Fuller

Following Jesus Today

by Mark D. Roberts, Ph.D.

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Executive Director of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership

© Copyright 2020 De Pree Center. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Part 1: When In Doubt, Follow Jesus (Luke 5:27-28)
Part 2: Surprised by Jesus (Luke 1:30-34)
Part 3: Giving God All That You Are (Luke 1:38)
Part 4: God’s Miracle and Mary’s Work (Luke 1:35)
Part 5: A Humble Beginning (Luke 2:6-7)
Part 6: Weeping Over Our Cities (Luke 2:7, 19:41)
Part 7: The Vulnerability of Jesus (Luke 2:6-7)
Part 8: Living and Leading Vulnerably (Luke 2:6-7)
Part 9: A Moving Example of Vulnerable Leadership (Luke 2:6-7)
Part 10: Affirming All Ages (Luke 2:36-38)
Part 11: The Truly Human Jesus (Luke 2:39-40)
Part 12: Raising Children Together (Luke 2:48)
Part 13: Use Your Power Justly (Luke 3:12-14)
Part 14: God Loves You and Delights in You (Luke 3:21-22)
Part 15: Living for God’s Pleasure (Luke 3:21-22)
Part 16: When You Are Tempted (Luke 4:1-2)
Part 17: More Shocking Than Iron Man (Luke 4:17-21)
Part 18: Celebrating and Striving (Luke 4:17-21)
Part 19: Serving People on the Margins (Luke 4:24-27)
Part 20: Honoring the Authority of Jesus (Luke 4:31-32)
Part 21: Honoring the Authority of Jesus: An Example (Luke 4:31-32)
Part 22: Purpose Over Popularity (Luke 4:42-44)
Part 23: Prayer and Purpose (Luke 4:42-44; 5:15-16)
Part 24: Proclaiming the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:42-44)
Part 25: Responding to His Call (Luke 5:8-11)
Part 26: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Follow Jesus (Luke 5:4-8)
Part 27: Must I Leave Everything Behind (Luke 5:9-11)

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Part 1: When In Doubt, Follow Jesus

Scripture – Luke 5:27-28 (NRSV)

After this [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him.

Focus

In a time of uncertainty, when we’re not sure quite what to do, it’s good to follow Jesus. When we wonder where our lives are headed and what they’ll be like when we get there, it’s good to follow Jesus. When you’re not quite sure what to think or how to live, here’s something you can hang onto: When in doubt, follow Jesus!

Devotion

A woman hiking and reaching back to take the hand of the person behind herToday I’m beginning a new Life for Leaders series called: “Following Jesus Today.” In the next several weeks I want to think with you about what it means to follow Jesus in our world at this time of history. Yes, along the way we’ll consider the particular challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. But this devotional series will be, I hope, not only timely but also timeless. No matter the context, no matter the challenge, no matter the confusion engulfing us, it’s always good to turn our attention back to Jesus. I don’t know what will be expected of me in the future. I don’t know the challenges I’ll face or the opportunities that will be presented to me. But I do know this: When in doubt, follow Jesus!

Of course, for us, following Jesus today isn’t exactly like what it was for people who encountered Jesus in the flesh. For example, when Jesus approached Levi the tax collector and said to him, “Follow me,” Levi “got up, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 5:28). He literally went after Jesus, walking along as Jesus led. Later, Levi threw a great party for Jesus so that he might introduce him to his friends and associates (Luke 5:29).

You and I don’t have the chance to follow Jesus in that way. So what does it mean for us to follow Jesus today? That’s the question I want to explore with you in this Life for Leaders devotional series. We’re going to focus on passages from the Gospel of Luke that show us something about Jesus and what it means for us to follow him. Though we can’t actually walk behind him, going wherever he goes, we can follow Jesus by heeding his call, listening to his teachings, believing and doing what he says, getting to know him personally, learning his way of life, being formed in the image of his character, praying as he teaches us, and joining in his kingdom-centered mission.

Seven hundred years ago, a man living in a small village in southern England offered a simple, heartfelt prayer: “Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits Thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults which Thou hast borne for me. O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may I know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.” This prayer of St. Richard of Chichester has resonated in the hearts of Christians around the world, echoing throughout the centuries. It is my prayer for you and me as we begin this Life for Leaders series. Indeed, in this particular time of history, with so many challenges and opportunities before us, may we know Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day, even today!

Reflect

Do you think of yourself as following Jesus in your daily life? At work? In your community? With your family and friends? With your church? Why do you think this way? Or why not?

When you picture someone in today’s world following Jesus, who comes to mind? What are they doing?

What might it mean for you to follow Jesus today as you do your work, interact with your housemates, and engage with others either online or in person?

Act

Use the prayer of St. Richard as a way turning your mind and heart to Jesus. For the next several days, pray this prayer, either silently or out loud, several times a day.

Pray

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits Thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults which Thou hast borne for me.

O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may I know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.

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Part 2: Surprised by Jesus

Scripture – Luke 1:30-34 (NRSV)

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Click here to read all of Luke 1:26-38.

Focus

Jesus is full of surprises. Even before he was born, his entrance into the world surprised his mother, Mary. And that was just the beginning. Jesus continues to surprise us today, even and especially those of us who follow him. Just when we think we have Jesus all figured out, he surprises us with unexpected wisdom, vision, compassion, power, and grace. Are you open to being surprised by Jesus today?

Devotion

A number of years ago, I wrote a manuscript that I hoped would become a book about Jesus. I intended to call the book Surprised by Jesus. My main point was that Jesus continually surprises us, even when we think we know him well. A publisher loved my thesis and my title, so I got to work writing Surprised by Jesus. After I turned in the complete manuscript, however, the publisher got back to me with a mixed report. “We love what you’ve written,” he said, “but our editorial board isn’t sold on the name Surprised by Jesus. We need to work on other options.” And so we did, experimenting with a variety of possibilities. Finally, the board gave their thumbs up to Jesus Revealed. So, I went through my manuscript, minimizing the surprise theme. Months later, Jesus Revealed: Know Him Better to Love Him Better was published. (You can still purchase a copy from Amazon, if you’re interested.)

A book cover showing an icon of Jesus with the words "Jesus Revealed" across itThough I’m fine with Jesus Revealed, I still like Surprised by Jesus. Why? Because from the very beginning, Jesus was surprising. And he kept on surprising people throughout his life, right to the very end . . . and beyond.

Jesus was surprising people even before he was born. Take the case of his mother, Mary. While she is minding her own business, engaged to a man named Joseph, she is surprised by the visit of an angel. When he says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” Luke says that Mary was “perplexed” (1:29). No doubt she was also surprised. The angel proceeded to tell her that she would soon become pregnant, even though she was a virgin. Now that’s a surprise! Moreover, the child she would bear would be “great” and “called the Son of the Most High” and would reign from “the throne of his ancestor David” forever (Luke 1:32-33). Mary would conceive by the Holy Spirit so that her child would be called “Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Talk about surprises!

Of course, this was just the beginning. Jesus continued to surprise Mary, and his earthly father Joseph, and those with whom he grew up, and those who followed him, and those who opposed him. He surprised those who thought they had him figured out and those who couldn’t make sense of him. Though people responded to Jesus in vastly different ways during his lifetime, almost everyone would have agreed that he was surprising.

In tomorrow’s Life for Leaders devotion I want to think with you about Mary’s response to the surprises of the angel’s message. Today, I want to pause for a moment and encourage you to reflect upon the surprise(s) of Jesus in your life. Let the following questions guide your reflections.

Reflect

Take some time to read slowly the story of Mary’s encounter with the angel (Luke 1:26-38). Imagine what this encounter might have been like for Mary. What was she thinking? How was she feeling?

Can you think of a time (or several times) when you were surprised by Jesus? What was this like for you?

How open are you to the surprises Jesus has in store for you?

Act

With your small group or with a friend, talk about ways Jesus has surprised you. Listen to the experience of others. See what you learn about ways Jesus surprises today.

Pray

Lord Jesus, you were surprising from the beginning. Your way of entering the world was certainly a surprise to your mother. Being pregnant was probably the last thing she was expecting in that season of her life. And giving birth to the Son of God was surely not on her agenda.

Lord, you continue to surprise us today. Even those of us who seek to follow you faithfully are surprised by what we see in the Gospels, by what we hear you say and see you do. We’re also surprised by the way your grace is active in our lives today. You are always doing the unexpected.

Help me, Lord, to be open to your surprises. May I trust that your ways are always the best, even when I find them shocking or unsettling. Amen.

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Part 3: Giving God All That You Are

Scripture – Luke 1:38 (NRSV)

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Click here to read all of Luke 1:26-38.

Focus

From an angel, Mary heard the unsettling news that she would give birth to a son even though she was a virgin. Mary’s life was about to be turned utterly upside down. How did she respond to this shocking news? By offering herself fully and freely to God. “Here I am,” she said, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” O God, by your grace, may I be like Mary, giving all that I am to you.

Devotion

A person standing on a hill at sunrise in a prayerful postureIn yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion we considered the surprise of Jesus for Mary. Though she was a virgin, she learned she would give birth to a child. That would have been a giant surprise all by itself. But, according to the angel, Mary’s child would be the ruler over the house of Jacob and, indeed, the very Son of God. Talk about surprises! Mary must have been gobsmacked.

When she first learned that she would be giving birth, Mary asked the angel a reasonable question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). She knew enough of human physiology to understand how babies are made and that she should not be in the process of making one. The angel explained that Mary would conceive through the Holy Spirit as “the power of the Most High” overshadowed her (Luke 1:35). In order to reassure Mary that such a thing would be possible for God, the angel pointed to the extraordinary pregnancy of Mary’s relative Elizabeth, who was preparing to give birth even in her old age.

So how did Mary respond to all of these surprises? She said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). The simple phrase “Here am I” echoes the responses of Moses and Isaiah, both of whom answered God’s call by saying, “Here I am” (Exodus 3:4; Isaiah 6:8). Moreover, like these faithful ones from the Old Testament, Mary offered herself fully and freely to God. “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) is the fitting response of one who saw herself as God’s servant.

Since her story is so familiar to us, it can be hard for us to imagine how utterly unexpected and unsettling the angel’s news would have been for Mary. She surely realized that her unplanned pregnancy would not be a happy surprise for her family, friends, and fiancé. After all, who would believe her account of how she got pregnant? The Gospel of Matthew reveals that Joseph intended to break off their engagement quietly in an effort to hide Mary from public disgrace. He did not believe Mary’s story until an angelic vision reassured him (Matthew 1:19-24). As Mary pondered the angel’s news, she no doubt understood that her life had just gotten immeasurably more complicated and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, she offered herself to the Lord as his servant. She chose to have her life shaped, not by her own hopes and expectations, but by God’s word.

I find Mary’s brief response to the angel to be one of the most moving sentences in all of Scripture. I am stunned by her willingness to give to God all that she was, even the most intimate parts of herself. I am reminded, by contrast, of how hard it is for me to surrender even relatively inconsequential parts of my life to the Lord. Yes, I believe I am, like Mary, a servant of the Lord. And I really want to live as God’s servant. But am I able truthfully to say with Mary, “Let it be with me according to your word”? Will I take whatever it is that God wants to give me? O Lord, may it be so. May I be like Mary, living by your grace and for your glory.

Reflect

What do you think enabled Mary to respond to the angel in such an astounding way? What might have brought her to the point where she could offer her whole being to the Lord as his servant?

Can you think of a time in your life when God asked you to do something big, perhaps something scary or truly sacrificial? How did you respond? Why did you respond this way?

What might God be asking of you today? How might you respond?

Act

If you are aware of God asking something of you, take time to reflect upon this and how you are reacting. If possible, talk about this with your small group, with a trusted friend, or with your pastor or spiritual director.

Pray

Gracious God, once again I am struck by Mary’s faithfulness and trust. Knowing that her life would never be the same again, knowing that the road ahead would be a hard one, nevertheless she offered herself to you. “Here I am,” she said. Here I am, Lord, here for you. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

How amazing, Lord! How inspiring! How challenging! You know that I struggle with giving you parts of my life that are nothing like what Mary gave to you. I hold back in fear or in a desire to run my own life. Yet I hear the echoes of Mary’s profession, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

O God, help me to be like Mary, to trust you fully, to submit to you freely, to let my life be guided by your will for me. By your grace may I say to you: Here I am, Lord. I am your servant. Let it be with me according to your word. May I exist for your praise, your purpose, your glory. Amen.

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Part 4: God’s Miracle and Mary’s Work

Scripture – Luke 1:35 (NRSV)

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

Click here to read all of Luke 1:26-38.

Focus

Christians celebrate the miracle of Jesus’s birth, especially his conception by the Holy Spirit. Yet, too often we ignore Mary’s participation, the work she did of carrying, nurturing, and then giving birth to her baby. The experience of Mary helps us recognize that God’s work in the world comes through the miracle of grace made flesh through human work. As we participate in God’s work, we celebrate both divine miracles and human labor.

