Fuller

Following Jesus Today

by Mark D. Roberts, Ph.D.
Executive Director
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)
Part 28: Healing Beyond Healing (Luke 5:12-14)
Part 29: Taking Risks (Luke 5:18-19)
Part 30: Why Take Risks? (Luke 5:18-19)
Part 31: Must I Leave Everything Behind? Further Thoughts (Luke 5:27-28)
Part 32: Using Your Stuff for Kingdom Purposes (Luke 5:27-28)
Part 33: New Wine and New Wineskins (Luke 5:36-39)
Part 34: The Disruption of Wine and Wineskins (Luke 5:36-39)
Part 35: Wine, Wineskins, and the Challenge of Leadership (Luke 5:36-38)
Part 36: An Unexpected Lord (Luke 6:1-5)
Part 37: Is Jesus the Lord of Your Sabbath? (Luke 6:1-5)
Part 38: The Purpose of the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-10)
Part 39: The Extraordinary Value of Wholeness (Luke 8:32-33)
Part 40: The Extraordinary Value of Wholeness, Part 2 (Luke 8:47-48)
Part 41: How Can You Proclaim the Kingdom of God? (Luke 9:1-10)
Part 42: What Jesus’s Miracles Reveal (Luke 9:16-17)
Part 43: When Jesus Sends You Out on a Limb (Luke 9:14-15)
Part 44: Why Taking Risks for Jesus is Tricky (Luke 9:14-15)
Part 45: Where Did Jesus Get His Shocking Vision? (Luke 9:21-22)
Part 46: Do You Want to Be the Richest Person in the World? (Luke 9:24-25)
Part 47: Did Jesus Get It Wrong? (Luke 9:26-27)
Part 48: A Glimpse of Glory (Luke 9:28-31)
Part 49: And Then, Back to Reality (Luke 9:37-41)
Part 50: Jesus Shares Our Sorrows . . . and More (Luke 9:37-41)
Part 51: Do You Want to Be Great? (Luke 9:46-48)
Part 52: Have You Set Your Face? (Luke 9:51)
Part 53: An Awkward and Teachable Moment (Luke 22:24-27)
Part 54: Jesus Reclaims Our Brokenness (Luke 22:31-34)
Part 55: The Anguish of Jesus (Luke 22:39-44)
Part 56: The Shocking Prayer of Jesus (Luke 22:39-42)
Part 57: Not My Will But Yours Be Done (Luke 22:39-42)
Part 58: How Does God See You? (Luke 22:54-62)
Part 59: Hiding Behind Mockery (Luke 22:63-65)
Part 60: What’s Jesus’s Line? (Luke 22:66-71)
Part 61: Jesus as a Big Giant Spoon (Luke 23:1-5)
Part 62: Joy to the World . . . in Lent? (Luke 19:37-40)
Part 63: Taking Responsibility for Jesus’s Death (Luke 23:13-25)
Part 64: Carrying the Cross (Luke 23:26)
Part 65: Unexpected King. Unexpected Salvation. (Luke 23:32-38)
Part 66: Jesus Remembers You (Luke 23:39-43)
Part 67: Giving All You Are to God (Luke 23:44-49)
Part 68: Why the Burial of Jesus Matters (Luke 23:50-56)
Part 69: He is Not Here, But Has Risen! (Luke 24:1-6)
Part 70: The Resurrection of Jesus: Not an Idle Tale (Luke 24:1-12)
Part 71: Going Beyond Right Answers (Luke 10:27-28)
Part 72: Going Beyond Self-Justification (Luke 10:25-29)
Part 73: The Good “Bad Guy” (Luke 10:30-37)
Part 74: Are You Passing By on the Other Side? (Luke 10:30-37)
Part 75: Don’t Pass By on the Other Side! (Luke 10:30-37)
Part 76: Learning Not to Pass By on the Other Side: A Personal Story (Luke 10:30-37)
Part 77: Reversing Neighborliness (Luke 10:30-37)
Part 78: Compassion and Capacity (Luke 10:30-37
Part 79: Martha’s Welcome (Luke 10:38-42)
Part 80: Jesus’s Welcome (Luke 10:38-42)
Part 81: Martha’s Welcome, Revisited (Luke 10:38-42)
Part 82: The Lord’s Prayer, Well, Sort Of (Luke 11:1-4)
Part 83: The Example of Jesus Praying (Luke 11:1-4)
Part 84: Knowing the Words You Pray (Luke 11:1-4)
Part 85: Praying Like Jesus: Father (Luke 11:2-4)
Part 86: Praying Like Jesus: Hallowed Be Your Name (Luke 11:2-4)
Part 87: Praying Like Jesus: Your Kingdom Come (Luke 11:2-4)
Part 88: Praying Like Jesus: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread (Luke 11:2-4)
Part 89: Praying Like Jesus: Forgive Us Our Sins (Luke 11:2-4)
Part 90: Praying Like Jesus: And Do Not Bring Us Into the Time of Trial (Luke 11:2-4)
Part 91: Praying with Shameless Audacity (Luke 11:5-8)
Part 92: Ask, and It Will Be Given to You (Luke 11:9-10)
Part 93: God Gives Good Gifts (Luke 11:9-13)
Part 94: The Finger of God (Luke 11:19-20)
Part 95: True Purity (Luke 11:37-41)
Part 96: Where Should You Focus? (Luke 11:42)
Part 97: Woe to Whom? (Luke 11:52)
Part 98: God Knows You and Values You (Luke 12:6-7)
Part 99: Knowing How Much God Loves You (Luke 12:6-7)
Part 100: The Holy Spirit Will Teach You (Luke 12:11-12)
Part 101: Be Rich Toward God (Luke 12:15-21)
Part 102: Words for the Worried (Luke 12:22-24)
Part 103: You Matter So Much More! (Luke 12:22-24)
Part 104: Worry Doesn’t Help (Luke 12:25-26)
Part 105: Wearing God’s Glorious Clothing (Luke 12:27-28)
Part 106: Don’t Put Yourself in God’s Place (Luke 12:29-30)
Part 107: What is the Kingdom of God? (Luke 12:29-30)
Part 108: Strive for the Kingdom of God (Luke 12:29-31)
Part 109: What God Loves to Give You (Luke 12:32)
Part 110: Where is Your Treasure? (Luke 12:33-34)
Part 111: Use Your Gifts Well! (Luke 12:48b)
Part 112: What is Your Manure? (Luke 13:6-9)
Part 113: Embracing the Priorities of Jesus (Luke 13:10-17)
Part 114: Living a Mustard-Seed Life (Luke 13:18-19)
Part 115: Choosing Humility (Luke 14:7-11)
Part 116: Favoring People Who Cannot Return the Favor (Luke 14:12-14)
Part 117: Favoring People Who Cannot Return the Favor, Part 2 (Luke 14:12-14)
Part 118: Should We Hate Our Families? (Luke 14:25-26)
Part 119: Growing in Love for Jesus (Luke 14:25-26)
Part 120: The Cost of Discipleship (Luke 14:27)
Part 121: How Tasty Are You? (Luke 14:34-35)
Part 122: The Scandalous Welcome of Jesus (Luke 15:1-2)
Part 123: Reason to Celebrate (Luke 15:3-7)
Part 124: Drinking in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-13)


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Living According to the Spirit Leads to a New Quality of Life (Romans 8:1–14)


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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.


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.


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.


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.


Part 5: 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

Part 28: Healing Beyond Healing

Scripture – Luke 5:12-14 (NRSV)

Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.”

Focus

Healing was central to the ministry of Jesus. When he healed people, he demonstrated the reality of the kingdom of God. God’s power defeats disease. God’s love creates wholeness. So when God reigns, healing happens. Jesus offered physical healing, yes, but also healing beyond healing . . . relational healing, psychological healing, spiritual healing. Jesus seeks to make us whole in every way.

Devotion

Healing was central to the ministry of Jesus. When he healed people, he demonstrated the reality of the kingdom of God. God’s power is greater than disease and even death. So when God reigns, healing happens. Broken bodies are restored.

Yet Jesus sought to heal people, not just physically, but in other ways as well. We see this in Luke 5:12-14. When a man with leprosy approached Jesus and asked if he might choose to make him clean, Jesus said, “I do choose. Be made clean” (Luke 5:13). At that moment, the leprosy left the man. He was healed. That’s wonderful, but it’s not the whole story.

There are two crucial details in this story that show Jesus’s full intentions. In order to make sense of them, we need to understand how leprosy affected the life of one afflicted with this disease, in addition to the physical illness itself. People with severe skin diseases were excluded from Jewish society in an ancient version of social distancing. They had to live alone, away from their families and outside of their cities. Moreover, people with leprosy were regarded as ceremonially unclean, which meant they were excluded from religious practices. Healthy people were forbidden by law from touching someone with leprosy. If one who was healthy happened to brush up against someone with a skin disease, the healthy person became ceremonially unclean and would therefore, be excluded from certain communal gatherings until his or her cleanliness was restored.

With this background in mind, we note with keen interest that before Jesus pronounced the man with leprosy clean, he “stretched out his hand” and “touched him” (Luke 5:13). Jesus chose to become ceremonially unclean. Luke does not tell us why, though it’s likely that Jesus wanted to communicate love and acceptance through touch. The man before him had been cut off from human touch for a long time. Jesus literally reached out to him as a way to reach into his hurting soul. Jesus sought to heal the man, not only of his disease, but also of his desolation.

We see this happening in Jesus’s instructions to the man after his healing. He told him to go to the local priest and make an offering. Why? “For a testimony to them,” Jesus said (Luke 5:14). “Them,” in this case, would be the people of the community to which the man with leprosy belonged. According to the Mosaic law, the priest had the authority to declare someone clean, which meant that person could be restored into fellowship with others. He no longer had to live apart from his community. He no longer had to be denied the love of family and friends. He no longer was excluded from working so as to support himself and affirm his dignity

By touching the man with leprosy and sending him to the priest, Jesus healed the man in more ways than one. Yes, he was healed miraculously of his disease. But, through touch and priestly affirmation, the man with leprosy was healed of his loneliness, isolation, and inability to contribute the common good. Jesus offers physical healing, yes, but also healing beyond healing . . . relational healing, psychological healing, spiritual healing. Jesus seeks to make us whole in every way.

Reflect

How do you respond to the story in Luke 5:12-14?

In what ways, if at all, can you relate to the yearning of the man with leprosy for wholeness?

If you were to come before Jesus today, what would you ask of him? In what ways do you need to be healed?

Act

Find some moments of quiet so you might reflect deeply on Luke 5:12-14. Imagine what it would be like to be the man who is healed of leprosy. Imagine what Jesus looked like and sounded like as he interacted with this man. See if God has more for you through this story.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for your healing power. Thank you for your mercy and compassion. Thank you for your love.

Thank you, Lord, for wanting us to be whole, not just in body, but in all ways. Thank you for all the ways you have healed us and are healing us still.

Lord, I ask you to continue your healing work in me. You know where I am broken and need fixing. You know my relationships that need mending. So, like the man in today’s story, I ask you to make me clean. Amen.


Part 28: Healing Beyond Healing

Scripture – Luke 5:18-19 (NRSV)

Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus.

For the context for this passage, read Luke 5:17-27.

Focus

Following Jesus isn’t safe. If we’re going to follow Jesus today, we will inevitably take risks. We may put at risk our comfort, reputation, safety, or financial security. Yet, the more we trust Jesus and pay attention to him, the more we will be empowered to take risks for the sake of his kingdom and for the people he has entrusted to our care.

Devotion

If, like me, you grew up going to Sunday School, then you are surely familiar with the story on which we are focusing today. But if you’re familiar with this story, you may miss one of the things it teaches us about following Jesus. I’m hoping that today’s Life for Leaders devotion may help you to see things in a new light.

The basic story goes like this: Jesus was teaching and healing in some sort of building, probably a home. Quite a crowd had gathered, including many Jewish teachers. Some men brought a paralyzed man on a bed so that Jesus might heal him, but the crowd kept them away. So, the men went up on the roof, removed a good portion of the roof, and lowered the paralyzed man down before Jesus. Seeing the faith of the men on the roof, Jesus forgave the sins of the paralyzed man. This enraged the Jewish teachers who believed that only God could forgive sins. Jesus explained that he, as the Son of Man, had authority to forgive sins. He proved the point by telling the paralyzed man to get up and go home, which he promptly did. The crowd marveled, glorifying God and saying, “We have seen strange things today” (Luke 5:26).

When I have preached on this passage, I have focused on the faith of the men who lowered their friend before Jesus. I have also talked about the significance of Jesus’s claim to have authority to forgive sins. Today, however, I want to reflect with you on the risk taken by the men who carried the bed. It was a big one!

Don’t you wish you could have heard their conversation? When they realized that there was no way they could gain access to Jesus, I imagine one of them saying, “Oh, this won’t work. Maybe we should wait until later.” Another might have said, “Hey, why don’t we ask people to make room for us.” Still another added, “That won’t work. But we could get on the roof, make a big hole, and let the bed down right in front of Jesus.” The first speaker might have responded, “Are you crazy? We can’t get up on the roof with this bed. And there’s no way we can make a hole in somebody’s roof. We’d get in serious trouble.” But, as they talked, they were reminded of just how much they wanted their friend to be healed. They believed this really was their only chance. So they decided to climb onto the roof and break it, making a hole large enough for the bed.

Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t tell us what happened while these men were creating the hole in the roof. It’s not hard to imagine, however, what they might have been hearing from the crowd: “What are you guys doing? Are you crazy? You can’t break Levi’s house! That’s illegal . . . and stupid. You’re interrupting the teacher. You’re cutting in line. You guys are going to be in such trouble.” Still, the men opened up the roof and lowered their friend right in front of Jesus.

What did these men risk? Many things. They risked their reputation. If their scheme didn’t work, they’d become the laughingstock of their town. They risked serious legal trouble by damaging someone’s home. Would they be arrested? Would they be sued? They risked Jesus’s ire, since they interrupted his teaching in a major way. They risked the ire of the people who had gathered to be healed but we’re stuck in the back of the crowd. And, of course, they risked the possibility that, after all that they had done, their friend would not be healed.

In Monday’s devotion I want to consider what in the world motivated these bed-carrying men to take such risks. Today, I want to suggest that if you and I are going to follow Jesus, we will need to take major risks as well. No, I’m not envisioning you making a hole in somebody’s roof. But I am thinking about other risks you might take as you follow Jesus. You may run the risk of having people at work think you’re a religious nut. You may put yourself in places where you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. You may have a smaller nest egg for your future because of your generosity. You may put your professional reputation on the line because you believe God wants you to lead a startup. You may risk the unhappiness of your coworkers when you ask them not to make jokes that disrespect or objectify others. Or . . . you name it.

In light of the risk-taking of the people in our story, please consider the following questions.

Reflect

If you had been one of the bed-carrying men, how might you have dealt with the problem of “no access” to Jesus?

In general, are you someone who takes risks? Or do you tend to choose that which is safe, predictable, and secure? Why are you this way?

Have you ever taken a risk because you are a follower of Jesus? When? What was it? How did it turn out? Or, how is it turning out now?

Act

With your small group or a wise friend, talk about risk taking and faith. As you talk, try to discern whether Jesus is calling you to take a risk today?

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the boldness of the bed-carrying men. Thank you for their willingness to take a risk for the sake of their friend. Thank you for responding to their daring by acknowledging their faith and healing the paralyzed man.

Lord, as you know, I’m not particularly fond of risk taking, to say the least. I prefer what is predictable, safe, and secure. But I do want to follow you faithfully. So, I pray that when it is time for me to take a risk for your sake, you will give me the boldness I need. Amen.


Part 29: Taking Risks

Scripture – Luke 5:18-19 (NRSV)

Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus.

For the context for this passage, read Luke 5:17-27.

Focus

Following Jesus isn’t safe. If we’re going to follow Jesus today, we will inevitably take risks. We may put at risk our comfort, reputation, safety, or financial security. Yet, the more we trust Jesus and pay attention to him, the more we will be empowered to take risks for the sake of his kingdom and for the people he has entrusted to our care.

Devotion

If, like me, you grew up going to Sunday School, then you are surely familiar with the story on which we are focusing today. But if you’re familiar with this story, you may miss one of the things it teaches us about following Jesus. I’m hoping that today’s Life for Leaders devotion may help you to see things in a new light.

The basic story goes like this: Jesus was teaching and healing in some sort of building, probably a home. Quite a crowd had gathered, including many Jewish teachers. Some men brought a paralyzed man on a bed so that Jesus might heal him, but the crowd kept them away. So, the men went up on the roof, removed a good portion of the roof, and lowered the paralyzed man down before Jesus. Seeing the faith of the men on the roof, Jesus forgave the sins of the paralyzed man. This enraged the Jewish teachers who believed that only God could forgive sins. Jesus explained that he, as the Son of Man, had authority to forgive sins. He proved the point by telling the paralyzed man to get up and go home, which he promptly did. The crowd marveled, glorifying God and saying, “We have seen strange things today” (Luke 5:26).

When I have preached on this passage, I have focused on the faith of the men who lowered their friend before Jesus. I have also talked about the significance of Jesus’s claim to have authority to forgive sins. Today, however, I want to reflect with you on the risk taken by the men who carried the bed. It was a big one!

Don’t you wish you could have heard their conversation? When they realized that there was no way they could gain access to Jesus, I imagine one of them saying, “Oh, this won’t work. Maybe we should wait until later.” Another might have said, “Hey, why don’t we ask people to make room for us.” Still another added, “That won’t work. But we could get on the roof, make a big hole, and let the bed down right in front of Jesus.” The first speaker might have responded, “Are you crazy? We can’t get up on the roof with this bed. And there’s no way we can make a hole in somebody’s roof. We’d get in serious trouble.” But, as they talked, they were reminded of just how much they wanted their friend to be healed. They believed this really was their only chance. So they decided to climb onto the roof and break it, making a hole large enough for the bed.

Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t tell us what happened while these men were creating the hole in the roof. It’s not hard to imagine, however, what they might have been hearing from the crowd: “What are you guys doing? Are you crazy? You can’t break Levi’s house! That’s illegal . . . and stupid. You’re interrupting the teacher. You’re cutting in line. You guys are going to be in such trouble.” Still, the men opened up the roof and lowered their friend right in front of Jesus.

What did these men risk? Many things. They risked their reputation. If their scheme didn’t work, they’d become the laughingstock of their town. They risked serious legal trouble by damaging someone’s home. Would they be arrested? Would they be sued? They risked Jesus’s ire, since they interrupted his teaching in a major way. They risked the ire of the people who had gathered to be healed but we’re stuck in the back of the crowd. And, of course, they risked the possibility that, after all that they had done, their friend would not be healed.

In Monday’s devotion I want to consider what in the world motivated these bed-carrying men to take such risks. Today, I want to suggest that if you and I are going to follow Jesus, we will need to take major risks as well. No, I’m not envisioning you making a hole in somebody’s roof. But I am thinking about other risks you might take as you follow Jesus. You may run the risk of having people at work think you’re a religious nut. You may put yourself in places where you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. You may have a smaller nest egg for your future because of your generosity. You may put your professional reputation on the line because you believe God wants you to lead a startup. You may risk the unhappiness of your coworkers when you ask them not to make jokes that disrespect or objectify others. Or . . . you name it.

In light of the risk-taking of the people in our story, please consider the following questions.

Reflect

If you had been one of the bed-carrying men, how might you have dealt with the problem of “no access” to Jesus?

In general, are you someone who takes risks? Or do you tend to choose that which is safe, predictable, and secure? Why are you this way?

Have you ever taken a risk because you are a follower of Jesus? When? What was it? How did it turn out? Or, how is it turning out now?

Act

With your small group or a wise friend, talk about risk taking and faith. As you talk, try to discern whether Jesus is calling you to take a risk today?

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the boldness of the bed-carrying men. Thank you for their willingness to take a risk for the sake of their friend. Thank you for responding to their daring by acknowledging their faith and healing the paralyzed man.

Lord, as you know, I’m not particularly fond of risk taking, to say the least. I prefer what is predictable, safe, and secure. But I do want to follow you faithfully. So, I pray that when it is time for me to take a risk for your sake, you will give me the boldness I need. Amen.


Part 30: Why Take Risks?

Scripture – Luke 5:18-19 (NRSV)

Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus.

For the context for this passage, read Luke 5:17-27.

Focus

The more we trust Jesus, the more we will take risks for the sake of the kingdom of God. We will be emboldened to try things we would not otherwise try, to love in ways we would not otherwise love. Why? Because we trust Jesus to guide us, empower us, and work through us. So, whether we are moving far away from home in response to God’s call, reaching out to care for a colleague at work, or confronting injustice in our city, we rely on Jesus, the one we trust because he is utterly trustworthy.

Devotion

In last Thursday’s Life for Leaders devotion, I began to examine the story in Luke 5:17-27 in which several men brought to Jesus a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When they couldn’t get close enough to Jesus for him to heal their friend, the men did a shocking thing: getting up on the roof of the building where Jesus was speaking, making a large hole in the roof, and letting down the bed with their friend so that it landed right in front of Jesus. Jesus did indeed heal the paralyzed man, but only after forgiving his sins, which stirred up the Jewish teachers who were observing Jesus’s behavior.

