True Greatness

From today’s reading of Luke 22 and John 13

But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” – Luke 22:21-30 (ESV)

We now enter into the accounts of the last supper Jesus would have with his disciples prior to his passion. The urgency of his final teachings to them is heightened, and in response we see the somewhat understandable confusion and denial of these men who were closest to him.

I can almost hear the conversation following Jesus’ shocking revelation that one of them would betray him to the authorities. Does it seem strange that they move straight from questioning who it might be to arguing about which of them is the greatest? This no longer seems strange to me. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Disciple 1: One of us will betray him? Could it be me? . . . . no, I don’t think so. I wonder if it’s you? I’ve always questioned your loyalty.

Disciple 2: Me? No, I would never betray him. I would go to prison and death for him!

Disciple 3: You? Neither one of you idiots knows what you’re talking about. No one worked harder on our mission trip through the towns of Israel than me. Did you see how many people I healed?

Disciple 2: Did you see how many demons I cast out? I think I made the greatest contribution.

Disciple 1: You are both delusional. I’m in his inner-circle. I’m certain to be given the greatest position of power next to him when he comes in his kingdom.

And so on. It’s not hard at all for us to move from wise self-inspection to unwise comparison of ourselves to those around us.

I admit it: I want to be great. I have dreams of greatness. I fantasize about being wiser, stronger, and braver than I am, of doing deeds that people will talk about after I’m gone. I’m no better than the disciples; In my best moments I know I’m capable of denying and betraying the Lord, but my best moments are few and far between.

In his amazing grace Jesus doesn’t kick them all (or me) out of the room. Instead he says this:

“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”,

This is an absolutely amazing statement. “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials,” he says to those that he knows will very soon abandon him completely in the midst of his greatest trial. But this is the grace of our Lord. This is true greatness: Jesus. He is the God above all gods, the Man above all men, the one who not only saves us from all of our sins and foolishness but who will graciously fit us to reign with him in his glory. This is his last supper with them before his passion, but he promises them that they will eat and drink with him again in the kingdom.

In other words, they are all about to forsake him, but he will never forsake them. This is greatness. He is about to do everything, absolutely everything that can be done for their salvation, and he is going to restore every one of them but one to the true greatness that he has destined them for in a new mission, building the true kingdom in the power of his Spirit, each of them humbling themselves as the dregs of the earth so that the world could be turned right side up again through the good news of Jesus. This is greatness.

Glory Hallelujah!

Jesus wept

From today’s reading of Luke 18:15-19:48

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” – Luke 19:41-44 (ESV)

Jesus is weeping as he says these words. It reminds me of another recent episode in his earthly ministry, the raising of Lazarus. Jesus wept then too.

But the grief before Lazarus’ tomb was a different type of grief. There have been many debates as to why Jesus wept over Lazarus, because he knew that he was going to raise him up. I think he wept because of the terrible grief of death that his friends were experiencing; I think he wept because death is so unnatural and so against his desires for his people. I think he wept for the love he had for Mary and Martha and Lazarus and also for the unbelief of the people; a people who would not believe even if one were raised from the dead.

Jesus here weeps for Jerusalem. It is a different kind of grief. He weeps because Jerusalem is going to experience a death that is not going to be quickly reversed. The reason Jerusalem is about to die is because she doesn’t know the time of her visitation. The Lord of glory has ridden into her gates and she has not recognized him.

Jesus speaks here of barricades and sieges and stones. He had recently ordered a stone of death to be rolled away to reveal the raised life inside. Here he speaks of stones coming apart, falling, crumbling, dying. In raising Lazarus Jesus had come to a people, to dear friends of his, who knew who was in their midst. They knew the time of their visitation and knew who had the only answer to their grief.

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” – John 11:21-22 (ESV)

Jerusalem was visited by the same life-giving, life-restoring Lord. She just didn’t know him. If only she had recognized him!

Jesus wept.

Deadly mistake

From today’s reading of Luke 17:11 – 18:14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)

The natural human condition, in our fallen state, is one of competition and comparison. The sin of comparison and self-exaltation is a sin that is easy to miss or dismiss in our culture, but it is among the most deadly sins. We live in a society that runs on the fuel of covetousness. Just watch a few minutes of TV and you’ll see what I mean. Every ad screams at you about what you don’t have, what you need that you didn’t know you needed, or what they have that you must have, and that you must not rest until you have it. At the time of this writing there is a Sprint commercial making the rounds that literally features women screaming about getting an iPhone 6 (really, that’s about the extent of the commercial . . . women screaming).