Devotion

A pregnant woman sitting on a benchThis week we have begun our new devotional series, Following Jesus Today, by focusing on the story of Mary’s encounter with the angel in Luke 1. Though Mary was surely surprised by the angel’s news of her pending pregnancy, and though this news would have utterly upended her life, nevertheless Mary responded by giving God all that she was. “Here am I,” she said, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Christians have for centuries celebrated the unique and miraculous nature of Mary’s conception. Especially at Christmastime we marvel over the miracle of how Mary became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet this miracle is also commemorated week after week in Ordinary Time as Christians confess our faith with the words of the Apostle’s Creed. We say that we “believe in Jesus Christ . . . who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”

We are certainly right to wonder over the miracle of Jesus’s conception. Yet sometimes I fear we overlook what is implicit in the story of Jesus’s birth. I’m talking about Mary’s part, not just her willingness to conceive by the power of the Spirit, but also everything else that is implied in the phrase, “born of the Virgin Mary.” Though her conception was unique and supernatural, Mary experienced a natural, down-to-earth pregnancy, with all its joys and challenges. No doubt Mary rejoiced with wonder when she first felt Jesus kick in her womb. She certainly experienced the discomfort of full-term pregnancy, especially as she was making her way to Bethlehem. And then Mary gave birth without medication in less than ideal circumstances. Talk about work!

The birth of Jesus was a result both of God’s miracle and Mary’s work. We say sometimes that birth is a miracle and in a sense this is true. But if you ask any woman who has actually given birth, she’ll tell you it is also work—hard work, perhaps the hardest work a person will ever do.

So, in this devotion I am not in the least downplaying God’s miraculous contribution to the birth of Jesus. But I am playing up Mary’s contribution, the work she did of carrying, nurturing, and then giving birth to her baby. Why does this matter? Because we often ignore the human part of God’s work in the world. We celebrate the miracles without also celebrating human labor. But the birth of Jesus challenges us to value and to celebrate it all. The experience of Mary helps us recognize that God’s work in the world comes through the miracle of grace made flesh through human work.

Reflect

In your experience, has Mary’s participation in the birth of Jesus received much attention? If so, why is this? If not, why not?

Can you think of ways in which your work is like Mary’s? Is God’s grace made flesh through the work you do?

Act

As you work today, whether your work is compensated or not, think about how God is present in your work. Jot down some thoughts about how your work is a working out of God’s grace. Then share these thoughts with your small group or a good friend.

Pray

Gracious God, we do marvel over the wonderful of Mary’s conception. We are reminded by her experience that all things are possible for you, and we celebrate your mysterious and amazing grace.

Yet we don’t want to neglect Mary’s part in the story of Jesus’s birth. She accepted not only miraculous conception but also all that followed from it. She did the exhausting work of carrying a child and giving birth. Her work wasn’t incidental, Lord. It was essential to your plan and your work.

Though there is something unique about Mary’s work, may her example remind us of the value of human labor. Yes, Lord, we celebrate your miracles. But we also celebrate your choice to work in and through us. Our efforts matter to you and make a difference in your world. Thank you for honoring us in this way.

Help us to work faithfully in all we do, seeking your glory in every task. Amen.

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Part 5: Following Jesus Today – A Humble Beginning

Scripture – Luke 2:6-7 (NRSV)

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

You can read all of Luke 2:1-7 here.

Focus

What does it mean to follow one who was born in a manger? It does not mean that we must necessarily sleep on beds of straw. But it does mean that the one we follow will lead us in the way of humility. The same Jesus whose birth was so humble is the one whose death was designed to maximize humiliation. We follow Jesus by surrendering our preoccupation with comfort and honor, choosing instead to give ourselves away in service to God and others.

Devotion

A wooden mangerI’ll admit that it feels a little odd to be writing about the birth of Jesus in a devotion for the first day of June. After all, we’re almost as far away from Christmas as we get in the year. Yet, if allow the Gospel of Luke to teach us to follow Jesus today, then we ought to reflect on the story of the Nativity.

We know from the opening verses of Luke 2 that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because his human parents, Joseph and Mary, went there to registered with the Roman Empire. While in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor. She gave birth to Jesus, “her firstborn son” and “wrapped him in bands of cloth.” So far, there is nothing particularly unusual about this description. But then Luke adds that they “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (2:7).

If you were hearing this story for the first time, those details would be quite surprising. For one thing, newborn infants were not usually laid to rest in animal feeding troughs (the primary meaning of phatne, or “manger”). The mention of the manger suggests that the location where Jesus was born could have been a stable connected to a house, the lower floor of a house used mainly for animals, or a stand-alone stable or cave.

Why was Jesus born in such an odd place and put down in such an unusual cradle? Because, Luke explains, “there was no place for them in the inn” (2:7). As I read this, I can’t help but picture dozens of children’s Christmas pageants in which Mary and Joseph knock on a cardboard door labeled “Inn,” only to be turned away by a heartless young innkeeper with a fluffy fake beard. Though the innkeeper scene is historically possible, the Greek word translated here as “inn” (kataluma) could refer rather to the guest room of a home. If it was full of travelers needing to be registered, then the availability and privacy of the stable might have been preferable for all parties, even Mary and Joseph.

No matter the precise details, however, the birth of Jesus was assuredly humble. This is not what anyone would have expected for the baby identified by the angel Gabriel as “the Son of the Most High” and “Son of God” (Luke 1:32, 35). Such a humble birth does reflect, however, what was real about Jesus, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). The humility of Jesus’s birth foreshadows the even greater humility yet to come, when he chose to be executed in a way that was designed to maximize both humiliation and suffering (Philippians 2:8).

For most of us, following Jesus today will not mean we sleep in a bed intended for animals. But when we reflect on the birth of Jesus, we are forewarned. Following one from such humble beginnings will lead us in the path of humility, and this will not be easy. By God’s grace, our preoccupation with our own comfort and honor will be replaced by life of humble service both to God and to others.

Reflect

As you think about the birth of Jesus, especially when so far removed from the usual celebrations of Christmas, what thoughts come to mind? What feelings? How do you respond to the simple story in Luke 2:1-7?

Whom in your life would you consider to be humble? What about how they live would you describe as humble? Why?

Would you say that you are a humble person? Why or why not?

What helps you to grow in humility?

Act

Ask the Lord to show you one way to serve someone else humbly this week. Put the needs of that person ahead of your own needs. See if you can serve without worrying too much about yourself.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for humbling yourself, becoming human, even accepting the manger as your first bed. Thank you for your willingness to enter into our reality, and to do so in a way that was so vulnerable and humble.

You know, Lord, that I’m not always a big fan of humility, especially when it comes to myself. I want to be the best. I want to be right. I want to be a person of influence. I don’t naturally desire to serve, to put others before myself, to reject my own desire for glory. Forgive me.

Yet, I want to follow you, Jesus, even in your humility. Help me to choose your way of living, to care, not about myself, but others. May I learn to serve even as you came to serve. To you be all the glory. Amen.

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Part 6: Weeping Over Our Cities

Scripture – Luke 2:7, 19:41 (NRSV)

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it.

Focus

Contrary to the claims of a beloved carol, it’s not actually true of Jesus that “no crying he makes.” In Luke 19 we see Jesus weeping expressively over the broken and suffering city of Jerusalem. His example invites us to feel and express our grief over the brokenness and suffering of our own cities today. We are saddened and angry when we see people created in God’s image mistreated and even murdered. Our expression of grief opens our hearts to receive God’s call in a new ways as agents of his peace, justice, and love.

Devotion

boy crying into his shirtOne of the very first things I learned about Jesus was that, as a baby, he didn’t cry. The source of this information was, of course, the beloved Christmas carol, “Away in a Manager.” When “the little Lord Jesus” is awakened by the lowing of the cattle, “no crying he makes.” Only later in life did I learn that the theology of this verse was way out of line with Scripture. If Jesus was truly the incarnation of the Word of God, if he was fully human in addition to being fully divine, then he surely participated in normal human behavior, like crying when he was a baby.

In fact, the biblical gospels actually depict the crying of Jesus, not as an infant, but as a grown man. Perhaps the most familiar example appears in John 11, where Jesus wept along with those who were grieving over the death of Lazarus (John 11:31-35). Another example appears in Luke 19, where Jesus approaches the city of Jerusalem. “As he came near and saw the city,” Luke tells us, “he wept over it” (19:41). In fact, the Greek word translated here a “wept” is a powerful verb that could even be translated as “wailed” (klaio). We’re not talking about a modest sniffle, but a strong, gut-wrenching, public expression of grief.

Why did Jesus weep in this dramatic way? In Luke 19, Jesus explains his sadness over Jerusalem. The city had had a chance to embrace the peace that Jesus offered, but they rejected it even as they rejected him. The salvation of God was now hidden from Jerusalem, which, in time would be crushed to the ground because they failed to recognize their “visitation from God” (19:44). Jesus felt tremendous grief as he gazed upon the broken city. He wept, much as the prophet Jeremiah once wept over Judah and Jerusalem (Jer. 9:1-11).

The example of Jesus gives us permission to grieve over the brokenness and pain of our cities today. It invites us to feel and express our sadness and anger over suffering and injustice. In this time of history in the United States we need this permission and invitation, perhaps now more than ever. Over 100,000 of our fellow citizens have now died from COVID-19, devastating families, communities, and churches. Over 40 million people have lost their jobs and now face extreme economic hardships.

Then, in the midst of this horror, we learn of the senseless killings of African-Americans, culminating in the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. The pain and rage of millions of people of color and their allies is expressed in fervent prayer meetings and peaceful protests, which some people exploit as an occasion for acts of violence. Yet, these acts mustn’t take our attention away from the injustice of racism that continues to plague our society, systems, and even our own hearts. We rightly grieve over the mistreatment of people created in God’s image. We rightly repent over our own participation in unjust structures. We who seek to follow Jesus have every reason to weep over our own cities much as Jesus once did over Jerusalem.

Of course Jesus didn’t stop there. After weeping he also acted decisively and sacrificially to bring a more pervasive peace than anyone could have imagined. Grief over injustice and suffering isn’t the end of our response, but just the beginning. As we take our grief to the Lord, we ask what he would have us do. We offer ourselves as instruments of his peace, as seekers of his justice in every part of life, and as people who love in deed and not only in word. Weeping opens us up to feel God’s heart, receive God’s direction, and join in his kingdom mission. What this means for each one of us will be distinctive, given our situation in life and our particular callings. But we can all do something to advance the cause of justice in our part of the world and to stand in solidarity with the African American community in the midst of our current crisis.

Reflect

How do you respond to the weeping of Jesus over Jerusalem? Have you ever done something like this? If so, when and why? What was it like for you?

How do you feel about what’s happening in our country right now (and, indeed, throughout the world)? How do you express your feelings and thoughts to the Lord?

Act 1

Take some time to open your heart to God. Ask him to give you his heart for what’s happening in our world today, including our cities. Give yourself freedom to express whatever you feel to the Lord.

Act 2

I would like to add a second Act section to today’s devotion. It’s relevant especially for those of you who are like me. These days I’m especially aware of my own social location as a privileged white male. It can be hard for me to understand the experience of those whose lives are so different from mine, including African American people. I’m thankful for those who have helped me to grow in my understanding and empathy, though I know I have a long way to go.

If, like me, you want to expand your mind and heart when it comes to issues of race, let me point to a couple helpful resources. First, Dr. Dwight Radcliff, assistant provost of the Pannell Center for African American Church Studies at Fuller Seminary talks about “Black Pain” in a podcast with Fuller’s president, Dr. Mark Labberton. Second, I had the privilege of helping to interview Austin Channing Brown in the “Making It Work” podcast the De Pree Center produces with the Theology of Work Project. Austin, the author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, talked for the podcast on the subject, “The Invisible Burden of Being a Black Woman in the Workplace.” This was an enlightening and touching conversation that I’d love to share with you.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for weeping over Jerusalem. Thank you for feeling grief over sin and suffering. Thank you for teaching us that it’s right to express grief without hesitation or shame.

O Lord, as we look at our cities today, we grieve. We feel a deep sadness over the suffering of others, whether from disease, loss, fear, violence, or injustice. We listen to the anguish of our fellow citizens and grieve, perhaps even weep.

As we do, give us hearts like yours, Lord, hearts of compassion for others, hearts of passion for your justice, hearts ready to serve and sacrifice. And as we open our hearts to you, show us we should participate in the work of your kingdom, as we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you. Amen.

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Part 7: The Vulnerability of Jesus

Scripture – Luke 2:6-7 (NRSV)

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

You can read all of Luke 2:1-7 here.

Focus

In Jesus, the Son of God, God entered human life as a baby. He was defenseless and vulnerable, utterly dependent on his parents for everything. How amazing to think that God chose to come among us in this way. This means, among other things, that God understands. To put it simply, God gets you. So, when you feel vulnerable and weak, when you turn to the Lord for help, you can count on his empathy as well as his grace. God is there for you!