In Thursday’s devotion we focused on the fact that the men who carried their friend to Jesus took many risks along the way. They risked reputation and legal repercussions. They risked angering many people, including Jesus. And they risked the disappointment that Jesus would not, after all they had done, heal their friend.

Why, I wonder, did the bed-carrying men take on such risks? Luke supplies one answer to this question, which we’ll examine in a moment. But first I want to note something that is likely though not stated explicitly. We can surely infer from the story that the bed-carrying men were deeply committed to their paralyzed friend and his healing. They were willing to risk so much because of their care for him. Committed love for others will motivate us to put everything on the line. The more we love, the more we will take risks in service to others.

Though Luke does not actually mention the care of the bed-carriers for the paralyzed man, he does note another reason for their risk-taking behavior. After they tore a hole in the roof and lowered their friend down to Jesus, Luke notes that Jesus “saw their faith” and then ministered to the paralyzed man (5:20). Surely, the men who brought their friend to Jesus had exceptional faith. They were convinced that Jesus had the power to heal and would indeed heal their friend if they could only get him into Jesus’s presence. They trusted Jesus utterly.

The more we trust Jesus, the more we will take risks for the sake of the kingdom of God. We will be emboldened to try things we would not otherwise try, to love in ways we would not otherwise love, to build what we would not otherwise build. Why? Because we trust Jesus to guide us, empower us, and work through us. So, whether we are moving far away from home in response to God’s call, reaching out to care for a colleague at work, confronting injustice in our city, we rely on Jesus, the one we trust because he is utterly trustworthy.

Reflect

Can you think of a time in your life when you took a risk because you cared for someone? What was this like for you?

Can you think of a time in your life when you took a risk because of your trust in Jesus? What was this like for you?

What helps you to grow in your trust in Jesus?

Act

With your small group or a wise friend, take some time to reflect together on this question: If I really trusted Jesus, what would I do that I am not doing now?

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the example of the bed-carrying men in this story from Luke. Thank you for their care for their friend. Thank you for their trust in you. Thank you for their willingness to take a risk – several risks, actually – for the sake of their friend’s healing. Thank you for seeing their faith and for healing the paralyzed man.

I ask, Lord, that you help me to care for others more than I do today. Give me love, not only for those I already love, but for those I have a hard time loving. May my love motivate my action.

I also ask, Lord Jesus, that you help me to trust you more. I do trust you in many ways. You know that. But I also hold back. I find it hard to take major risks in response to your guidance. Safety is so comfortable. So, I ask that, by your Spirit, you strengthen my trust in you so that I might live for you more boldly. To you be all of the glory. Amen.


Part 31: Must I Leave Everything Behind? Further Thoughts

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.

Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them.

For context, you can read Luke 5:27-32 here.

Focus

In the New Testament gospels, when Jesus called people they often “left everything” to follow him. While there’s no doubt that following Jesus involved significant sacrifice, financial and otherwise, not every disciple of Jesus gave up literally everything. In Luke 5, for example, Levi “left everything” to follow Jesus but was still able to host a banquet in his home. Though Levi was the legal owner, he thought of his home in a completely new perspective. It was now devoted to the ministry of Jesus. It was a base for hospitality and generosity. For us, therefore, whether we own, rent, or live with others, “our stuff” is not really ours. Everything we have belongs ultimately to the Lord and is devoted to his purposes.

Devotion

Last week we examined Luke 5:9-11, where Jesus called Simon Peter, James, and John to be his disciples. Luke reports that “they left everything and followed him” (5:11). I wondered if we also need to leave everything when we say “yes” to Jesus. We might, I suggested—depending on our specific calling. But most of us won’t literally leave everything behind. Rather, we’ll follow Jesus in our familiar cities, families, and workplaces. Yet, we will renounce a kind of ownership of our lives and our stuff as we offer all that we have and all that we are to Jesus and his mission.

We see an example of this kind of “leaving behind” in story of the call of Levi. When Jesus summoned Levi the tax collector to follow him, Levi “got up, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 5:28). If this was the end of Luke’s story of Levi, we might picture Levi leaving town in Jesus’s wake, perhaps not even saying goodbye to his family, and taking with him only the clothes on his back. Everything else he had left behind.

But Levi’s story continues in Luke 5. In verse 29 we read: “Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with him.” From this sentence we learn that Levi had considerable financial means because he was able to host a “great banquet” for “a large crowd.” His home must have been large and he obviously had money to sponsor a lavish feast for many people.

Levi’s wealth is not particularly surprising, given his former job as a tax collector. What is surprising is the fact that Levi, who had “left everything” to follow Jesus, still had a large home and a large amount of money. Does this fact contradict Luke’s claim that Levi “left everything”? Given Luke’s expertise as a historian (see Luke 1:1-4), it’s highly unlikely that he would have contradicted himself in two juxtaposed verses. No, what seems clear is that Luke didn’t understand “left everything” in a simplistic way. Leaving everything to follow Jesus meant, in some cases, that people left their homes and relationships. In Levi’s case, leaving everything meant leaving his job. But, beyond this, it was a matter of abandoning his former way of living for a new way of living. Though he still owned his home and had ample financial resources, Levi now used these freely and generously for the ministry of the kingdom.

Notice also that Levi didn’t leave behind the relationships he had before encountering Jesus. His banquet was for people he had known before, especially his business partners, or, as Luke calls them, “a large crowd of tax collectors and others” (5:29). What Levi left behind was seeing people instrumentally, as tools in his wealth-creation machine. As his life turned around, he wanted everyone in his sphere of influence to know Jesus and his kingdom message.

I realize that what I’ve just done with Luke’s account of Levi might sound like one of those convenient Christian rationalizations whereby we avoid the clear implications of Jesus’s teaching and example so that we might live more or less as we lived before encountering Jesus. So, let me be clear. If we think following Jesus does not involve sacrifice, if we believe we can keep all of our stuff for ourselves, then we’re missing an essential element of discipleship. But the example of Levi shows us that leaving behind isn’t so much abandoning everything as it is repurposing everything for the kingdom of God. Sometimes this means selling our homes and giving the proceeds to our Christian community (see Acts 4:32-37). At other times this means devoting our homes to hospitality for the sake of Christ, as was true of Levi.

Reflect

In what ways do you relate to the example of Levi?

Are you really using “your stuff” for the sake of Christ?

Might the Lord be moving in you to be more hospitable? More generous? More sacrificial in how you live and what you do with your stuff?

Act

Ask the Lord if he would like you to do something different or new with some of your stuff? Perhaps you could share it with others? Or maybe it’s time to sell something and donate the proceeds? Or . . . ?

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the example of Levi. As we read his story, we are encouraged to think about how we might wisely “leave everything behind.” Help us to know what’s best, Lord. May we be willing to see all of our stuff and all of our relationships for you and your purposes. Teach us to sacrifice freely and to serve generously. May our hospitality draw other to you and your generous grace. To you be all the glory. Amen.


Part 32: Using Your Stuff for Kingdom Purposes

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.

Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them.

For context, you can read Luke 5:27-32 here.

Focus

When we follow Jesus, we learn to think differently about “our stuff.” Whether we have relatively little or whether we have a lot, all of our possessions ultimately belong to the Lord and are committed to his work. What this means for each of us will vary with our circumstances and calling. But we will share together in a life of hospitality and generosity.

Devotion

In the last two Life for Leaders devotions we have examined the story of Levi, the tax collector whom Jesus called to follow him. Yesterday, we reflected on the fact that following Jesus leads us to a whole new way of thinking about “our stuff.” In some cases, we will donate our stuff or its value to needy individuals or worthy organizations. In other cases, like Levi, we will use our stuff for the sake of Christ and his mission.

Before we leave Levi to move on in the Gospel of Luke, I’d like to share three brief stories of people using their stuff for Christ and his purposes. I hope to illustrate a variety of responses from a variety of Jesus followers.

The first story comes from my time in college. During my senior year at Harvard, a bunch of us from the Christian fellowship were invited by a Black Pentecostal church in Bridgeport, Connecticut to join them for a weekend retreat. About thirty of us—mainly Anglos and Asians who were not Pentecostal, by the way—took them up on this generous offer. Not only did the Bridgeport folks lead the retreat for us, but also they put us up in their homes and fed us fantastic food (my first experience of soul food, by the way). Four of our group crowded into the pastor’s modest apartment, but he and his family didn’t seem to mind the obvious inconvenience. They helped us feel warmly welcomed and truly at home.

The next story happened several years later. In the summer of 1986 my dad died of cancer at the age of 54. As the end of the year drew near, my extended family and I began to worry about Christmas. It didn’t seem right to “do Christmas” as we always had. Yet it didn’t seem right to skip Christmas, either. We had limited funds so couldn’t envision something creative for our whole family. Then a friend of my mom approached her with an opportunity. She and her husband had a second home near Palm Springs, California, and would be glad to let us use it for Christmas vacation. When my mom mentioned the large size of our extended family, her friend said that would be no problem. Their “home” was really more of a compound, with several cottages, tennis court, swimming pool, and a giant main house. I can’t even imagine how much it would have cost to rent that place in prime season. But my mom’s friend wanted us to use it free of charge. So that Christmas my family and I spent five days celebrating, grieving, and relaxing in luxury unlike anything we had ever known. While there, I read the guest register and realized that my mom’s friend and her husband gave away their place to hundreds of people each year: church groups, Young Life groups, inner city mission groups, etc.

My third story comes from my time as a pastor in Irvine, California. One day, a member of my church came to see me. She shared with me that she was moving away from Irvine and would be leaving our church. She wanted me to know that she planned to tithe on the sale of her house—not just the increase in value, but the sale. She was excited to do this as an act of gratitude to God for our church. Now, without asking I knew that two things were true. First, homes in Irvine were selling at high prices and her gift would be substantial. Second, this dear woman was not a person of significant means. Her husband had left her several years ago and she struggled as a single mother. The church had actually helped her with a few financial challenges along the way. So I was stunned by her generosity. I even tried to suggest that she could give less, but she’d have none of it. She loved our church and loved the Lord and loved the idea that she could give generously from the sale of her home.

Each of these stories illustrates a different way of responding to the call of Jesus. Each one inspires me to consider how I might grow in generosity, hospitality, and sacrificial living. I hope these stories will inspire you too.

Reflect

How do you respond to the three stories in this devotion?

Have you ever experienced anything like that described in one of the stories?

How are you able to use your stuff for God’s purposes?

Act

With your small group or a wise friend, talk about how you might become more generous and hospitable with what God has entrusted to you.

Pray

Lord Jesus, today I thank you for experiences I have had of your people being generous and hospitable. I thank you for those who have been willing to sacrifice for the sake of your kingdom and its people.

I ask, Lord, that you help me to learn from those who model generosity, hospitality, and sacrifice. Help me to be like them as I seek to follow you in tangible ways. Amen.


Part 33: New Wine and New Wineskins

Scripture – Luke 5:36-39 (NRSV) 

[Jesus] also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”

Focus

Jesus proclaimed the new wine of the kingdom of God, adding that new wine requires new wineskins. This is true today as well. The message of God’s grace, mercy, justice, and love in Jesus challenges us to new ways of living in each generation. We ask: How does the gospel impel us to act in time of a global pandemic? How does the reign of God impact our efforts to bring racial justice to our society? How might I learn to love my neighbors in new ways?

Devotion

Though Jesus experienced considerable popularity early in his messianic ministry, his message was often perplexing to his listeners and his behavior confusing. For example, the disciples of Jesus did not fast, but ate and drank freely. This confused folk who were trying to figure Jesus out because, in that culture, serious religious people frequently fasted (Luke 5:33).

But Jesus was bringing a new message and that new message deserved new practices. To illustrate this truth, Jesus told a couple of parables: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins” (Luke 5:36-38).

Both of these parables were based on behaviors that were commonplace in the culture of Jesus. People knew not to patch an old garment with a piece from a new garment because doing so would ruin both of them (Luke 5:36). And one would not put new wine (i.e. grape juice) into an old wineskin, because the fermentation of the juice would cause it to expand, thus splitting the old wineskin, which was not supple like a new wineskin. Thus, people knew to put new wine into new wineskins.

Jesus’s basic point is fairly clear. He was bringing new wine, a new message, a new reality. Now, to be sure, in many ways the ministry of Jesus was consistent with and a fulfillment of what God had done and revealed in the past. But it was also new in at least two ways. First, it was dramatically new in comparison to the message of the Pharisees and other Jewish teachers, who were focused on the interpretation and application of the old Mosaic law. Second, the message of Jesus was new in that he proclaimed the reign of God as a present and future reality. God’s kingdom was active in Jesus, in all he said and did. This novelty demanded new ways of thinking and acting. So, for example, the disciples of Jesus were celebrating God’s kingdom by eating and drinking, rather than emphasizing self-denial by fasting.

Today, we who seek to follow Jesus are living in the newness of God’s kingdom, thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are enjoying the new wine of the gospel. Yet we face a temptation similar to that of the serious religious folk in Jesus’s day. We can find it easy to contain the new wine of Jesus in the wineskins of our familiar religious practices. We are nervous if not resistant when gospel points to new ways of being and doing. We prefer to reuse our old wineskins because they are comfortable and reassuring.

In future devotions I want to explore with you some implications of Jesus’s new wine/old wineskins parable. For now, however, let me encourage you to reflect on what Jesus has said and how it might speak to you today.

Reflect

How do you respond to what Jesus says about new wine and old wineskins? What does this make you think about? What feelings does it evoke in you?

Can you think of a time in your life when you chose “new wineskins” in response to the “new wine” of Christ? If so, when was this? What was it like to make that change?

Do you sense that the Lord might be leading you to choose “new wineskins” in your life today? If so, what might these be?

Act

Talk with your small group or a wise friend about the “wineskins” of your lives. Think together about how your life is shaped according to the gospel.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the new wine you offer. Thank you for the good news of the kingdom of God. Thank you for the renewing work of your Spirit in my life.

Help me, Lord, to continue to receive and respond to your new wine. Show me the “wineskins” of my life that need to be retired. Help me to be open to the new work you want to do in and through me today, and in the days ahead. Amen.


Part 34: The Disruption of Wine and Wineskins

Scripture – Luke 5:36-39 (NRSV)

[Jesus] also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”

Focus

God wants to do a new thing in our lives. Sometimes this new thing involves minor adjustments. Sometimes it means a radical reordering of how we live. When we are willing to surrender what is familiar and comfortable in order to step out in obedience to God, an amazing adventure lies ahead. God will do new things in us and through us for his purposes and glory.

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion we examined Jesus’s parable about wine and wineskins. I talked about how the new wine of the gospel challenges us to adopt new wineskins, even though we generally prefer the old wineskins because they are familiar friends. In today’s devotion I’d like to share with you how this passage from Luke, with its teaching on wine and wineskins, disrupted my own life.

In January of 2007 I was the Senior Pastor of a church in Southern California. In that role, I was preaching through the Gospel of Luke. When it was time to preach on Luke 5:36-39, I delivered an unusually passionate sermon in which I challenged my people to be open to the “new wine” of the gospel and the “new wineskins” God might have for their lives. I acknowledged that we tend to prefer the “old wineskins” because they are comfortable. New wineskins, I admitted, can feel pretty scary.

As I preached that sermon, little did I know that God would soon be challenging the wineskins of my life. Through a series of unexpected events, I found myself confronting the possibility of leaving my pastorate in California and taking a new position in a retreat center in Texas. Though I had the highest regard for that retreat center and its people, I found terrifying the thought of leaving behind my old, reliable wineskins in California: my church, friends, extended family, home, and community. My wife shared my feelings and, of course, had a bunch of her own. The scariest part of all for us was removing our children from a great church, a loving family, excellent schools, and wonderful friends, right as they were entering their teenage years. What! Were we crazy to consider the new wineskins in Texas? It took Linda and me several months to figure out what we believed God wanted us to do . . . and what we were willing to do in response.

Irvine Presbyterian in mirror

I took this photo on my last day as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, as I began my drive to Texas.

In the end, we believed that God wanted us to have new wineskins in Texas. By grace, we were able to trust that God would be in this move with us. So we left California and moved to Texas, where we spent some amazing years filled with more blessings than we had imagined. But there were also many losses for us, things we needed to grieve along the way. It’s almost always like that when it comes to switching out wineskins.

When I look back on how God used Luke 5:36-39 in the life of my family, I feel tremendous gratitude. This passage changed the course of our lives in astounding and marvelous ways. Yet, I confess that I approach Jesus’s teaching about wine and wineskins with trepidation. I know how much power to disrupt my life is present in this parable. Yet, I also know how much new wine God is able to pour into our lives when we’re willing to accept the new wineskins he has for us.

In many ways, it all boils down to trust. If I believe God is calling me to something new, will I trust him? Or not? I’d like to say that I would always choose to trust God. But sometimes I find myself preferring what is familiar, known, and seemingly under my control. I want to hang on to my old wineskins. Yet, deep down, I know that God is trustworthy, that whatever God has for me is best, that the new wineskins are worth discarding the old. Most of all, I want to be a willing, open, expandable vessel for God’s new wine, the reality of his kingdom offered through Jesus Christ.

Reflect

Have you had an experience in your life rather like what I have described in this devotion? What happened and what was it like for you?

What makes it hard for you to give up your “old wineskins”?

What encourages you to take up “new wineskins”?

Act

Take some time to think through your life, remembering times when you trusted God in exceptional ways. Consider how God has led you and blessed you. Offer thanks for his goodness and for the gift of “new wineskins.”

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for the new wine you give us through Christ. Thank you for choosing to put your new wine in us. Help us, we pray, to choose the new wineskins you have for us. When you’re leading us to something new, something unknown, even scary, may we trust you to be faithful.

O Lord, pour into us once again your new wine, for your purposes and glory. Amen.


Part 35: Wine, Wineskins, and the Challenge of Leadership

Scripture – Luke 5:36-38 (NRSV)

[Jesus] also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”

Focus

Whether you lead a church or a business, a school or a city, a factory or a family, a studio or a store, effective leadership in today’s world means change leadership. In a time of major global upheaval and societal disruption, change is required, now more than ever. It is necessary for surviving, not to mention thriving. Thus, our leadership will be inspired by “new wine” and will help our people create and embrace “new wineskins.” But wise change leadership will also acknowledge the reality of loss, helping our people grieve their “old wineskins” so they might be prepared to embrace the new thing God is doing among them.

Devotion

In the Life for Leaders devotions from Saturday and Sunday, I have been reflecting with you on Jesus’s parable about wine and wineskins. On Saturday I suggested that the new wine of the gospel challenges us in our own lives to be open to the new wineskins God might have for us, even through this requires giving up our familiar old wineskins. Yesterday, I shared a story of how this passage from Luke challenged me to give up old wineskins in order to accept the new ones God had for me. I talked about how necessary it is to trust God if we’re going to adopt his new wineskins.

Today, I’d like to reflect on how the teaching of Jesus about wine and wineskins relates to the challenge of leadership. Using Jesus’s imagery, we might say that visionary leaders bring new wine in need of new wineskins in their organizations. We who lead generally believe that our new vision is good news. It offers new ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and being. It proposes new ways of being in community together, whether in a workplace, a city, or a church. It conveys the promise of flourishing in ways we have not experienced before.

Yet the good news of a new vision from a leader isn’t the whole story. As Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky write in Leadership on the Line, “ If leadership were about giving people good news, the job would be easy” (p. 11). The news we bring may be good from our perspective, but not necessarily from those who are hearing this news. As Heifetz and Linsky observe, “You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and gain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain” (p. 12).

There’s one of the biggest challenges for any leader: I’m talking about “the losses” you are asking your people to sustain. The reality of new wine requires giving up of old wineskins, wineskins that are familiar, comfortable, traditional, perhaps even profitable and beloved. Human beings don’t like giving up such things. As Heifetz and Linsky write, “People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss” (p. 11). To use the language of Jesus, people are not necessarily resistant to new wine or even to new wineskins. They resist losing old wineskins and even prefer old wine. As Jesus said, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good’” (5:39).

One of the greatest leadership challenges I faced in life happened when I became senior pastor of a church in Southern California. The church I inherited had a marvelous tradition of beautiful, classical, traditional, thoughtful, choir-led worship. Many church members loved the way we worshiped and were strongly committed to preserving our forms of worship. Yet, I discovered, many others in the church found our worship to be overly intellectual, staid, too traditional, and too structured. They longed for more contemporary forms and more spontaneity.

I believed that the new wine of the gospel would require new forms of worship. But I also believed that faithfulness to the gospel meant nurturing our unity as a church and respecting the worship life of the community. I spent several years trying to help my church adopt new wineskins, grieve necessary losses, embrace traditions worth maintaining, all the while loving each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. I had some successes and some failures. But I know God was helping me lead my people through loss and change so that we might be an effective conduit of the gospel.

Whether you lead a church or a business, a school or a city, a factory or a family, a studio or a store, effective leadership in today’s world means change leadership. In a time of major global upheaval and societal disruption, change is required, now more than ever. It is necessary for surviving, not to mention thriving. Thus, our leadership will be inspired by the “new wine” and will help our people create and embrace the “new wineskins.” But wise change leadership will also acknowledge the reality of loss, helping our people grieve their “old wineskins” so they might be prepared to embrace the new thing God is doing among them.

