A Personal Devotional Journal

I invite you to journey with me. Sometimes we will look at short passages of Scripture and I will give my first thoughts and impressions. Other times, I will just share my thinking about spiritual issues. Always, you are welcome to comment and add your thoughts. Together, we could learn something.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Matthew 21:1-11 "Hosanna!"

When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task.  He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away.  
Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”  And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked.  The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” 

 This is one of those stories that we have heard so often (every Palm Sunday) that we are in danger of thinking we know the story and what it means and its import to us.  The basic story line is simply that on that final approach to Jerusalem during the Passover season in which Jesus was executed, He arrived riding on a donkey while crowds of people shouted "Hosanna!"  This is often referred to as the Triumphant Entry.  We need to break the details down a little bit to understand what was really going on.

We understand that a donkey is a humble animal.  Clearly, this entire event would have been different if Jesus had ridden into town on a giant, prancing war-horse or big brass chariot.  Many people do not know, however, that Jesus is not the first hero to ride into a city on a donkey.  When Rome conquered a country and there was still resentment and conflict, the conquering general would usually ride in on his war-horse to signify dominance.  On the other hand, when Caesar (or any high ranking general) arrived to visit a city for a friendly visit, it was customary to ride in on a donkey to signify peace and goodwill...it was a symbolic gesture that the people were familiar with.

Jesus, was not even the first hero to ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.  A few hundred years earlier the Maccabee brothers, generals in Israel's army, successfully defeated an invading army against overwhelming odds.  After their victory, they entered Jerusalem on the backs of donkeys while the crowds cheered and chanted, "Hosanna!"

So, what does this mean in the context of Jesus?  First, when Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem in this fashion, He was declaring Himself to be Messiah.  And clearly, the crowd understood this and accepted Jesus as Messiah.  Second, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, He came in peace and goodwill.  This is particularly important because although the crowd was not aware of their fickleness (a week later they would execute Jesus), Jesus was completely aware that these same people that were accepting Him here would reject Him later.  He knew and He still came in peace and goodwill.

I believe that the Triumphant Entry is a picture of the heart of God.  We are fickle.  We listen and worship and adore God one moment, and turn our backs and harden our hearts the next.  Some people assume (and even teach) that God is angry about our weakness and inconsistency.  But that is not God.  God is love.  God comes to us with goodwill.  He loves us.  In spite of our inability to truly love Him, He truly loves us.  This does not excuse bad behavior, but it should give us a glorious hope.  Even when we let God down -even when we fail -even when we respond to His love inappropriately, He still loves us.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Matthew 20:29-34 "Sometimes You Just Have To Ask"

 As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.  Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
“Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him. 

Everywhere Jesus went, He healed the sick.  It was part of His ministry.  These two blind beggars had heard the stories.  Being blind, it is unlikely that they had ever had the opportunity to travel to the countryside of Galilee to here Jesus preach to the crowds.  They likely had never actually heard Jesus teach.  But they had heard the stories.  So when they heard the commotion of a crowd passing by, they probably asked what was going on, and upon hearing that Jesus was passing by, they began to yell.  They had nothing to lose.

When the Bible says they "called out," I imagine it is being polite.  These are desperate men with a quickly disappearing chance of ever meeting the Healer.  They had to do something to get Jesus' attention, so they began to yell.  They yelled loudly enough that people in the crowd were telling them to shut-up.  But they didn't shut-up.  They yelled loudly enough that Jesus stopped to investigate.

Jesus, as He often did, asked the simple question, "What do you want me to do for you?" It is a simple question, but we who are outside of the story looking in understand something they didn't.  We understand that the man asking the question is more than a healer, more than a rabbi, more than just Messiah even; He is the Lord of lords and King of kings; He is the Creator of all that is.  Because of who Jesus is, we understand the import of the question.  Jesus asks, "What do you want me to do for you?"  And He has the ability to grant any request they might make.  When God asks this question, it is significant.

The book of James tells us that often we "have not because we ask not."  Jesus Himself said in several places that any [Kingdom] thing we ask for in His name will be accomplished.  I wonder if we were as desperate as these two blind men sitting beside the road calling out to Jesus -I wonder if in our times of need we called out in this same way, if Jesus would ask the same question of us.

Today, what do you want Jesus to do for you?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Matthew 20:20-28 "Whoever Wants To Be A Leader"

Then the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus with her sons. She knelt respectfully to ask a favor. “What is your request?” he asked.  
She replied, “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”
But Jesus answered by saying to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” 
“Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”
 Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. My Father has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”
When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant.  But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them.  But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

How often we resemble the disciples and their mother.  "Lord, show me favor; give me influence; give me position; give me manifestations of power...all for Your sake, of course." 

We don't know what we are asking.  We forget that in the Kingdom, Jesus is not joking when He says the first will be last and the leaders must first and foremost be servants.  What that often looks like in real life is unspiritual people lording it over God's servants.  What that looks like in real life is people with no conscience trampling on people with integrity.  What that actually looks like in real life is fakers stealing Kingdom finances while legitimate ministries go unfunded.  It's not fair.  Don't we have some rights or something? We forget that Kingdom people have no earthly rights -we give up our rights.

You think I'm wrong?  Ask Hosea why he is still married to an unfaithful prostitute?  Ask Ezekiel why he is lying on his right side (for 390 days)?  Ask Jeremiah what he is doing down in that cistern?  Ask dignified Isaiah why he is walking around naked?  Ask Joseph why he is in prison?  Ask Job what happened to his children?  Ask Paul what all those bruises and scars are about?  Ask Peter why he is upside down on a cross?  Ask our Lord and Savior, Jesus, why He -the Lord of all Creation, King of Kings, God of gods, is dying a criminal's death?  These are Kingdom leaders.  These are people living in God's favor.  These are people of influence.  These are people who manifested and walked in true spiritual power.