Devotion

A woman carrying her baby on her backThe vulnerability of the infant Jesus really didn’t dawn on me until the birth of Linda’s and my first child, Nathan, in 1992. While we were in the hospital, with lots of fine medical assistance, I recognized just how much Nathan depended on others for his very life. I felt daunted by the fact that in a couple of days Linda and I would assume full responsibility for making sure Nathan was okay. There was no way he could manage on his own. (He does just fine now, let me add—27 years later.)

We brought Nathan home from the hospital on Christmas Eve. As he slept, I finally had a few moments to prepare my sermon for our church’s Christmas Eve services. Reflecting on the biblical text and my three-day long experience of parenting, I was struck by the fact that, like my son, Jesus began life as a vulnerable infant. He, of course, didn’t even have doctors and nurses to ease his welcome into the world. He was completely dependent on his parents and, perhaps, their relatives in Bethlehem.

The vulnerability of Jesus is especially striking when you consider who he was. He wasn’t just a newborn infant, the son of Mary and Joseph. He was also the Son of God, the Word of God in human flesh. This means that God chose to enter human life by becoming utterly vulnerable. Jesus could have shown up as a fully-grown man, or as some kind of invincible demigod (picture Thor or Wonder Woman, with awesome super-powers). But, instead, the all-powerful God chose the way of weakness, dependence, and vulnerability.

One implication of the vulnerability of Jesus is that he understands what it’s like to be human. He gets you and me in a deeply personal way. As it says in Hebrews 2:17, Jesus became “like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest.” Hebrews 4:15 adds, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” When you feel vulnerable, Jesus understands. When you feel weak, Jesus gets it. This truth can be especially reassuring in a world infected by a life-threatening, economy-disrupting, relationship-limiting virus. When you talk with Jesus about how you’re doing, his heart is right there with you.

Reflect

As you reflect on the vulnerability of the infant Jesus, what thoughts and feelings come to mind?

Does your relationship with Jesus reflect the fact that he is “like you in every respect” and is “able to sympathize with your weaknesses”? If so, how and why? If not, why not?

Act

Read Hebrews 4:14-16. As you reflect on the “sympathy” and “weakness” of Jesus, take seriously the exhortation of verse 16.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for becoming fully human in Jesus. Thank you for entering this life as a weak, needy, vulnerable baby. Thank you for understanding what it means to experience life as we do. Thank you for the freedom this gives us to approach you in prayer.

Help me, Lord, to take seriously the vulnerability of Jesus. Help me to believe that, through him, you understand what it’s like to be human. When I feel weak and exposed, when I feel dependent and needy, you know what this is like. Your understanding gives me such freedom as I open my heart to you in prayer. Thank you! Amen.

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Part 8: Living and Leading Vulnerably

Scripture – Luke 2:6-7 (NRSV) 

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

You can read all of Luke 2:1-7 here.

Focus

In this time of history, when we’re dealing with a pandemic and other major challenges, leadership requires vulnerability. After all, we who lead in this day must take risks. There is no other way, no safe path. We must try things we haven’t tried before. We must acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. We must learn to be honest with our colleagues so that we might discover together the best ways to move forward in the face of uncertainty. We need to put ourselves, our success, and our reputation on the line. As we do, we will indeed live and lead vulnerably, like Jesus, who is there to help us.

Devotion

A person standing on a beach looking out at stormy waves.What does it mean to be vulnerable? The word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin word vulnus, which means “wound.” When we are vulnerable, we can be wounded physically or emotionally by external forces, systems, circumstances, or other people. We are vulnerable when we put ourselves out there beyond what is safe, familiar, and comfortable. We open ourselves up to the possibility of being wounded. Surely the infant Jesus could have been hurt in many ways if his parents had mistreated him. Ultimately, of course, the vulnerability of Jesus was seen most of all on the cross as he was literally “wounded for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5).

Brené Brown, in her book Braving the Wilderness, defines vulnerability this way: It is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Brown is probably the world’s leading advocate of vulnerability through her writings, speaking, and especially her TED talk. So far, “The Power of Vulnerability” has been watched 48,089,280 times as the fourth most popular TED talk of all time. Brown demonstrates that vulnerability is essential if we seek to live whole, meaningful, and generative lives. We need to be open, to take risks, to exercise courage as we put ourselves on the line.

Leadership guru Patrick Lencioni claims that vulnerability is essential if we wish to lead productive teams. In The Advantage, he argues that building trust is foundational to leadership. And trust, according to Lencioni, is a response to vulnerability. “The kind of trust that is necessary to build a great team is what I call vulnerability-based trust. This is what happens when members get to a point where they are completely comfortable being transparent, honest, and naked with one another, where they say and genuinely mean things like ‘I screwed up,’ ‘I need help,’ ‘Your idea is better than mine,’ ‘I wish I could learn to do that as well as you do,’ and even, ‘I’m sorry.’” Lencioni goes on to say, “At the heart of vulnerability lies the willingness of people to abandon their pride and their fear, to sacrifice their egos for the collective good of the team.”

Jesus sacrificed his ego, and indeed his life, not just for the collective good of his team of disciples, but also for the good of the entire world. He risked everything in response to his conviction about what his Heavenly Father was calling him to do (Mark 14:32-42). He who began his earthly life vulnerably ended it in the same way; at first in a manger, at last on a cross.

I may not agree with everything Brené Brown and Patrick Lencioni say about vulnerability in life and leadership. I’m certainly not equating their insights with the example of Jesus. But I am struck by the fact that what Jesus models for us in birth, life, and death is being commended by such influential thought leaders in psychology and business. Even if we don’t buy all that Brown and Lencioni propose, we surely ought to follow their example by considering how the vulnerability of Jesus should inform how we live and lead. (By the way, in recent years, Harvard Business Review has featured articles with titles like, “Why CEOs Should Model Vulnerability,” “Expressing Your Vulnerability Makes You Stronger,” and “Vulnerability: The Defining Trait of Great Entrepreneurs.”)

In this time of history, when we’re dealing with a pandemic, racial injustice, and other major challenges, I can’t imagine leadership that is not vulnerable. After all, we who lead in this day must take risks. There is no other way, no safe path. We must put ourselves out in front where we might be attacked. We must try things we haven’t tried before. We must acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. We must learn to be honest with our colleagues so that we might discover together the best ways to move forward in the face of uncertainty. We need to put ourselves, our success, and our reputation on the line. As we do, we will indeed live and lead vulnerably, like Jesus, who is there to help us.

Reflect

How do you respond to the ideas of Brené Brown and Patrick Lencioni? Are you intrigued? Hesitant? Persuaded? Unconvinced?

Surely there are times when vulnerability is wise and times when it is unwise. It’s not wise, for example, to be vulnerable by running out into the middle of a freeway. Nor is it wise to share your deep hurts with someone who will quickly use them to wound you further. So, how can we know when it’s right to be vulnerable and when it’s right to hold back?

As you reflect upon the vulnerability of Jesus, in what ways does his example inform your life and leadership? Where does it challenge or unsettle you?

Act

Pray about how you might exercise wise vulnerability in your life and/or leadership. Follow the lead of the Spirit as God guides you in following the example of Jesus.

Pray

Gracious God, once again we are struck by the vulnerability of Jesus. Once again we are challenged to follow him is ways that make us uncomfortable. Once again we ask for your help in doing this.

Give us wisdom, Lord, about what vulnerability should look like in our lives. Teach us how to be appropriately vulnerable in the different contexts of our lives. Help us to abandon our pride and our fear, to sacrifice our egos not only for the good of our team, but also for the good of your kingdom. Teach us how to follow Jesus in his vulnerability, so that you might be honored and your work done through us. Amen.

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Part 9: A Moving Example of Vulnerable Leadership

Scripture – Luke 2:6-7 (NRSV)

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

You can read all of Luke 2:1-7 here.

Focus

Today’s devotion focuses on a moving and timely example of vulnerable leadership.

Devotion

In yesterday’s devotion I talked about living and leading vulnerably. I suggested that when we’re dealing with a pandemic, racial injustice, and other major challenges, leadership requires vulnerability. There is no other way, no safe path.

The shadows of two people in front of the MLK Jr. memorial, looking at a quote which reads "If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective."Today, I’d like to share with you a moving example of vulnerable leadership. I became aware of this example just a couple of days ago as I was listening to an NPR podcast. The podcast hosts, Steve Inskeep and Noel King, were focusing on the recent protests in Minneapolis associated with the killing of George Floyd.

King reported on a conversation she had with Pastor Brian Herron of Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis. She said, “He remembers the civil rights movement and he told me at first, you know, this violence is evil. It should stop. But I got the feeling that he was not telling me the whole truth. So I just asked him a direct question. Is there any part of you that still wants to get out there and burn something down?”

Pastor Herron’s answer was striking: “Oh, please. All day, every day. But for God. But for God – that he makes the difference in my life. Man, you think I’m not mad enough to tear something up, to hurt some folk? But what good would that do? Who would that serve? What purpose would it serve?”

What I found so impressive about Pastor Herron’s statement was his willingness to be so vulnerable. He shared deep, personal, painful feelings in a place where they would be heard throughout the nation. He was putting himself out there honestly and with substantial risk. Yes, a part of him wants to “tear something up, to hurt some folk.” But his faith in God keeps him from acting on those feelings.

Pastor Herron has a track record of vulnerability in his effort to serve his congregation and community. Recently, he has been literally on the front lines of the protests in Minneapolis as someone calling both for justice and for peaceful protests. Talk about vulnerability. He surely has many detractors. Yet Pastor Herron has not pulled back.

I do not know Pastor Brian Herron personally. I hope one day I’ll get to meet him. But today I’m moved by his example of vulnerable leadership. He demonstrates the sort of leadership we need today, with vulnerability that reflects the vulnerability of Jesus. May I also be willing to put myself out there for the sake of God’s justice, peace, and love.

Reflect

When have you witnessed vulnerability in a leader? How did this strike you?

Have you ever felt pulled in opposite directions, rather like Pastor Herron? Have there been times when you wanted to do something as a leader but God gave you the strength to make a better choice? If so, what was this experience like for you?

Act

Talk with a trusted friend about your leadership and how you might risk greater vulnerability. See if you can come up with one specific thing you might do next week as an expression of Christ-like vulnerability.

Pray

Lord Jesus, again we thank you for your vulnerability, for coming among us as a helpless baby. Thank you for your willingness to be weak and needy for our sake.

Thank you also, Lord, for the example of Pastor Herron. Thank you for his openness and for his solid commitment to you. Help him and others like him as they seek both justice and peace. I pray for these leaders today, that you will encourage, empower, and protect them. Use them to lead us all in the direction of your kingdom.

Help me, Lord, to be a vulnerable leader. Give me the courage to put myself out there for you and your kingdom purposes. Amen.

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Part 10: Affirming All Ages

Scripture – Luke 2:36-38 (NRSV)

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

For more context, read all of Luke 2:25-38.

Focus

The stories of Simeon and Anna in Luke 2 remind us that God includes senior adults in his kingdom work. No matter your age, no matter your gender, no matter your position in life, no matter your socio-economic status, no matter your race or ethnicity, you matter to God and God’s plans. God has called you into relationship with him and into his service. If you offer yourself to God, he will use you and bless you in ways you can only begin to imagine.

Devotion

An old woman in a hoodToday we press on in our Life for Leaders series: Following Jesus Today. Yesterday, I reflected on the vulnerability of the baby Jesus and some implications for our life and leadership. Today we look several verses later in Luke 2, seeing how God implicitly affirms the value of all ages as essential in his kingdom purposes.

The fact that God entered this world as a baby makes a powerful statement about the role of young people in God’s work in this world. This statement is reiterated during the ministry of Jesus, when he welcomes children and says that we must become like children if we’re going to enter the kingdom of God (Matt 18:3-5).

Ironically, the same chapter of Luke that features a baby places explicitly includes older people in co-starring roles. When Jesus’s parents brought him to the temple to be presented to the Lord, they encountered Simeon, a righteous man who would soon die of old age. Simeon offered public praise for Jesus and his saving mission (2:25-32). At this same time, Anna, who was known to be a prophet, approached. She also began to praise God openly because of the redemption that would come through Jesus. Luke makes it very clear that Anna was “of a great age” having lived to 84 years (which was truly exceptional in the first century; 2:36-37).

Luke could well have told this story without emphasizing the ages of Simeon and Anna. But by making sure we know how old they were, Luke shows that God’s work in this world includes those who are older as well as those who are younger.