Reflect

Do you agree with Heifetz and Linsky in their statement: “People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss”?

Can you personally relate to what Heifetz and Linsky have written here?

How can leaders help their people both grieve losses and embrace innovation?

Act

If you’re not familiar with the leadership writings of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, you might start with this helpful summary from Harvard Business Review: “A Survival Guide for Leaders.” For the application of Heifetz and Linsky’s leadership model to churches, be sure to read Tod Bolsinger’s book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. Also, you might wish to pre-order a book by Scott Cormode of the De Pree Center. The Innovative Church: How Leaders and their Congregations Can Adapt in an Ever-Changing World will be out in September 2020.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for giving us the chance to share in your work in the world through our leadership. Thank you for helping us to lead effectively, with wisdom, justice, and love.

Help us, we pray, in the effort to lead change. We understand that people are attached to what is familiar, that they are not eager to change. Give us wisdom to help our people grieve. Give them the courage to embrace the “new wineskins” of change. May our organizations flourish by your grace and for your purposes. Amen.


Part 36: An Unexpected Lord

Scripture – Luke 6:1-5 (NRSV)

One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Focus

From the earliest days of Christianity, followers of Jesus have claimed that he is Lord. This claim not only recognizes the deity of Jesus, but also acknowledges his rightful authority over our lives. We live under the gracious, merciful, wise, and just lordship of Jesus Christ. In all we do and all we say, in every time and place, we proclaim the Jesus is Lord.

Devotion

Luke 6 begins with two stories about Jesus and the Sabbath. If we’re going to get the full impact of these stories, we need to remember just how important the Sabbath was to the Jewish people. Established by God in creation (Genesis 2:1-3) and affirmed in the Ten Commandments as something essential for right living (Exodus 20:8-11), the Sabbath was central to Jewish life and faith. Setting aside a day of week for rest, not work, also set the Jews apart from all others in the ancient world. Sabbath keeping, therefore, became a fundamental marker of Jewish identity.

The basic rule of Sabbath keeping was that all ordinary work, except work required to sustain or defend life, was to cease on the Sabbath day. Jewish teachers and scholars, not satisfied with basic guidance, worked hard to define with precision exactly what honoring the Sabbath required, what one could do and what one could not do. In their view, any faithful Jew must follow the specific rules they developed.

These rules stipulated that it was wrong to harvest grain or prepare food on the Sabbath. But the disciples of Jesus “plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them” (Luke 6:1). According to the legal interpretations developed by the Pharisees, the disciples had done “what is not lawful on the Sabbath” (Luke 6:2). They asked Jesus to account for the Sabbath-breaking behavior of his followers.

Jesus responded by pointing to a story in 1 Samuel 21:3-6 in which David and his companions ate special bread that was reserved for the priests according to Leviticus 24:5-9. So, on the surface, David and his entourage broke the law. But, in Jesus’s view, their behavior was acceptable because, in this particular case, human need took precedence over strict application of the law. By implication, the hunger of Jesus’s disciples made their act of plucking and eating a few grains okay, even though it violated the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Sabbath law.

At this point, the Pharisees might well have thought to themselves, “Who is this man to school us about the meaning of God’s law? We are the experts. This is an unlearned commoner.” But Jesus explained his authority in a way that was even more shocking than his view of the Sabbath. He said, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” (Luke 6:5). “Son of Man” was a Jewish title Jesus used frequently in relationship to himself. We’ll examine the meaning of this title later in this series. In the present context, we need to understand that Jesus was saying, in effect: “I am the lord of the Sabbath. I am the one who has the authority to interpret the Sabbath law. I am the one who gets to determine the rightful purpose and practice of the Sabbath.”

Once again we are confronted with the unexpected authority of Jesus, now in relationship both to biblical interpretation and to the Sabbath. Later, I’ll have more to say about the Sabbath. Today, I want to end with some simple questions having to do with the authority of Jesus in your life.

Reflect

Does Jesus function as Lord over your life? If so, in what ways is this true?

Do you ever think of Jesus as the one with authority to interpret the Bible today?

How might Jesus help you to as you seek to understand and live in obedience to Scripture?

Act

If there is a passage of Scripture that you find difficult to understand or to put into practice, ask Jesus to help you with this. His Spirit is present with you to guide your thinking and behavior. Seek his guidance.

Pray

Jesus, you are indeed the Lord. You are Lord over the Sabbath. You are Lord over the interpretation of Scripture. You are Lord over heaven and earth. And you are Lord over my life. Today, I offer myself to you: my commitment, my obedience. Teach me your ways. Lead me into your truth. Help me to know how to follow you faithfully each day in all that I do. Amen.


Part 37: Is Jesus the Lord of Your Sabbath?

Scripture – Luke 6:1-5 (NRSV) 

One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Focus

God has designed you for work and rest. God has given to all of us – including you – the gift of Sabbath, a day for refreshment and renewal. Jesus claims to be Lord of the Sabbath, and this means he is Lord over your Sabbath. He wants you to experience renewing rest. He is glad to help you discover what this means in your life.

Devotion

Yesterday, I began looking at Luke 6:1-5, a story about the Sabbath and the authority of Jesus. That story ended with Jesus making a shocking claim: “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” (Luke 6:5). Jesus, adopting the Jewish title “Son of Man” for himself, claimed to have primary authority over the Sabbath, that is, over the day of weekly rest. He had the right to determine the purpose of the Sabbath and to stipulate what kinds of behavior were appropriate and inappropriate on the Sabbath.

Some Christians believe that Jesus abolished the Sabbath. This is certainly a misreading of Jesus’s actions and teaching with regard to the weekly day of rest. Though he rejected many of the legalisms of the Pharisees with respect to Sabbath observance, Jesus did not abolish God’s intentions that humankind should set aside one day a week for rest. Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath, not its destroyer. In the Gospel of Mark, he made it clear that “the sabbath was made for humankind” (Mark 2:27). In other words, God created the Sabbath for our benefit. It is a gift for us, an opportunity for rest, refreshment, and renewal. The Sabbath is a time for us to refocus on God and God’s purposes, as well as to enjoy God’s many blessings. Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, will help us learn to delight in this special day (Isaiah 58:13).

Jesus claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath. So I have question for you: Is Jesus the Lord of your Sabbath? I could ask more broadly: Is Jesus the Lord of how you spend your time? But I’m wondering especially about whether you have built into your life God-designed times of regular rest?

The boots of two people sitting and looking out over the SierraThroughout the centuries Christians have differed about what it means to honor the Sabbath. Some argue for a complete day of rest. Others allow for partial days. Some believe that rest should happen on the seventh day of the week (Saturday). Others support Sunday as the best time for rest and celebration of Jesus’s resurrection. There have been seemingly endless debates about what Christians should do and not do on the Sabbath. I am amused by the fact that some Christians have argued that the Sabbath was only for the worship of God, and therefore a Christian should not take a nap on the Lord’s Day. Somewhere along the line they seemed to have missed the part about rest.

I expect followers of Jesus will always differ on the details when it comes to the Sabbath. But what concerns me today is how common it is for followers of Jesus to have no interest in or commitment to a regular rhythm of work and rest. For many of us, every day of the week is equally a day of work. Or, if we take a break from paid work, we fill our time with a flurry of activities. Many Christians have very little experience of anything that might be called Sabbath.

If this hits home for you, let me say that I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. From my own experience, I know how hard it can be to make time for regular rest. My point isn’t to make you feel bad, but rather to remind you that God has designed you for work and rest. God has given to all of us – including you – the gift of Sabbath. Jesus claims to be Lord, not only over the Sabbath, but also over your Sabbath. He wants you to experience renewing rest and he is glad to help you discover what this means in your life.

Reflect

As you think about your life past and present, what experience do you have with intentional Sabbath observance?

Do you set aside time each week for rest? If so, why? If not, why not?

What would it take for you to let Jesus be the Lord over your Sabbath observance?

Act

Talk with your small group or with a wise friend about your experiences of Sabbath. Come up with specific practices that you want to build into your life. Find ways to support each other as you seek to experience the gift of Sabbath.

Pray

Jesus, you are indeed the Lord of the Sabbath. And this means you are also rightly the Lord over my Sabbath. Teach me what the Sabbath means for my life. May I seek your guidance for how I might experience a regular rhythm of work and rest. May I find others who can walk with me on this path of discovery. Help me, Lord, to receive your gift of Sabbath with delight. Amen.


Part 38: The Purpose of the Sabbath

Scripture – Luke 6:6-10 (NRSV)

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored.

Focus

The fact that Jesus healed on the Sabbath gives us freedom to consider how we might engage in the ministry of healing in our own context. Our works of healing might certainly include praying for the sick, so that they might be well. But our works of healing might also include loving children as a Sunday School teacher, feeding folks who struggle with hunger and homelessness, joining a public gathering to pray for justice in our land, or reaching out to foster reconciliation in a broken relationship. Yes, the Sabbath is meant for rest. But it is also a day for restoration, restoration we receive and restoration to which we contribute.

Devotion

Luke 6 opens with a story about Jesus and the Sabbath. In response to a query from the Pharisees, Jesus claims to be “lord of the sabbath” (Luke 6:5). He has the authority to determine what is appropriate behavior on the seventh day of rest.

The next passage in Luke 6 relates another encounter between Jesus and the scribes and the Pharisees in which the Sabbath is the main theme. In this episode, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when he became aware of a man who had a withered hand. The Jewish authorities watched Jesus closely because, if he healed the man on the sabbath, then Jesus would be breaking the sabbath law as they understood it. Healing, after all, was a kind of work.

Jesus, who knew what the leaders were thinking, invited the man with the withered hand to come forward. Before healing him, Jesus said his adversaries, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or destroy it” (Luke 6:9).  Jesus knew that the Pharisees would allow good to be done only in a life or death situation. Healing a man’s hand wouldn’t be such a necessity. Yet, in the way Jesus framed the question, the choice was to do good or harm, to save life or to destroy life. So the Pharisees were silent. In fact, they were also furious (Luke 6:11).

When the Jewish leaders failed to respond, Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” As he did, his hand was “restored” (Luke 6:10). For Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, the “work” of healing was appropriate on the Sabbath, even when the situation was not life or death. Restoration is central to the day of rest, whether it’s the restoration of soul that comes through quiet reflection, the restoration of body that comes through rest, or the restoration of brokenness that comes through healing.

For those of us who are inclined to be restless doers, this story from Luke could be a bit dangerous. It might suggest to us that we fill up our Sabbath with so many good works that we end up more exhausted than when the Sabbath began. Surely this would not be what Jesus has in mind for us. Yet, the fact that Jesus healed on the Sabbath gives us freedom to consider how we might engage in the ministry of healing in our own context. Our works of healing might certainly include praying for the sick, so that they might be well. But our works of healing might also include loving children as a Sunday School teacher, feeding folks who struggle with hunger and homelessness, joining a public gathering to pray for justice in our land, or reaching out to foster reconciliation in a broken relationship. Yes, the Sabbath is meant for rest. But it is also a day for restoration, restoration we receive and restoration to which we contribute.

Reflect

How do you respond to the story in Luke 6:6-11?

In what ways do you do good on the Sabbath?

How might you be an instrument of God’s healing in your part of the world?

Act

As you approach your next day of rest, ask the Lord if there is anything he would like you to do, any good work or acts of healing he has for you. If something comes to mind as you pray, make plans to do it.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for being the one who heals us. Thank you for making your priorities clear. Thank you for your compassion and power. Thank you for healing the man with the withered hand, even on the Sabbath.

Help me, Lord, to know how I can honor you as I honor the Sabbath. Teach me to stop working and to rest. But, I pray, help me also to know when I need to join you in your work of healing. May I be a channel of your restoration in the part of the world to which you have sent me. Amen.


Part 39: The Extraordinary Value of Wholeness

Scripture – Luke 8:32-33 (NRSV)

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

Focus

Jesus wants you to be whole. Yes, the cost of becoming whole is great, more than you could ever afford. But Jesus paid the price, giving up his life so that you might be healed from all the brokenness in your life. What good news!

Devotion

Today’s Life for Leaders devotion comes from one of the more curious and unsettling stories in the Gospels. The story begins after a scary boat trip from the western side of the Sea of Galilee to the eastern side. This trip, as you may recall, involved Jesus sleeping soundly during a giant storm. Then, having been roused by his disciples, Jesus commanded the storm to stop and it did, much to the puzzled wonder of the disciples.

When Jesus and his retinue arrived on the eastern side of the Sea, they encountered a man tormented by demons. Jesus commanded the spirit to leave the man, but it put up a fight, begging not to be sent to the abyss. Rather, they asked to enter a nearby herd of pigs. Then Jesus did a most surprising thing. Appearing to accept the demons’ appeal – there turned out to be many demons who had possessed the man – Jesus gave the demons permission to enter the pigs. When they did this, however, the herd rushed down into the Sea of Galilee and drowned.

Now, when the people of that area heard what happened, they were none too happy. After all, Jesus had been responsible for the death of a herd of pigs, thus depriving people both of food and their livelihood. It’s no surprise that they asked Jesus to leave, especially given his peculiar engagement with evil spirits.

When I was younger, this story disturbed me. I was happy enough that Jesus delivered a man from demonic bondage, but I just couldn’t understand why he let the demons enter the herd of pigs. When telling this story, the Gospel of Mark mentions that 2,000 pigs had been killed. This seemed terribly unfair to the owner of the herd. I fretted about why Jesus did such an odd and apparently unkind thing.

I don’t think we can know exactly what motivated Jesus to let the demons enter the herd of pigs. Speculations about Jesus’s intentions cannot be verified in this case since the Gospels do not tell us why Jesus acted as he did. But one thing is sure: Jesus valued the wholeness of the demonized man so much that he was willing to put 2,000 pigs at risk. Jesus appeared to be willing to sacrifice the herd so that a man might be set free from his bondage and live as a free man.

This unusual story in Luke 8 reaffirms what we see throughout the Gospel. Jesus is deeply committed to the wholeness of people, not just physical wholeness, but complete wholeness in body, soul, mind, and relationships. Apparently, no cost is too great for a broken person to be made whole. Indeed, Jesus will ultimately give up his own life so that you and I might be made whole.

What is the cost of wholeness? It’s exorbitant. What’s the value of wholeness? It’s inestimable.

Reflect

How do you respond to the actions of Jesus in this story?

How have you experienced freedom and wholeness through Jesus?

Is there anything in your life from which you need to be set free today?

Act

Take some time to thank the Lord for all the ways he has healed you, making you whole.

You might also want to consider being in the Road Ahead program. I talked about this in yesterday’s devotion. I’m featuring it in Life for Leaders this week because we’re in the time of year when people are applying to be in the Road Ahead. If you want to learn more, check out this webpage.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I still don’t understand exactly why you let those demons enter the herd of pigs. I’ve read all sorts of explanations, but I’m not convinced that anybody has you figured out. Of course I don’t need to know why you did what you did. But I am curious, I must confess, and a bit perplexed.

So much more importantly, though, I recognize how much you valued the wholeness of the demonized man. Your focus was not upon demons or pigs, but upon this man and his potential for a full, flourishing life. Thank you for setting him free, for valuing him and his wholeness as much as you did.

Beyond this, Lord, I thank you for caring so much about my wholeness that you gave up your life for me. What an amazing gift! What amazing grace! Please help me to be open to all the ways you are still at work helping me to be whole. Amen.


Part 40: The Extraordinary Value of Wholeness, Part 2

Scripture – Luke 8:47-48 (NRSV)

When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

Focus

Jesus came to bring wholeness to broken people, and even to a broken world. His salvation is not merely about physical healing or even life after death. It’s a matter of pervasive restoration. For individuals, it includes the healing of bodies, minds, hearts, and relationships. For the world, the wholeness of Jesus involves justice for the oppressed and peace for the creation.

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion we saw just how much Jesus valued the wholeness of man who had been broken by demonic possession. Today, we see another dimension of Jesus’s commitment to human wholeness.

When Jesus returned to the western side of the Sea of Galilee, a synagogue leader prevailed upon him to come to his house and heal his daughter. On the way there, a woman with a terrible physical ailment sneaked up behind Jesus in a crowd and touched his clothing. Immediately she was healed. But Jesus, sensing that something powerful had just happened, stopped so that the woman was forced to reveal herself to Jesus and the crowd. She explained why she had touched him and how she had been healed. Jesus responded, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” (Luke 8:48).

This story illustrates, as do many in Luke, that Jesus had the power to make people physically whole. In fact, it appears that he could heal without even knowing he was doing it! But, as amazing as this is, we learn more about Jesus’s commitment to wholeness from what happened after the healing miracle.

At first glance, Jesus’s behavior in this story might seem odd, even unkind. By making the woman reveal herself, he implicitly required her to openly admit what her problem had been. This required her to share intimate details of her life. But, even more, it meant that she had to admit to having been ceremonially unclean. Moreover, by touching Jesus as she had done, the woman compromised his ritual purity. This was a shocking thing in the culture of Jesus, something the crowd would have despised.

Yet Jesus didn’t leave the woman in her shame. First of all, he addressed her as “Daughter,” underscoring that she was a true member of the family of God (Luke 8:48). Second, he said, “your faith has made you well.” The verb translated here as “made you well” is actually the Greek verb rendered elsewhere as “to save” (sozo). In this context, it might well be translated as it is in The Message, “Now you’re healed and whole.”

By calling this woman out as Jesus did and by speaking to her as he did, Jesus granted her wholeness beyond mere physical healing. Her previous condition had cut her off from close relationships in her community. Her ritual impurity required a first-century version of social distancing. But once she was physically healed, she was eligible to be restored in a communal sense. Yet, for this to happen, a person in authority needed to vouch for her healing. That’s exactly what Jesus did.

This story is a moving illustration of the fact that Jesus is not concerned only about our physical wholeness. In fact, he’s not concerned only about our life beyond death. Rather, Jesus is committed to helping us become fully whole. And our own personal wholeness is not even the end of it. Jesus has come to bring wholeness to a broken creation, to unite all that has been shattered because of sin (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 1:9-10). Thus, the wholeness of Jesus includes justice for the oppressed and peace for the creation. We are blessed to be able to experience a measure of that wholeness in this age, even as we look forward to the complete wholeness of the age to come.

Reflect

Have you ever experienced the healing power of Jesus? If so, when? What happened?

How do you respond to the story in Luke 8:43-48? What thoughts does this story stir up in you? What feelings?

Who are some of the people in our day who are like the woman in this story, people in need of multiple facets of healing?

Act

Talk with your small group or a wise friend about how you might imitate the example of Jesus in your life. How might you bring wholeness to others?

If you’re wishing you had greater clarity about God’s callings in your life, you might want to consider our Road Ahead cohorts. You can learn more here.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I’m so glad Luke included this story in his Gospel. It is such a profound and moving account of your compassion and your commitment to wholeness.

Thank you, Lord, for not allowing the women to hide in the crowd. Though calling her out forced her to be vulnerable, it also allowed her to be made whole, not just physically, but also in relationship to her community.

Thank you, Jesus, for the ways you have brought wholeness to my life. Yet there is more to be done, as you know. So I ask you to heal me, to set me free from all that binds me, so that I might experience even more the wholeness of the age to come. Amen.


Part 41: How Can You Proclaim the Kingdom of God?

Scripture – Luke 9:1-2 (NRSV)

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.

Focus

Jesus has sent us out to proclaim the kingdom of God. We have the responsibility and privilege of inviting people to live under God’s authority in every part of life. As we proclaim this message, we live it, acknowledging God’s reign over all of our life.

Devotion

In the beginning of Luke 9, Jesus sent out twelve of his disciples in order to extend his ministry throughout Galilee. He gave them power like his own, so that they could heal and cast out demons. He instructed them “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2).

Those of us who follow Jesus today have a similar mandate. We have been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit so that we also might “proclaim the kingdom of God” and “heal.” In today’s devotion, I want to talk about how we proclaim the kingdom. On Monday I’ll consider how we can heal.

What does it mean to proclaim the kingdom of God? In this devotion, I have space to summarize a few main points. You can find more in-depth analysis in an article I have written, “Jesus and the Kingdom of God: What You Need to Know.”  To begin, it’s important to note that the kingdom of God is not the same as heaven, nor is it equal to the Church, nor is it a physical place. It’s also not an interior state of mind, though the kingdom of God surely touches us our minds and hearts. In the preaching of Jesus, the kingdom of God is God’s reign, God’s rule, God’s authority over heaven and earth. When Jesus said that the kingdom of God has come near, he meant that God was coming to rule over all things. We see this in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, when Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come. They will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s kingdom is God’s will being done, whether in heaven or on earth.

In a curious way, Jesus proclaimed that kingdom of God as something that was coming in the future and as something that was present in his ministry. This has perplexed scholars and others who need a simpler version of the kingdom. But the “already and not yet” dimension of the kingdom of God was essential to the proclamation of Jesus. One who followed him began to experience God’s reign right away. Yet this experience was incomplete. The fulness of the kingdom of God was yet to come.

For a variety of historical reasons, Christians have often avoided the language of the kingdom of God. Mainly, I think, we have not understood it. But we have preferred to use similar language that covers almost the same bases. When we speak of the Lordship of Christ, we’re saying something virtually equivalent to the kingdom of God. We proclaiming the authority of Christ over all things, something we can experience now in part, something we will experience fully in God’s future.

