The diamond of redemption.

Mark 14:22-25

“and Jesus said, ‘You will all fall away… but after I am raised up I will go before you.’ ” v. 26

It’s set like a precious jewel between betrayal and denial. In the text, you can see it arranged perfectly. Before the bread and wine, he predicts betrayal, then after, denial and abandonment is foretold. Set indelibly in between two great human tragedies are the words of our Lord, “This is my body…this is my blood.” I don’t think the position of these words is coincidental.

Jesus first predicts the searing dagger of betrayal, clothed in a kiss of friendship. Then he offers the bread and wine of the New Covenant. After that he declares that he will not only be betrayed, but abandoned and denied by those closest to him. What a tragically beautiful picture of redeeming love. This is the gospel. This is the good news.

The betrayer prepares to make his way to the door under pretense of charity, while the others staunchly declare their willingness to die at his side. He knows they want to, but they can’t. They don’t yet have the power to match their passion. But there he stands, heavens brightest diamond, set between humanities failings. This is the gospel. This is the good news.

We’re all betrayers at heart, waiting for the right bag of silver to draw us away from our redeemer’s side. We’re all scattered sheep, looking incessantly for some place a little greener than we had yesterday. He listen’s with love to our porcelain promises, cracks forming as we speak. He can already hear the rooster crowing in the background. He knows we have passion, but don’t trust his power to see it through.  But there he stands, with bread and wine in hand, offering more love than we can ever imagine or repay.  This is the gospel. This is good news.

He knows the wolves are coming, the sheep are growing restless, and the rooster is about to play taps on our resolve.  But still he offers us his body, broken and his blood poured out. He is the diamond set in the midst of your greatest point of brokenness. Your past failures, and present struggles, and even your future disappointments form the setting to reflect the glory of his redeeming love. In the same way the setting of a ring is transformed when it receives the precious stone, you have been offered God’s glorious new covenant of grace. Once you receive him, your failures are transformed forever. You are never the same. That is the gospel. That is the good news.

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Don’t drive past the signs!

Mark 8:11-21

“Having eyes do you not see….?” v. 18.

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I think I have a gift for missing signs. A few years ago I was driving along the interstate with my beautiful wife. As is typical, we were in deep conversation, about what, I can’t recall. At one point it seemed the interstate was becoming longer and the signs unfamiliar. You guessed it. We had been so into our conversation that we passed the exit leading home and were headed to parts unknown. The sign was there, we just didn’t see it. This makes me think of the Pharisees, who came to Jesus, after he had healed a deaf man, cast a demon out of a child, without even being in the same place, walked on water, and miraculously feed four thousand people. They came to him demanding a sign from heaven. I can hear it now, “okay Jesus, that whole bread and fish thing was cool, but come on, show us a sign from heaven!” No doubt they had at least heard of the things he was doing, and likely had seen a miracle or two. But they were so wrapped up in their pride and fear that they drove right past what he was doing. It’s funny, today I hear so many people say things like, “I wish God would do some miracles today, like the Bible talks about. I would believe then.” But whenever I tell the same people about the day my mother was healed of Multiple Sclerosis, or one of my deacons was healed of a brain tumor on the way to the hospital, they react the way…well, the way you are possibly reacting right now. They say, “yeah right! probably some coincidence, or blah blah blah.” Let me be blunt. The reason you don’t get the sign you think you want is the same reason Jesus told the Pharisees, “No sign will be given…” to them.  He knows you wouldn’t believe it anyway. You would rationalize that it was some unexplainable psychological phenomena, or that the person wasn’t really sick, or that it was some random evolutionary accident that just happened to occur at the time of prayer. Seriously? Why is it that people who demand signs are usually the last to believe them? Make sure that in your commitment to unbelief you don’t drive right past the signs.