Now, in the time of Jesus, older people were generally treated with considerable honor and respect. This continues to be true today in some cultures. But, by and large, American culture values youth rather than seniority. This is often true even in church. When we describe churches as “filled with gray hair,” we don’t mean this as a compliment. Rather, it’s a problem, a liability. Though I absolutely agree that we need to help churches to grow younger, I believe that “seasoned adults” like Simeon and Anna, are an essential part of the solution. (Of course I am biased because of the color of my own hair! But if you don’t believe me, check out the research and wisdom of my Fuller colleagues in the Fuller Youth Institute. In their landmark book Growing Young, they show how much senior adults can contribute to churches that are growing with younger people. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it. )

I should mention here that the De Pree Center, where I work, is beginning a new initiative focused on serving people in the third third of life. We take seriously the biblical vision of the righteous flourishing “in old age” (Psalm 92:12-14). We are encouraged by the stories of Simeon and Anna to believe that God is doing and will do amazing things through third third folk, as well as through babies, children, teenagers, young adults, mature adults, and, well, you name it. (You can learn more about our third third initiative and sign up to receive third third resources here.)

No matter your age, no matter your gender, no matter your position in life, no matter your socio-economic status, no matter your race or ethnicity, you matter to God and God’s plan. God has called you into relationship with him and into his service. If you offer yourself to God, he will use you and bless you in ways you can only begin to imagine.

Reflect

How do you think and feel about older adults (whether you are one yourself, or whether you have many years before you enter the third third of life)?

In what ways have you experienced the impact of third thirders? You might think of grandparents, mentors, church leaders, neighbors, etc.

If you are in the third third of life now, do you believe that God wants to do great things in you and through you? If so, why? If not, why not?

Act

Talk with your small group or with a good friend about your thoughts and feelings related to aging. Consider ways you might become more aligned with the biblical vision of the third third of life.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for giving us the stories of Simeon and Anna. Among other things, they help us to see how you value older adults and their participation in your kingdom.

Lord, as you know, most of us live in a culture that tends not to value senior adults. We might even think of them mainly as problems to be dealt with. Help us to see third third folk as you see them, to celebrate their giftedness, to draw upon their wisdom, to contribute to their flourishing.

And if we are in the third third of life, may we offer ourselves fully to you, knowing that you will bless us and use us for your kingdom purposes. Amen.

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Part 11: The Truly Human Jesus

Scripture – Luke 2:39-40 (NRSV)

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Focus

One reason the full humanity of Jesus matters is that it means he understands our experience. He knows what it’s like to skin your knee, hit your thumb with a hammer, be teased by the kids in the neighborhood, and all that other things that can make up ordinary human life. Jesus gets it when our work is tedious or overly demanding. He knows how difficult relationships can be, whether with family members or co-workers. With Jesus, we are following one who understands.

Devotion

A crying toddler on a forest pathLuke 2:39-40 tells us briefly what happened with Jesus after he and his parents returned to their hometown of Nazareth. Over many years (implied), Jesus grew up and became physically strong (in part, no doubt, through helping his father carry boards, stones, and other building materials). He was also “filled with wisdom” and “the favor of God was upon him” (2:40). Strength, wisdom, and divine favor were abundant in Jesus, as we would expect of such a special boy. But, in reality, any faithful Jewish parent in the first-century A.D. would have wanted these blessings for their children. In fact, we who are parents today want these very things for our own children.

As I read Luke 2:40, I must confess a measure of unfulfilled longing. I’m glad for what Luke tells us, but wish I knew more about the life of Jesus. I wonder what he was really like in person, what made him laugh, what he did with his friends, what he learned from his parents and others in his village.

In the early centuries of Christianity, some imaginative folk actually made up stories about the early life of Jesus. They were often fantastic, picturing Jesus as a wonder-working prodigy. One of my favorite stories appears in the so-called Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which was written perhaps in the 7th century A.D. In Chapter 18 of this “gospel,” as the baby Jesus and his parents were on their way to Egypt, we read: “And having come to a certain cave, and wishing to rest in it, the blessed Mary dismounted from her beast, and sat down with the child Jesus in her bosom. And there were with Joseph three boys, and with Mary a girl, going on the journey along with them. And, lo, suddenly there came forth from the cave many dragons; and when the children saw them, they cried out in great terror. Then Jesus went down from the bosom of His mother, and stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus, and thereafter retired.” Then the infant Jesus explained to his parents that “all the beasts of the forest must needs be tame before me.” Not bad for a baby in the first few weeks of his life!

As entertaining as this story and others like it may be, they tell us little about the real life of the real Jesus. In fact, they distort one of the most central and precious truths about Jesus, namely, that he was “truly God and truly human” (in the words of the fifth-century Chalcedonian Definition). Though, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s devotion, Jesus was exceptional in many ways, he was also a true human being who did not possess at birth the ability to command dragons to behave.

Why does this matter to us if we are seeking to follow Jesus today? There are many reasons. One of the main ones is that the full humanity of Jesus makes possible our being saved through him, and we follow Jesus not in order to be saved but in response to salvation given by grace. Another reason the full humanity of Jesus matters is that it means he understands our experience. He knows what it’s like to skin your knee, hit your thumb with a hammer, be teased by the kids in the neighborhood, and all that other things that can make up ordinary human life. Jesus gets it when our work is tedious or overly demanding. He understands what it’s like to work long hours or to deal with cranky customers. He knows how difficult relationships can be, whether with family members or co-workers. With Jesus, we are following one who understands us because he was fully human as well as fully divine.

Reflect

How do you respond to the description of Jesus’s life in Luke 2:40? What do you think? How do you feel?

When you picture Jesus as a boy, what do you see?

Why do you suppose it is sometimes difficult for Christians to acknowledge the full humanity of Jesus?

Act

Take some time in prayer to talk to Jesus about the “ordinary” things in your life, the things you might not regard as “spiritual enough” for prayer. Talk with Jesus about your work and what you love (or hate) about it. Tell him about your friends or family. See if you can be with Jesus as with a friend (John 15:15).

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the biblical gospels. They give us what we need to know in order to follow you faithfully in this life. They are a precious, indeed, a priceless gift. Thank you!

Yet, Lord, we would confess that we wish we had more information about you, your growing up, your day-to-day challenges and adventures, your close relationships, your experience of work. Perhaps in the age to come we’ll get to watch the video of your life someday!

In the meanwhile, Jesus, help us to remember and to embrace your full humanity. Yes, you are truly God, but also truly human. You have experienced human life from the inside out. This means you understand us empathically and intimately. You understand me, my joys and loves, my fears and longings. May this truth give me freedom to follow you openly, faithfully, and fearlessly. May it help me to share my heart with you unhesitatingly. Amen.

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Part 12: Raising Children Together

Scripture – Luke 2:48 (NRSV)

When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

For context, you may wish to read the whole story from which this verse comes: Luke 2:41-51.

Focus

Whether we have children of our own or not, we all should participate in the crucial task of raising children to be mature disciples of Jesus. Parents bear a primary responsibility, of course. But we who seek to follow Jesus must share with parents in the work of nurturing, teaching, forming, and loving children.

Devotion

Luke 2:41-51 shows us one scene from the boyhood of Jesus. When he was twelve years old, he went with his parents and neighbors to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. After the festivities, Jesus’s group headed for home, but Jesus remained in Jerusalem. His parents assumed Jesus was with some of the others from Nazareth, so they didn’t fret when they didn’t see Jesus as they began their trip home. But, a day into their journey, Mary and Joseph discovered that Jesus wasn’t with their group. Deeply distressed, they hurried back to Jerusalem to look for Jesus.

Heinrich Hofmann, painting “Jesus Among the Doctors” (1884).

Heinrich Hofmann, painting “Jesus Among the Doctors” (1884).

A couple of days later they found him sitting in the temple courts, talking with a cluster of Jewish teachers. In astonishment they cried out, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety” (Luke 2:48). Jesus answered by saying, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). His parents didn’t really understand his answer, but he went home with them and “was obedient to them.” Later, after Mary calmed down, she “treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:50-51).

This is an extraordinary story, one I have loved from my childhood. I remember vividly the classic painting of Heinrich Hofmann, called in English “Jesus Among the Doctors” (1884). That painting adorned many walls of my Sunday school, no doubt encouraging me and my fellow learners to be like Jesus in our own studies. Of course now I see that painting of a glowing, white-skinned Jesus with different eyes, noting that it fails to represent accurately the ethnicity and humanity of Jesus. But I also hear the story of Jesus among the doctors differently because I am now a parent, not a boy wanting freedom and adventure. I relate to the painful anxiety of Jesus’s parents more than I aspire to be like Jesus the model student.

As surprising as it is to us that Jesus didn’t bother to tell his parents he was sticking around in Jerusalem for a few days, it is perhaps more shocking that Jesus’s parents allowed this to happen. What is this—Home Alone: The Gospel Version? How could Mary and Joseph have headed to Nazareth without Jesus in their sight? What were they thinking? Were they terribly irresponsible parents?

No, not if we consider their cultural context. Luke tells us that Jesus’s parents did not know that he had stayed behind in Jerusalem because they were “assuming that he was in the group of travelers” (Luke 2:44). For Joseph and Mary, raising a child was something to be shared with others, with a community of relatives, friends, neighbors, and fellow worshipers. They had such confidence in the “group of travelers” and, for that matter, in Jesus, that they felt sure he was somewhere among their traveling party. In their time and place, they were living the familiar African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Much could be learned from the story of Jesus and the doctors. But the one thing I want to underscore today has to do with raising children. It is a community endeavor. It’s something we do as a “village.” I know many cultures still practice parenting in this mode. My own culture tends to view childrearing as almost entirely and exclusively something parents do, perhaps with some help from schools and churches. Of course I am not downplaying parental responsibility when it comes to our own children, not in the least. But I do believe we have much to learn when it comes to sharing in the task of bringing up children to be mature adults who know and serve the Lord. Whether we have children of our own or not, we must all participate together in the formation of young people as whole-life disciples of Jesus. This is part of what it means for us to follow Jesus today.

Reflect

As you read the story of “Jesus Among the Doctors,” how do you respond? What strikes you as interesting? Worrisome? Encouraging?

In your own experience, how have you seen the raising of children as something shared by a Christian community? Were there people in your life, besides your own parents, who helped you to grow up well as a follower of Jesus?

In what way (or ways) are you participating today in your community’s effort to raise children well?

Act

In a time when many of us are still social distancing, it may be hard for you to do something tangible in response to today’s devotion. Perhaps you might drop a note of encouragement to parents who are part of your own community, to encourage them in their parental endeavors.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for giving us this snapshot into the family life of Jesus. There is so much in this story for us to reflect upon.

Today, we want to thank you for the fact that raising children is meant to be a shared task. For sure, parents carry a primary responsibility. But they are to carry this with others in their community. So, no matter whether we have children of our own or not, help us to share with parents in their crucial duty. May we find ways to encourage and support them. Show us what we can do with children, to help them grow to maturity as your disciples.

One thing we can do is to pray for parents. This is always needed, but especially in a time of “safer at home.” We can think of parents who have been working full-time, parenting-full time, and taking care of household business full-time. We can feel how tired and overwhelmed they are. We ask you, Lord, to given them strength and wisdom. Help them to find gifts of grace in these moments. Reassure them with your presence. Bring into their lives – even virtually – those who can encourage them and share in their parenting task. Amen.

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Part 13: Use Your Power Justly

Scripture – Luke 3:12-14 (NRSV)

Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

You can read all of Luke’s description of John the Baptist’s ministry here.

Focus

The ministry of John the Baptist in the New Testament teaches us to exercise justice in every part of life. In particular, we should use justly the power given to us, whether we are business owners or managers, teachers or pastors, police officers or mayors, parents or grandparents, soldiers or senators. We who seek to follow Jesus today will use our power in the way of Jesus, seeking God’s justice in all we do.

Devotion

In the third chapter of Luke’s gospel, John the Baptist launched his distinctive ministry of preaching and baptism. Crowds of people came to hear John and to be baptized by him, including those you might not have expected. Tax collectors and soldiers, not exactly people associated with godliness, responded to John’s message and sought baptism. Sensing that they needed to live differently, they asked John, “Teacher, what should we do?” (Luke 3:12).

Photo of the Jordan River, at the location where tradition holds that John baptized Jesus. © 2011 Mark D. Roberts.

to John’s answer, let’s think about the historical reality behind this scene. Both tax collectors and soldiers in first-century Galilee had considerable power and quite a bit of freedom in the way they exercised this power. Tax collectors could charge people much more than was required, pocketing the difference for themselves, and there was nothing the taxpayers could do about it. Soldiers could use their might to extort money from people who had no option but to pay up. Though the details differed, what both of these cases had in common was the unjust exercise of power. Tax collectors and soldiers had power to exceed their authority so as to steal from people. Tax collectors and soldiers could use their power unjustly and get away with it.

John understood this context and responded accordingly to the tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (Luke 3:13). To the soldiers he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:14). If we were to summarize John’s instructions, he said in effect, “Do not use your power unjustly.” Or, we could put it positively, “Use your power justly.”