So then, how can you and I proclaim the kingdom of God? Whether we use the language of God’s reign or Christ’s Lordship, we proclaim the kingdom when we acknowledge God as ruler over all. We proclaim the kingdom when we call people to live under God’s reign each day. We proclaim the kingdom when we uphold God’s justice and seek to have his righteousness pervade our world. We proclaim the kingdom in actions when we honor God’s authority over every part of our lives, our work, our relationships, our civic engagement, our use of money, and you name it.

So much more could be said about this, of course. I’ve actually written a lot more in the article I referenced above. The point I want to emphasize here is that proclaiming the kingdom of God isn’t only about going to heaven or being a good person. It’s about bringing everything in life – everything in the world – under the reign of God. Or, to paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 6, proclaiming the kingdom of God is calling people, including ourselves, to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). And it’s showing how God, by his grace in Jesus, has opened up a way for us to live under his reign.

Reflect

When you hear the phrase “the kingdom of God,” what comes to mind for you?

Did my explanation of the kingdom of God make sense to you? Or did it seem strange, unlike what you have heard before?

To what extent do you seek to live your whole life under God’s reign?

Act

If what I’ve said about the kingdom of God is new to you, let me encourage you to read the online article I’ve written, “Jesus and the Kingdom of God: What You Need to Know.”

Once again, I want to encourage you to check out our Road Ahead initiative if you’re in a transitional time in your life and work.

Pray

Lord Jesus, even as you once sent out your first disciples to preach the good news of the kingdom of God, so you have sent us. Help us, Lord, to understand your kingdom, to proclaim it, to live it. May we bring every facet of our lives under your authority. May we seek first your kingdom and righteousness in all that we do and say. To you be the glory! Amen.


Part 42: What Jesus’s Miracles Reveal

Scripture – Luke 9:16-17 (NRSV)

And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

Focus

The miracles of Jesus reveal him to be a person who cares about the well-being of people. He seeks to make people whole in heart, soul, mind, and strength. His miracles also reveal his extraordinary power as one who is able to exercise the very power of God. But when Jesus does that which God alone can do, this tells us something more . . . much more about Jesus.

Devotion

Jesus often did extraordinary things, things beyond the ability of ordinary mortals. Even those who did not acknowledge his messianic identity knew that Jesus was something special. Ancient Jewish rabbis, for example, accused Jewish of doing “magic” or practicing “sorcery.” His amazing works revealed that he was either a trickster or someone who wielded demonic power.

Those of us who acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah see his actions from a different perspective. Consider, for example, the story in Luke 9:12-17. Jesus had been teaching a crowd of over 5,000 people. As evening approached, his disciples told Jesus to send the people away so they could get something to eat. But Jesus told the disciples to give the people something to eat. Unfortunately, they were short on rations. “We have no more than five loaves and two fish – unless we are to go and buy food for all these people” (Luke 9:13).

I wonder if the disciples expected Jesus to say, “Oh, that won’t work. That’s way too much food. Let’s send them away.” Instead, he did a puzzling thing, instructing his disciples to organize the people into groups of about fifty. Then, blessing the five loaves and two fish, he broke them and gave them to the disciples to pass out to the crowd. Yet Jesus didn’t run out in a minute or so. As he broke the food, it kept multiplying. After everyone had eaten, they gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers. Amazing!

Don’t you wish you could have seen all of that with your own eyes?! I know I do. If nothing else, it revealed that Jesus had awesome superpowers. Yet there is something else. At least two “somethings” actually.

First, we see here Jesus’s concern for the physical well-being of people. This is consistent, of course, with his regularly healing people. Jesus wanted them to be physically well and, as we see in this story, well-fed. Surely Jesus cared about the souls of people. But he wasn’t concerned only for the immaterial. As the Incarnation of the God who created the physical world good, Jesus valued the world and especially its people.

Second, let me encourage you to put yourself in the place of the Jewish people who had gathered to listen to Jesus. There you were, out in a “deserted place” (Luke 9:12). The Greek word translated as “deserted place” is often rendered as “wilderness.” So, you’re out in the wilderness and very hungry. All of a sudden, Jesus produces food for you to eat in a most exceptional way. What might this remind you of? It’s likely that you would have remembered a time when your Jewish ancestors were in the wilderness and God fed them miraculously, in that case, with manna (see Exodus 16). If you were to reflect on this, you would surely have wondered what it said about Jesus. You considered him an inspired teacher, a prophet, a miracle worker, perhaps even the Messiah. But if Jesus miraculously fed you and the rest of the crowd in the wilderness, could it be that he was more than all of these?

The miracles of Jesus reveal him to be a person who cares about the well-being of people. He seeks to make people whole in heart, soul, mind, and strength. His miracles also reveal his extraordinary power as one who is able to exercise the very power of God. But when Jesus does that which God alone can do, this tells us something more . . . much more about Jesus.

Reflect

When you read this story of Jesus feeding the multitude, how do you respond? Are you curious? Perplexed? Impressed? Or????

Have you ever experienced something you would classify as a miracle? (I mean a supernatural act, not something like the “miracle” of childbirth, though this is surely a miracle of another kind.) What happened? Why do you think it was an unusual and miraculous work of God?

Why does it matter that Jesus was more than a human messiah, prophet, and healer? Why does it matter that he was God in human flesh?

Act

As you go about your work this week, pay attention to the full humanity of your colleagues. See if there is something you can do to care for those with whom you work in a tangible way.

Pray

Lord Jesus, sometimes when I read a story like this one in Luke 9, I am underwhelmed. I’m sorry to admit it. But this story is so familiar to me. How I wish I could experience it as if for the first time . . . as if I were actually there! Restore my wonder, Lord!

Thank you for caring for whole people, for our bodies as well as our souls, for our minds as well as our hearts, for our relationships as well as what’s inside of us. Thank you, Lord, for caring for all that I am, for wanting me to be whole. Help me, I pray, to care for others in a similar way.

Today, Lord, I am reminded that you are more than an amazing man. You are God in the flesh, God with us, Immanuel. Thank you for revealing yourself to us in actions that are both miraculous and compassionate. Thank you for showing us that God is not only powerful, but also loving. Amen.


Part 43: When Jesus Sends You Out on a Limb

Scripture – Luke 9:14-15 (NRSV)

For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” They did so and made them all sit down.

Focus

Sometimes Jesus asks us to do things that are risky, things that won’t be accomplished apart from supernatural help. In such times we might hold back, not wanting to look foolish. Or we can go out on a limb, stepping out in bold faith. Is Jesus asking you to do something today that requires his help? If so, are you willing to do it?

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion we considered what the story of Jesus’s miraculous feeding on the crowd says about Jesus. Today, I want to reflect a bit more on this story, focusing on what it says about us in our relationship with Jesus.

You’ll recall the setup. Jesus had been teaching a large crowd of several thousand people. When evening came, the disciples urged Jesus to send them away so they could get dinner. Jesus responded by telling the disciples to feed them. But they told Jesus they didn’t have nearly enough food. In fact, they had just about exactly two “take out” dinners (or “to go,” “take away,” or “carry out,” depending on where you live).

What did Jesus do with this information? Well, for one thing he did not explain to his disciples what he was planning. Rather, he told them to get the people to sit down in groups of fifty, as if they were about to be fed.

Now, if you’re familiar with this story and how it ends you might miss the tension of this scene. Put yourselves into the story for a moment. You’re a disciple of Jesus. You’re also a sensible person and you know that you can’t serve thousands with two fish and five loaves of bread. Yet Jesus seems to believe there will be plenty of food. Moreover, he wants you to act as if this is true. He wants you to go out on a limb by acting as if food is coming. He expects you to put your reputation on the line.

One thing you know for sure. This is going to turn out badly unless Jesus does something amazing. There is no other happy ending to this story. You have seen Jesus do miracles before. Yet it’s one thing to have seen them in the past and still another thing to trust him for the next one, a big one at that. So you have a choice. You can be safe and pass on the “seating people for dinner” activity. Or you can go out on that limb, trusting Jesus for a miracle.

What would you do?

I’ll be honest with you. I’m not sure what I would do. I would surely be of two minds in the moment. Part of me would be thinking, “Hey, no way! I don’t want to look foolish.” And another part of me would think, “Well, Jesus has done amazing things in the past. He’s getting ready to do it again.” As I reflect on my past relationship with Jesus, I can remember times when I took the safe path. And I can think of times when I sensed Jesus calling me to something risky and, trusting him, I stepped out in faith and did what I believed he wanted me to do.

In the story in Luke 9, things turn out marvelously. Jesus produces a prodigious feast from a couple of box lunches. The disciples not only get to serve as hosts, but also they are first-hand witnesses to an extraordinary miracle. All good!

But, in my experience, sometimes things don’t turn out as we would hope, even when we attempt to go out on a limb for Jesus. In tomorrow’s devotion I reflect a bit further about why this is. For now, however, I’d like you to consider whether Jesus is calling you to something the requires risk-taking faith. It may be in your work or your personal life, in your family, neighborhood, or church. Perhaps you already know exactly what this is. Perhaps you need to wait upon the Lord for additional guidance. Or perhaps, at this moment, you are doing everything you need to be doing in obedience to the Lord. Let the following questions help you discern the call of Jesus in this moment.

Reflect

Can you think of a time in your life when you went out on a limb in obedience to Jesus? Why did you do this? What happened?

Do you sense that Jesus is calling you to something new today, something risky, something that will require his miraculous help? If so, what is it? What are your thoughts and feelings about this? If you are holding back, why?

Are you willing to ask the Lord if there is something he would like you to do that you’re not currently doing?

Act

If you are sensing strongly that Jesus wants you to do something, then let me encourage you to do it. If you aren’t sure, then ask the Lord for guidance.

Pray

Lord Jesus, first, I want to thank you for involving me in your work. It’s an extraordinary privilege to be one of your disciples in this day. It’s a wonder that you want to use me for your kingdom purposes. Thank you!

Yet, Lord, you know it isn’t always easy for me. Sometimes I sense your guidance but hold back. I can be fearful and hesitant. After all, I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to look foolish. Help me to trust you enough to go out on a limb when that’s what you call me to do.

Remind me, Lord, of your faithfulness in the past. Help me to remember your goodness and grace. Help me to trust you even when I am hesitant. Today, I offer to you all that I am. Use me for your purposes. May I even be willing to be a fool for you! Amen.


Part 44: Why Taking Risks for Jesus is Tricky

Scripture – Luke 9:14-15 (NRSV)

For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” They did so and made them all sit down.

Focus

Like he did with his first disciples, Jesus calls us to take risks for his sake. This can be tricky, in part because we can fail to discern Jesus’s guidance correctly. But going out on a limb for Jesus is also tricky because sometimes things don’t work out as we had hoped. Yet Jesus is honored when we say “yes” to him. And, no matter what happens, he is able to redeem, to heal, and to prepare us for what comes next.

Devotion

This week I have been reflecting on a story from Luke 9, in which Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of thousands from just a couple of box lunches. In yesterday’s devotion we saw that Jesus asked his disciples to do something risky, something that might even have seemed foolish to them, so that he might work an impressive miracle. We wondered if Jesus is asking us to do something similar, something that requires bold faith as we trust Jesus to act through us.

Stepping out in obedience to Jesus is sometimes tricky. I’m not talking about the trickiness of trusting Jesus. Rather, I’m thinking about different kinds of trickiness that can hold me back in my obedience.

The first trickiness can actually be a reflection of godly humility and wisdom. I’m thinking of times when it seems as if Jesus is calling me to do something risky, but I’m not sure I have rightly discerned his guidance. I am all too aware of my own tendency to project onto Jesus my “stuff” – my desires, my ambition, my hopes. Just because I think Jesus wants me to do something does not mean I have rightly discerned his will. So my reticence to step out can be wise, pointing me to an extended season of spiritual discernment. It’s time for me to wait upon the Lord, to “get neutral” as my friend Terry Looper says, to seek counsel from wise brothers and sisters, to surrender my desires and agendas to the Lord. Of course—let me be clear—I can also rationalize my own reticence when I know clearly what the Lord wants me to do. So, again, discernment in a community is desperately needed here.

The second trickiness has to do with what happens when we step out in faith in response to the call of Jesus. Sometimes, as in the case of the miraculous feeding in Luke 9, things go swimmingly, just as we had hoped. But there are other times, times when we take risks for Jesus and things do not work out well—at least it seems to us that they haven’t. I think, for example, of a pastor friend who responded a few years ago to what he perceived to be God’s call to a new church. He truly sought God’s guidance and acted in obedience, moving his family, settling in a new community, and so forth. At first things seemed to confirm his willingness to go out on a limb for Jesus. But then, for lots of reasons, the limb started shaking. Before long, the limb was cut off. My friend wonders what happened? If he was obeying Christ’s guidance, why did things go poorly? Did he get it wrong at the beginning? Or are there times when, even if we act in faithfulness, things don’t work in a way that seems good to us?

If you put Trickiness #1 and Trickiness #2 together, you may appear to have good reason for not going out on a limb for Jesus. Isn’t it better to play it safe? I like safety as much as the next person, perhaps even more. But I know that Jesus calls us beyond our safety zone, into the realm of faithful and risky obedience. After all, consider his own life and ministry. It was anything but safe.

Moreover, when we truly step out in obedience to Jesus, he is honored. He knows the intentions of our hearts. He sees our desire to honor him and is honored. Our risky obedience is true worship. It’s an expression of genuine worship to our Lord.

Furthermore, I am convinced that if we don’t get it right, either in discernment or action, Jesus isn’t stuck. His promise of abundant life remains (John 10:10). Jesus is the human embodiment of the God who works in all things for good (Romans 8:28). So, when we go out on a limb for Jesus, sometimes the limb will be solid and, in time, abundantly fruitful. At other times we’ll fall off or the limb will be cut off. But in these times God is still with us. God is redeeming our mistakes, forgiving our sins, healing our wounds, removing our shame, teaching us lessons, and preparing us for what comes next.

Reflect

Do you find yourself in a place of uncertainty with regard to some aspect of the calling of Jesus upon your life? If so, what are you doing with this uncertainty?

When you need additional clarity about God’s will for your life, what do you do?

Have there been times in your life when you have stepped out in obedience to Jesus, yet things have not gone as you expected them to? What did you do in response to this disappointment?

Are you doing something in your life right now that is risky, and that is your response of trusting obedience to Jesus?

Act

Talk with your small group, your spiritual director, or a wise friend about how you go about discerning the call of Jesus in your life. See if there is anything you need to learn to do differently.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I am quite aware of my limitations when it comes to hearing your voice, to discerning your call. Sometimes I’m simply confused. At other times I project my desires onto you, claiming that you are guiding me when, in fact, I’m following my own wishes. Knowing this makes me hesitate when I sense that you’re calling me to something risky.

Help me, I pray, to be wise in discernment. Teach me to wait upon you. May I trust the brothers and sisters you have brought into my life to help me hear you well. And then, Lord, may I be bold in obedience.

I know that things will not always work out as I hope. This isn’t easy. It can make me hesitate. But, beyond this, I also know that you are working in all things for good. Nothing stymies you, Lord. Nothing is beyond your ability to redeem. So, help me to be bold in following you, confident in your goodness, wisdom, and grace. Amen.


Part 45: Where Did Jesus Get His Shocking Vision?

Scripture – Luke 9:21-22 (NRSV)

He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Focus

Jesus’s vision of his messianic work was truly radical, truly shocking. Rather than be victorious over Rome, he would die on a Roman cross. Where did Jesus get this vision? We don’t know all of the answers, but we do know that he brought together Old Testament prophecies pertaining to the Messiah, the Son of Man, and the Suffering Servant of God. Similarly, we will discern God’s calling in our life by letting the Scripture form our minds and hearts.

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion I suggested that what Jesus said in Luke 9:22 would have been utterly shocking to his disciples. They began to see him as the long-awaited Messiah, but imagined this role to involve military expertise and political dominance. The last thing in the world they would have expected was for Jesus, as God’s Messiah, to suffer and die.

As you consider this shocking passage from Luke, you may wonder, “Where did Jesus get this shocking vision? How did Jesus come to see his messianic mission as leading to suffering, rejection, and death?” The Gospel of Luke and the other biblical gospels don’t give us all that we would like to know in order to answer these questions. We are not told, for example, when Jesus first began to see his messianic calling as requiring his death. Luke 9:22 gives us Jesus’s first prediction of his death, but not the process by which he came to believe this.

What we can know with quite a bit of certainty is that somehow Jesus combined elements of the Old Testament in a radically new way. He took prophecies of the Messiah (such as Isaiah 61:1-4; see Luke 4:16-21), combining them with prophecies of the Son of Man (for example, Daniel 7:13-14), and then added something astonishingly creative. This astonishing piece came from the prophecies of Isaiah, especially in chapters 52 and 53. There, Isaiah prophesied about the Suffering Servant of God who “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (53:3). God’s Servant “was wounded for our transgression, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Isaiah 53:5). He “made his grave with the wicked, and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence” (Isaiah 53:9). God says through Isaiah, “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (53:11). The Suffering Servant “poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

Where did Jesus get the idea that his messianic mission required his death? From his unique combination of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, the Son of Man, and the Suffering Servant of God. We can see this from many passages in the Gospels, including Luke 9:22, where Jesus said that he, as the Son of Man, “must undergo great suffering . . . be rejected . . . and be killed.” Similarly, in Mark 10:45 Jesus said that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Like the Servant of God in Isaiah, the Son of Man dies for the sake of others, so they might live and be made whole.

In saying that Jesus came to understand his messianic mission by combining different Old Testament prophecies, I’m not suggesting that he sat down in a Galilean library with prophetic scrolls and wrote a term paper on “My Unexpected Identity.” I imagine, rather, that Jesus came to understand his calling through his intimate relationship with his Heavenly Father, a relationship that was shaped by Jesus’s participation in his local synagogue, where, throughout his life, he would have heard biblical prophecies read and reflected upon.

Though Jesus’s experience was unique in many ways, I believe that we clarify our callings in a similar way. We come to understand what God calls us to in life as we reflect deeply on the Scriptures. Like Jesus, we do this as part of the community of God’s people, joining with others for worship, Bible reading, prayer, conversation, service, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Sometimes God surprises us with a clear and dramatic revelation of his will for our lives (like Moses or Paul). More often, however, we come to understand God’s will as we are shaped by spiritual disciplines that form our souls and as we participate in fellowship with Jesus and his people.

P.S. from Mark – I realize I’ve packed a lot into this relatively short devotion. If you’d like to dig more deeply into the questions I’m working on here, you might find helpful an article I’ve written called, “The Death of Jesus: Why Was It Necessary?” Or, if you prefer, you might like to read my book, Jesus Revealed, which examines in depth the different roles of Jesus, relating them to our lives today.

Reflect

How have you come to understand God’s calling in your life?

What passages of Scripture have been particularly important to you as you figure out who you are and to what God is calling you?

Can you think of a time in your life when your participation in Christian community has helped you to clarify God’s guidance for your life?

Act

Make a list of the passages from Scripture that have been most influential in your life. Offer thanks to God for how he has spoken to you through these passages. Ask in prayer if there is more God wants to say to you through them.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I wish I knew more about your earthly life, what you experienced, thought, and felt. Someday I hope I can learn from you how you came to know what your messianic role would be.

In the meanwhile, Lord, thank you for giving me some of the resources that were helpful to you. Thank you for the Scriptures. Thank you for the community of your people. Thank you for the privilege of prayer.

Help me, Lord, to be open to you when it comes to your calling in my life. Help me to hear you speak through Scripture, through my sisters and brothers, through the inner voice of your Spirit. May I walk faithfully in the calling you have for me. Amen.


Part 46: Do You Want to Be the Richest Person in the World?

Scripture – Luke 9:24-25 (NRSV)

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?

Focus

According to recent news reports, Elon Musk is now the richest person in the world. But he seems strangely unimpressed. In fact, he’s spending half of his fortune building a city on Mars, just in case the world is destroyed. Jesus warns us about caring so much for this world that we lose ourselves in the process. Instead, we are to give ourselves to Jesus – all that we are – so that we might receive the riches of his grace and fulness of his life.

Devotion

A recent headline caught my attention: “Elon Musk becomes world’s richest person as wealth tops $185bn.” And just when I had gotten used to thinking of Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest person! As it turns out, Tesla stock value has increased dramatically in recent days, propelling Musk (founder of Tesla) ahead of Bezos (founder of Amazon). I was rather amused, maybe even impressed by Musk’s response to the news of his material prominence. When Twitter announced that Musk was now the world’s wealthiest person, he tweeted, “How strange.” Followed by, “Well, back to work . . . .”

Elon Musk is an unsual person, to say the least. Though he is wealthy beyond what any of us might imagine, he is curiously uninterested in “gaining the whole world.” In fact, he is not sure the world is going to be around for much longer. Musk is spending half of his fortune to establishing “a self-sustaining city on Mars to ensure the continuation of life (of all species) in case Earth gets hit by a meteor like the dinosaurs or WW3 happens and we destroy ourselves.”