Did you catch the deadly mistake made by the Pharisee above? “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”. An entire prayer, comparing himself to other men. I’m sure the Pharisee would beat me in external holiness. I have no doubt that he was honest, that he was just, faithful to his wife, generous, etc. He was a good guy.

The problem of the Pharisee is one of comparison; the path of least resistance in our natural fallen state is to compare ourselves to others. That’s easy. The comparison that our souls run from in terror is the comparison to God. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” is an exercise in missing the point. Plus it is untrue. This man is like other men; a sinner desperately in need of a Savior. All the external holiness in the world is mere window dressing around the cracked and dirty panes of our lives.

The tax collector chose wisely. His prayer is one of comparison also, but it is a comparison between who he is and who God is. He agrees with God that he is a sinner and appeals to the throne of Mercy.

Turning our eyes upon Jesus results in the abolition of all the silly ideas of topping our fellow men and women in righteousness. That is a game we may “win” in the eyes of the world but that we will ultimately lose when engulfed in the holiness of God. Looking to Jesus will overwhelm us with our need for him, because the more we see him as he is, the more we see our own desperate state. And that is the path toward fulfilling the destiny he has for his children: to become like Jesus.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 (ESV)

“If they do not hear”

From today’s reading of Luke 16 – 17:10

And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” – Luke 16:27-31 (ESV)

This is from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

At first blush there’s a tendency to agree with the rich man who is in torment in hades. Surely sending Lazarus to his brothers to warn them would work? But there’s a truth, often repeated in scripture, regarding seeing and hearing, that bears upon this. It is expressed, for example, in the calling of Isaiah:

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
– Isaiah 6:8-10 (ESV)

In our fallenness, we can often hear without hearing, and see without really seeing. If we would but see what God has placed before our eyes, and hear his words, and understand, we would be healed. But the hardness of hearts and the distractions in life and just an inborn force-field to spiritual input leaves us deaf and blind.

This is one reason Jesus healed the blind and deaf during his earthly ministry; to demonstrate the blindness and deafness of those who physically see and hear just fine but who completely miss him.

There is the cry of the agnostic heart: “God, show yourself, and I’ll believe!” To this the Lord responds, “no you won’t.” If we ignore his Word, skeptically deny his work, and continue shutting our ears and covering our eyes to an entire universe declaring his glory, it is doubtful that there’s any great miracle that will sway us. We were designed to see and hear clearly, but we are fallen and broken and our eyes and ears are in need of the healing touch of the Lord. Thank God that Jesus still touches blind eyes and deaf ears and opens us up to the light and music of salvation in him.

Watching but not seeing

From today’s reading of Luke 14-15

One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things. – Luke 14:1-6 (ESV)

Scenes like this happen quite a few times in the gospels. There is consternation among the religious leaders because Jesus keeps breaking their sabbath laws. Specifically, he keeps healing people on the sabbath.

They’ve never really dealt with someone like Jesus. They know that what he’s doing is wrong, according to the traditions and fence laws that they have built through the centuries in interpreting “you shall do no work on the sabbath”. But they can’t really say why. As Jesus points out to them, in different circumstances, with someone they care about more like a son or an ox, they would do the exact same thing.

It’s a problem of love. In Jesus they are confronted with a love they don’t understand. For their entire lives, the blind, the lame, the deaf, those who have dropsy or a flow of blood or withered hands were simply living examples of how God punishes sin. Yet here is a man who is willing to take political and religious heat from them, to jeopardize both his own standing and even his own physical safety on behalf of those on the outs who in the past have always stayed on the outs; lame, blind, deaf, withered, bleeding. Here is a man who can’t even wait one day to heal them.

As the passage above states, “they were watching him carefully”. But they were not really seeing. They were missing everything.

The Vinedresser is very good at what he does

From today’s reading of Luke 12 – 13

And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” – Luke 13:6-9 (ESV)

It’s important when reading parables to do one’s best to decide who the various characters represent. Jesus states in John 15 that his Father is the vinedresser, and I believe the same holds for this parable.

The Vinedresser is, by the way, very, very good at what he does. You get the sense that last sentence, “Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down”, is rhetorical. You can almost hear the unspoken follow-up statement: “But trust me, after I get done with it, it will bear fruit. Because if I can’t make the vine bear fruit, no one can.”

Oh, the patience, the skill, the love of the Vinedresser! And pity, in a way, the poor fruit tree. It does not see the axe set to its roots, and so it may not understand the depth of the Vinedresser’s love as he begins the painful digging, pruning, and manure-ing.