On another occasion I was driving a group of Boy Scouts to a ski resort. We arrived late at night, and the fog was so thick, I literally could not see past the bumper of my car. This is no exaggeration. As I crept along I was looking for a sign for the resort, but I couldn’t see it in the darkness and the fog. At one point I knew, according to my directions, I had to be near the entrance. I spent about half an hour going back and forth, in great frustration, trying to find the place. I kept passing this really big sign, but thought it was for something else. I didn’t really pay attention to it because I kept assuming it was not our place. My youngest son kept telling me, “Dad I think that’s the place.” But I kept saying, “No it can’t be.” Guess what. After repeated passes in the late night fog, I finally slowed down and looked a little closer. I apologized to my son and kicked myself down the road. I had spent half an hour angry and frustrated while passing the sign over and over. If I had just slowed down, listened, and paid attention I would have seen the sign much earlier. The disciples must have felt the same way. When Jesus warned them, “watch out, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…” They thought he was asking for bread. Jesus reminded them of the last two miraculous bread giveaways. “Guys, don’t you get it?” He said. They had been in the midst of great miracles, even holding the evidence in their hands, as they passed the food to the people. But so much like me, they weren’t paying attention enough to see who Jesus was. They loved him and served him, but still didn’t get him. They needed to slow down, listen and look a little more closely to see the signs. Like a weary man driving in the late night fog of West Virginia, they were missing his voice and driving past the signs of his glory. Are you looking for a sign from heaven? Are you still waiting for God to float down and tap dance on your kitchen table before you believe? Or are you just waiting for a feeling before you step out in faith? Perhaps it would be more productive if you opened up to God and said, “Lord, I want to see you on your terms, not mine. Open my blind eyes to see what you’ve already done in my life and my world. Help me open up, slow down, listen carefully, and pay attention to you. Most of all, help me believe.”

“If only I had the faith”…and other excuses.

Mark 4:30-34

“It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on earth. Yet when it is sown…” v. 31

You don’t need more faith. You just need to realize the power of the faith you have and then  you need to put it to work. Jesus makes it clear in this statement that even the smallest amount of faith, when acted on will yield great results for God’s kingdom and your good, in that order. How much time do we waste comparing the size of our faith with either the size of the mountain set before us, or the apparent size of someone else’s faith? Both comparisons are futile. We say, “I don’t have enough faith to do this or that”, when you really don’t know how much faith you have until you use it. There is no gauge or yardstick for measuring faith. The only way to know how much faith you have is to step out of the boat and start walking across the waves toward the master. When Simon Peter was called out on the water by the master, the disciple had no idea how far his faith would take him until he got to its limit and cried out, “master, I’m drowning!” The second mistake is to compare our faith to the apparent size of someone else’s. You wish you had the faith of Moses or Job, or someone in your church. So you sit around in your closet, pining away to the Lord, “Lord if only I had the faith….” That statement kills more believers than we can imagine. What if Moses had done that beside the Red Sea with Pharaohs army advancing? He would have been slaughtered with his people waiting for God to give him a feeling. Did Moses realize how much faith he had before he held the staff out over the sea? I doubt it. Perhaps as he saw the sea parting he marveled, “It worked!” That’s what will happen to you when you stop making comparisons and start using the faith you have. You see people who appear to have great faith but have they used it? Many people with great storehouses of faith have never actually acted on it. They believe God is able, but have never actually done anything about it. What good is a large seed never planted? On the other hand, your faith may only be the size of a tiny seed, but when you activate it, there is unimaginable power. How do you do that? Well, contrary to much health and wealth preaching, planting seeds is not a way to make more money by giving to “Brother wonderful” for a return. Planting a seed involves any step you take toward God, based solely on the truth of his word, or in obedience to his commands. Faith happens whenever you obey God, without any proof other than what He has said. Jesus used the idea of planting a seed, partly, to show that faith is an investment, a commitment, and a release.

A seed is invested in the soil, something larger than itself. So is faith. I live by faith when I invest myself, my energy, my resources, my time in something greater than me. Faith isn’t effective until it is invested. Are you invested in your faith? Prove it.

A seed is committed to the earth before it can grow. Faith is a commitment. What many people call faith, is really superstition. They say magic words, but make no commitment. Abraham was called the friend of God because he committed himself to God by faith. This was no, “wait and see stunt”, it was a commitment of his life to the soil of God’s providence. Are you committed to what God is doing in your life or are you keeping a safe distance just in case things don’t go your way?