Ironically, both Elon Musk and Jesus are less than enthusiastic about “gaining the whole world,” though in different ways. For Musk, the problem lies in the fact that the world might be destroyed someday. For Jesus, the problem with gaining the whole world is what you give up in return. Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:24-25). If we seek only for success in this world, if we desire only to save and enrich our earthly life, then we will lose our life. Even if we remain physically alive, we will lose our inner life, our eternal life.

What ought we to strive for if not for earthy life and financial gain? Jesus said those who want to follow him should “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He suggested that we must not be “ashamed” of him and his words (Luke 9:26). Rather than seeking our own benefit, we should seek instead to give our whole life to following Jesus, to being devoted to him and his teachings.

Elsewhere, Jesus urged us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). The top priority of our life should be to live intentionally each day with God as the ruler of our lives. We should seek God’s ways in all that we do, offering all we are to God and his purposes. Yes, in a sense we are giving up our lives to Jesus. But, in the process, we are receiving his life in return, abundant life, life as God intended it to be, both in this age and in the age to come.

When that happens, we become immeasurably rich, not in dollars, but in God. We have confident hope in “the riches of [God’s] glorious inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). Though we begin to experience God’s grace right now, we look forward to the time when God will “show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Elon Musk is worth only $185 billion these days. Nobody can even measure just how rich you are in Jesus Christ.

Reflect

What do you want most out of life? What are your greatest longings? hopes? Desires?

You may not want the whole world, but are there things you desire that might keep you from seeking first God’s kingdom?

In what ways have you “lost your life” for the sake of following Jesus?

How do you experience the life of Jesus today?

Act

Are there things in your life that you need to surrender to the Lord? Take some time to reflect on this. If you realize you’re holding on to some things too tightly, choose to give them to Jesus. Offer him all that you are.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I don’t want to gain anything and, in the process, lose myself. Yet, I know there are things I desire, even crave. Not wealth, though I do want to have enough to be comfortable. My longings are for things like family love, security, safety, health, meaningful work, the chance to use my gifts in service to others. None of these are bad, of course. But they can take precedence over you, Lord. Forgive me when this happens.

Help me to have things in the right order, to live with the right priorities. May I seek you and the life you offer more than anything else. May I hold loosely other things, even those I value. May I be willing to give to you all that I am, day after day, moment by moment. Help me to live under your kingdom, for your purposes and glory . . . even now. Amen.


Part 47: Did Jesus Get It Wrong?

Scripture – Luke 9:26-27 (NRSV)

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.  But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.

Focus

In Luke 9:27 Jesus said that some of those standing with him would see the kingdom of God before they died. Some people believe Jesus was simply mistaken when he said this. But they fail to realize that the kingdom of God is not only something coming gloriously in the future. It is also the reign of God present on earth in the ministry of Jesus, in his death and resurrection, and in our lives as we live under God’s authority and for God’s purposes. We can see the kingdom of God right now, even as we look forward to seeing the glorious kingdom in the future.

Devotion

In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus speaks of the coming of the Son of Man in glory (Luke 9:26). Then he adds, “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27). This is a peculiar saying of Jesus, to say the least. It seems to assert that his glorious coming, what Christians refer to as the second coming of Christ, would be something that some of those who were with him at that time would see with their own eyes before they died. This wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that we’re still awaiting the glorious second coming of Christ, and all of those who were with Jesus in this scene from Luke 9 died almost two millennia ago.

I remember worrying about this saying of Jesus when I was in high school while making my first attempt to read through the whole New Testament. My theology said Jesus wouldn’t have been mistaken in what he said, but I could not figure out how else to make sense of that episode in the gospels. Then I got to college and took a Bible class. There I learned that some scholars solved the riddle of Jesus’s curious statement by claiming that he did in fact believe his second coming was imminent. In this belief, they argued, Jesus was just plain wrong. He didn’t understand God’s timetable for his future. This was presented in class as if it were the only reasonable explanation for Luke 9:27.

That was deeply concerning to me. It didn’t fit my view of Jesus’s nature as one who was both fully God and fully human. Nor did it support my belief that Jesus always spoke the truth. Yet, what I was reading for my class seemed on the surface to be right.

Back in 1976, when I was struggling with the content of my Bible class, I started doing research into how people understood the perplexing claim of Jesus that some of those standing with him would not taste death before they saw the kingdom of God. I learned that there was no scholarly consensus about how to understand what Jesus had said. What I learned in class was one of many possible explanations. Other options included: the kingdom of God was revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus; the kingdom of God was present in the ministry of Jesus; a preliminary glimpse of the kingdom of God would be seen in the next story in Luke, the so-called Transfiguration.

Today, 45 years later, I’m not distressed by Jesus’s statement in Luke 9:27. I have not decided which explanation is the best. I’m quite sure Jesus was not mistaken in what he said, however. For him, the kingdom of God was not only something coming gloriously in the future. It was also something present in his messianic ministry (see Luke 17:21, for example). Plus it would be seen, paradoxically, in his death on the cross, followed by his resurrection (see John 12:23ff). And, as many scholars have claimed, some of those with Jesus as he spoke were also there when he was transfigured. The transfiguration revealed for a moment the future glory of Jesus and the kingdom of God (see Luke 9:28-36).

The main point I wish to make here, aside from the fact that Jesus was not mistaken, is that the kingdom of God is not one simple thing. Yes, it is God’s reign, sovereignty, and power. But the reign of God is both present and future. It is revealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which leads to the defeat of sin, death, and Satan. The kingdom of God is something we look forward to in the future, and it is something we can experience each day as we live with God as our king, or, as we often say, with Jesus as our Lord.

P.S. – If you want to learn more about Jesus’s understanding of the kingdom of God, you might want to read an article I wrote: “Jesus and the Kingdom of God: What You Need to Know.”

Reflect

When you come across a passage of Scripture that is worrisome to you, what do you do?

If Jesus was fully human in addition to being fully God, do you think he ever could have been mistaken about anything?

When have you experienced God’s power and reign in a particularly powerful way in your life?

Are you willing to live with God as the King of your entire life? What encourages you to say “yes”? What holds you back?

Act

Talk with your small group or with a wise friend about Luke 9:23-27, one of the most challenging and perplexing passages in the Gospel of Luke.

Pray

Lord Jesus, you taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And so I pray today.

Let your kingdom come, God, and your will be done in my life, in my work and family, in my friendships and professional relationships, in my thinking and feeling, in my finances and volunteering. In all that I do, may you be sovereign.

Let your kingdom come, God, and your will be done in my church, as we seek to worship you in all we do. Let your kingdom come as we reach out to the world with your gospel and your justice.

Let your kingdom come, God, and your will be done in our hurting, broken, angry world. May all authorities in this world acknowledge you and the one true King, seeking to obey and honor you in all things.

Let your kingdom come, God, and your will be done in the future, when you reveal the full glory of the Son of Man. Bring all things together in Christ, making the whole creation what you intended it to be from the beginning.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.


Part 48: A Glimpse of Glory

Scripture – Luke 9:28-31 (NRSV)

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Focus

The disciples of Jesus were able to catch a glimpse of his heavenly glory. You and I probably won’t get to see this with our physical eyes, but we are able to perceive God’s glory in nature, in loving community, in acts of forgiveness, justice, and mercy. But, the most amazing thing of all is that God, through the Spirit, is transforming us right now into the image of Christ’s own glory. What a wonder!

Devotion

When I’m on vacation, I love to get up early, while it’s still dark. My goal is to be able to sit in some naturally beautiful place and watch the sunrise. I love catching a glimpse of the sun as it just begins to peek above the horizon. (Today’s photo is from a trip my family and I took to Central California.)

A sunrise over the California countryside

Sunrise in Templeton, California. Photo copyright of Mark Roberts.

There’s something about that first glimpse of the sun that I find deeply moving. My feelings have to do with the quietness of the morning, the freshness of the air, the distinctive quality of the light. But seeing the sun in that way as it glows in the distance stirs my soul.

I wonder if that’s how Peter, John, and James felt when they witnessed the so-called “transfiguration” of Jesus. They had gone out to a mountain at Jesus’s invitation, presumably to join him in prayer. This happened sometime during the night or early morning, since Luke mentions that the disciples were “weighed down with sleep” (9:32). While Jesus was praying, all of a sudden “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). Then, he was joined by Moses and Elijah, who “appeared in glory” (Luke 9:31). Peter, shaken out of his sleepy stupor, offered to build some shelters for the three glowing men (Luke 9:33). (Parenthetically, I love this response of Peter. It’s so sweet and candid, showing both care and confusion.) But Peter’s offer was interrupted by a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). When the voice stopped speaking, everything returned to normal.

Don’t you wish you could have been there on that mountain? Wouldn’t it have been amazing to catch a glimpse of Jesus’s heavenly glory? I’m not sure my response would have been any better than Peter’s, mind you. But I would have been moved by what I was seeing even more than when I witness a vacation sunrise.

It’s unlikely that you and I will ever see Jesus in his glowing glory this side of the age to come. But God does bless us with glimpses of his glory at times. Yes, we can see divine glory in the natural beauty of God’s creation. We get a peek of God’s glory when the people of God are united in worship and loving service. We see the glory of God most clearly and profoundly in Jesus, who, according to the Gospel of John, is the very Word of God Incarnate. “And we have seen his glory,” John writes, “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

But if you really want to be astounded by God’s glory, look at what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). To me, this is one of the most astounding and wondrous verses in all of Scripture. It says that we, yes “all of us,” including you and I, can see “the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.” What? A mirror? Surely it can’t be a mirror facing us because that would mean we are reflecting the very glory of God. But that’s exactly what Paul means. We learn this in the next phrase. As we see God’s glory in a mirror, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Not “we will one day be transformed,” but we “are being transformed” now, in the present.

Right now, through the Spirit, God is at work in us, changing us into the glorious image of Christ. When you choose to love in a costly way, when you seek God’s kingdom rather than your own success, when you forgive one who has wronged you, when you offer your whole life to God in worship, then you catch a glimpse of God’s glory, not out there on the horizon or out there in the future, but right where you are, right now, in you. What a wonder!

Reflect

What are some of the most glorious things you have ever seen with your eyes?

When in your life have you had a sense of God’s glory?

How do you respond to the idea that God is transforming you into the glorious image of Christ?

Act

With a wise friend or with your small group, talk about your experiences of God’s glory.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I wish I could have been there with Peter, John, and James as you were transfigured. It would have been amazing to catch a glimpse of your glory.

Thank you for the hints I get of your glory in this life: the splendor of a sunrise, the loveliness of sacrificial service, the elegance of your people gathered in worship. And thank you for the wondrous truth that you are changing me into the image of your glory even now, through your Spirit.

O Lord, may it happen more and more as I offer all that I am to you. Amen.


Part 49: And Then, Back to Reality

Scripture – Luke 9:37-41 (NRSV)

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”

Focus

Jesus experienced the challenges and frustrations of human life. How good it is to know that Jesus understands when we’re in a tough place. He has been through things like this. He is with us in all times and all experiences! If you’re confronting the tough reality of life today, whether in your work or in your relationships, in your neighborhood or in the wider world, remember, Jesus understands. He is with you!

Devotion

Have you ever had the experience of getting away from normal life, enjoying a rejuvenating time of rest, reflection, and recreation, only to have your restoration crushed by the reality of ordinary life? I’ll bet you have. I know I have.

Hawaii vacation photo copyright of Mark Roberts.

I think, for example, of a time when my wife and I were vacationing in Hawaii (from which comes today’s photo). Dear friends had given this trip to us and it was delightful in every way. Delightful, that is, until near the end of the trip, I thought I would “just check” my email. What did I find in my inbox? A dozen panicky and alarming emails from colleagues who begged me to interrupt my vacation and confront a volatile crisis at work. One moment I was basking peacefully in the warmth of the Hawaiian sun. The next moment I was dragged back into the painful reality of my workplace.

Sound familiar?

It would have been familiar to Jesus; the “back to reality” part that is, not the email in Hawaii part. In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion we observed the wonder of the transfiguration, when Jesus was revealed in his heavenly glory and a voice from heaven declared him to be “my Son, my Chosen” (Luke 9:35). It’s hard to imagine a more uplifting and affirming experience than this. I expect that Jesus came down from the mountain on which he was transfigured both moved and encouraged.

Then, on the very next day, Jesus was thrust back into reality. As a crowd gathered around him, a man shouted out to Jesus, explaining that his child was tormented by a demon and that Jesus’s disciples were not able to cast it out of the boy. You may recall that, earlier in Luke, Jesus had given his disciples “power and authority over all demons” (Luke 9:1). They should have been able to expel the demon that harassed the man’s son, but for some reason were not able to do so.

Jesus responded to what he heard with an understandable lament: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” (9:41). Though this remark had wide applicability, it seems directed first of all at Jesus’s disciples. It was a messianic way of saying what aggravated parents sometimes say to their unruly children, “How long am I going to have to put up with you?” I expect Jesus was thinking something like, “I gave you the authority to cast out demons. You could have handled this. Why didn’t you?” He was clearly feeling frustrated. I imagine that his frustration may have been more acute because of what he had just experienced on the mountaintop. He went from divine glory to the reality of demonic bondage and human unfaithfulness (see Matthew 17:20).

You and I won’t have an experience quite like that of Jesus because we aren’t eligible to be transfigured as he was. We are fully human but not fully divine. Nevertheless, we do know what it’s like to go from highs to lows, from mountaintops to valleys, from joys to sorrows. How good it is to know that Jesus understands, that he has been through things like this, and that he is with us in all times and all experiences! If you’re confronting the tough reality of life today, whether in your work or in your relationships, in your neighborhood or in the wider world, remember, Jesus understands. Jesus is with you!

Reflect

Can you remember a time in your life when you went from the mountaintop to the valley in terms of your experience and emotions? What happened?

As you reflect on the fact that Jesus experienced “lows” in his life and work, how does this impact you?

Act

Take some time to put yourself into the story in Luke 9. Imagine what it was like to be the desperate father . . . and the crowd . . . and the disciples . . . and Jesus.

Pray

Lord Jesus, it is striking to me that you went from the mountain to the valley, from the transfiguration to the reality of demonic bondage and human unfaithfulness. Thank you for entering into our reality, with its pains and frustrations. Thank you for being one of us, fully human even as you are also fully divine.

Lord, when I got through the ups and downs of life, when reality sometimes feels terribly distressing, help me to turn to you, to share my heart with you, to know that you are with me, that you understand. May I draw near to you because you have drawn near to me. Amen.


Part 50: Jesus Shares Our Sorrows . . . and More

Scripture – Luke 9:37-41 (NRSV)

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”

Focus

Jesus is with us in good times and bad times, when we’re rejoicing and when we’re sad. Jesus understands because he was fully human in addition to being fully God. The divine Son became human, not only that he might empathize with our sorrows, but also so that he might save us from sin, suffering, and death. When we struggle, when we hurt, when we feel afraid, Jesus is with us to comfort us, strengthen us, and to save us.

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion I began reflecting on a scene from Luke 9. I’d like to consider this scene a bit more today. Jesus had recently come down from the mountain where he had been transfigured, revealing his heavenly glory and receiving strong verbal affirmation from his Heavenly Father. But then he confronted the annoying reality of demonic bondage and human unfaithfulness. In frustration he said, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here” (Luke 9:41). Notice that Jesus didn’t let his frustration keep him from rebuking the unclean spirit and healing the boy, giving him back to his father whole. Feeling frustrated is not a sin, though it can lead to sin. This was not the case for Jesus, who acted in loving compassion for the father and his son.

Photo copyright of Mark Roberts.

I find this story strangely comforting, in that I have often felt something like Jesus must have felt. Many times in my professional life, for example, a sublime experience of God’s presence was followed by something painfully down to earth. I remember, for example, one Christmas when I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. Our Christmas Eve services that year were especially glorious. (Today’s photo shows one of our Christmas Eve services.) We were in our new sanctuary, which was both visually stunning and wonderfully supportive of choral and congregational singing. I was struck more than ever by the reality of Christ’s birth as we sang “Joy to the World.”

Then, the day after Christmas, a different kind of reality hit me like a ton of bricks. A dear woman from my church called me at home. “Mark,” she said, “my husband died today.” I was dumbfounded. At first I didn’t even know what to say. Partly, I was exhausted from four Christmas Eve services. Partly, I couldn’t imagine that this woman’s husband, a young, healthy man, was dead. When I finally found my words, I shared my shock and sadness. When I asked the woman what had happened, she explained that her husband had become ill with the flu a few days before Christmas. Then on December 26th his fever spiked, and before she was able to get him to the hospital, he died. My grief for this woman, whose wedding I had performed only a couple of years earlier, was profound. My Christmas reverie was devastated by the reality of death, loss, and sadness. Of course, what this woman experienced was far more terrible and tragic.

I find it comforting that Jesus knows what it’s like to go from heavenly glory to earthly pain and frustration. It makes such a difference that Jesus “will all our sorrows share,” in the phrasing of the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” But, even more astoundingly, Jesus chose to live with us, in our pain, loss, confusion, and limitations. Philippians 2:6-8 reminds us that Christ surrendered his divine privilege in order to become human, humbling himself even to the point of death. Though he still participated in divine reality, he chose to live in the messiness and suffering of fallen human life. Jesus joined our reality so that we might join his reality. Or, as it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” How amazing!

If you’re on a mountaintop today, celebrating God’s blessings in your life, Jesus is with you. And if you’re in the darkest valley, confronting the harsh reality of human life, Jesus is with you. Not only does he understand, but also he took on this reality so he might set us free from bondage to sin, suffering, and death. No matter what you’re facing today, let me urge you to take this good news to heart.

Reflect

Can you remember a time when you were facing something very difficult and you sensed God’s presence with you? What happened? What helped you to know that God was there with you?

Are you dealing with something right now that is distressing and/or painful? Given the impact of the pandemic on our lives, it’s likely that you are, at least in some way. Do you sense the presence of Jesus with you now? If not, are you willing to ask him to make himself known to you in this time?

Act

Take some time to think or to write in your journal about how you experience the presence of Jesus in your life.

Pray

What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer!

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer!
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer!

Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge—
take it to the Lord in prayer!
Do your friends despise, forsake you?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield you;
you will find a solace there. Amen.

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven. Public domain.


Part 51: Do You Want to Be Great?

Scripture – Luke 9:46-48 (NRSV)

An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

Focus

Do you want to be great? If so, Jesus would urge you not to seek your own greatness, but rather choose the way of humility, service, and dependence on God. Value those in this world who are considered the “least.” Don’t be preoccupied by your own accomplishments. Rather, focus on serving others, knowing that as you do, you are serving Jesus.

Devotion

As I read this story from Luke I am transported back to my childhood. When I was in elementary school, my friends and I were obsessed with being the greatest. We didn’t care about being the best in the classroom, mind you. It was all about our awesomeness on the playground. We wanted to be the greatest in athletic feats on asphalt. We argued all the time about who was the greatest in certain sports. In fact, we made lists of our classmates, specifying their particular ranking in the events we valued. I can still remember, for example, that Chester Feenstra was the tops at tetherball. But Ivan Lescano was the king, because he was #1 in both running and kicking. Rob Fawcett came in a close second to Ivan in both categories. Ivan and Rob weren’t big, but they were both super strong and quick. (For the record, I sometimes made a list or two, but was never #1 at anything.)

From my childhood experience, there’s part of me that understands why the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest in Luke 9:46. I get the competitive drive they’re showing. But I’m also embarrassed for the disciples. For one thing, they were not elementary-aged boys, but grown men. They might still have wanted to be the greatest, but you’d think they’d have learned not to admit it so openly. Plus, they were arguing about their personal greatness right at the time when Jesus had begun talking about his coming suffering and death. In fact, right before the disciples were having their “I’m the greatest” argument, Jesus had predicted his betrayal. That’s an awkward juxtaposition if ever there were one.

Jesus did not, however, rebuke the disciples for their egotistical inappropriateness. Rather, he brought a “little child” to his side and said, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest” (Luke 9:48). In Jesus’s day, as in ours, if you wanted to be great you didn’t focus your attention on children. Children, after all, were humble, small, unaccomplished, lacking power and reputation. They were the “least” in their culture. So, by saying that one who welcomes a child welcomes him, Jesus was calling his disciples to a radically different value system.

Then Jesus added, “for the least among all of you is the greatest” (Luke 9:48). The kingdom of God turns everything upside down. It calls us to see differently, to evaluate differently, to live differently. What matters in God’s kingdom isn’t human accomplishment and grandeur, but humility and dependence on God. Those who are truly great acknowledge their weakness and need for God. They seek to lift up others, not themselves. They would not even be interested in arguing for their own greatness, though they might acknowledge the greatness of others. By the way, our translation misses something notable in this verse. Though the disciples were arguing about which of them was the “greatest” (meizon in Greek), Jesus actually said that the least is “great” (megas in Greek) not “the greatest.” Greatness is something we share in God’s kingdom.

So, how can you and I be great in the way of Jesus? We can’t become actual children again. And Jesus doesn’t mean we should act in a childish manner. Nor is he expecting us to quit our jobs and stop being responsible for family and friends. Rather, you and I can stop fighting to be seen as the greatest. We can resist the urge to promote ourselves. We can choose a different way, the way of humility, servanthood, and dependence upon God. If we are honored, we won’t let it puff us up. Instead, in our hearts and in our actions we will pass the honor on to others, and most of all, to God.

