We ask, not to manipulate those we love, but to engage them with our own hearts desire. More often than not, they will respond in love because their heart's desire is to meet our needs.

When God doesn't seem to answer our prayer, perhaps, it's because he knows that what we ask for is not what we need most of all.

Friday, March 14, 2014

9th Day of Lent

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Jeremiah 7:1-11

Key Verse: “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?

When Jesus cleared the temple he quoted from Jeremiah 7:11. In that ancient text, Jeremiah challenges those who presume upon God's grace. The people believe that because they have the Temple and are the people of God that they are free to do as they please. They assume that God will stick with them even if they do not stick with God.

Jeremiah warns them that it is never safe to presume upon God's grace. God is faithful to us, but God's faithfulness to us requires that he address our wayward ways. He is a good father not a doting one that spoils his children. God's aim for us is our actual well-being, which is nothing short of our own holiness.

Jesus, the true embodiment of grace, stands in line with the prophet's teaching. The purpose of God's grace is not to indulge our sinfulness but to cure us of it. Let Jesus's words and Jeremiah's remind us to respond to God's grace with thankfulness and not presumption.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

8th Day of Lent: House of Prayer for All Nations

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Isaiah 56:3-8

Key Verse: My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations - Isaiah 56:7

In Isaiah 56, the prophet envisions a day when those previously excluded from the worship of the Lord will be gathered in and given both a place within the temple courts and a name better than sons and daughters (56:5). Outsiders of every type will be made the most valuable of insiders.

Jesus' entire ministry served as a fulfillment of the prophet's vision. His table included so many undesirables that the religious establishment nearly lost their minds. They excelled at excluding others. They believed that sin was contagious and you needed to keep as far away as possible from so called sinners.

Jesus wasn't afraid to rub shoulders with sinners. In fact, he came to catch our sin so that we might be infected with his holiness (see 2 Cor 5:21). He knew that making all people holy had been God's plan all along.

One of the reasons Jesus cleared the Temple on that Monday morning was because those in charge of worship had strayed so far from Isaiah's vision. He had come to announce that this Temple's time of service had come to an end. A new Temple, his own body, would replace it. In him, all people would find a place in the presence of God.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

7th Day of Lent: Enacted parables

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Isaiah 56:1-2

Key Verse: This is what the Lord says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed" - Isaiah 56:1.

Jesus' cursing of the fig tree and his clearing of the Temple recall the actions and the message of the ancient prophets. Jesus has moved from verbally teaching us with parables to enacting them physically. This fits the pattern of the Hebrew prophets.

Ezekiel once shaved off his beard and his hair in thirds in order to deliver a message about God's coming judgment. Jeremiah once wore an ox's yoke around town in order to declare much the same thing. Hosea went so far as to marry a prostitute in order to deliver his message from God.  In every case, the drastic actions of the prophets served as an enacted parable for what God was up to in the world.

Jesus' message has been consistent throughout his ministry, "Repent. The Kingdom of God is at hand." By Monday morning, the reality of how Jesus would usher in his kingdom and its salvation loomed large in Jesus' life. The cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple shout out this same message in physical form. They do more than that. They prepare the reader of Mark's gospel for an even greater prophetic act to come. Jesus' whole life was about to become an enacted parable. For he, and not a goat or bull, would offer up his own life for the sins of the world.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

6th Day of Lent: Clearing the courts

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Mark 11:15-19

Key Verse: On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there - Mark 11:15.

Most of us have heard about giving up something for Lent. If, like me, you are not from a tradition that normally celebrates Lent, then you might wonder exactly what "giving something up" is all about. Clearly it is not about earning any kind of religious points with God. God gives himself to us freely and is unimpressed with our religious striving, especially religious striving that is primarily about scoring points with God or anybody else.

Giving something up for Lent is primarily about making room for the God who gives himself freely to us. It is amazingly easy for us to crowd out God in our lives. I'm not talking about sin here. I'm talking about things that are in themselves fine things. Little by little these things fill up our lives and crowd up the presence of God. When God gets crowded out, even the best things can turn evil in a hurry.

