Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Goading Jesus Into a Middle School Fight

Suggested Reading: Matthew 4:1-11

In junior high, I had a run in with a student who was much larger than me. I was in the cafeteria before school with a friend who was trying to mess with me by marking on my book covers. I marked on his in return only to discover that the books in front of my friend were not his at all. They belonged to a much larger individual who was not happy with me...and I had unknowingly marked on his Malcolm X doodle.  He wanted me to fight him then and there but I refused, insisting that I had thought the book was my friend's and that I intended no disrespect. When the bell rang, this student followed me down the hall, hitting me in the back of the head every few feet. Later, at lunch, he cornered me and pushed me off the two-foot cement wall I had been sitting on. I "ninja rolled" back into a standing position and sat down as if nothing had ever happened. He was trying to goad me into a fight, attempting to embarrass me and make me angry, and I refused to play his way. I refused to allow him to dictate my actions. Two days later, when I was asked about a rumor that I was a second degree black belt (I wasn't), I simply responded, "That's why I don't have to fight."

I am not the only one who has ever been the object of manipulation, who was goaded by someone wanting a specific response. In Matthew chapter 4, we read the account of the temptations of Jesus. A common theme running through the Devil's first two temptations was an attempt to goad Jesus into doing something. In the first temptation, the devil said,  “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” in the second temptation, he said,  “If you are the Son of God, jump off [this cliff]." (Matthew 4:3,6, NLT). In both instances, the devil tried to goad Jesus by getting him to prove himself, but that tactic only works on the insecure, on people who are uncertain of themselves and their gifts. If you are secure in who you are, those kinds of attacks cannot work.

That junior high student was unable to goad me into fighting because I knew who I was and refused to be manipulated. Jesus refused as well, knowing that the enemy's manipulation had no real power and that he had no need to prove himself. This should be our standard mode of operation. We have no need to prove ourselves, we must only be concerned with obeying the Father.

Rest secure in who you are as a child of the Father. Don't let anyone goad you into sin.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Having a Sports Fan's Kind of Faith

Suggested Reading: Matthew 4:1-11

As a Texas Rangers fan, I've been a little disappointed the last few years. After two years of being spoiled by World Series appearances, they haven't won a single significant game in October for a while now. But I grew up cheering for and believing in a Rangers team that never went to the postseason. Every year, I started out thinking, this could be the year they win it all. Every game I believed they could win. I didn't care if they were down by 12 runs going into the bottom of the ninth inning. I didn't care if they were so far behind half-way through the season they would have to win almost all of their games to make the playoffs. I believed in my team, even when the odds were stacked against them and it seemed impossible. After all, a true fan always believes in his team, no matter how bleak the outlook.

That kind of stubborn faith, that believes in spite of circumstances, is similar to the faith we should have in our God. In Matthew chapter 4, Jesus had been led by the Spirit into the wilderness where Jesus went without food or drink for 40 days and nights until the Devil showed up to tempt him. The Devil's first temptation should have been very difficult to resist for a man who had been hungry for more than a month. After 40 days of hunger Satan tempted Jesus to abuse his power to create some bread and alleviate his hunger. Jesus' response?  He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”
(Matthew 4:4, HCSB).

You see, we talk about believing that God can sustain us even when we don't have what we need, but Jesus lived it. Jesus turned down food after 40 days of hunger because he trusted God to sustain him. After all, Jesus had survived more than a month without food when the human body was only designed to survive for a couple of days without water and a little longer without food. Jesus' continued survival was a demonstration of God's ability to sustain. Even when God hadn't provided the food, God had sustained the life.

Do you really believe you can survive on the word of God, on God's promises and on God's unseen power? Or do you talk like you believe and then worry when no-one is watching? Can you turn down something you need because getting it requires moral compromise or do you have to do the "practical thing." Simply put, do you really believe God can sustain your life without providing the need or do you just talk a good game? Do you live by bread alone or are your sustained by the word of God?

Monday, February 6, 2023

Hiring Out Your Quiet Time

Suggested Reading: Ezekiel 44:6-14

My wife and I share a dream, a dream that one day we will be able to walk in the door and our entire house will be clean, a dream that it will happen every day, a dream that we won't actually have to be the ones to clean the house, a dream that we will be able to afford a maid. We don't mind cleaning the house, but we could do without having to wash the dishes every night and it would be nice to have someone wash, fold, and iron the laundry for us. If only we had the money to pay someone to do it for us.

While many of us probably share that dream when it comes to housework, there are other areas of life where paying someone to do the job for you simply doesn't work. One of those areas is in our relationship with God. In Ezekiel 44:8, God was listing a number of complaints about Israel's faithfulness and he specified this one: "You have not kept charge of My holy things but have appointed others to keep charge of My sanctuary for you" (HCSB). The people had decided that it was too much of a hassle to do the things God had asked them to do, so they hired out people to do what they must have considered the mundane tasks. Somehow, they missed the point that doing the tasks of worship was just as important as the tasks being done.