Can we do this if we’re persons of authority? What if we’re supposed to lead others? How can we be the least as leaders? An answer comes from Jim Collins in his groundbreaking book, Good to Great. Collins shows that the greatest companies are led by what he calls “Level 5 Leaders.” These leaders are, according to Collins, “a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.” Concerning themselves they are modest and humble. But concerning the organization they lead and its mission that are willful and fearless. They exercise their “leastness” in service to others, seeking the greatness of their colleagues and their organization rather than their own greatness.

Reflect

Have you ever wanted to be great in some way? Even the greatest? What was this about? Why did you feel this way?

How do you respond to today’s story from Luke? Can you relate at all to the disciples?

How does the saying of Jesus strike you? How might you welcome Jesus?

What might it mean for you to be the “least” in the various contexts of your life?

Act

After considering it prayerfully, choose to serve someone in your life who is not a person of power or status. Show tangible care to someone who might be considered “the least” in your world.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I’m thankful today for this realistic portrayal of the disciples. I’m so glad Luke and the other gospel writers didn’t “clean things up.” We can learn so much from the disciples, from their exemplary faith (at times) and their exemplary foolishness (at other times).

Help me, Lord, to think differently about the people in my world. In particular, may I learn to welcome children and others of low status. May I give myself away in service to “the least” in my culture, organization, neighborhood, and church.

Set me free from being preoccupied with my own greatness. May I choose instead to seek your greatness, to lift up those around me, to walk genuinely on the path of humility. May I always remember, Lord, how much I depend on you.

All praise and honor be to you! Amen.


Part 52: Have You Set Your Face?

Scripture – Luke 9:51 (NRSV)

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Focus

In Luke 9, Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. That wasn’t just a physical destination, however. Jesus had a clear, guiding sense of purpose. When he “set his face” he chose definitively to go to the place where he would suffer and die. Jesus lived with purpose. Do you?

Devotion

As I was reading along in Luke 9, a phrase in verse 51 grabbed my attention. It was not the phrase “to be taken up,” though this is a curious way to refer to what would happen in the last days of Jesus’s life on earth, including his ascension. The phrase that stood out to me was “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

This expression in the Greek original of Luke represents a Hebrew idiom that literally meant “to position one’s face in a certain way.” That saying had a literal, directional sense, as in Genesis 31:21, where it says that Jacob “set his face toward the hill country of Gilead” because that was his destination. But this expression also conveyed a sense of purpose or resolve. Jacob was not just traveling accidentally in the direction of Gilead. He was going there intentionally and with purpose.

Thus, in Luke 9:51, we learn that Jesus was heading to Jerusalem. Though he had focused his messianic work in Galilee for a season, the time had come for him to minister in Jerusalem But, as in the case of Jacob in Genesis 31, Jesus was not merely heading in the direction of Jerusalem. Rather, he was going there quite intentionally in order to preach the good news of the kingdom of God in that center of Jewish cultural and religious life. Moreover, Jesus knew that in Jerusalem he would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). His prophetic vision was matched by a deep sense of purpose. He knew that he must undergo what would happen to him in Jerusalem. It was an essential element of his messianic work. So, as we read in The Message version of Luke 9:51, Jesus “gathered up his courage and steeled himself for the journey to Jerusalem.”

The question I want to ask you is this: Have you set your face? Do you have a strong sense of direction, not so much for your travel as for your life? Is your life guided by a deep, abiding purpose that motivates you and sustains you?

My friend and De Pree Center colleague Tod Bolsinger has recently published a book called Tempered Resilience. Though he does not use the phrase “set one’s face,” Tod frequently mentions the critical importance of purpose for leaders who seek to be resilient. For example, he explains that “the sense of calling or purpose is critical to leadership resilience in both Christian formation and organizational leadership literature.” Yet it’s not just any purpose that matters. “Christian leadership that flows from the center of our being,” Tod writes, “must begin in aligning our motivations with the purposes of God.” This is true, not just for acknowledged leaders, but for all Christians. “To be a Christian,” according to Tod, “is to be personally engaged in and have as one’s life purpose the mission of Jesus Christ.”

As we “set our face” in the direction of Christ’s mission, our particular paths will be distinctive. Some of us, like me, for example, will exercise our purpose as pastors and parents. Others will live with purpose as inventors, painters, technology specialists, managers, entrepreneurs, teachers, carpenters, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, and the list goes on. No matter what we do each day, no matter our particular callings, we are all called to the mission of Jesus Christ. May God give us the grace to “set our face” in this direction.

Reflect

Would you say that you have indeed “set your face” in a particular direction for your life? Do you have a clear sense of purpose for living?

If so, how does your purpose inform your daily work? Your relationships? Your dreams for the future? Your use of money? Your civic life?

If you do not have a strong sense of purpose for your life, are you willing to ask God to help you develop one?

Act

Set aside some time for reflection. See if you can write down in relatively few words your basic sense of purpose. You may find it helpful to do this with your small group or with a close friend.

Pray

Lord Jesus, today I’m struck by how you “set your face” to go to Jerusalem. Yes, that was your physical destination. But it was so much more. You were going to Jerusalem because you knew your ultimate purpose. You knew it was necessary for you to suffer and be crucified. Thank you, Lord, for living in light of this purpose.

Help me, I pray, to “set my face” in the direction of your mission. May my life be shaped and guided by your priorities, your vision, your truth, your love. Help me to live under your kingdom in every part of life, whether I’m at work or home, at church or in my neighborhood, in the grocery store or the polling place. Amen.


Part 53: An Awkward and Teachable Moment

Scripture – Luke 22:24-27 (NRSV)

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

Focus

The Gospel of Luke captures an awkward moment for Jesus and his disciples. Right after he speaks of his pending betrayal and death, they launch into an argument about which one of them is the greatest. Yet Jesus was not silenced by their inappropriateness. Rather, he seized a teachable moment, calling his disciples to be servants to each other, just as he was being a servant to them. The challenge of Jesus is for us too. Are we willing to be humble servants, just like our Master?

Devotion

During my sophomore year of college, my roommate’s mother died unexpectedly. Though it was several weeks before spring break, Henry knew he had to hurry to Florida to be with his sister and help her make arrangements for their mother’s burial. (Their father had died years before.)

With a heavy heart, Henry packed his bags and headed for the airport. I went along with him for moral support. When we got into the elevator of our dorm, a guy on our hall, Sam, joined us. Seeing Henry’s suitcases he asked curiously, “Where you going, Henry?” Henry answered, “Florida.” “Florida!” Sam exulted. “That’s great. An early spring break. Wow. I wish I was doing that.” When Henry and I didn’t seem to share Sam’s excitement, he looked confused. Finally he asked, “Is something wrong?” So Henry explained the real reason why he was going to Florida. Sam was stunned and embarrassed over his joyful outburst. What an awkward moment!

I’m reminded of this moment when I read Luke 22. This chapter describes what happened during Jesus’s last meal with his disciples. In verses 14-23, Jesus reinterpreted the Passover meal so as to point to his own imminent death. He also mentioned that one who was with him at the table would soon betray him. But then, “A dispute arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest” (Luke 22:24). Now that must have been an awkward moment, at least for Jesus. He was preparing to die a painful death while his disciples were arguing over their own greatness. Ouch!

Jesus, however, didn’t get stuck by the awkwardness of what his disciples had said. Rather, he saw a teachable moment, a time to help his followers understand both his calling and their calling. Jesus began by noting that Gentile rulers revel in their power and reputation (Luke 22:25). “But not so with you;” he said, “rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Then he pointed to his own example. “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Thus, the disciples of Jesus should not seek their own greatness and glory. Rather, like their Lord, they should serve others humbly, even sacrificially.

You and I may not get into arguments about our greatness, but we can be overly concerned about how we look, about what others think of us. We can savor our personal position and authority. Yet, if we seek to follow Jesus, we are called to something completely different. Even if we are leaders, we should serve those whom we lead. We must be willing to humble ourselves as we lead the people entrusted to our care.

Lent is a good time for us to reflect on our true motivations in life. Why are you doing the work you’re doing? To what do you aspire? How much are you in it for your own success? To what extent do the teaching and example of Jesus guide you in your relationships at work, at home, in your neighborhood, or at church? Are you willing to be a servant? Are you seeking to serve others rather than to be served?

Reflect

Can you think of leaders you have known – or known of, at any rate – who act as servants to those they lead?

How is it possible to be a leader and a servant at the same time?

As you reflect on your own work, your own leadership, are there ways in which you are serving others?

Would your colleagues and subordinates think of you as a servant leader? Why or why not?

Act

With a wise friend or your small group, talk about how you and they can live out Jesus’s call to servanthood at work.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for your teaching on leading and serving. Thank you for modeling for us what true leadership – true servanthood – is all about. Thank you for calling us to imitate you in your service to others.

Help me, Lord, to follow you as I serve others. Teach me how to serve even and especially when I am charged to lead. By your Spirit, help me to humble myself even as I am bold for the work of your kingdom. Amen.


Part 54: Jesus Reclaims Our Brokenness

Scripture – Luke 22:31-34 (NRSV)

“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.”

Focus

Jesus knew in advance that Peter would deny him and that this would be devastating for Peter’s faith. But Jesus prayed that Peter would turn back. When that happened, Jesus wanted Peter to minister to others. Jesus isn’t looking for perfection. Rather, he’s in the reclamation business. Jesus takes our failures and losses and uses them, reclaiming them for good. He uses us in our brokenness to bring his love and grace to others.

Devotion

During my lifetime, reclamation of used materials has gone from rare to common, from ignored to highly valued. When I was a child, we didn’t reclaim any of our trash unless the school was having a paper drive. As I got older, reclamation centers became popular among those of us who would take our glass, cans, and paper goods so they could be recycled. Nowadays, most of us have dedicated trash cans for items that can be reclaimed and reused, thus helping to protect the natural environment.

Jesus was into reclamation way before it became popular; not reclamation of trash, however, but of broken human lives. We see a moving example of this in Luke 22. As Jesus was talking with his disciples during their last supper together, he spoke directly to Simon Peter in a most striking way. First, he said that Satan has asked to “sift” all of the disciples like wheat (Luke 22:31). Not good news! Then, Jesus addressed Simon Peter, saying, “But I have prayed for you [singular in Greek] that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (22:32). Simon Peter, picking up on the implication that he would fall prey to Satan’s sifting, swore to stick with Jesus even if that meant prison and death (22:33). Jesus responded by predicting that “Peter” would deny him three times before the next morning came (22:34). Ouch!

I’d like to focus today on what Jesus said to Peter. Jesus knew hard times and temptations were coming for Peter so he prayed specifically for him, that his faith would not fail. Interestingly, Jesus did not pray that temptation would be taken away from Peter. Rather, he asked that Peter’s faith would not disappear in any ultimate sense. It might be tested and battered, but would in the end be sustained.

Then Jesus added an imperative, telling Peter that, “once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” I am struck by the “once you have turned back” phrase. Jesus knew that Peter would deny him and that this would rock Peter’s faith. Yet Jesus believed that Peter would, in the end, return to his life of following Jesus. When that happened, Peter should “strengthen” his brothers who were in need of encouragement, teaching, and support.

Jesus gave Peter major authority and responsibility, even though Jesus knew that Peter was about to fail mightily. Or maybe even because Peter was about to fail mightily. When we fail, we have the opportunity to learn and grow. We become more realistic about our weaknesses and recognize our need for God’s strength. Failure can actually help us grow even more than success. Did Jesus know that Peter’s giving in to temptation would lead to deep grief, repentance, and growth for Peter? It seems so. Jesus was not in the “find the perfect human” business. Rather, he was in the human reclamation business. He takes us as we are in all of our brokenness and uses us so that even our failures are reclaimed for his purposes.

I’m reminded of my friend Robert. Robert is a unique craftsman and artist. Among his many talents is the ability to take broken things and turn them into art. Robert always keeps his eyes open for discarded items so he might reclaim them.

“Chairob” by Robert Feuge. Thanks to Robert for permission to use this photo.

One time when we were at Laity Lodge together, Robert was excited about an old, battered, rusty chair that he had found buried in the dirt somewhere. All I could see was one very sad chair. But Robert saw something altogether different. Soon he was working away on this chair, adding other things he had found buried. In time, that abandoned chair became a life-affirming sculpture. Robert explained, “‘The Chairob’ was made from things I found buried and given wings to fly. It became a place of rest for living things.”

In the season of Lent, we are particularly aware of our mortality, our sin, our brokenness. But we mustn’t define ourselves in light of these sad realities. Rather, we should delight in the fact that Jesus is in the reclamation business. He takes our brokenness and turns it into something beautiful. He takes our failure and transforms it for good in service to others, just like he did with Peter.

Reflect

How do you think Peter felt when he heard all that Jesus had to say to him in this passage?

Do you ever feel like your brokenness is beyond reclamation by Jesus?

Have you ever experienced Jesus reclaiming your brokenness or failure as you served others for his kingdom?

Act

Laity Lodge has a wonderful six-and-a-half-minute film focusing on Robert Feuge and his unique art. As you reflect on this film, think about how God has been reclaiming your life.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for being in the reclamation business. Thank you for seeing beyond Peter’s failure, seeing his potential to serve others. And thank you for seeing beyond my failures, for seeing my brokenness not as a deal-breaker, but as an opportunity for growth.

Today, Lord, I give you all that I am. I ask you to use me for your kingdom purposes. Reclaim that parts of me that are rusty and battered. Renew and restore me so that I might serve you and serve others in your name. Amen.


Part 55: The Anguish of Jesus

Scripture – Luke 22:39-44 (NRSV)

[Jesus] came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” [Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]

Focus

In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane he experienced extreme anguish. Sometimes Christians are squeamish about seeing Jesus as so very human. But we must hold together our belief in his full humanity and his full deity. The fact that Jesus suffered truly and painfully means that he understands us and our suffering. Our Savior gets us in a deep way. This is good news, indeed.

Devotion

Today we begin a three-part series of devotions focusing on the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke doesn’t mention Gethsemane by name, but it was at the base of the Mount of Olives and is named in Matthew and Mark. Luke’s account is also shorter than what is found in those other Gospels, with a notable exception. Luke includes two unique verses, 43 and 44, which describe an angelic visit to Jesus and his extreme anguish as he prayed.

The NRSV translation puts those two verses in brackets because they don’t appear in some of the older manuscripts of Luke. Other translations include the verses with an explanatory footnote. Most scholars of the biblical text agree that these verses were in the original version of Luke but were removed later by some scribes for a theological reason. That reason has to do with the portrayal of Jesus in these verses. In one an angel appeared and “gave him strength” (22:43). The divine Son of God wouldn’t have needed extra strength, so the scribes reasoned. In the next verse Jesus felt so much anguish that his sweat became “like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (22:44). This seemed to the scribes like too much anguish for the Son of God. So some, but not all, early copyists of Luke did not include verses 43-44, with their very human, very vulnerable Jesus.

When I think of my own Christian journey, I understand their point. As a young boy at camp, I bought a plaque that featured a painting of Jesus in the Garden. I loved that picture of Jesus praying, with his utterly peaceful and glowing face gazing up to heaven. He looked calm, cool, and collected, with no blood-like sweat or need for angelic support. (You can see the painting that was on my plaque with some explanation here.) I found comfort in the thought of a Superman-like Jesus, probably because I loved Superman almost as much as I loved Jesus.

As I grew in my faith, I realized that, like the early scribes, I had so emphasized the deity of Jesus that I had minimized his humanity. My theology started shifting, not away from proclaiming Jesus as “truly God,” but as one who was also “truly human.” In fact, I began to take comfort in the fact that Jesus, being fully human, was able to understand me in ways I had not imagined before. In the words of Hebrews, “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” (Hebrews 4:15).

When I visited the Garden of Gethsemane ten years ago, I was struck by the quiet calm of the place. I knew that the olive trees in that garden today were, in all likelihood, grown from the roots of the same trees under which Jesus knelt to pray. As I was walking along, I noticed a tiny sculpture embedded in the wall. I couldn’t quite tell what it was until I drew near. It was a carving of Jesus praying in the garden. He didn’t look peaceful or like some kind of superman. No, he was bent over as in agony, face down, pouring out his anguish to his Father. I felt drawn to that image and I still am. I’ll share with you the photo I took that day.

A sculpture of Jesus praying from the wall of the Garden of Gethsemane. © Mark D. Roberts

Whether or not those verses in Luke were in Luke’s original draft, they rightly convey the truth of Jesus’s anguish, and more deeply, the truth of his humanity. Christians have for centuries affirmed the mystery of Jesus’s dual nature, “truly God and truly human.” We need to continue to embrace both because both have deep significance for us.

Today, as is appropriate in the season of Lent, we focus on the humanity of Jesus. Because Jesus was fully human, he felt pain just as we do. Because Jesus was fully human, he understands our weaknesses and sufferings. Because Jesus was fully human, he was able to bear the sin of humanity on the cross. Because Jesus was fully human, he is your Savior and mine. Hallelujah!

Reflect

How have you imagined Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? Have you also been influenced by traditional paintings of the scene, in which Jesus appears serene, almost above it all?

What difference does it make to you that Jesus felt deep anguish as he prayed?

Do you really believe Jesus “gets” you in a deep way? Why or why not?

Act

I have put up a hi-res version of the photo of Jesus praying on the De Pree website. Let me encourage you to set aside some minutes to reflect on this sculpture. How does it help you to get into the story in Luke 22? How does it help you to know Jesus better?

Pray

Lord Jesus, I have so many thoughts and feelings as I read about your time of prayer in the garden. I can’t even begin to imagine the anguish you felt, knowing what was coming for you. As horrible as that anguish was for you, I’m grateful that you were fully human, so that you could feel pain and suffering. Not that I wish this on you, Lord! But I am so thankful that you know our suffering and pain, my suffering and pain. You understand my weakness, my humanity.

Thank you for knowing me in this way. And thank you for loving me even so. Amen.


Part 56: The Shocking Prayer of Jesus

Scripture – Luke 22:39-42 (NRSV)

Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

Focus

While praying in the Garden on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus made a shocking request to his Heavenly Father. He asked that the Father might “remove this cup from me.” Jesus was asking for a way to avoid the suffering and sacrifice of the cross. His honesty in prayer teaches and inspires us. It gives us the courage to say in prayer what is real in our hearts, without pretense or pretending. You can tell God exactly what you’re thinking and feeling, without holding back.

Devotion

During the evening before he was crucified, Jesus went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. There, going on for a short distance alone, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. Photo used by permission from Mark D. Roberts.

Photo courtesy of Mark D. Roberts. All rights reserved.

The use of “cup” as a metaphor for Jesus’s death is familiar to Christians, especially because of its use in the Lord’s Supper. But we might wonder what Jesus meant when he asked his Heavenly Father to remove the cup from him. Was he saying only “Don’t make me die on the cross” or did he mean something more?

An answer to this question comes from the use of the cup metaphor in the Old Testament. There, the cup stands for that with which our life is filled. Our “cup” can be filled with blessing and salvation (Psalm 23:5; 116:13); or it can be filled with wrath and horror (Isaiah 51:17; Ezekiel 23:33). Frequently the cup stands for God’s judgment and wrath as it comes fully upon people. Consider, for example, Isaiah 51:17:

Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!
Stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk at the hand of the LORD
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl of staggering.

Jerusalem drank the cup of God’s wrath as God’s judgment came upon them. Similarly, through the prophet Ezekiel the Lord speaks of the judgment about to fall upon Jerusalem:

You shall drink your sister’s cup,
deep and wide;
you shall be scorned and derided,
it holds so much.
You shall be filled with drunkenness and sorrow.
A cup of horror and desolation
is the cup of your sister Samaria;
you shall drink it and drain it out,
and gnaw its sherds,
and tear out your breasts (Ezekiel 23:32-34).

Thus when Jesus spoke of drinking the cup, he was alluding to these images from the Scriptures. By going to the cross, he would drink the cup of God’s wrath. He would bear the divine judgment that falls rightly upon Israel, and, indeed upon all humanity.

But, shockingly, Jesus was praying to be released from this responsibility. Though he had predicted his death and its necessity, as it drew near, he yearned for some other way. He hoped that his Father had some other option and he asked for this openly. There may be no more powerful and moving display in the Gospels of Jesus’s humanity. Moreover, for God the Son to endure separation from God the Father must have been horrifying to Jesus beyond anything you and I can imagine.

I’m struck again by Jesus’s utter honesty in this prayer. He could have prayed simply, “Your will be done.” That’s where he ends up in this prayer. But, instead, he asks for what is real within him. He doesn’t hide behind pretense or theological precision. Rather, he tells it like it is.

The example of Jesus encourages us to be fully honest with God when we pray. We don’t have to be afraid of telling God the truth about us. We shouldn’t say all the right things when these things are not a true reflection of what’s in our hearts. The Father of Jesus already knows everything about us. He can handle anything we put before him, anything and everything. He will not be shocked or offended if we ask even to get out of that to which he has called us. In fact, when we tell God the whole truth, then God is able to touch our hearts, addressing our fears and redirecting our desires. God will help us to surrender to his will, confident in his wisdom, love, and all-surpassing goodness.

In this season of Lent, perhaps you can be more honest with God in prayer. It’s a time to let the example of Jesus teach, inspire, and reassure you.