Among those who read Life for Leaders, we may very well have actual tax collectors and soldiers, people who would John’s words as if spoken directly to them. But I’m quite sure that most of us in the Life for Leaders community, no matter our jobs, have some kind of power. We may own companies or provide management in companies owned by others. We may be teachers, mayors, or police officers. We might be pastors, contractors, or attorneys. We may be mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. For those of us who have some kind of power, we need to hear the essence of John’s exhortation: “Use your power justly.”

Notice, by the way, that John was not addressing situations we might think of as personal. He wasn’t telling folks how to behave at home or at the synagogue. Rather, he was speaking about their work—their ordinary, everyday, public work as tax collectors and soldiers. John assumed that those he baptized should live in a new way in every part of life, including their daily work. Thus, as we consider the call to use our own power justly, we mustn’t think this is relevant only at home or church. Rather, what John proclaimed, and what Jesus reinforced through his own ministry, touches every part of our lives.

If we are going to follow Jesus today, therefore, we will seek to use justly whatever power we have. We will live for God’s purposes and justice in all we do.

Reflect

How do you respond to the call of John the Baptist?

In what parts of life do you have power?

Can you think of times you have used your power unjustly?

What might you do differently in response to the call of John?

Act

Talk with your small group or a good friend about how you might use your power justly. Then, do something tangible in response to what you have discussed.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for the ministry of John the Baptist. In particular, thank you for his exhortation to the tax collectors and soldiers. Though we are in quite a different situation from these first-century people, we have been given power, and can use it for good or evil. Help us, Lord, not to abuse our power. Rather, help us to use our power justly.

In particular, we ask that you will help us to do this in our daily work. By your Spirit, give us eyes to see how we might live out your call to justice in all we do each day. Amen.

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Part 14: God Loves You and Delights in You

Scripture – Luke 3:21-22 (NRSV)

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Focus

Though you probably won’t hear a heavenly voice today as Jesus did when he was baptized, the good news is still crystal clear. Through Jesus, the beloved Son, you are God’s daughter or son. God loves you more than you will ever fully comprehend. God delights in you and claims you as his own.

Devotion

The Grand Tetons at sunsetThe baptism of Jesus must have been quite a spectacle. Even before Jesus showed up, John the Baptist drew the crowds with his prophetic preaching and dramatic baptisms. But when Jesus appeared one day to be baptized, several astounding things happened. First of all, the heavens opened. (Forgive me for picturing the wormhole above New York in the first Avengers film.) Then the Holy Spirit descended from heaven “in bodily form like a dove.” (Wouldn’t you love to have seen that!) Finally, a voice from heaven, God’s own voice, said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

We can only begin to imagine what that experience was like for Jesus. Surely he had learned from his parents about his unique calling and birth. They must have passed on to Jesus what they had learned from the angel. We don’t know how Jesus experienced his Heavenly Father throughout his life, though we rightly suppose that this was a deeply intimate relationship. But, as far as we know, it was at his baptism that Jesus heard for the first time the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Did Jesus feel surprised? Affirmed? Overwhelmed? Special? Deeply loved? All of the above and much more?

I have no doubt that my own father loved me and was pleased with me. But he had a very difficult time expressing his love in words. I can still feel the awkwardness when he would respond “I love you, too” to my words, “I love you, Dad.” I know my dad was proud of me. But he could never just say it. The words “With you I am well pleased” didn’t escape from his mouth, though I know they were in his heart.

Thus, when I read Luke’s account of Jesus’s baptism, I find in myself a deep yearning for affirmation from a father. I won’t be able to get that in this life from my dad because he’s been with the Lord for over 30 years. But, as I reflect, I realize that what I want most of all is to know that my Heavenly Father is pleased with me. I want to know that I am his beloved. Of course I realize that the Father’s love for Jesus was unique. But I also know that, through Jesus the Son of God, the Father loves me (John 14:21-23; John 16:27; 1 John 3:1). I need this knowledge to percolate down from my head to my heart (Romans 5:5).

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a voice from heaven affirming the Father’s love for me. Perhaps you feel similarly. But, whether or not that ever happens, we hold on tight to the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. We believe that the God who knows us through and through has adopted us to be his beloved children (Ephesians 1:5). We claim the promise of Psalm 149:4, affirming that “the LORD takes pleasure in his people,” and, through Christ, that includes you and me.

So, though you probably won’t hear a heavenly voice today as Jesus did when he was baptized, the good news is still crystal clear. Through Jesus, the beloved Son, you are God’s daughter or son. God loves you more than you will ever fully comprehend. God delights in you and claims you as his own.

Reflect

When you read the story of Jesus’s baptism, what strikes you? What do you think? How do you feel?

In what ways have you experienced God’s love?

Do you believe that God takes pleasure in you? If so, why? If not, why not?

Act

Ask your Heavenly Father to give you a deeper experience of his love for you and his pleasure in you. Pay attention to how God answers this prayer.

Pray

Heavenly Father, we marvel as we read about the baptism of Jesus. How amazing it must have been for those who witnessed that spectacle. And how amazing for Jesus to hear of your special love and delight in him.

Father, I believe the good news of your love for me in Jesus Christ. Nothing is more important to me in life. Yet, there are times when my heart aches to experience your love in a deeper way. So I ask that you might once again pour your love into my heart through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). May I know, almost as if I actually heard your voice, that you love me and take pleasure in me. Amen.

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Part 15: Living for God’s Pleasure

Scripture – Luke 3:21-22 (NRSV)

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Focus

When we use well the gifts God has given us, God is pleased. When we do our daily work as an offering to God, this gives God pleasure. When we seek justice in all of our relationships, whether at work or home, in our community or our church, in our city or our nation, God delights. If we’re going to follow Jesus today, we will offer all that we are to God, all that we do and say, all of the time for his pleasure and glory.

Devotion

A father holding and kssing his toddler sonAfter Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The Heavenly Father loved Jesus, his unique son, and took pleasure in him. As Jesus’s ministry transitioned from carpentry to preaching, he would live in a new way for the pleasure of his Heavenly Father, proclaiming and demonstrating the Kingdom of God.

Though you and I do not have the unique messianic calling of Jesus, we are also meant to live for God’s pleasure. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “You learned from us how you ought to live and to please God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1). In our efforts to please God, however, sometimes we think of this far too narrowly. Pleasing God can be mainly a matter of going to church, praying, working for justice in our spare time, and sharing the good news with others. To be sure, these things delight the Lord. But pleasing God includes far more.

Of the thousands of sermon illustrations I’ve heard in my life, one stands out as the most popular of all. I expect I’ve heard at least thirty different sermons recount a classic scene from the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire. (My guess is that many of you already know exactly what I’m about to write!) That movie tells the story of Eric Liddell, the famed Olympic sprinter and Christian missionary to China. As a young man, Liddell wrestled with his calling, wondering whether to be an athlete or a missionary. Finally he decided that God was calling him to both. As he explained to his sister, “I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure!”

Eric Liddell understood that his whole life was for God’s pleasure. Surely he would please God through his missionary work in China. But Liddell also knew that he could delight the Lord by using the physical gifts God had given him. Indeed, his calling was to live his whole life for God’s pleasure and purpose.

And so it is for you and me. When we use well the gifts God has given us, God is pleased. When we do our daily work as an offering to God, this gives God pleasure. When we seek justice in all of our relationships, whether at work or home, in our community or our church, God delights. If we’re going to follow Jesus today, we will offer all that we are to God, all that we do and say, all of the time for his pleasure and glory.

Reflect

When are you conscious of living for God’s pleasure?

Do you ever think of your daily work as pleasing to God? If so, why? If not, why not?

How might you live and work differently if you were to do everything for God’s pleasure?

Act

Watch this scene from Chariots of Firehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ile5PD34SS0. How do you respond to it? What do you think? What do you feel? Could you ever say something like Eric Liddell said to his sister? Why or why not?

Pray

Gracious God, thank you again for loving us. Thank you for taking delight in us. Thank you for allowing us to live for your pleasure.

Help us, Lord, to understand what pleases you. May we come to see all of life as what matters to you. May we learn to live each moment for your pleasure, using all the gifts, talents, and opportunities you have entrusted to us. Amen.

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Part 16: When You Are Tempted

Scripture – Luke 4:1-2 (NRSV)

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

For context, read Luke 4:1-13 here.

Focus

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is tempted by the devil. Scripture teaches us that this was real temptation. Jesus felt strongly the pull of opposite desires. Yet he chose the way of God’s kingdom. The fact that Jesus experienced genuine temptation means that he sympathizes with us when we are tempted. We don’t have to hide in shame. Rather, Scripture invites us to speak openly of our struggles so that we might be helped by God’s mercy and grace given through Jesus.

Devotion

A hand reaching for a brownie on a plateAfter Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit came upon him, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, “where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:2). The following verses describe the specific temptations Jesus faced and how he overcame them by drawing strength and guidance from Scripture. In each of the temptations, the devil tried to get Jesus to use his unique identity as the Son of God for his own benefit. Yet Jesus refused, remaining committed to the mission to which God had called him.

For much of my life, as I read this story I was surprisingly unimpressed. Of course Jesus didn’t give in to the devil’s illicit invitations. He was the Son of God, after all, God in human flesh. He had superhuman strength to defeat the devil’s schemes. To be honest, I didn’t really believe that Jesus was truly tempted. His temptations seemed formal or formulaic, not genuine and heartfelt. I did not understand that Jesus was actually wrestling with the meaning of his messianic calling. He was rejecting the obvious and expected path of glorious kingship, choosing instead the enigmatic and unexpected way of sacrificial servanthood. For Jesus, this wasn’t merely a thought experiment. It was a heartfelt, gut-wrenching challenge.

In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews we find theological reflection on the temptation of Jesus: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16). The NRSV uses the word “tested” where other translations (NIV, KJV, CEB) go with “tempted”. Either way, the point is that Jesus was tempted/tested “in every respect . . . as we are,” though he never sinned. Whether in the wilderness or the workshop, whether alone or with others, Jesus was truly tempted. He felt the conflict of desires we know so well. He felt the temptations that are so familiar to us.

This means, according to Hebrews, that Jesus can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). He really understands what it’s like to be us when we are tempted. For this reason, when we are tempted we don’t have to hide from Jesus in shame. Rather, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness” (Hebrews 4:16). We can tell Jesus what’s really going on with us without holding back. As we do, we will “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Jesus not only understands, but also supplies what we need to say “No” to temptation and “Yes” to God’s kingdom.

Reflect

As you read about Jesus’s temptation in Luke, how do you respond? What thoughts do you have? What questions are stirred up? What feelings?

Do you believe Jesus was really tempted? Do you think he actually felt the desire to do what was not right? Why or why not?

How free are you to let the Lord know when you are tempted? What might help you to become even freer to do this in the future?

Act

Take some time to think about your experience of temptation. Then talk to the Lord about what you’re thinking. Be honest! Ask for God’s help to say no to the temptations that are most common in your life. Ask for wisdom about how to avoid these temptations.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for understanding us to thoroughly. Thank you for knowing what it feels like to be tempted. Thank you for inviting me to be honest with you about my temptations. Thank you for the promise of help in my time of need.

Dear Lord, I do ask for your help today. You know the temptations that are so familiar and powerful in my life. I ask you to give me the strength to say “No” to them. Like you, may I draw from the power of your Word. May my calling give me the clarity to reject sin and follow you. Help me, Lord, to be more and more like you each day. Amen.

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Part 17: More Shocking Than Iron Man

Scripture – Luke 4:17-21 (NRSV)

[The] scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to [Jesus]. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

For context, you can read all of Luke 4:16-30 here.

Focus

In Luke 4, Jesus makes a shocking claim. He is the anointed one foretold in the prophecy of Isaiah. He has come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus has come to free the oppressed and announce the time of God’s favor. What Jesus began so many years ago he continues to do today through those who follow him faithfully and are filled with his Spirit.

Devotion

A young boy looking at an Iron Man toy on a tableAt the conclusion of the 2008 blockbuster film Iron Man, Tony Stark is conducting a press conference. He is reading from a carefully produced script in which he will deny unequivocally that he has any connection with the mysterious superhero called Iron Man. Yet, at the press conference Stark is confronted with unanticipated questions. He tries to explain that he could not be a superhero: “That would be outlandish and . . . fantastic. . . . I’m just not the hero type, clearly.” Then, after reflecting for a moment, Tony Stark goes on, “The truth is . . . [pause] . . . I am Iron Man.” Pandemonium breaks out in the press conference and the movie ends.

This is surely one of the more shocking confessions in recent movie history. (What’s even more surprising is that, according to the script, Tony Stark was not supposed to reveal Iron Man’s true identity. Robert Downey Jr., the actor playing Start, did it on a lark and it ended up in the film.) Yes, it was quite something for Stark to admit to being Iron Man. Yet I would suggest that Jesus did something even more astounding in Luke 4. Of course, this confession has the added advantage of having actually happened in our universe, not the fictional Marvel Cinematic Universe.