My guess is that the first time a money changer set up shop in the temple, it appeared as something helpful. Jews abhorred the coinage of Rome with its graven image of Caesar. Money changing gave them the opportunity to carry less offensive money into the Temple for worship. The animal sellers also provided a needed service for urban worshipers who had less access to animals than their rural counterparts.

Overtime, these services crowded out  the presence of God and turned nefarious. They became not only instruments of crowding out God's presence, they became the means of fleecing his people.

Jesus took one step into the Temple courts and cleared them out! Giving something up for Lent allows Jesus to do the same in our lives. "Clear out what keeps me from you," that is our lenten prayer.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Fifth Day of Lent: Learning to wait

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Mark 11:12-14

Key Verse: Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it - Mark 11:14.

At first, it looks like Jesus is having a really bad Monday morning. Hungry, Jesus gets up and goes looking for a snack. He finds a fig tree without any fruit, which wasn't a shocker because as the text says, "It wasn't the season for figs."

That he went to look wasn't so strange. As some commentators note, it was the season in which there may have been some first fruits. What's strange is what Jesus did when his search for fruit proved fruitless (sorry, couldn't resist) - he cursed the tree.

On this Monday morning, we're left scratching our heads. Cursing a tree doesn't appear patient or kind or like a particularly Jesus kind of thing to do, even on a Monday morning.

What do we do with a story like this? My guess is, the same thing we do with anything in our lives that doesn't quite make sense, we wait. We trust that God has not altered his character. We stick with the Lord, trusting that understanding will come in his perfect timing.

The fig tree will make another appearance in the last week of Jesus' life, just not on Monday morning. To see it again, to gain understanding, we will have to wait.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The First Sunday of Lent: The Arrival of the King

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Psalm 118

Key Verse: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone - Psalm 118:22.

Psalm 118 is a part of what’s called the Egyptian Hallel, a collection of Psalms that were read during the Passover Feast commemorating God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt. The adults would know these Psalms by heart and would be teaching them to their children in the days and weeks leading up to the Passover.

Hosanna, which comes from the Hebrew for “save us” had become the traditional way of greeting pilgrims entering Jerusalem. Nevertheless, it meant far more than ‘hello’ and its common usage as a greeting did not detract from its messianic overtones. This was especially true when connected with the title, Son of David, a title reserved for the Messiah (which Matthew reports the crowd shouting out). Furthermore, for most Jews, Psalm 118 had come to serve as a passage that not only reported of a victorious king of long ago, but also anticipated a coming king who would likewise restore the fortunes of Israel.

It is easy to see where such ideas would come from. The psalm tells the story of an individual, possibly a king, who found himself surrounded by enemies on all sides and in great distress. Due to the graciousness of the Lord, the speaker has been given a great, though unexpected military victory. Following his reversal of fortunes, he proceeds to the temple gates and requests entrance in order to give thanks to the Lord. At the temple, the gates are opened and the people retell the story, saying, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” They then respond to God’s act in the life of this individual with a communal request for blessing, “O Lord, save us (that is Hosanna); O Lord, grant us success.” Then, as the king makes his way up to the altar to make his offering of thanksgiving, the people lay their palm branches at his feet and declare, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” That is how a victory is meant to be celebrated. The Jews of Jesus’ day, as they recited such a sweeping testimony of God’s provision in the past, anticipated the day when God would act again. They longed again for another great reversal of fortunes – day when God would send someone to upend their enemies, save them from the Romans, and give them success. That person, their messiah, the one who came in the name of the Lord, would indeed be blessed. But the questioned remained – “Who is this Messiah?”

Certainly, some were asking that question about Jesus. Could he be the messiah? Luke makes clear that the declaration of kingship were started and encouraged by Jesus’ disciples. They had followed Jesus for three long years now with the hope that he was the one. Their troubled hearts must have been at least slightly stirred at the events of this day. For the first time, Jesus hadn’t rebuffed those who sought to praise him as the Messiah. His ride on the donkey was certainly not a military steed, but still, there were instances in the scriptures were such a move served as a claim to kingship. Perhaps this was the time when he would usher in his kingdom. “Hosanna!” they cried. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Peter, James, John, and maybe even Judas spoke with reserved, yet hopeful jubilee. Perhaps, Jesus would finally assert himself as the coming King of Psalm 118.