Reflect

Why do you think Jesus asked not to have to drink the cup?

Are you able to be fully honest with God in prayer? If so, why? If not, why not?

What helps you to tell God the whole truth about yourself as you pray?

Act

If you can think of ways in which you have been holding back in prayer, ask the Lord to help you be more honest. Then, tell him exactly what is on your heart, holding nothing back.

Pray

Lord Jesus, as I read Luke’s account of your prayer in the garden, I am deeply moved. I am moved by your pain and your honesty. I am, frankly, stunned that you were able to ask the cup to be removed from you. You held nothing back from your Father in heaven. You spoke what was truly in your heart.

Help me, I pray, to be honest in prayer. Sometimes I just mouth the words without meaning them. Sometimes I feel like I can’t really say what I’m thinking or feeling. I figure you must be tired of hearing the same thing from me again and again. Or I have sins to confess that are just too embarrassing. Or I desire things that I’m not even sure are okay. Or . . . . Lord, I can think of all kinds of reasons not to tell you the truth when I pray.

So, help me. By your Spirit, help me to open my heart to you without reservation. Help me to trust you, to have utter confidence in your love for me. In this season of Lent, may my prayers be more honest than ever as I bring my whole, real self before you. Amen.


Part 57: Not My Will But Yours Be Done

Scripture – Luke 22:39-42 (NRSV)

Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

Focus

As he prayed on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus asked his Heavenly Father to “remove this cup.” If there was any other way forward besides the cross, Jesus wanted it. But he recognized the goodness and authority of his Father in praying, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.” The example of Jesus encourages us to pray freely and boldly, asking God whatever is on our hearts. Yet his example also teaches us to surrender, to submit to God’s will even when we don’t prefer it or understand it. We trust that God’s way is the best and choose that way out of loving obedience.

Devotion

In the previous devotion we focused on the shocking prayer of Jesus in the Garden, when he asked if the Father might “remove this cup” from him (Luke 22:42). That was a truly honest, bold prayer, especially given Jesus’s understanding that his death was necessary (see Luke 9:22, 17:25, 24:26). But faced with the pending reality not only of immense physical suffering but also of spiritual separation from his Heavenly Father, Jesus asked for the cup of judgment and death to be taken from him.

This daring prayer was framed, however, by Jesus’s clear acceptance of his Father’s wisdom, goodness, and authority. Before asking for the removal of the cup, Jesus said, “Father, if you are willing.” Jesus acknowledged that his Heavenly Father had the final say. Moreover, he recognized that the Father’s wisdom was supreme. If the Father knew that it was necessary for Jesus to drink the cup of suffering and judgment, then that was best.

Jesus’s acknowledgment of the Father’s supreme wisdom and authority was made even clearer in what followed after his request. He prayed, “remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Not my will, but yours be done. Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This was, no doubt, a prayer that Jesus and his disciples often prayed. Yet it’s one thing to say “Your will be done” when life is more or less ordinary. It’s another thing altogether to pray “Your will be done” when facing something you dread, something you’d much rather avoid even though it appears to be God’s will.

When Jesus prays, “not my will but yours be done,” he surrendered. He stopped seeking to avoid that to which he was being called. He gave in to the Father’s will in an act of costly sacrifice and obedience. He surrendered his immediate preferences and hopes, choosing to embrace what God wanted for him.

I have never had to surrender to God in such a dramatic and devastating way. God has never asked me to suffer terribly on the way to dying. But there have been many times in my life when I have had to surrender to God, choosing the way I believed he had set for me rather than what I wanted for myself. Looking back, I can see the amazing grace and goodness in God’s guidance. Yet, at the time of surrender, it was difficult to give in, to pray as Jesus did, “Not my will but yours be done.” I expect you have had similar experiences, especially if you’ve been a Christian for a while.

In the season of Lent, I pray daily a prayer of surrender composed centuries ago by St. Ignatius. It’s called the Suscipe, from the first word of the prayer in Latin, which means “Take” or “Receive.” In English, the Suscipe goes like this:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

May God’s love and grace give you the freedom to pray this with an open heart.

Reflect

When you see Jesus’s surrendering to his Father’s will, how do you respond? What do you think? What do you feel?

Have you ever had an experience of surrendering intentionally to what you believed to be God’s will for you, even though this was not what you preferred at the time?

Is there something to which God is calling you now, something you’re resisting? Is there something you need to surrender to God today?

Act

Let me encourage you to copy the Suscipe prayer in a place where you’ll see it each day (in your phone, computer, Bible, etc.). Let this prayer be a consistent theme of your Lenten communication with the Lord.

Pray

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me. Amen.


Part 58: How Does God See You?

Scripture – Luke 22:54-62 (NRSV)

Then they seized [Jesus] and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Focus

How do you imagine God looking upon you? More to the point, how does God see you when you let him down? Does he look at you with rage? Or perhaps with cold judgment? As we consider how God sees us, we should remember how God is revealed through Jesus. Jesus is one who knows our weaknesses and offers mercy. Jesus teaches that God is like a father who looks upon his wayward son with compassion and runs to embrace him. God does not ignore or minimize our sin. But, by grace, he looks upon us with loving compassion.

Devotion

Last Friday we were with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed to his Heavenly Father, ultimately accepting God’s will that he go to the cross. All of a sudden, a crowd gathered around Jesus, led by Judas, who sought to betray Jesus with a kiss. When Jesus’s followers attempted to resist with physical force, Jesus rebuked them. He was then taken by the local officials to the house of the high priest.

Peter, one of Jesus’s closest and most committed disciples, followed Jesus, remaining outside of the high priest’s house. As he warmed himself by a fire, a servant girl said, “This man also was with him” (Luke 22:56), but Peter denied it. Shortly thereafter, another person identified Peter as a follower of Jesus, but again he denied it. Finally, another person insisted that Peter was with Jesus. His Galilean accent had given him away (22:59). Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” When a rooster crowed, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times’” (22:61). Overcome with remorse for having denied his Lord, Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (22:62).

I have preached on this deeply moving passage several times throughout my pastoral career. Each time, I have focused on Peter’s experience. I talked about how fear can cause us to do even the thing we swore we would never do. I shared my compassion for Peter, admitting my own tendency to let fear move me to act in ways I know to be wrong. I can easily see myself as Peter in this story. Perhaps you can too.

As I re-read the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus in preparation for this devotion, however, I was struck by something I had not noticed before. It’s the simple line, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61) Such a small detail adds to the pathos of this story. It was sad enough that Peter denied Jesus exactly as Jesus had predicted. But the fact that Jesus made eye contact with Peter in that moment multiplies the emotional power of the scene. Oh, how terrible it must have been for both men in that moment, for Jesus as he felt the sting of Peter’s denial, and for Peter as he felt such agonizing shame.

Luke does not tell us how Jesus looked as he gazed upon Peter. What we imagine, I suppose, has much to do with how we think and feel about Jesus. If we picture him as an angry hater of sin, then we would imagine his face filled with rage. If we think of Jesus as a strict judge, then his face would be cold and emotionless. But if we know Jesus for his compassion, if he is really one who understands our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15), if he is going to the cross in part out of love for us, then we might picture the face of Jesus conveying deep understanding, empathy, sadness, and even love.

When I sift through my own life experience, I remember a time when something happened to me that was a bit like what I believe happened to Peter when Jesus looked at him. I was in fifth grade and had been talking out of turn in class. So my teacher sent me out of the room to sit on the ramp by our classroom. As I sat, licking my wounds, to my great chagrin I saw my mother walking on the sidewalk only fifty feet away. I knew she could see me, so I hid my face in shame, never making eye contact with her. I spent the rest of that day afraid of what she might say to me later on.

When I got home from school, I tried to sneak into my room, but my mom called to me. I knew I was out of luck. Still avoiding her gaze, I drew near. She said to me, “Mark, I was at school today and saw you sitting outside of your class. I’ll bet you were probably talking too much again. You know you have to work on that. But I’m sorry you had to sit outside. That must have been really embarrassing for you.” When I finally looked up at my mom, her face was full of sadness, kindness, and compassion. I ran to her and she hugged me tightly.

Given everything we know about Jesus, I think it’s reasonable to expect that he looked at Peter much as my mom looked at me. Perhaps in some ways, the compassionate face of Jesus increased Peter’s grief. He had denied not only his Lord, but also the One who loved him to the end and far beyond.

When you and I do what we know to be wrong, sometimes we’re so ashamed we can’t even bring our sin before God in prayer. Our fear and shame keep us from coming into his presence. We imagine God’s angry condemnation and we cower with our faces hidden. But the God made known to us in Jesus is not like that. Now, to be sure, God’s judges our sin. But this just Judge has taken upon himself the guilt, shame, and penalty associated with our sinfulness. God is the one whom Jesus portrayed as a father who, seeing his sin-saturated son from a distance, “was filled with compassion” and “ran and put his arms around [his son] and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). So, however we imagine God’s face, it must surely be the face of the father running to embrace and forgive his child.

During Lent, as you pay more attention than usual to your mortality, brokenness, and sinfulness, know that God looks upon you with the face of a compassionate father. The God who saved you in Jesus Christ loves you with an unfailing love.

Reflection

When you picture the scene outside of the high priest’s house, what does Peter look like? What does his face reveal? And what does Jesus look like when he gazes at Peter after Peter denied him?

Where do you get your image of God? What has influenced the way you think and feel about God?

Can you imagine God looking upon you with compassion even when you sin? If so, why? If not, why not?

Act

One of the most foundational passages of Scripture is the so-called Aaronic Blessing in Number 6:24-26. Take some time to meditate upon this passage:

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Pray

Lord Jesus, as I imagine how you looked upon Peter that evening, I remember what Hebrews says about you, your empathy and compassion. I remember your description of the father running to embrace his wayward son. I can imagine the sadness and hurt you felt, even though you knew in advance this was going to happen. Yet I also know that you looked upon Peter with the love of one who was choosing to go the cross for him . . . and for me.

Gracious God, I never want to take my sin lightly. I never want to presume upon and cheapen your grace. Help me to know you truly in your holiness and justice. Yet, preserve me from picturing you without grace. May my image of you be an accurate reflection of what I find in Scripture. Most of all, may it be formed in the light of Jesus, his incarnation, his life, his death, and his resurrection. Amen.


Part 59: Hiding Behind Mockery

Scripture – Luke 22:63-65 (NRSV)

Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” They kept heaping many other insults on him.

Focus

On the way to his crucifixion, Jesus was mocked by those who had captured him. Mockery is a way of hiding from people we don’t agree with or don’t like. But the way of Jesus is inconsistent with mockery that closes hearts, builds walls, and tears down other people. We who seek to follow Jesus mustn’t make fun of those who are different from us in beliefs, politics, lifestyles, or religious practice. We must follow Jesus in the way of love, loving both our neighbors and our enemies. There is no room for mockery in love.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

As Jesus was being held before his mock trial – by which I mean not a genuinely fair trial – those who were guarding him “began to mock him and beat him” (Luke 22:63). They played a cruel game with him, blindfolding him and then hitting him, saying, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” (22:64). Obviously, they knew of Jesus’s reputation as a prophet and they were enjoying the chance to make fun of him while they hit him and insulted him.

I’d like to think with you for a few moments about mockery. The English verb “to mock” means “to treat with contempt or ridicule, to make fun of.” The Greek verb translated in verse 63 as “mock” meant “to deride, ridicule, make fun of, mock.” When we read today’s passage, we rightly imagine crude laughter, rude joking, and explicit humiliation, the sort of behavior that is part of mockery.

These days, followers of Jesus are sometimes the victims of mockery. The leading atheists love making believers look like fools. Certain popular comedians make fun of Christians (and sometimes, I’m sad to say, we rather deserve it). In the past few years, I’ve even read the statements of certain government officials that deride all believers as being dimwitted and unscientific. Though this is distressing, to be sure, it shouldn’t surprise us that we who follow Jesus are sometimes treated as he was.

But I must confess that I’m even more concerned about ways that Christians can use mockery to put down others and hide from their humanity. I’ve never heard a believer make fun of Jesus, but I have heard Christians put down people with whom they disagree. Believers on one side of the political spectrum can put down people on the other side—and this is a two-way street, by the way. Christians of one church or denomination can make fun of those who are not in their tribe, who worship differently than they do. Believers in Jesus can ridicule folks from other religious traditions, especially when their practices seem strange to us. In addition to being unkind and inconsistent with the example of Jesus, this sort of behavior prevents us from truly engaging with other human beings. We can hide behind our mockery so we don’t have to deal with ideas that stretch us or human beings whom we find difficult to love.

When I mock someone, I am slamming the door on walking the second mile with them. I am sealing off my heart from empathy. And I am making sure there is no chance I will love my neighbor or my enemy. The way of Jesus is not a humorless way. But his way is inconsistent with mockery that closes hearts, builds walls, and tears down other people.

Lent is a good time for us to examine our lives, to see if we are allowing mockery to keep us from loving our neighbors and our enemies. We can renew our commitment to following Jesus as he walks the second mile with others, and the third, and the fourth, . . . .

Reflect

Have you ever been the victim of mockery? How did it feel? How did you deal with it?

Have you ever mocked others? Do you sometimes make fun of people with whom you disagree politically, theologically, or ethnically?

Can you think of a time when you walked the second mile with someone who bugged you, someone you might instead have chosen to mock?

Act

If you sometimes mock people, this would be a good time to stop. But, beyond this, think of how you might reach out in love and respect to someone with whom you disagree.

Pray

Lord Jesus, as I read today’s passage I am saddened by what you endured. And, of course, the worst was yet to come. But the mockery you endured was so wrong. Those who made fun of you never had to deal with you as a person, not to mention the Savior and Lord of the world.

Lord, though I don’t think I would ever mock you, I can certainly use mockery to keep me from engaging deeply with others, especially those I don’t approve of. If I make fun of them I don’t have to take them seriously. I can avoid knowing them, walking the second mile with them, and showing them the love you want to give them through me. Help me, Lord, not to use humor in a way that breaks relationships and hinders the gospel. May I seek always to walk in your way.

To you be all the glory, Amen.


Part 60: What’s Jesus’s Line?

Scripture – Luke 22:66-71 (NRSV)

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought [Jesus] to their council. They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” He said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!”

Focus

The religious leaders in Jerusalem seemed to be interested in Jesus’s “line” of work. Did he think he was the Messiah? Even the Son of God? But the authorities weren’t really interested in Jesus’s answers. They were trying to entrap him. In the season of Lent we have the opportunity to ask in a fresh way, “Who is Jesus?” We can go deeper in our understanding of Jesus and in our relationship with him.

Devotion

As a young boy, I loved watching the television show What’s My Line? with my parents. The premise of this game show was simple. A mystery guest would appear, someone with an unusual “line” of work. The panel of celebrities would ask questions to try and figure out what the guest did for a living. I remember how happy I was to see if I could figure out the mysterious “line,” which I almost never did. But it was fun, nevertheless.

In a way, the examination of Jesus in Luke 22:66-71 reminds me of What’s My Line? Now, to be super clear, what happened here was no laughing matter. But the Jerusalem authorities were trying to figure out the “line” of Jesus. And Jesus, like the contestants on What’s My Line?, wasn’t making it easy for them.

Of course there was also a difference in motivation. The game show panel was wanting to discover a secret for the sake of entertainment. The Jerusalem authorities were wanting to find a reason to put Jesus to death.

They asked Jesus first whether he was the Messiah. This question did not have a simple answer because, though Jesus thought of himself in messianic terms, his understanding of the Messiah’s role was different from the one that was common in the first century. Moreover, Jesus sensed that there was no point in trying to engage in a serious conversation about messiahship with his interlocutors. They weren’t interested in learning what Jesus was really all about.

The fact that Jesus brought up the Son of Man is not altogether surprising since he often used this title in reference to himself. The Son of Man (the Hebrew/Aramaic phrase can mean simply “human being”) was envisioned as a glorious figure associated with the future coming of God’s kingdom (see Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus, however, complicated these expectations by showing that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer, die, and be raised from the dead (Luke 9:22). In today’s passage, however, Jesus spoke of himself as the Son of Man who will be enthroned next to God (Luke 22:69).

It was shocking to those listening to hear Jesus associate himself with the glorious, powerful Son of Man. So they asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” (Luke 22:70). The title “Son of God” could be used in Judaism in reference to the human king of Israel (see Psalm 2, for example). But asking Jesus if he was “the” Son of God went beyond merely a royal title. The authorities were asking if Jesus claimed a uniquely intimate, authoritative, and glorious position in relationship to God. He didn’t answer with a straight up “Yes,” but rather with an unsettling “You say that I am” (22:70). Yet this was enough for the officials, who believed Jesus had incriminated himself.

We wonder what exactly was the crime of Jesus. From the Roman point of view he was a rabble-rouser who threatened the peace of Judea. But from the perspective of the Jewish leaders, Jesus had committed blasphemy by associating himself so uniquely with God. Even if he didn’t say unmistakably, “I am the Son of God,” he implied this. Plus, he had done and said things that were appropriate for God alone, like referring to himself as “lord of the sabbath” (Luke 6:5) or forgiving a person’s sins in an apparently blasphemous way (Luke 5:20-21). For Jews in the first century, the gap between humankind and the divine was expansive, and Jesus kept doing and saying things that put him on God’s side of the chasm. This was simply unacceptable to the Jerusalem authorities.

As I reflect on this story from Luke 22, I am reminded of the fact that Jesus’s identity and work should not be narrowed down, though Christians often do this. We embrace Jesus as our personal Savior, which is great, but have little sense of his royal authority and glory, which is not so great. We rightly celebrate the salvation Jesus offers after we die, but we neglect the presence of his kingdom on earth today. We rightly understand that Jesus was not the political messiah expected by his compatriots, but we ignore the implications of his authority for our systems and structures.

In this season of Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect deeply on who Jesus was and who he is and the difference this makes. We can take time to consider the different “lines” of Jesus, the different roles he both redefined and fulfilled in such amazing ways. And we can ask how our lives might be different if we took seriously who Jesus seeks to be for us.

Reflect

Which of Jesus’s various titles and roles do you relate to most of the time?

Do you have any idea of what it might mean for you to take Jesus seriously as the Son of Man?

If you could sit down with Jesus and have a serious conversation about his “line,” what questions might you ask him?

Act

With a good friend or in your small group, talk about who Jesus is to you. What do you believe about him? How do you relate to him? What questions do you have for him? How might you grow into a deeper relationship with him?

Pray

Lord Jesus, as I read today’s passage from Luke, I continue to be sad about what you had to endure. But I thank you for choosing the way of servanthood, the way of suffering.

I confess, Lord, that it’s easier for me to relate to you in some ways but not others. I’m thrilled to have you as my Savior and Friend. I’m more hesitant about acknowledging you full as my Lord. And I’m often unsure about how I should respond to you as the Son of Man. What I know for sure, Jesus, is that there is so much more room for me to grow in my knowledge and experience of you. There are so many more ways for me to live as your disciple each day.

So help me, Lord, to know you more clearly, to love you more dearly, and to follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.


Part 61: Jesus as a Big Giant Spoon

Scripture – Luke 23:1-5 (NRSV)

Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”

Focus

The opponents of Jesus brought accusations against him to Pontius Pilate, in the hope that he would be executed. Though several of their claims against Jesus were exaggerated or false, one was accurate. Jesus did indeed “stir up the people” from Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry, to Jerusalem, where it was soon to end. The Jesus who stirs things up in a major way, therefore, is rather like a big giant spoon. Will we allow Jesus to stir us up, to challenge our complacencies and call us to a whole new way of living?

Devotion

A number of years ago I was speaking at a Christian conference in Austin, Texas. One of the keynote speakers was a man who was well known for making big, bold, brash statements. He really enjoyed getting a rise out of his audience and whipping up controversy. In his conference talk, he blasted Christians for being too committed to rationality. We need to use more stories, images, and metaphors. He kept hammering away on the need for creative metaphors that will carry our meaning into the world. Predictably, folks in the crowd were pretty riled up after he finished.

Back at my hotel, guess who joined me in the elevator. That’s right, the speaker I had just heard. Though we didn’t know each other, I said to him, “You are a big giant spoon.” He looked puzzled, then unhappy, as if I were insulting him. “What do you mean?” he asked gruffly. I repeated my statement, “You are a big giant spoon.” Again, he said, “What are you trying to tell me?” I realized I was going to have to explain, lest I make this man my lifelong opponent. “You are a big giant spoon,” I said, “in that you do a great job stirring the pot. The talk you just gave on metaphors was a perfect example of you being a giant spoon.” As we exited the elevator, he looked at me quizzically, realizing that I had been trying to do exactly what he had urged so passionately, using an engaging metaphor. He may also have been a bit embarrassed that he didn’t get it until I offered a prosaic explanation. As he walked away he said, “Okay, then. Well, thanks, I guess.” Honestly, I thought he’d love being called a big giant spoon. Oh well.

Had the leaders in Jerusalem heard that man’s talk on metaphors, they might have called Jesus a big giant spoon. And, actually, that would have been a fair description. Many of their accusations against Jesus were not accurate, such as that Jesus had forbidden people to pay taxes to the emperor. And Jesus had never actually said he was the king in the sense of a political competitor to Caesar. But it was fair to say that he “stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place” (Luke 23:5).