Finally, it is a release. When you plant a seed you have to let it go. You can’t hold on to it and expect it to produce in your grip. You have to release it. Faith is the same. When I take a step of obedience I must not try to force God’s hand. I have to obey, then release everything to God. He is master of the outcome. Are you releasing your situation to God or are you still trying to manipulate the future?

Faith is powerful when it is invested, committed and released, like a seed into the soil. When that happens it doesn’t matter how big or small your faith is. All that matters is that you plant it.

You don’t have to get it in order to have it.

Mark 4:26-29

“the seed sprouts and grows, he knows not how.” v.27

Another joyous challenge of teaching teens is that they are so full of questions. In my Bible class there is no shortage of them. “Who created God?” , “Where did Cain get his wife?” , “Why did God put the tree in the garden?” Sometimes I’m able to give an answer, and quite honestly, many times I can only wrestle with the question with them. I often encourage them to ask  the hard questions, because even if you can’t always get an answer, the struggle can strengthen you. I have no problem believing in a God in whom there is great mystery. While it can be frustrating at times, and I often have to rub the knot on my forehead that comes from banging my head against His unfathomable ways, it’s good to know the universe is being run by someone infinitely more brilliant than me. How sad it is, though, to encounter someone who simply will not believe in God because there are unanswered questions. Some will say, “God doesn’t make sense” or “I don’t see how God could…” or “It seems to me that if there were a God then such and such would not happen.” Then they choose to dismiss God because he has not fit into their understanding how things should be. It’s as if they are saying, “God can only exist within the parameters of my mind.” I find this laughable and sad at the same time. Does one really imagine that they are of such a great intellect that they can grasp the universe and all its complexities and determine whether or not a God can exist based on a finite understanding of reality? In other words, just because you don’t get it, doesn’t mean it aint real! There is great mystery in God’s creation, and in God himself. There always will be. Jesus made this quite simple in his parable of the seed. He says, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, he knows not how.” Simply put, the farmer doesn’t have to know how a seed works, he just has to plant it. What a profound truth about faith, God and the universe. While I truly appreciate science and its advances, and I believe the universe was created for exploration and study, I also believe that in our search for truth a little humility is in order. We are not infinite, and there will always be more out there than we can ever know. For those who would dismiss God on the basis of unanswered questions I would simply ask, Do you have to understand something before it has your permission to exist? Did the seed exist before we learned how it works? Did gravity exist before Sir Isaac Newton realized it was there? Then why can’t we acknowledge that God is real even though shrouded in mystery at times? I don’t know how God can hear and deal with so many prayers at once, but I’ve had too many “coincidences” to stop praying now. I don’t know how trusting in the death of a man who was executed 2000 years ago can impact so many people on so many levels, from so many backgrounds, and shape so many cultures, but there’s something uniquely powerful about that Jesus story. You know there is so much in life I don’t understand, but it doesn’t keep me from living. For example:

I don’t know how weather patterns work, but I trust the weather report.

I don’t understand all the laws of physics, and how those great airliners get up in the sky, but I trust the pilot, when I’m flying.

I don’t get all the medical jargon they throw at me at the clinic, but I listen to my doctor.

And I don’t know how an infinite God could run my finite universe and even get personally involved in it, but I trust Him.

One final note. While many things about God don’t make sense to me, this one thing does; Jesus Christ has come, as God in flesh, to introduce the finite to the infinite. It just makes sense that an infinite God would want to connect with His creation, not as a cow, or a stone or a tree, or even as energy, but as one of us. I may not know who created God, but for me this one thing makes perfect sense: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He is here now with you. Don’t try to fit him into your head, just rest in him by faith. It’s really the only reasonable thing to do.

God is not a search engine.