One Sabbath day, as he was in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, Jesus read from the scroll of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. The passage, either chosen by Jesus or assigned to him, was the beginning of Isaiah 61, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. . . .” This passage was treasured among Jews in the time of Jesus as a prophecy of the coming anointed one, or in anglicized Hebrew, the messiah. He would be empowered by God’s spirit to transform the world, especially for the poor, captives, blind, and oppressed. Many Jews in the first-century yearned for the coming of God’s special representative, who would set them free from Roman oppression and establish the time of “the Lord’s favor.”

The fact that Jesus read from Isaiah 61 was not particularly stunning. But what he said next was truly shocking: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In effect, Jesus was saying, “I am the anointed one from Isaiah’s prophecy. I am the one who will bring freedom, salvation, and favor. I am the one.” The response to this bold confession was not, as in the film Iron Man, immediate pandemonium. At first the listeners were impressed. But, before long, pandemonium showed up as they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff (Luke 4:28-30). Jesus’s neighbors were ultimately shocked by what he had said, and they were not happy.

So much could be said about this crucial passage from Luke 4. I’ll reflect some more on it tomorrow. Today, I’d like to encourage you to let Jesus’s reading from Isaiah sink in. See the suggestions for Reflect and Act below.

Reflect

When you read Luke 4:18-21 (the New Testament version of Isaiah 61:1-2), how do you respond?

In many places in the New Testament gospels, Jesus is reticent to say who he is. Why do you think he was so clear and bold in today’s passage?

If Luke 4:18-19 lays out Jesus’s mission, what might this mean for those of us who are seeking to following Jesus today?

Act

Set apart at least five minutes for reflection time. Read Luke several times, slowly and prayerfully. Pay attention to what stands out to you. What do you hear God saying to you today through this text?

Pray

Gracious Lord, as I read this passage from Luke, I find myself wishing I could have been there in the synagogue that day. It would have been amazing – okay, even shocking – to hear you read from Isaiah and then claim to be the one about whom Isaiah had prophesied. I wonder how I would have responded. Would I have been amazed? Impressed? Open? Or would I soon have joined the crowd that tried to kill you?

Now matter how I might have responded then, the main point is how I respond now. Show me, Jesus, how I should follow you today. Show me what it means to share in your mission to the poor, captives, blind, and oppressed. May my heart be open to what you are saying to me even now. Call me once again, Lord, to follow you. Amen.

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Part 18: Celebrating and Striving

Scripture – Luke 4:17-21 (NRSV)

[The] scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to [Jesus]. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

For context, you can read all of Luke 4:16-30 here.

Focus

Through his death on the cross, Jesus conquered sin and brought us into new life. Individually, we are saved by God’s grace given through Christ. Yet the death of Christ also brought peace to a broken world. It forged reconciliation between divided and hostile peoples. It made possible the experience of God’s peace in this world, a peace infused by justice, shaped by love, and embodied in unity. We who follow Jesus celebrate what he accomplished on the cross. We also commit ourselves to joining his mission on earth until that day when God’s kingdom is complete and all things and all peoples are united in Christ.

Devotion

Freedwoman’s Hand Sculpture by Adrienne Isom, Juneteenth Memorial Monument, Austin, Texas.

Freedwoman’s Hand Sculpture by Adrienne Isom, Juneteenth Memorial Monument, Austin, Texas.

Throughout the centuries, followers of Jesus have tried to figure out exactly how Jesus fulfilled the messianic words of Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets. Jesus did not, after all, do what many expected him to do: raise up an army to expel the Romans from Judea so that he might reign over God’s earthly kingdom. What, then, did he accomplish? How did he fulfill the messianic job description found in Isaiah?

Many have interpreted Jesus’s use of Isaiah in a metaphorical or spiritualized way. Jesus brings good news, not to the materially poor, but to the poor in spirit. He releases captives caught in sin and spiritual bondage. He heals those who are “blind” by revealing God’s truth. He frees all who are oppressed by the guilt that comes from sin. As a boy growing up in church, I was taught that this is what Jesus meant when he claimed to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. That made sense to me because I experienced the salvation of Jesus in this non-literal mode.

But as I have studied Scripture more carefully, especially the Old Testament prophets, and as I have examined closely the teachings and works of Jesus, I have come to believe that my early understanding of Jesus’s mission was too narrow. Yes, he surely offers salvation to those who are spiritually poor, captive, blind, and oppressed. But also Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated the reign of God on earth. He came to offer deliverance to those who were literally poor, captive, blind, and oppressed. His messianic work was not limited in the mode of my upbringing. It was far more widespread and far deeper. Ultimately, as Jesus broke the power of sin through his death on the cross, he brought not only individual salvation, but also the full peace of God, including justice, reconciliation, and restoration. (See, for example, Ephesians 2:1-22.)

The world-changing work of Jesus has begun, to be sure. In this we rejoice, but there is still much more to be done as Jesus works today through those who follow him. The complete reign of God will come only through God’s own effort. We don’t make God’s kingdom come. But, as we wait for the fullness of the kingdom, we can and should join in the life-changing, world-changing, kingdom-extending mission of Jesus today.

As I try to envision the “already and not yet” work of Jesus, I find a fitting illustration in the holiday known as Juneteenth. On June nineteenth of every year (hence “Juneteenth”) many people celebrate the emancipation of black Americans from slavery. Though the Emancipation Proclamation, which officially ended slavery, became effective on January 1, 1863, many parts of the country did not know this, including Texas. But on June 19, 1865, the people of Texas were officially informed that all slaves were free. Several years later, black people and others in Texas began celebrating “Juneteenth” as a day of freedom. In 1979, Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday. Since then, almost all other states have followed suit. (For an insightful overview of Juneteenth, see this piece by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

Juneteenth is, of course, particularly relevant in our time of history, when issues of racial justice are rightly and excruciatingly on the forefront of our consciousness. But I am using this example not only because of its timeliness, but also because it helps us understand the work of Jesus in at least two ways. First of all, Juneteenth reminds us that the mission of Jesus has everything to do with the liberation of people in today’s world. Wherever people are victims of prejudice, held down by racism, and/or oppressed by unjust systems, Jesus and those who follow him faithfully are working for their liberation and flourishing. There are still poor who need good news, captives who need release, blind who need to see, and oppressed who need freedom.

Second, Juneteenth also helps us celebrate even when the work before us isn’t finished. After all, Juneteenth is a celebration of liberation. But this celebration does not imply that liberation for black Americans has been fully accomplished. Yes, the flagrant evil of slavery was abolished, but “liberty and justice for all” is still very much a work in progress. Recent events, protests, and prayer meetings in our country have pointed out just how far we have to go when it comes to defeating racism and its permeating implications.

Through his death on the cross, Jesus conquered sin and brought us into new life. Individually, we are saved by God’s grace given through Christ and received in faith. Yet the death of Christ also brought peace to a broken world. It forged reconciliation between divided and hostile peoples. It made possible the experience of God’s peace in this world, a peace infused by justice, shaped by love, and embodied in unity. We who follow Jesus celebrate what he accomplished on the cross. And we also commit ourselves to joining his mission on earth until that day when God’s kingdom is complete and all things and all peoples are united in Christ (see Ephesians 1:10; 2:1-22). Today, we follow Jesus both in our celebrating and in our striving.

Reflect

How do you understand the mission of Jesus as expressed in Luke 4:18-21?

Why do you suppose that it is easy for us to think of the work of Jesus in limited terms?

How are you participating in Jesus’s work in the world today?

Act

Talk with your small group or a trusted Christian friend about the mission of Jesus and its relevance to your life. Be open to the possibility that God might be calling you to something new.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for fulfilling the vision of Isaiah. Thank you for your work with the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. Thank you for the wholeness of your salvation, for the fullness of your peace.

Help me, Lord, to follow you in your mission. Give me eyes to see how I might be an instrument of your peace, justice, and love in my part of the world.

Today I join with others who celebrate Juneteenth, thanking you for the emancipation of slaves in America. Yet I also pray for your continued work of liberation. May your justice come for all in this country, especially for black Americans. May their lives matter, not only in words, but also in deeds, in laws, in systems, and in institutions. Help us, Lord, to finish what we have begun as a nation, rejecting the racism that has infected our hearts, minds, and institutions. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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Part 19: Serving People on the Margins

Scripture – Luke 4:24-27 (NRSV)

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

For context, read all of Luke 4:16-30 here.

Focus

Jesus came to bring salvation to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18). He served those on the margins of his own culture and religion, offering God’s grace to all in need. We who seek to follow Jesus will imitate his example. We will reach beyond our comfort zones, seeing and serving people who are not like part of the “in group.” We will seek to share the love and justice of Jesus with all people.

Devotion

Hands gripping a barbed wire fenceLast week I began reflecting on Luke 4:16-30. In this passage, Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah while attending the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. After reading a prophecy about one who is anointed to bring salvation to those who are poor, captive, blind, or oppressed, Jesus announces that this prophecy is being fulfilled in that moment. He is the one about whom Isaiah prophesied.

At first Jesus’s neighbors were impressed. But Jesus, anticipating their desire for him to do the miracles for them that he had done elsewhere, quoted a familiar saying about a prophet not being accepted in the prophet’s hometown (Luke 4:24). Then he brought up examples from two Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Elisha. In both cases, the “insiders” of Israel were in need of God’s help, but the prophets served “outsiders.” Elijah served a Gentile widow (1 Kings 17:8-24). Elisha healed a Gentile leper (2 Kings 5:1-19). Not only were those served by the prophets non-Jews, and thus considered to be outside the scope of God’s concern, but also they were people of particularly low status (widow, leper).

Jesus’s neighbors were “filled with rage” when they heard what Jesus said (Luke 4:28). Why were they so angry? In part, they were upset because Jesus declined to do for them what he had done for others. They expected better of their hometown hero. But what seemed to enrage them most of all was the implication of Jesus’s Old Testament examples. Rather than performing miracles for those on the theological and cultural inside, Jesus would be reaching out to the margins. He would serve the kind of people that the good citizens of Nazareth despised and tried to avoid.

We who seek to follow Jesus today are challenged to follow his example. It is natural for us to serve those who are like us. We’re inclined to care for the people who live near us, look like us, vote like us, talk like us, and live like us. We prefer to hang out with these folks, to share our lives with them, and to go to church with them. It can be uncomfortable to reach out to people who aren’t like us, especially when their differentness puts them on the margins of our communities. We struggle to serve someone whose differentness we particularly disparage. Yet Jesus calls us to press through our discomfort, to see those we would easily overlook, to open our hearts to all who need the love and justice of God.

Reflect

Can you understand the feelings of the folks from Nazareth? In what ways might you be like them?

Who are the people you find particularly difficult to love? Are you open to God changing your heart toward these people?

Act

Take some time to pray about how you might reach out with God’s love to people on the margins of your particular community. Follow the lead of the Holy Spirit in tangible ways.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for coming to save us. Thank you for your love for all people. Thank you for challenging us to love beyond our comfort zones. Help us, we pray, to share your grace with those on the margins, even those whom we dislike or disparage. Give us your heart of love for all people. Amen.

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Part 20: Honoring the Authority of Jesus

Scripture – Luke 4:31-32 (NRSV)

He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.

For more context, read Luke 4:31-37.

Focus

Jesus taught with surprising authority. Those who heard him marveled at the clarity and power of his words. We who seek to follow Jesus today are called, not just to marvel, but to believe and obey. Even when Jesus says something that makes us uncomfortable – like “Love your enemies” – our challenge is to act in faithful obedience. In this way our lives are built on solid ground.

Devotion

In some ways, Jesus resembled the Jewish teachers of his day, those called by the honorific title of rabbi. For example, like the rabbis, Jesus often taught in local synagogues, Jewish gathering places for teaching and prayer. (The photo shows a side of the ruins of a Jewish synagogue in Capernaum. Though this particular synagogue was built after the time of Jesus, beneath its floor you can see dark stones that were the foundation for the earlier synagogue in which Jesus taught.)

The synagogue in Capernaum.

The synagogue in Capernaum. Photo courtesy of Mark D. Roberts. All rights reserved.

In other ways Jesus stood apart from his Jewish counterparts. For example, ordinary rabbis expended great effort in passing on the traditions of earlier teachers. They believed that God had revealed two kinds of law to Moses on Mount Sinai, the written Law, inscribed in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and the oral law, which had not been written down. This oral law, apart from which one could not correctly interpret the written Law, had supposedly been passed down from Moses to Joshua to the elders and prophets and on down to the first-century rabbis. A Jewish teacher’s top priority was to preserve and to pass along the oral tradition, being sure to cite past authorities in the process.

But Jesus didn’t do this, and that astounded his listeners. He spoke directly and confidently, as if he possessed in himself the very authority of Moses. Moreover, when confronted by demons that had taken control of people, Jesus expelled them with commands like “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Luke 4:35). Thus, the people who heard Jesus were amazed. They told their friends about this unique rabbi so that “a report about him began to reach every place in the region” (Luke 4:37).