The excitement quickly dissolved into confusion, even disappointment when, as Matthew’s gospel points out, Jesus would just a short while later quote from Psalm 118 himself. Only, he didn’t shout Hosanna, or identify himself as the coming, victorious king. No, he would be the stone the builders would reject. But as the scriptures report, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matt 21:42). Reversal of fortunes, yes, but unlike anything the disciples or the Jews were prepared for. Jesus spoke not of an oppressed people being set free, but of a messenger of God being killed by the very people who were supposed to receive him with honor. In this case, the king came to testify of the goodness of the Lord, but instead of joining in, as they do in Psalm 118, the people assassinated him.

The disciples should have known; Jesus was always leery of fame and flattery. He had several times avoided crowds that wanted to force a crown upon his head, and he often quieted those who declared him God’s anointed. Jesus knew the fleeting nature of fame.

It is the same today. Winston Churchill was once asked, “‘Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?’

‘It’s quite flattering,’ replied Sir Winston. ‘But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.’”

And so too it would be with Christ, when a few short days later, this crowd shouting “Hosanna” would be replaced by one shouting “Crucify him.”

The crowds would quickly give up on this gentle messiah who rode in on the colt. In the end, he didn’t quite fit their hopes and dreams. There cries of “Save us; give us success” faded away when they realized, they didn’t really want the type of salvation he came to bring. And in a strange, certainly unexpected way, they fulfilled the prophesy hidden in Psalm 118. As they laid down their palms before Jesus, they did indeed prepare the way for the king’s procession to the temple for the sacrifice. What they failed to realize, was that the coming king, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, would not bring a sacrificial goat or lamb or bull. He, himself, was to be the sacrifice for the entire world.

The words take on new meaning now, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” The word marvelous can also mean – to marvel in disbelief. Celebration does not equal faith. Just like on the original Palm Sunday, many people are quick to celebrate Jesus. Some celebrate because they honestly love him. Others lift up praise because it seems like the right thing to do (at least as long as others in the crowd are doing the same thing). Still others join the parade because they want to use him – they really don’t care for him above their own aspirations for wealth or victory or health. “Save us! Give us success!” they cry – but they do not know what they ask. Sometimes, what we most need saving from are our own definitions of salvation. 

Jesus will not be used. He offers salvation freely but on his own terms. His refusal to be manipulated by the crowd’s praises lead ultimately to his rejection. He would not be a zealot, a military messiah. He would not be a religious puppet, a supporter of the status quo. He would be and was the messiah, God’s anointed, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. And though it didn’t look like what the crowd expected, he did come bringing about a reversal of fortunes. This Palm Sunday would lead to a reversal of fortune during the week that would cause every single person who followed him to run away in fear when the palm leaves turned to cross beams. But there was another Sunday coming, and Christ was not through with his reversal of fortunes. The stone that was rejected was still to become the cornerstone. Yes, there was another Sunday coming – and it would prove to be the greatest reversal of all.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Forth Day of Lent: Astonished and Afraid

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Mark 10:32-34

Key Verse: They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid - Mark 10:32.

These days we assume that one of the primary tasks of a leader is to keep his or followers safe. Politicians promise it. School administrators make it a priority. Even church staffs spend an inordinate amount of time talking about how safe the church campus is and how they can make it safer.

Count us among those who would have been astonished on that road to Jerusalem so many years ago as Jesus set his course towards Jerusalem. Everyone knew Jerusalem was not a safe place, at least, it wasn't a safe place for Jesus. The religious leaders had been out to get him for quite a while now. So much so that the various factions had found reason to set aside their differences for the common cause of eliminating a common foe - the man from Galilee.

Had Jesus stayed in Galilee, he might have been ok. The leaders had less influence out in the countryside. In Jerusalem, though, they had both the influence and the opportunity to trap Jesus in some legal technicality.