Just as no one can exercise for you or shower on your behalf, no one can live a life of worship for you. Yet churches act like they can all the time by hiring staff to do the work of the ministry for them. They bring in a pastor who can reach the lost for them or visit their neighbors for them. But the task of a pastor is to "set an example" (1 Timothy 4:12) to be followed by the church, to equip believers to do these things for themselves.  Far too often, we want to hire someone to do the ministry that God has strategically placed us to do. No one else has the relationship with your co-workers that you have; no one else lives closer to your next-door neighbor than you. No one else encounters the exact same people that you do every day. God has given you your life story and then strategicaly placed you to encounter people with whom that story will connect. God has allowed you to see that family's need because you can do something about it.

We might be able to hire out our house-cleaning, but it is impossible to hire someone to live the life of service and ministry into which God has created and placed you. No one else can do it for you.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Letting Someone Sacrifice You

Suggested Reading: Genesis 22:1-19

When I was in college, I had a very close female friend and the two of us were "not dating." One night I met up with her briefly before she ran off to do something else and God spoke to me very clearly, letting me know that she was going to "lay me on the altar." The next day when she wanted to talk to me, she used those exact words, "I'm laying you on the altar." Having been prepared for the conversation, I was able to handle it fairly well. But I also began to think a lot about an often overlooked biblical character, Isaac.

Not long after God assured Abraham that Ishmael would be taken care of and had him sent away, God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a way of testing Abraham. Being well over 100 years old, Abraham made Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice up a mountain.  Isaac was knowledgeable enough about the sacrificial process to ask his father where the sacrifice actually was since they had not taken one with them. Then when they reached the top of the mountain, Isaac did something extraordinary. When they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood (Genesis 22:9, NLT). Did you catch that? This young man who was strong enough to carry firewood up a mountain and smart enough to know what was going on allowed a man 100 years his senior to tie him up and prepare him as a sacrifice!

Sometimes, the people around us have to experience some difficult things. Sometimes they have to give things up in order to grow and mature. Sometimes they have to let go of things that interfere with their relationship with God. And sometimes that something they have to let go of is us.

One thing that being Christ-like means is being willing to be sacrificed for someone else's good, which is very different than sacrificing for someone else's good. When we sacrifice, we make the choice to give something up or endure some pain. When we are sacrificed, someone else makes the choice and we have to live with being giving up or enduring the pain. Isaac allowed himself to be sacrificed in much the same way that Jesus allowed the people of his day to put him on a cross. Both men could have stopped the events and chose not to.

Maybe, today, you are being sacrificed. Maybe someone is in the process of giving you up or leaving you behind because doing so is necessary for them to grow up or move on with their lives. If so, let me tell you that being sacrificed is never fun; it can leave you feeling rejected, unappreciated and undervalued. But if you make the choice to allow yourself to be sacrificed, if you can choose to accept the heartache and pain for someone else's good, you will be at least one step closer to knowing what Jesus went through and who Jesus really is. And you will be practicing a love that is concerned with the other person rather than with yourself.

The next time you are sacrificed, how will you respond? Will you focus on the feelings of hurt? Or will you find a way to embrace the suffering for someone else's good?

Monday, January 30, 2023

When Abraham Sent Away the Little Mermaid

Suggested Reading: Genesis 21:1-21

The Disney movie, The Little Mermaid, is one that I watch very differently now as a father than I did when I was growing up. I used to watch the movie and identify with Ariel, the teenage mermaid who longed for her freedom and the chance to be with the one she loved. Since I became a father, I tend to identify with King Triton, the father who wants to protect his little girl but has to make the tough decision, not only to let her go in the end, but to empower her to go live her own life. I have often wondered what that decision will be like for me, but then I think about the number of times in my life that I have been forced to let people go and I realize we have to let people go all the time.

Abraham, knew something about letting people go. We have already talked briefly about Abraham's and Sarah's choice to have a child through Hagar, Sarah's maidservant. Well, when they finally had their own son, Isaac, Hagar's son Ishmael no longer fit into Sarah's plans. When she saw Ishmael ridiculing Isaac, she decided it was time for both Ishmael and Hagar to go. Abraham disagreed because he loved Ishmael, his firstborn son. But when Abraham took the issue to God, God told Abraham, “Do not be upset over the boy and your servant. Do whatever Sarah tells you, for Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted. But I will also make a nation of the descendants of Hagar’s son because he is your son, too" (Genesis 21:12-13, NLT). God reassured Abraham that He would care for Ishmael even though Abraham would have to let Ishmael go.  

Most of the time, we don't have to give up our children when they are as young as Ishmael was, but we often have to give up people before we are ready. We have to give up friends who move across the country, loved ones who strike out in their own direction, or people who are simply pulled away from us by circumstances. And even if we keep in contact with these people from time to time, we still feel the loss and the concern for their welfare that comes from not being directly involved in their lives. In each of these cases, while we may not have an audible promise from God, we can rest assured in God's goodness that God will provide for those we can no longer watch after. 