Of course, you and I don’t get to hear Jesus teach in person. I rather hope this will actually happen in the age to come. But, in the meanwhile, we do have access to the teachings of Jesus that are recorded in the biblical gospels. We can listen as he instructs all who would follow him, including us.

Then we have a decision to make. Will we acknowledge the authority of Jesus over our lives by believing and obeying? Or will we find a way to evade his authority? Ironically and sadly, we who seek to follow Jesus are sometimes quite adept at explaining away his teaching. We hear Jesus say things like “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27), and rather than taking this teaching to heart, no matter how uncomfortable we may be, we rationalize. We say things like, “Well, what Jesus really meant was . . .” and then we come up with something much easier to do than loving our actual enemies.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t work hard to understand what Jesus meant when he taught. This is an essential endeavor for those who wish to follow Jesus. But I am challenging us – and I am including myself here, for sure – to accept the unique, surprising, and disruptive authority of Jesus. When things he says are troubling to us, we mustn’t rush to dismiss them. Rather, through prayer, study, and wisdom from other Christ followers, we should work on how to grasp their true meaning and put them in to practice (Luke 6:47-48).

Reflect

Why do you think those of us who follow Jesus are sometimes quick to explain away his teachings?

Are there teachings of Jesus that you would rather avoid?

How has the authority of Jesus made a difference in your life?

Act

See if you can prayerfully identify some teaching of Jesus that you need to obey. As this becomes clear to you, ask the Lord to help you in our obedience.

Pray

Lord Jesus, as I read the account of your teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, I am struck once again by your authority. Thank you for teaching in such a clear and powerful way. Thank you for exercising power even over demons through your words.

Lord, I confess that sometimes I try to evade your authority. Some of your teachings are hard for me, hard to understand, hard to obey. It is tempting to explain away what you have said so clearly. And sometimes I give in to that temptation.

So, I confess my failure to acknowledge your authority in a consistent way. And I ask for your help. Help me to understand your teaching and how it speaks to me today. Help me to obey, even when I am reticent or afraid. May I build my life on the solid rock of obedience to your teaching. Amen.

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Part 21: Honoring the Authority of Jesus: An Example

Scripture – Luke 4:31-32 (NRSV)

He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.

For more context, read Luke 4:31-37.

Focus

Honoring the authority of Jesus can be difficult when he asks to do what we’d rather avoid. Loving our enemies, for example, is not something we’re naturally inclined to do. Many of us also struggle with other things Jesus said, like going directly to someone who has wronged us in order to reconcile. Truly, following Jesus is not always easy, but he will help us through the power of his Spirit.

Devotion

A man tightrope-walking over a chasmIn yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, I talked about the astounding authority of Jesus, suggesting that we need to respond to this authority by obeying him even when his teaching makes us uncomfortable. After all, which of us would find it comfortable to love our enemies or do good to those who hate us? This is tough stuff.

But even less demanding instructions of Jesus can be hard for us to obey. Today, I’d like to share with you one way in which I have tried to do this in my own life. You may or may not relate to the example I’m sharing, but I hope my openness will encourage you to examine honestly how you respond to the teachings of Jesus.

There is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that has pursued me throughout my life rather like Javert hunting Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. It appears in Matthew 18:15-20, beginning this way, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” (18:15). Jesus has more to say in this chapter about confrontation and reconciliation, but it’s verse 15 that has repeatedly challenged me to take seriously the authority of Jesus even when I’d rather not.

Why do I find this verse so challenging? Because am naturally inclined to avoid confrontation. By upbringing and, it seems, my genetic code, I would do almost anything to avoid what Jesus requires in Matthew 18:15. If a sister or brother in Christ wrongs me somehow, my inclination is to do one of the following: 1) deny my feelings of hurt or anger and try to forget what happened; 2) gossip to my friends about how bad this person is; 3) find a way to get even that I can somehow justify; or 4) hold onto my hurt as a way of protecting me from the person who wronged me. I’m not proud about these inclinations, mind you. I’m just being honest.

If I’m to do what Jesus requires and go directly to the person who wronged me, three things are true. First, I have to own my feelings of hurt and/or anger, rather than pretending they aren’t real. Second, I have to face the discomfort of personal confrontation. Third, I run the risk of having to forgive rather than allowing my hurt to create a barrier between me and the other person. None of these are things I would naturally choose.

I can still remember the first time, in an effort to honor the authority of Jesus in my life, I did what Matthew 18:15 teaches, going directly to someone who had wronged me. I was about 24 years old and it was downright scary for me. The conversation went well, actually; the other person admitted his wrong and asking for forgiveness, which I gladly gave. I left that encounter feeling grateful.

The memory of this experience has helped me over the years to do what Jesus says, even though I know confrontation doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. I’ll confess that I still resist at times, finding it hard to honor the authority of Jesus when I’d rather not do what he says. But I also know that he will help me if I ask. Obedience isn’t a matter of merely of will, but of God’s grace at work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

Reflect

How do you feel about Matthew 18:15? Do you ever struggle to do what Jesus says in this verse?

In what ways do you honor the authority of Jesus over your life?

Do you sense that Jesus is asking you to do something today that you’d rather not do?

Act

Ask the Lord whether there is something he wants you to do that you’re resisting. If the Spirit brings something to mind, ask for help in doing the right thing. Then, by God’s grace, step out to do it.

Pray

Lord Jesus, you know that sometimes we struggle to do what you ask of us. Following you is wonderful, but also difficult. It requires that we surrender ultimate authority over our lives to you. And sometimes this means we will choose to do things we’d rather not do.

Lord, is there something you’d like me to do that I’m ignoring or resisting? If so, please reveal this to me through your Word and Spirit. Then, I pray, help me to do whatever it is as I seek to honor your authority in my life. Thank you for the indwelling power of your Spirit, who helps me live in obedience to you. Amen.

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Part 22: Purpose Over Popularity

Scripture – Luke 4:42-44 (NRSV)

At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.

Focus

Early in his ministry, Jesus was extremely popular with the crowds. They marveled at his teachings and were astounded by his healings. They wanted Jesus to stay with them. Yet Jesus was not governed by the feelings of others. He chose purpose over popularity. His example challenges us to live our lives in fulfillment of our calling, not in order to get the most “likes” or win the most “friends.” When we are clear about our purpose, then we can devote our lives to what really matters.

Devotion

A crowd of people with their hands in the airHealing was a centerpiece of Jesus’s ministry. In a time when medical science was in its infancy, people flocked to Jesus in the hope that he would heal them and/or their loved ones. As he did this, his popularity grew exponentially. He was in demand as a preacher of the kingdom of God and especially as a divinely-empowered healer.

Yet Jesus did not let his fame distract him from his purpose. In Luke 4:42-44 we see Jesus leave the crowds for “a deserted place.” (In tomorrow’s devotion I’ll say more about what he was doing there.) Yet the crowds searched for Jesus. When they found him, they tried “to prevent him from leaving them” (Luke 4:42). It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how they felt. But Jesus declined their demand that he stick around. He said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). So he pressed on, proclaiming the kingdom “in the synagogues of Judea” (Luke 4:44).

As I reflect on this passage, I’m struck by Jesus’s ability to choose purpose over popularity. He said “No” to that which can easily blow us off course. When people like us, when they want to be with us, our ego needs often overwhelm our better judgment. When thinking of the troubles young adults can get into, we sometimes talk about their “bowing to peer pressure.” But, the fact is that more mature adults often do the very same thing.

Jesus, however, was clear about his purpose, and this protected him from the lure of popularity. Though the people around him had an agenda for his life, Jesus had his own agenda, an agenda he had received from his Heavenly Father. He knew that his primary purpose at this stage of his ministry was to “proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also” (Luke 4:43).

In future devotions I’ll talk about the kingdom of God and what helped Jesus to stay on task in light of his purpose. Today, I want to leave you with a few questions for reflection.

Reflect

Have you ever found yourself in a position like that of Jesus in Luke 4, with people eager for you to fulfill their agenda for your life? If so, what was this like? How did you respond?

What do you think enabled Jesus to be clear about his purpose?

Are you clear about your purpose in life?

How does your sense of your purpose guide the choices you make?

Act

With your small group or a wise friend, talk about your sense of purpose in life and how this guides you (or not). Listen to their experiences and see what you can learn from them.

Pray

Lord Jesus, today I am struck by your response to the people who want you to stay with them. You declined their invitation because you knew your purpose. That purpose – preaching the kingdom of God – guided your life and helped you not to be governed by popularity.

Lord, I confess that I can be swayed by people’s feelings about me. I want to be liked. I want to be wanted. These desires can make it hard for me to live fully for my purpose. Forgive me when I get off course because of my need for human affirmation.

Keep me from being drawn by the pressures of the crowd. Help me, I pray, to know my purposes and let this purpose guide my life. Amen.

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Part 23: Prayer and Purpose

Scripture – Luke 4:42-44; 5:15-16 (NRSV)

At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.

But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

Focus

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus chose purpose over popularity. His clarity about his life’s purpose and his ability to choose this over other tempting options were supported by his practice of prayer. Jesus often withdrew from the crowds in order to engage in conversation with his Heavenly Father. This clarified his sense of purpose and strengthened his resolve to do what he had been called to do. Similarly, you and I need time alone with God if we’re to know and to fulfill our purpose in life. Prayer elucidates and energizes purpose.

Devotion

A person in the middle of a field with her hands raised in prayerIn yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we noted the growing popularity of Jesus. Even when he escaped from the crowds to go to “a deserted place” (Luke 4:24), they pursued him, trying to get him to stay with them. But Jesus explained that he needed to preach the good news of the kingdom of God in other cities. “For I was sent for this purpose,” he said. Jesus chose purpose over popularity.

Why was he able to do this? What helped Jesus to be so clear about his purpose and to act decisively in light of it? We get a hint of an answer to this question in Luke 4:42, where it says that Jesus went to “a deserted place.” This hint is fleshed out in more detail in Luke 5:15-16. This passage highlights the popularity of Jesus once again, adding “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” The Greek original emphasizes the repeated nature of Jesus’s actions. He often left the crowds for places in which he could be alone.

And what did Jesus do there? According to Luke 5:16, Jesus prayed. Unfortunately, Luke does not fill us in on the content of Jesus’s wilderness prayers. All we know is that he would regularly get away for a time of solitude, in which he would pray. But it seems likely that his practice of prayer enabled Jesus to gain clarity about his purpose. He did not let popularity govern his behavior because he knew what his Heavenly Father had called him to do.

Notice that Jesus exemplifies, not just occasional prayer, but a consistent practice of getting alone to pray. It’s not as if he goes out once and prays, “Father, show me my purpose.” Rather, Jesus’s clarity of purpose comes through his consistent conversation with God.

The example of Jesus encourages us to do likewise. If we want to know our life’s purpose, if we want to be able to decline that which would distract us from what we’re on this earth to do, then we need to establish a practice of regular prayer. We may not be able to withdraw to a deserted place very often, but we can find time, even in our busy days, to get alone for conversation with God. If this was essential for Jesus, surely it should be essential for us as well.

Reflect

Can you think of times in your life when, through prayer, you were able to clarify your purpose?

Do you have a regular discipline of getting alone with God for prayer? If so, what helps you to maintain this practice? If not, what makes it hard for you to do this?

Act

Set aside some time this week for a conversation with God about your purpose in life. If you can get away to “a deserted place” for this prayer, that’s great. But, even if not, find a time and place when you can be alone with your Heavenly Father.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for modeling for us the practice of prayer. Your example both encourages and challenges us.

Help me, Lord, to make time in my busy life for prayer. As I talk with you, help me to know more clearly my purpose in life. Give me the strength to live in light of that purpose, saying “no” even to good things that would distract me. May I devote all that I am each day to fulfilling your purpose for me.

To you be all the glory! Amen.

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Part 24: Proclaiming the Kingdom of God

Scripture – Luke 4:42-44 (NRSV)

At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.

Focus

Jesus said that his purpose was to proclaim the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not a place, an inner state of spiritual awareness, or life after death. Rather, the kingdom of God in the preaching of Jesus is God’s reign, God’s rule, God’s sovereignty. When we allow God to reign over every part of our lives, over every action and every word, we begin in this age to experience the reign of God. We celebrate the good news that “Our God reigns!”

Devotion

The face of a male lionn the past two days we have been reflecting on Luke 4:42-44. On Monday, we saw that Jesus chose purpose over popularity. Yesterday, we noted that part of what enabled Jesus to live intentionally in light of his purpose was his practice of regular prayer. Today, I’d like to consider with you the way Jesus described his purpose and how this matters to us.

Jesus turned down the invitation to remain in the region where he was popular because, as he said, “I must proclaim good news of the kingdom of God to other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). For the first time in Luke’s Gospel we encounter the phrase “kingdom of God.” It will show up another 31 times as a central theme in the preaching of Jesus.