Take heart, good tree. You were made for more than standing complacent and fruitless in the garden of God’s Kingdom. The Vinedresser believes in you when others may see a worthless tree that’s just in the way, sucking up resources. He believes in you because you are his and he knows the plan he has for you. His plan is for you to be just like Jesus. He is committed, ferociously committed and relentless in that goal. In coming to Jesus this is what you have let yourself in for. You will endure what may seem to be merciless pruning, the cutting off of everything about you that doesn’t look like Jesus. There will be painful digging, as your hard foundations are scraped away and good, nutritious, moist and rich soil is brought in to fill the holes and set your roots firm.

And, yes, you are in for some manure. This is how he feeds you and makes you strong. Take heart, because the result of all this will be that you will bear fruit!

That’s what you were made for.

The Vinedresser is very, very good at what he does!


From today’s reading of Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9:28-62

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astonished at the majesty of God. – Luke 9:37-43 (ESV)

In the parallel passage in Matthew 17 the disciples ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast out the demon. His explanation to them is very simple: “Because of your little faith”. This is as good an explanation as any for almost every failure and misstep in my life. Oh, this great puzzle of faith!

Have you ever thought that Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples here, and in many other places, is harsh? It reads that way, doesn’t it? “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you?” He seems exasperated, and there’s no doubt he is. But why?

I don’t know about the disciples, but I do know about me. Perhaps my problem is similar to theirs. I think I often get faith wrong. I see it as a work, as something to conjure. After all, if I need more of something, I need to work for it, right? I often see faith as currency, and the more the better so that I can buy God’s successes.

It’s illustrative that just a few verses later in Luke 9 Jesus places a child in front of the disciples as an example of what it means to be great in the Kingdom. And in the next chapter of the Matthew passage he says this:

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3-4 (ESV)

One of the great shocks of being a parent is realizing how much faith your little ones have in you. It is a pure faith. They know you have what they need, and they aren’t shy about asking for it, smiling and eyes wide with expectation. In a healthy family there is no fear in the asking, and there is acceptance (albeit with some drama inevitably) of the answer, yes or no. Most importantly, there is no sense of work in the asking. The child knows she has no money on her own to buy the toy, so she goes to the only one who does have the money and might be willing to buy it, her mom or dad. A child’s faith is bold, because the focus of a child’s faith is squarely on her mom or dad. This faith is also wise; placing faith in the one with the resources is the only thing that makes any logical sense.

I think this simplicity of faith is often lost as we grow older and begin to take on resources of our own. The focus begins to shift from the Lord to ourselves, and this begets the effort, the work, the mental gymnastics that masquerade as faith so often, not to mention the caution, the hedging of the bets that accompany these wolves of work wrapped in the sheep’s hide of faith.

Jesus is exasperated by his disciples’ lack of faith, I believe, because they had, for quite some time, been physically with the Incarnate Faithful One, Jesus himself. Jesus was engaged in living a faith-filled life before his Father and pointing them to the same life of dependency and childlike trust. They had seen the results of this true, pure, golden faith over and over again.

Mark 9 records this interaction between Jesus and the demoniac boy’s father:

“if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” – Mark 9:22-24 (ESV)

Amen brother. Lord help my unbelief.

I think Jesus is exasperated with me because faith is, in ways I still need to fully grasp, very simple. I’m the one who’s making it hard. I need to put my faith in Jesus. Because he can do it. He can do anything.

She came trembling

From today’s reading of Matthew 13 and Luke 8

And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” – Luke 8:41-48 (ESV)

I love this episode from the gospels. Jesus is on his way to heal Jairus’ twelve year old daughter who is at the point of death. This woman, twelve years into a physical malady that was not only debilitating but also rendered her permanently ceremonially unclean, touches the fringe of Jesus’ garment and is made well.

Jairus and the woman occupy very different stations in life, but both have come to the end of themselves. Jairus is on the brink of losing a daughter that he has treasured for twelve years. The woman has spent all her treasure trying to gain back the health that she has been denied for twelve years. Jairus is an important man, a ruler of the synagogue; the woman would have been considered quite unimportant in that culture, an untouchable, due to her discharge. But both are important to Jesus, and both receive the healing that only Jesus can give.

There is a sweetness to this narrative; Jesus not only heals the woman, but as he so often did for the untouchables and outcasts the he ministered to, he takes special care to publicly honor the one who has had dishonor heaped upon her for so long. Jesus could have allowed her to be healed when she touched him, and left it at that. It could have been their little secret. Instead, he calls her out; “Who was it that touched me?” As Peter points out, a lot of people have touched him; he is in a press of people. But only one touched him in faith for healing.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” This trembling, timid, yet valiant woman has been touched by Jesus, and is blessed publicly by our gallant Savior, the one who lifts up the downcast and honors the desperate, timid faith of those on the outskirts of polite society and at the end of themselves.