The choice we are faced with is will we cling to people, worrying about them when God's plan has removed them from our daily lives, or will we place them in God's hands, trusting God to care for them as we never could in the first place? Choosing to let go is not a sign that you don't care; it is a sign that you trust God. Who do you need to place in God's hands?

Friday, January 27, 2023

Reading My Wife's Mind in Sodom and Gomorrah

Suggested Reading: Genesis 18:20-33,19:27-29 (or read the entire story Genesis 18-19)

I can read my wife's mind. Not all the time. But in a very specific set of circumstances, she doesn't have to finish speaking because I know exactly what she is thinking. See, she says, "Honey..." which is not unusual in terms of addressing me. But there are times when she says it that I know she wants ice cream. Every time she wants ice cream, I can't explain it, but I know she does. I don't know if it is the way she calls me or the expression on her face but I can tell she wants ice cream. I can tell exactly what she is asking even though she never actually asks. Normally she just confirms my guess with a sheepish grin and a big nod.

In Genesis 18-19, we see an example of God doing the same kind of thing with Abraham. God had let Abraham know of his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham began questioning God, concerned that God would destroy the righteous people along with the unrighteous. Abraham began negotiating with God to spare the city if so many righteous people could be found within it, starting with 50 and working his way down to 10. Now Abraham probably was actually concerned about righteous people being killed alongside the unrighteous, but he was probably mostly concerned about his nephew Lot and Lot's family, who had recently moved to Sodom. Abraham never specifically mentioned Lot's name but after God had sent angels to rescue Lot and then destroyed the city, the scriptures state, "So it was, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, He remembered Abraham and brought Lot out of the middle of the upheaval when He demolished the cities where Lot had lived" (Genesis 19:29, HCSB). Even though Abraham never specifically mentioned Lot, God knew exactly what Abraham was asking. The New Testament talks about the same mysterious dynamic this way: "In the same way the Spirit also joins to help in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings" (Romans 8:26, HCSB).

We may not always know how to pray for what we want or need. Sometimes, we may not even know what it is that we want or need. In each of those cases, God is capable of reading our minds. Whether through God's unique ability to see inside our thought process or simply because God knows us so well, God knows exactly what we mean, even if we don't know exactly what we mean. Never be afraid to pour your heart out to God even if you don't have a clue what you're saying. While people are only capable of going by what you say, God is capable of going by what you mean.

If you are in a difficult situation and you don't know how to pray or what to pray for, just pour your heart out to God. God knows exactly what you mean and exactly what you need. Trust him and, like Abraham, God will know what you're really asking.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Getting a Wife-Mandated Mistress

Suggested Reading: Genesis 16:1-16

One of my favorite authors, Stephen Lawhead, often puts a disclaimer at the beginning of his books when the subject matter required him to consult others to make his details realistic. In this disclaimer he thanks those who have helped him with his research and then adds a note that any place the details might not add up the way they should is entirely his own fault. He gives credit for the help he had received but takes credit for the mistakes up front, not that I ever have or would have noticed any mistakes.

At the opposite end of that spectrum are Sarai and Abram. As they grew older, with Abram in his 80s and Sarai in her 70s, they still had not had any children. So Sarai convinced Abram to have a child with her servant Hagar so that she could count the servant's child as her own. Abram might have refused but the practice was fairly common at the time among couples who couldn't have children so Abram went along with it. When Hagar got pregnant she began looking at Sarai with contempt, possibly believing she could now replace her mistress (one of the common problems with this plan). So Sarai approached Abram, scolding him, “This is all your fault! I put my servant into your arms, but now that she’s pregnant she treats me with contempt. The Lord will show who’s wrong—you or me!” (Genesis 16:5, NLT).  Sarai, emotional and insecure as she was, came storming in, blaming Abram that her own plan had worked. She had come up with an idea, persuaded Abram to go along with it, and then got bent out of  shape at the predictable consequences when it did work. Isn't that just like us, sometimes?

How often do we come up with a plan or take action without quite thinking it through all the way and then get angry when the natural consequences of that plan come to pass? Worse yet, how often are we unwilling or unable to accept the blame for our own actions and try to pin the blame on someone else? We forget to make an appointment but it's the repair shop's fault they can't get us in. We wait to leave until the last possible minute but it's traffic's fault that we are late. We tell a spouse to set out hamburger meat, but it's their fault they didn't know we meant chicken breasts. We talk about someone behind their back but it's their fault they're being overly sensitive.

One of the least endearing qualities in any human being is the inability to take credit for mistakes or for the consequences of our own choices. When we mess up, let's have the courage to own up to our mistakes because Sarai was right about one thing:  The Lord will show who's wrong

Goading Jesus Into a Middle School Fight

Suggested Reading: Matthew 4:1-11 In junior high, I had a run in with a student who was much larger than me. I was in the cafeteria before...