What exactly is the kingdom of God? We’ll work on this question many times as we make our way through Luke. Today, I want to give a brief introduction to the kingdom of God in the preaching of Jesus.

First of all, it may be good to note what the kingdom of God is not. It’s not a particular place, like, for example, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – though, I should add, the kingdom of God is experienced in time and space. It’s not some inner state or spiritual awareness. Moreover, the kingdom of God is not the same thing as Heaven, the place of life beyond this life. The kingdom of God is closely related to the life in the age to come. But when Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, he wasn’t just showing people how to get to Heaven after they died.

If the kingdom of God isn’t a place, or deep spiritual awareness, or Heaven, what is it? To put it simply, the kingdom of God is God’s reign. It’s God’s sovereignty, God’s rule, God’s authority. The Greek word translated as “kingdom” (basileia) in the phrase “kingdom of God” could refer to a physical kingdom, but it was also used for kingly authority. This was true of the Aramaic word malkut, which Jesus used in his preaching. We see this clearly in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). When God’s reign comes, God’s will is done on earth, just like in heaven.

Thus, what Jesus was sent to proclaim was the good news that God was coming to reign. Indeed, he preached that God’s reign had drawn near. Thus, the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled in Jesus’s own ministry: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7). Jesus was this messenger. Of course he was more than just the messenger. He was also central to the message. But we’ll get to this later.

For us, the reign of God is something we can experience each day. When we acknowledge God as the sovereign over our lives, when we allow God to reign over everything we do and say, we experience what Jesus proclaimed. Each time we choose God’s justice over injustice, each time we offer God’s love rather than hate, each time we acknowledge God’s sovereignty, we savor the reality promised by Isaiah and fulfilled through Jesus: Our God reigns!

Reflect

When you read the phrase “kingdom of God” in the New Testament, what do you envision?

In what ways have you experienced God’s reign in your life?

What helps you to live under the sovereignty of God each day?

Act

At the beginning of the day, acknowledge God as your king. Ask God to reign over your life, in all you do and say. Throughout the day, remember that God is your king as you seek to honor him.

Pray

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Your kingdom come in my life today, in my work and rest, in my words and my deeds, in my thoughts and feelings, in all that I am and all that I do.

Your kingdom come in our world today. May your will be done in cities and companies, in schools and stores, in studios and shops, in fields and factories.

Your kingdom come, Lord. Establish and uphold your kingdom “with justice and with righteousness, from this time onward and forevermore.”* Amen.

*Quotation from Isaiah 9:7

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Part 25: Responding to His Call

Scripture – Luke 5:8-11 (NRSV)

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

For more context, you can read Luke 5:1-11 here.

Focus

In the biblical Gospels we see Jesus calling those who will be his disciples. They respond by following him, literally. Today, we also respond to the call of Jesus. We are disciples in response to his initiative. Jesus calls us into relationship with himself and into a life of service. Following Jesus changes the way we work and live each day.

Devotion

A family in a fishing boat bringing in the netsAs you know, this devotion is part of a series I’ve called Following Jesus Today. I’m working my way slowly through the Gospel of Luke, reflecting on passages that help us grasp what it means for us to follow Jesus in our world, in this time of history, in our workplaces and homes, in our cities and churches. Today’s passage from Luke speaks explicitly about the disciples following Jesus, giving us plenty to chew on as we consider how we also might follow Jesus.

Today’s story happens by the “lake of Gennesaret,” also known as the Sea of Galilee (Luke 5:1). Jesus taught the crowd that had gathered from a boat belonging to a fisherman named Simon. Presumably, the acoustics were better this way. After he finished speaking, Jesus told Simon to go out into deeper water and lower his nets. Simon wanted to demur because he and his crew had been fishing all night without any luck. But, at the word of Jesus, they dropped their nets. Instantly they caught so many fish that their nets began to break. Seeing this, Simon Peter fell down before Jesus, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). But Jesus responded, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (Luke 5:10). So when the boats landed, Simon Peter and his partners, James and John, “left everything and followed [Jesus]” (Luke 5:11).

One of the striking things about this story is the initiative Jesus shows in calling Simon Peter, James, and John. In the first-century Jewish world, a person who wanted to learn from a certain rabbi would seek out the rabbi. But Jesus does things the other way around by actively reaching out to those he wanted to follow him.

Jesus called his disciples in the first century. And he still calls disciples today. Though we don’t usually receive a visit from the human Jesus who jumps in our boat and calls us with an audible voice, we who follow him do so in response to his call. We hear this call in different ways, sometimes through preaching, sometimes through reading the Gospels, sometimes through the witness of a family member or colleague. No matter how it begins, following Jesus isn’t something we initiate. It is our response to the initiative of Jesus in our lives. It is acting in obedience to the one who says to us, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (Luke 5:10).

Reflect

If you are following Jesus, how did you first hear his call?

How does the call to follow Jesus make a difference in your daily life? In your work? In your relationships? In your civic involvement?

Act

Read through Luke 5:1-11, putting yourself in the place of Simon Peter. Imagine how you would think and feel if you were in his shoes. Is there anything you’d like to say to Jesus in light of your reflections?

Pray

Lord Jesus, though you haven’t visited me in the way you once dropped in on Simon Peter, James, and John, I thank you for taking initiative in my life. Thank you for calling me into relationship with you and participating in your work in the world. Though I can’t literally walk with you today, help me to follow you in all that I do and say. May I live in response to your gracious call today, and every day. Amen.

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Part 26: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Follow Jesus

Scripture – Luke 5:4-8 (NRSV)

When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

For more context, you can read Luke 5:1-11 here.

Focus

In Luke 5, when Simon Peter observes Jesus doing an extraordinary miracle, he tells Jesus to go away because, as he says, “I am a sinful man.” But Jesus does not go away. Instead, he calls Simon to follow him and join his kingdom-centered mission. This is good news for us! It means we don’t have to try to be perfect in order to follow Jesus. Jesus calls sinners to follow him, people like Simon Peter, people like you and me.

Devotion

Three neon signs that say "Perfect"Today we continue our examination of Luke 5:1-11, the account of Jesus’s calling of his first disciples. In last Thursday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we saw that following Jesus begins with his initiative and call. That was true when Jesus was on earth physically and it remains true today.

Luke 5 begins with Jesus using one of the boats belonging to Simon Peter as a platform from which to address the crowds. After he finished speaking, Jesus told Simon to go out into deeper water and let down his nets. Though Simon and his crew had labored all night without success, they did as Jesus asked a gesture of respect. All of a sudden, their nets were filled to the point of breaking. Seeing this miraculous catch, Simon Peter “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’” (Luke 5:8). But Jesus did not do as Simon said. He did not go away. In fact, Jesus did just the opposite of what Simon expected, actually calling Simon and his partners to join Jesus’s kingdom-proclaiming mission. So, when they brought their boats to shore, Simon, James, and John “left everything and followed Jesus” (Luke 5:11).

So much in this story speaks to us, even though we do not have the honor of encountering Jesus in the flesh or following after him literally. Today, I’m struck by Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’s miracle and Jesus’s response to Simon’s response. Seeing how many fish had been caught in a place that had no fish only hours earlier, Simon knew he had witnessed a miracle. No doubt he sensed in Jesus God’s own holy presence and power. But Simon knew his own moral defects and felt sure that he did not belong with a holy man like Jesus. So-called holy men in  first-century Judaism stayed away from people they regarded as sinful.

But Jesus was not your ordinary holy man. He did not withdraw from sinful people. He sought them out. He hung out with them. He brought the good news of God’s kingdom to them (see Luke 5:32). Indeed, he called them to follow him and join his mission. This was good news for Simon. And it is good news for us. It means that we don’t have to clean up our lives in order to say “yes” to Jesus. We don’t have to make ourselves perfect before he calls us, as if this were even possible.

Throughout my pastoral experience, I have talked with people who think they’re not good enough for God. Perhaps you have been or still are one of these people. Like Simon, you know your sin. And, like Simon, you believe you are not worthy to follow Jesus. But Jesus, who knows everything about you, the good, the bad, and the ugly, is not deterred. He calls you to follow him, not because you’re perfect, but because he loves you and seeks your partnership in his mission. In responding to his call, you will find the desire and the power to renounce sin. But this comes in response to the gracious call of Jesus, not as a prerequisite for receiving that call.

Reflect

Can you understand Simon Peter’s reaction to Jesus? Have you ever felt that way? If so, when? What happened?

Have you ever felt like you’re not worthy to follow Jesus because of your moral failures?

What might it mean for you if you were to follow Jesus today? (Not just “today” as in “these days” but “today” as “this very day.”)

Act

Take some time to reflect on how you have “heard” the call of Jesus. When has his call been especially clear and compelling? What difference has the call of Jesus made in your life?

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for not leaving when Simon attempted to send you away. Thank you for calling him to follow you in spite of his being “a sinful man.”

Thank you, Lord, for calling me to follow you even though I too am a sinner. Thank you for inviting me to share in your kingdom work in spite of the ways I am not worthy of such an honor.

As I follow you, help me by your grace to turn away from sin. May I experience your freeing, transforming forgiveness. May my life be shaped more and more by your kingdom, power, and glory. Amen.

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Part 27: Must I Leave Everything Behind?

Scripture – Luke 5:9-11 (NRSV)

For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

For more context, you can read Luke 5:1-11 here.

Focus

Sometimes Jesus calls people to follow him by leaving their current lives behind and starting over again in a brand new location. This happened to the first disciples of Jesus, for example. For most of us, however, following Jesus is something we do in our familiar cities, families, and workplaces. To be sure, following Jesus still requires plenty of leaving behind. Jesus will ask us to discard our worldly values, unjust practices, prejudicial biases, selfish materialism, and inborn “me first” attitude. We will come to see our whole life, including our daily work and everyday relationships, as contexts in which can follow Jesus faithfully.

Devotion

An old car in a shed being worked onWhen I was in elementary school, a missionary couple serving in a small Latin American country returned to the United States on furlough. The Beckers shared their experiences in my Sunday School class, impressing upon us how simple their life was in their adopted country. When it was time for Q&A, one of my friends asked in a serious tone, “Do you have McDonalds where you live?” The Beckers answered with similar seriousness, “No, we don’t. That’s something we had to give up.” We were all impressed. For us, leaving McDonald’s behind would be a major sacrifice. We thought missionaries sure had a hard life.

The notion of giving up everything to follow Jesus didn’t begin with twentieth-century missionaries, however. In fact, that idea appears in our passage from Luke 5. When Jesus called Simon, promising that he would now be “catching people,” Simon and his partners “left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). Indeed, they left their jobs, their homes, their families, and most of their possessions behind so that they might actually follow Jesus as he traveled throughout Galilee and Judea, preaching the good news of the kingdom of God.

Are we supposed to do the same if we are going to follow Jesus?

For some people the answer to this question is “yes” (or “mostly, yes,” at any rate). The Beckers gave up just about everything in order to serve the Lord overseas. Like Simon, James, and John, they literally left almost everything and literally went away from their home in faithfulness to their particular calling.

Let me repeat that last phrase, “in faithfulness to their particular calling.” The reason that the Beckers had to leave so much behind was that they knew the Lord wanted them to go far away. They could not bring with them their home, friends, jobs, and local McDonald’s restaurant. They were able to bring their children, but not their extended family. Their act of leaving behind was required by their specific response to the specific call of Jesus.

Most of us won’t be called to this particular kind of work, however. For us, following Jesus is something we do in our familiar cities, families, and workplaces. Yes, we will follow Jesus even if we work at McDonald’s. To be sure, following Jesus still requires plenty of leaving behind. Jesus will ask us to discard our worldly values, unjust practices, prejudicial biases, selfish materialism, and inborn “me first” attitude. We will come to see our whole life, including our daily work and everyday relationships, as contexts in which can follow Jesus faithfully.

Reflect

Why do you think Simon, James, and John left everything to follow Jesus?

Have you ever left something behind (literally or figuratively) in response to the call of Jesus? If so, what was it? Why did you leave it behind?

Might there be things in your life now that Jesus is asking you to discard? If so, what are these things and what do you propose to do with them?

Act

If you sense that Jesus wants you to leave something behind in order to follow him more faithfully, ask for the strength to do it. Then, share what you have decided with a Christian brother or sister, someone who can support you, pray for you, and hold you accountable.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I wonder what I would have done if I had been in the boat with Simon Peter. Would I have responded to your call as Simon, James, and John did? Would I have been willing to leave so much behind in order to follow you? I hope so, by your grace.

Lord, today I don’t sense that you are calling me to a new location or a new job. But I am quite sure that you want me to follow you right where I am, with my family and friends, in my work and neighborhood, in my church and my city. Help me, Lord, to say “yes” to your call. Show me what I need to offload if I’m going to follow you faithfully. May I turn from all that keeps me from following you in every context of my life.

Thank you for calling me into relationship with you and into your service. May I live today for the praise of your glory! Amen.

 

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