Mark 4:10-20

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those on the outside everything is in parables,” v. 11

The word of God is not a delicacy to be tasted, but a treasure to be sought. Are you frustrated that God isn’t answering your questions?  Is the lord taking too long to reveal his truth to you? The Lord is not obliged to hand out his truth at our whim. Jesus told his disciples that they were being let in on the secrets of the kingdom of God, while those on the outside would not yet understand. This was to fulfill what Isaiah the prophet had spoken centuries earlier; that many would see but not perceive, and hear but not understand. “How can this be fair?” you ask. “How can God withhold truth from us?” you protest. Such a question, which I have asked as well, only serves to reveal our presumptuous sin nature. We can’t imagine God withholding anything from our majesties. And yet he does, in part , to keep us from being so overly familiar with his word that we no longer see it for the treasure it is. If God simply told us everything we wanted to hear, he would have to relegate himself to being some kind of glorified search engine, which we would desire him to be, so that we self important sinners could just type in our requests, download the information we need for the moment and be on our way. But God did not create us just to inform us. He created us for a relationship of faith and love. So where do faith and love come from? They come from seeking God, drawing close, pressing in. We develop faith and love by going deep with God, as the twelve had done. While the maddening crowds just want to know how to get to heaven, the disciple wants to follow Jesus and to really know him. If all you want is to get to heaven you are likely to miss it. You must seek the creator, not just his creation. The redeemer, and not just his redemption. The king, and not just his kingdom. The healer, and not just his healing.

When a person follows closely with Jesus, he opens the secrets of the kingdom to them and they discover much more than seven steps to prosperity, or four steps to heaven, or twenty nine steps to the Holy Spirit. They discover the heart and mind of God himself. We preachers, find ourselves at odds with the Lord, for example, when we bang on heaven’s door for a quick sermon idea, but we have no time to sit at our masters feet. We need him to hurry up and give us a good message, on the importance of spending time with God, so we can preach it to our people. If we aren’t careful we become like the scribes who, “Tie heavy burdens on men’s shoulders, but don’t lift a finger to carry them.” We preach about prayer, but aren’t praying ourselves. No wonder the secrets of the kingdom are being kept from us. Whether you are a preacher or not, you cannot know the deep things of God while maintaining a shallow spiritual life. If you would know the secret you must draw near to hear it whispered.

Disciple Basics

Mark 3:13-21

“and he appointed twelve so that they might…” v. 14

What are the basics of being a disciple? When Jesus appointed the first twelve he had a purpose for calling them. In verses 14-15 we are told,

“and he appointed twelve so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”

His purpose stated here, is three fold. “He appointed them so that they might…”

  1. “Be with him…” Jesus called his disciples to be with him. Before he ever sent them out to do anything he called them to get to know him. As a follower of Jesus our first call is no different. We are called to be with Jesus. This involves more than having the right opinions about him. It is a call to be intimately acquainted with him. By spending personal time with Jesus we learn more than his commands. We learn his heart. Jesus knows your heart but do you know his? You know what he commands, but do you know why? It’s one thing, for example, to love your enemy because Jesus tells you to, and entirely another to love your enemy because you feel his love for them. It’s one thing to believe Jesus loves you because, “Jesus loves everybody, and logically, that must include me.” But when you have spent enough time with him to feel deeply his love for you personally, that is a whole new realm of existence. Jesus calls his disciples, before anything else, to simply be with him, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” He says. Before he sends you out into the world, He calls you in to relationship with him. Next he sent them out.
  2. “He might send them out to preach…” Jesus purpose in calling his disciples was not only relational, it was also missional. He called them to go and preach the gospel. If you would follow Jesus you have a mission to complete as well. HIs mission for them was more than some general call to go spread good will in whatever way they chose. He called them to go and preach. When I ask people what God has called them to do, most of the time I get one of two types of responses. The most common is ignorance- “I don’t know.” The second most common is Generalization- “God just wants me to be a good person.” Both answers fall short of what the New Testament teaches. God does not want us to be ignorant of His purpose, as if it were some dark mystery cloaked in obscurity. Many walk around in the safety of this murky notion, mumbling to themselves, “I guess He must have me here for a reason…” but never really grasp what the Bible clearly tells us. Neither does God want us to settle for just being generally good people. Too many believers wander around with no real direction, thinking God just wants us all to “get saved, and behave to the grave.” Living lives that are more akin to the Disney Channel than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus call was specific, “preach”, and he has a specific call for you. He wants you to know it and be about it all of your life. The good news is he has not called you go do what he has not enabled you to do.
  3. “and to have authority…” Finally Jesus called them to power. In this case he gave them authority, i.e. power, to cast out demons. Don’t let anyone water this down with goofy notions, suggesting they were just curing people of mental illness. The demons were real. They were supernatural. People were, and are in serious bondage to demonic powers. Only the power of Jesus can overcome them. The power of the Holy Spirit is central to the life of the believer. It’s tragic to see in so many of our churches today, the Holy Spirit is ignored at best, and is replaced at worst. In many churches the Holy Spirit is no longer sought. We’ve decided we can do better with our man made schemes and resources. Does your church teach about the ministry of the Holy Spirit? A church that has no teaching about the Holy Spirit is like a Restaurant with a menu and waiters, but no kitchen. You have everything except what people need the most. You have an organization that is no better than a secular business or a government agency. You’re like a hospital that only hands out band-aids, because you have no doctor. But the followers who know they need His power have a life that has a lasting impact.

