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.