No wonder the disciples wanted to stay back where it was safe. Jesus had come for another purpose, not to be safe, but to save,even if it cost him his life.

While we continue to be astonished, we probably shouldn't be, that a life lived with Jesus in the lead takes in the same direction.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Third Day of Lent: Afraid to Ask

This is the third devotional thought based upon a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Mark 9:30-37

Key Verse: They did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it - Mark 9:32.

Today's passage is the second occasion in Mark's gospel in which Jesus predicts his death. He apparently recognizes that his disciples do not understand what he's been telling them so he repeats the lesson. They still don't understand, but they are too afraid to ask Jesus about this difficult teaching. What do you think they are afraid of learning?

Being afraid to ask good questions if one of the characteristics of a fearful humanity. It's a coping mechanism we use to ignore the true state of affairs in our lives and in our worlds. While most of us claim to want the truth, few of us actually seek it.

A few years ago I read a wonderful book entitled Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. In the book, McEntyre quotes the philosopher, Pascal, “We hate the truth, and people hide it from us; we want to be flattered, and people flatter us; we like being deceived and we are deceived” and then adds her own commentary, “The deceptions we particularly seem to want are those that comfort, insulate, legitimate, and provide ready excuses for inaction.”

We know things are not well with our marriage or our family, but we let our spouses or children convince us otherwise. We know that what the politician says probably isn’t true, but we vote for him nevertheless. We know that our own promises to do better or drink less or save more are completely empty, but we voice them anyway. We do so, because deceptions bring us a temporary peace. Voicing and believing lies proves easier than hearing the truth that shall set us free.

Our culture is so full of such lies (and we tell so many), it’s difficult for us to even begin to commit ourselves to telling and hearing the truth, even if it’s God who speaks such truth. And yet, salvation won’t be found in those who declare “Peace, peace” where there is no peace (Jeremiah 8:11). If we are to be saved we must first hear the truth about our lives and about our world.

How do we open ourselves up to hearing God's word for our lives? McEntyre provides some penetrating questions that might just bring us closer to the truth, “What today am I avoiding knowing? Why? What point of view am I protecting? Why?”

In other words, what questions are you afraid to raise? That alone might tip you off to what you fear the most. If you really want the truth, those are the questions you'll have to courageously ask.

David put it slightly different but equally effective, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Second Day of Lent: Immediately

This is the second devotional thought based upon a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Mark 8:31-9:1

Key Verse: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me – Mark 8:34.

Yesterday marked the beginning of Lent, the forty day season of preparation that precedes Easter. The church has traditionally viewed this season as a time of humility, confession, and repentance. It has also traditionally been a season in which the church focused on the passion and suffering of Christ.

Mark’s gospel dedicates almost 40% of its pages to recounting the last week of Jesus’ life. That’s a notable slowing down of the story for a gospel that sprints through the rest of Jesus’ ministry. If you reread Mark’s story, you’ll notice how often he transitions from one account to another by writing the word “immediately.” English translations, with their preference for variety, obscure the fact that Mark uses the Greek word for “immediately” thirty-nine times!

Mark’s Jesus is a Jesus on the move. He’s moving towards a very specific place – towards Jerusalem, towards a cross. He said as much to his followers in Mark 8:31-32.

It’s here, with Peter, that we’d like to immediately move towards something else, but on this occasion the ever moving Jesus resists our desire to move on. This is why he has come, to give himself away for those he loves. If we want to be his disciples, we must be prepared to take up our crosses and follow him.

As I ponder what it means to journey with Jesus towards the cross, I wonder what it means to take up my cross? What would it look like today? In my family? In this community? At the very least it means leaning into the kind of life that is lived for the benefit of others and not for myself and to do that in Jesus’ name and for his sake.

If I’m not there, and so often I’m not, may I follow Jesus’ example and immediately head in that direction.

Father, thank you for sending Son into our lives. His sacrifice has brought us salvation and shown us the way towards true life. May we immediately follow him wherever he leads, even if he leads us to a cross. Amen.