Friends, our Lord has not simply died to bring us to heaven. He has appointed us to bring heaven to others. We do that when we spend time with him, obey his specific call for us, and walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Launching point

Mark 1: 9-11

“and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” v. 11

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 This is, for Mary and me, a bittersweet time to be parents. Our oldest is living in her own place, the next oldest is about to finish college, our third goes off to begin college in the fall, and our youngest is just two years away from launching out. It seems like just yesterday we were watching them play in the front yard. I remember I used to be able to carry them, one child on each leg, and one in each arm at the same time. Now they could carry me. I could fill many pages just telling how each of them have filled our lives with joy. As home-school parents we’ve enjoyed watching up close as they have learned and grown. We’ve taught them how to read and write, learn their numbers, explore the sciences and the arts, history and languages. I’ve taught three of them to drive and will soon start teaching the fourth one. We’ve watched them grow physically, mentally, and spiritually into wonderful godly men and women who are beginning to impact the lives of many others around them. Now we’re at the launching point. Like I said it’s bittersweet, to stand on the porch and wave as your young adult children drive into the future we have worked and prayed to prepare them for. We love our kids, and just seeing who they are, and who they are becoming, gives us great pleasure. At risk of sounding trite I wonder if God the father had any of those feelings as he hovered over his only begotten son at his baptism.

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The Jesus stood, in the Jordan river, drenched in the Spirit, and soaked in surrender. All of history had led to the events that would unfold over the next three years. This was God’s only begotten Son. He was the only one that had ever been or ever would be. In that moment I wonder of the father looked back over the past at all the events leading up to this day. Perhaps he chuckled looking back at Jesus childhood-the messes he undoubtedly made, the games he played, and the silly child songs he sang to his mom. I can’t even imagine what was happening in the heart of the father looking at his only begotten, at the launching point. I think it’s no accident that the scripture says, “Immediately he saw the heavens torn open…the Spirit descending, and a voice from heaven, saying I love you Son! (author’s paraphrase).” When I see one of my kids stepping out into grown up living I sometimes want to tear open the universe, send them a gift, and scream out how much I love them. Call me a heretic but I just can’t help but feel something like that was going on in the heavenlies as the father prepared to launch Jesus into his mission. Jesus had done no miracles, yet his father was pleased with him simply because of who he was, and because he was stepping obediently into his calling. Let me take this a little farther. The father feels the same way about you. The same love the father had for his only begotten Son, He has for his adopted Sons and Daughters.

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Whenever you stand in the waters of surrender, preparing to launch out into his call He hovers over you with great love and joy. You see, everything in your life that has happened now, even those things God didn’t will to come upon you, have been used to prepare you for the future you are about to step into today. Today is your launching point. It may seem like an ordinary day, but it’s part of God’s plan for His glory and your good. Whenever you stand in the waters of surrender, and choose to live by obedient faith, as Jesus did, God the father tears open curtains of heaven, pours out his Spirit on you and screams out, “I love you and I’m pleased with you!”

Today as you go out in faith, know that he is proud of you for simply trusting him and living in surrender like Jesus did. You don’t have to do any back flips to get his attention. You just have to live by faith.