The incredible thing is that these people would do it again -they counted it a privilege to serve God, even under persecution, even when they didn't understand, even when death was the inevitable result.

Two things seem obvious to me.  First, most people don't really understand the Kingdom -they never did and they never will.  Second, those who begin to understand the Kingdom -those who even just scratch the surface of understanding -realize that the Kingdom, intimacy with God, the love of Father is worth more than life itself.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Matthew 20:1-16 "First & Last In God's Vineyard"

   “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard.  He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.
  “At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing.  So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day.  So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.
  “At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’
  “They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’
   “The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’
  “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first.  When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage.  When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. When they received their pay, they protested to the owner,  ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
  “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage?  Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you.  Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’
  “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

 We usually think of this parable in terms of salvation -those who turn to Jesus in old age, even on death beds, enter heaven just like those who have loved Him all of their lives.  And, of course, that's true; but, I don't think that is all Jesus is trying to teach us.  He starts this with those familiar words, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like..."  That means there is a Kingdom principle involved here.  This is not just about who gets into heaven, it is about how the Kingdom functions.

I know people who are always trying to earn or cultivate God's favor in order to receive more blessing.  It just doesn't work like that.  God's interest is to conform us to the image and character of Christ.  Because we are all at different places in our spiritual development, we require different treatment.  Some people's most immediate need in order to go deeper with God is to experience His generosity in order to learn trust, some need to experience His mercy in order to learn forgiveness, some need an extra measure of grace to learn to not judge, some need trials to learn patience -you get the picture.

None of this has anything to do with His favor or His fairness.  God gives us what He knows we need, not what we think we deserve.  And in this process, sometimes things get all topsy-turvy -things seem out of whack.  Sometimes God's perspective is so radically different than ours that He seems unfair.  While God is constantly giving what we need instead of what we want, and working for the good of those who love Him, from our perspective it looks as if the first are coming in last and the last are coming in first.

So, how should we respond when life (and God) seems unfair?  What can we do if we don't like what we are experiencing?  Obviously, we can't manipulate God; and we can't earn His favor; and we can't coerce Him into doing what we want instead of what He knows is best.  So, the only right response is cooperate and dig in and learn from Him.  In all circumstances there are important lessons to be learned.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Matthew 19:28-30 "The Greatest and the Least"

Jesus said, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.

 Jesus here addresses one of the issues that I sometimes struggle with.  I am now well into "middle age," and have very little to show (materially) for having served God.  I'm not complaining, just acknowledging reality.  I have tried to live my life in service to my King and I have no plan B -there is no backup plan.  I have poured my life into others and held back very little for myself.  And for me, serving God has not resulted in financial security, great health, or even children who love God -and I certainly have not garnered a whole lot of attention or respect or importance.  If serving God is about "blessings and prosperity," I missed the boat somewhere.

Please don't misunderstand; again, I'm not complaining.  I have chosen the life I lead.  And I don't intend to turn back.  I believe that I have chosen correctly.  I sincerely believe that one day -a day I long for -a hope that keeps me going -one day I will stand before my Jesus and He will say, Well Done!"  And that makes everything worth while.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Matthew 19:23-26 "It's Hard To Be Rich"

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

 A couple of quick & perhaps obvious thoughts:

First, Jesus says bluntly that it is hard for someone who is rich to enter His Kingdom.  Either He is stupid and doesn't know what He is talking about, or He is evil and mean spirited and lying to us, or He is actually God and does, indeed, know what He is talking about and it is, in fact, hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom.   If this is the case (and of course it is) we need no other evidence to know that Prosperity teaching that claims God wants all of His followers to be rich and God blesses sincere faith with financial wealth, is wrong; it is absolutely contrary to what Jesus taught.  God wants us to enter His Kingdom.  God wants us to love Him and trust Him and depend upon Him.  If being rich makes loving and trusting and depending upon Him more difficult, it is contrary to the Kingdom.

Second, I've heard many people teach that the "Eye of the Needle" was a small gate that merchants had to use after the main gates of the city were closed at night.  And with this smaller gate, camels had to be unloaded, making entering the city after hours difficult and inconvenient.  The response of the disciples to this teaching, however, indicates that Jesus said this in a literal sense -not referring to a smaller gate less convenient gate.   They said, "But Jesus, it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle."  It caused them to ask, "How can anyone be saved?"

I think we are often drawn to softer interpretations of Christ's teachings because we it makes following Jesus easier -it suits us.  Maybe we are rich, or maybe we would like to be rich -and we really don't like Scripture telling us that our goals are wrong.  After all, Jesus went on to say, "with God it is possible."  So, it is not completely impossible for a rich person to enter the Kingdom.  There is always the hope of Divine Intervention. 

But, here is the rub.  If we are worried about how to acquire and keep wealth -if we are looking for loopholes -if we are counting on Divine Intervention so that we can keep our wealth for ourselves, we have already missed the mark.  

And if in the process of sincerely seeking first His Kingdom and His righteousness He blesses us financially, we would be well advised to ask Him why.  What is His purpose?  What is His agenda for the wealth He has given?  It is, after all, hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom.

I know this sounds as if God is opposed to wealth.  That is not necessarily the case.  It is more that God is opposed to whatever hinders us from attaining intimacy and relationship with Him.  God is opposed to whatever hinders us from entering the Kingdom.  And for all but a very select few, serious wealth is a spiritual hindrance, not a spiritual blessing.