How did Jesus stir up the people? Certainly, his ability to do miracles, especially to heal people, awakened popular curiosity and drew the crowds. But it was Jesus’s message that seemed to have the most impact. When Jesus was teaching in the temple in Luke 19, for example, the leaders were trying to find a way to kill him “but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard” (Luke 19:47-48). The religious leaders were, in fact, “afraid of the people” because Jesus had stirred them up so much (Luke 22:2). So, when making their accusations to Pontius Pilate, the authorities could have said, metaphorically, Jesus is a great big spoon.

If we were to take seriously the teaching and example of Jesus, I suggest he’d be a great big spoon today. Through his faithful disciples he would stir things up, that’s for sure. He’d unsettle our own personal complacency and comfort, calling us to imitate his sacrificial service and even to love our enemies. Jesus would stir up things in our society with his proclamation of God’s kingdom, mercy, love, and justice (see, for example, Luke 4:16-30). Jesus would also stir up the church, calling us to care less about our personal preferences and privilege and more about serving “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) and reaching out with grace to the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7).

During Lent, we have the opportunity to ask the Lord if he’d like to stir up something in us. Yes, Jesus is the one who offers peace. But that doesn’t mean we will always feel comfortable around him. The real Jesus will expand our horizons, challenge our biases, disrupt our comfortable assumptions, and call us into his counter-cultural kingdom. He will stir up within us new compassion for the hurting and zeal for his holiness. So, if you’ll allow for the metaphor, will you let Jesus be a big giant spoon in your life?

Reflect

Has Jesus stirred anything up in your life recently? If so, what happened? If not, why not?

Do you think that perhaps you have become overly comfortable with Jesus? If so, what can you do to engage with Jesus in a new and deeper way?

Is there any context in your life in which you feel led, as a disciple of Jesus, to stir things up? If so, where is this and what do you feel called to do?

Act

It would be easy to say, “Go stir things up somewhere.” And perhaps you should. But it may be that, first of all, you need to give Jesus the freedom to stir things up in your life. Why don’t you take some time to talk with him about this?

Pray

Lord Jesus, I trust that you’re not offended when I call you a big giant spoon. You get the metaphor. Maybe you even like it. The religious leaders and the Romans wouldn’t have liked it, that’s for sure. You were a threat to the status quo, to the oppressive peace and order of Rome and its allies. They didn’t like how you stirred things up. Yet that didn’t stop you, until, of course, they killed you. But after that you really stirred things up!

You know, Lord, that I am not one to be drawn to disruption. I like things that are stable and safe, with maybe just a tiny bit of adventure. But I do want you to have the freedom to do in me anything you desire. So I invite you, Lord, to stir things up in me. I know you’ll do this with mercy and wisdom. I know you want the best for me. So I surrender to you my love of comfort and familiarity. Do in me – and then through me – what you will. Not my will, but your will be done. Amen.


Part 62: Joy to the World . . . in Lent?

Scripture – Luke 19:37-40 (NRSV)

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king
+++who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
+++and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Focus

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on the day we know as Palm Sunday, his disciples celebrated the coming of their king with loud praise to God. Some less enthusiastic onlookers told Jesus to get them to stop. He answered by saying if they were silent, the stones would shout out. His response is consistent with the Old Testament image of nature offering praise to God as he comes to bring justice and salvation. Today may we join with fields, floods, rocks, hills, and plains in offering joyous praise to God for the coming of Jesus our King.

Devotion

This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, the day when Christians remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion. Though I recently shared a reflection on Luke’s account of Jesus’s entry (see Welcoming King Jesus), it seems good to me to revisit this story today, focusing on something I didn’t comment about last time.

As you may recall, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt the multitude of his disciples welcome him with shouts of praise, “Blessed in the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38). But not everyone was pleased. Some Pharisees – apparently not all of the Pharisees present there – cried out to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop” (19:39). Jesus, however, did not do what they had asked, answering, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (19:40).

That was certainly a bold claim. Jesus was saying that the celebration of his kingship and God’s glory are so necessary, so right, so inevitable that silencing the disciples wouldn’t stop the praise. Nature itself would continue the celebration.

The notion of nature praising God and the coming of God’s justice was not original to Jesus. It can be found at various places in the Hebrew Scriptures (for example, Isaiah 44:23 and 55:12). Psalm 98 is one of the most familiar Old Testament passages in which nature celebrates the coming of God. The whole earth is invited to “Make a joyful noise to the LORD” (Psalm 98:4). More specifically, the psalm writer says, “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:7-9). So, when Jesus comes to Jerusalem to complete the work of salvation, he echoes Psalm 98 in recognizing that praise is mandatory, if not from people, then from nature itself.

We are acquainted with the themes of Psalm 98 because they are engraved in our hearts through the words of the beloved Christmas carol “Joy to the World.” Isaac Watts wrote this song as a Christ-inspired interpretation of Psalm 98, adding it to a collection of Psalm-based hymns. Notice how praise from nature appears in these familiar lines:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the world! the Saviour reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

So, it might even be appropriate to sing “Joy to the World” in Lent, especially on Palm Sunday. Now I must confess that my tradition-shaped sensibilities might struggle with this a bit. I suppose it could even be good for me to have to stretch a little. But, whether or not we actually sing “Joy to the World” in this season of the year, we do welcome the coming king, indeed the King of kings and Lord of lords. We join with fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, to repeat the joy of Jesus’s coming.

Yet we also recognize that his entry into Jerusalem set in motion the events that led to his crucifixion. In a few days his kingship will be mocked by “King of the Jews” posted on the cross above his head. So, our celebration on Palm Sunday is tempered by what lies ahead for Jesus, even as it will be surpassed by the joyous celebration yet to come on Easter.

In the season of Lent, our worship is often quiet as we acknowledge our mortality and get in touch with our need for a Savior. But we still rejoice because of the goodness and grace of God in Christ. We can’t be silent, allowing the rocks to praise in our place. Rather, we join all creation in celebrating the coming of King Jesus. He came to Jerusalem to die for us that we might live now and forever in his kingdom.

Reflect

When you think of nature offering praise to God, what comes to mind? What images? What memories? What places?

If your church were to sing “Joy to the World” on Palm Sunday, how would you react?

In what ways do you intentionally live under the rule of King Jesus?

Act

Take time today to offer intentional and joyful praise to Jesus the king who has come to save us.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I am moved by the image of the stones offering you praise. Indeed, you are worthy of worship from all creation, from fields, floods, rocks, hills, and plains. May I join my voice to theirs today, welcoming you as King, not just in Jerusalem, but also in my own heart and life. May I live for the praise of your royal glory each day, in all that I do. All hail, King Jesus! Amen.


Part 63: Taking Responsibility for Jesus’s Death

Scripture – Luke 23:13-25 (NRSV)

Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”

Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

Focus

Historians debate who was directly responsible for Jesus’s death. However we answer this historical question, however, there is a more pressing question to be considered. From a spiritual point of view, who was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus? Christians believe that, in a real sense, we bear such responsibility because of our sin. Even so, we must recognize that Jesus himself chose to die. He was not a powerless victim. He went to the cross out of obedience to his Heavenly Father and out love for the world . . . including you and me.

Devotion

Biblical scholars and historians hold various views on the question of who was responsible for the death of Jesus. On first glance, our passage from Luke seems to make it clear that Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, did not want to kill Jesus and only did so because of pressure from Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Pilate said, for example, “he has done nothing to deserve death” (Luke 23:15). He only gave in to the Jewish demands for crucifixion because they would be satisfied with nothing less.

Painting of the crucifixion from Taormina, Sicily. © Mark D. Roberts. All rights reserved.

This is one possible reading of the Pontius Pilate story. But, after studying the Gospel narratives closely, I believe it’s not the best reading. Allow me to explain an alternative.

Pontius Pilate was known to be an arrogant, hard-hearted, tyrannical prefect, one who did many things to antagonize and terrorize the Jews under his governance. He was not one to be pushed around, especially by the Jews. Thus, if Pilate truly did not want Jesus to be crucified, it’s unlikely that he’d have given in to Jewish pressure. That would have been a blow to his pretentious pride.

Given the fact that Jesus had been stirring up the people, that he proclaimed the kingdom of God not Caesar, and that his popularity was growing (for example, see Luke 19:47-48 and 22:2), it’s likely that Pilate would have wanted to get Jesus out of the way somehow. But doing so during the Passover, when Jerusalem was overflowing with Jewish pilgrims, would have been extremely risky. If Pilate were perceived by the crowds as being responsible for Jesus’s death, then they might have revolted, which is the main thing Pilate wanted to avoid. But, if Pilate could manipulate things so that it appeared that the Jewish leaders were responsible for the death of Jesus – even though Pilate alone had the legal authority over crucifixion – then Pilate could kill two birds with one stone. He could kill Jesus, thus getting rid of a rabble-rouser. And he could enhance his own popularity while undermining the popularity of the Jewish leaders. So Pilate pretended not to want to crucify Jesus, believing that the Jewish authorities would insist on his death. Thus, they would appear to be responsible for Jesus’s death, even though, from a legal point of view, only Pilate could have sentenced him to crucifixion.

Pilate’s ploy worked, at least in many Christian interpretations of the passion narrative. This often fueled Christian anti-Semitism, something so contrary to the ministry and message of Jesus. Now, it’s important to note that the oldest and most universal of Christian creeds (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed) both say that Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Jews are not mentioned. But many Christians, nevertheless, put primary blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews, and used this as a rationale for prejudicial, hateful attitudes and behaviors. (If you’d like a more thorough explanation of the historical perspective I’m advocating here, check out my article: “The Death of Jesus: Why Was It Necessary?”)

Of course, it’s quite possible that my reading of this story is incorrect, though I’m not the only New Testament scholar to affirm it. But, in a way, it doesn’t really matter. Why? Because, for one thing, we know for sure that Pilate alone bore ultimate authority for sentencing Jesus to death, no matter what got him to that decision. That’s why our ancient creeds read as they do. Yet, even more importantly, we miss the main point if we focus only on the historical reasons for Jesus’s death. There is something more significant to be considered, something profoundly relevant to our faith and life today.

No matter how we explain the historical reasons for Jesus’s crucifixion, Christians understand that we are profoundly responsible for his death from a spiritual point of view. Jesus died in order to take upon himself the penalty for human sin, including your sin and my sin. There is a very real sense in which I am responsible for Jesus’s death . . . and so are you.

But, perhaps even more importantly, Jesus actually chose to die in fulfillment of his Father’s will. Jesus didn’t kill himself, of course. But he freely chose the way of suffering, the way of the cross, the way of death. He did so out of obedience to the Father and love for us. We saw this as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46). And we see it clearly in the Gospel of John, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John 10:17-18). Clearly, Jesus claimed ultimate responsibility for his death.

During Holy Week, the last week of Lent, you have an opportunity to focus on the death of Jesus; not just what happened in history, but also why it happened and what difference this makes today. The historical reasons matter, of course. But so much more do the spiritual reasons. Jesus chose to die as an expression of God’s love for the world, including you. So, as you acknowledge your responsibility for the death of Jesus, don’t miss the gospel truth. Jesus chose to die for you out of love to set you free from sin and death. That is indeed good news.

Reflect

Do you think of yourself as in any way responsible for the death of Jesus? If so, why? If not, why not?

Given what Jesus said in John 10:17-18, how comfortable are you with saying that Jesus was, in some profound way, responsible for his death?

Do you feel God’s love for you as you reflect on the cross of Jesus?

Act

Reserve a few minutes today to reflect quietly on the death of Jesus. See what the Lord wants to press upon your heart.

Pray

Lord Jesus, from a certain perspective, the rulers in Jerusalem were responsible for your death. Their collusion led to the sentence Pilate laid upon you. Yet, Lord, I recognize today that I am also responsible for your death in a way. You died for me. You died in my place. You bore my sin upon the cross so that I might be forgiven and free. How I thank you for your grace!

But you were not driven to the cross against your will. You were not a helpless victim. You chose the cross in obedience to your Father’s will and out of love for the world. Nobody took your life from you apart from your decision to offer it. O Lord, how amazing is your love!

As I reflect on your death during this Holy Week, may I come to a truer understanding and a deeper experience of your love and grace. Amen.


Part 64: Carrying the Cross

Scripture – Luke 23:26 (NRSV)

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.

Focus

Simon of Cyrene was watching Jesus carry his cross to Calvary when, all of a sudden, he was pressed into service by the Roman soldiers. He had to carry the cross when Jesus was no longer strong enough to do so. In a way, we who follow Jesus are like Simon. We heed Jesus’s call to take up our “cross,” putting aside self-interest as we offer all that we are to the Lord.

Devotion

What a shock this must have been for Simon! After traveling almost a thousand miles from Cyrene in northern Africa to Jerusalem (Cyrene was where Libya is today), he found the city jammed with pilgrims. They, like Simon himself, had come to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.

Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to Carry the Cross. Painting © Linda E.S. Roberts, 2007. For permission to use this picture, contact Mark D. Roberts.

Painting © Linda E.S. Roberts, 2007. For permission to use this picture, contact Mark D. Roberts.

It’s likely that Simon set up camp out in the countryside alongside tens of thousands of other visitors. On his way into the city one day, he stumbled into what might have looked from a distance like a parade. But then, as he drew near, Simon saw the horrific spectacle of a badly beaten man stumbling as he was forced to carry the beam of his cross on the way to being crucified. We don’t know whether Simon had any knowledge of Jesus prior to their encounter on the road to Golgotha. It’s likely that he knew nothing about the suffering man before that moment.

As Simon watched in horror, all of a sudden he found himself pressed into action. The Roman soldiers, recognizing that Jesus didn’t have sufficient strength to carry his cross by himself, “seized” Simon and demanded that he carry the cross instead. No doubt Simon was hesitant, fearing that he might end up sharing Jesus’s fate. Yet he knew enough not to provoke the soldiers, so he took the cross as ordered. We don’t know much more about Simon than this, since he disappears from the biblical record at this point (see note below for more information on Simon).

Although Simon only helped to carry the cross of Jesus and was not actually crucified, he nevertheless illustrates a profound theological truth found in the letters of Paul in the New Testament. In the letter to the Galatians we read:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19b-20)

The letter to the Romans contains even more detail about what it means to be crucified with Christ:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:1-11)

When we put our faith in Christ, we shared in his death, not by literally dying, but by dying to sin. Our “old self” is crucified so that we might be set free from our bondage to sin. Thus, we are alive in Christ, who lives in us.

Therefore, in a sense, we identify with Simon of Cyrene, who found himself a surprised participant in the crucifixion of Christ. Like Simon, many of us became Christians without really understanding that we were dying to our old selves so that we might live anew in Christ. We were pitched a gospel of salvation and eternal life without the corollary call to servanthood, sacrifice, and death to sin and self. Thus, it was only later in our Christian pilgrimage when we discovered, like Simon, that we were expected to be “crucified with Christ.”

Unlike Simon, however, we aren’t forced to pick up the cross of Christ. Jesus doesn’t use his power and authority to coerce us into being his disciples. Rather, he invites us to follow him even though, as our Lord, he could demand this of us. Instead, Jesus beckons to us, calling us to take up the cross for him even as he took up the cross for us. As he once said to those who were interested in following him:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-24).

If we take up the cross of Christ, we will lose our lives, only to discover that we have found true life in him.

During this Holy Week, we reflect on the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. We marvel at what he did for us and our salvation. As we do, we also remember the call of Jesus to imitate his sacrifice as we devote our whole lives to him and as we express this devotion by serving others in every sector of life.

Reflect

Use your imagination to put yourself in Simon’s shoes. How would you have felt when you were compelled to carry the cross of Jesus?

How do you understand what it means to be “crucified with Christ”?

What does it mean for you, in your daily life, to take up your cross and follow Jesus?

Act

Choose to do something today in service to the Lord. It will likely be serving another person in his name.

Pray

Lord Jesus, the powerful example of Simon reminds me that I am also to take up my cross and follow you. You have called me to die to myself so that I might live for you. I confess that sometimes I resist this call, even though I know that in dying to myself I find true life in you. So help me, Lord, to carry my cross, to give my life away so that I might receive the abundant life of your kingdom.

I could not do this were it not for the fundamental fact that you took my place on the cross. Through you, I am forgiven and invited into the fullness of life. In your death, I am raised to new life. All thanks and praise be to you, Lord Jesus, for bearing my sin on the cross, so that I might bear the cross into eternal life, both now and forever. Amen.

A Historical Note about Simon of Cyrene

The Gospel of Mark names Simon’s sons as Alexander and Rufus, presumably because these men were known to the community for whom Mark was writing (Rome? see Mark 15:21). Paul also mentions a Rufus in the close of his letter to the Romans (Romans 16:13). He might be the son of Simon, but this is only speculation. Some second-century Gnostics argued that it wasn’t Jesus who died on the cross, but Simon of Cyrene. There’s no basis for this in reliable historical texts. Some Muslims also hold this view, since they deny that Jesus died on the cross. Because of Simon’s North African origin, it’s likely that he was a Black man.


Part 65: Unexpected King. Unexpected Salvation.

Scripture – Luke 23:32-38 (NRSV)

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Focus

As Jesus was being crucified, a sign placed above his head proclaimed, “The King of the Jews.” The nearby leaders and soldiers mocked Jesus, saying “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” They did not realize that Jesus was exercising his royal duty by giving up his life for others. They did not understand that, by not saving himself, Jesus was becoming the Savior of the world. He was a most unexpected King who would offer a most unexpected salvation.

Devotion

All four of the biblical gospels report that a sign was placed above Jesus on the cross. It identified him as “the King of the Jews” (23:38). It had been put there by soldiers following the specific orders of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. But we mustn’t read this as Pilate’s statement of faith in Jesus. Rather, the prefect was seeking to mock Jesus and, indeed, all of the Jewish people. The terrible power of Rome, seen horrendously in the act of crucifixion, was what came down on any who proclaimed a kingdom other than that of Caesar. Pilate was saying, in effect, “You mess with our kingdom, this is what you get. Here, you trouble-making Jews, is your king, dying horribly on a Roman cross. Deal with it!” (In art, Pilate’s sign is often represented by the letters “INRI,” which represent the Latin words meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”)

Of course Pilate didn’t grasp the irony of the sign he had placed above Jesus. He did not believe that Jesus was in any way a true king. John’s Gospel records a snippet of conversation between Pilate and Jesus, in which Pilate asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews (John 18:33). Jesus responded that his kingdom was “not from this world” (John 18:36). That seemed to satisfy Pilate, who changed the subject by asking “What is truth?” (John 18:38). He saw that Jesus was nothing like a real king, one with earthly power and authority. Jesus wouldn’t be sitting on a royal throne. He’d soon be hanging on a Roman cross, which is about as far from real kingship as one could be, from Pilate’s point of view.

The irony of Pilate’s sign is that it was true, but not in the way Pilate understood it. Jesus had indeed proclaimed the kingdom of God. He had acted in ways that revealed his own kingly authority. Yet he was not the king in any ordinary sense. He looked nothing like a true king from the Roman point of view. And he did not fulfill the kingly role that the Jewish people expected of the true messiah. In particular, Jesus did not save his people from Roman political domination. That’s what the messianic king was supposed to do, according to Jewish speculation. But Jesus didn’t exercise that kind of power, nor did he aspire to it.

Moreover, though he had been known as a miracle worker, Jesus’s saving power appeared to have deserted him on the cross. The Jewish leaders watching the crucifixion said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (Luke 23:35). The Roman soldiers chimed in with their mockery, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:37). Yet, what neither the leaders nor the soldiers understood was that Jesus, as God’s messianic King, had no intention of saving himself. He had come to save others. In fact, he had come to save others through his death. If Jesus had accessed divine power to save himself from the cross, then he would not have become the Savior of the world.

Jesus was a most unexpected King. No true king, from the Jewish and Roman perspectives, would die on a cross. No true king would sacrifice himself for the sake of others.

Jesus was a most unexpected Savior. Nobody other than Jesus himself, not even his closest followers, understood that the salvation of Jesus would come through his dying on the cross. What appeared to be the ultimate defeat of Jesus and his mission was, in fact, the victory of God over sin and death.

Jesus is not just the King of the Jews, however. He is the true king over all things. He is the king on whose robe is inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16). Everything on earth and in heaven belongs ultimately to King Jesus. One day his sovereignty will be recognized as every knee bows before him (Philippians 2:10). In the meanwhile, we who follow Jesus have the chance to acknowledge his kingly authority both in our words and in our lives. We proclaim King Jesus through living each moment under his sovereignty by seeking his justice, sharing his grace, and showing his love.

In this final week of Lent, as we reflect on the death of Jesus, may we affirm his kingship over all creation, including our own lives. May we offer ourselves to Jesus as his subjects, eager to live for his purposes and glory.

Reflect

What expectations do you have for Jesus?

Have you ever been disappointed when Jesus didn’t live up to your expectations for him?

What does it mean for you to live with Jesus as your King and your Savior?

Act

Take some time to reflect on the last question. Is Jesus your King in a way that makes a difference in how you live each day? What might it be like for you to be more intentional about recognizing Jesus’s royal authority over your life?

Pray

Lord Jesus, in a sadly ironic way Pilate got it right. You were the King of the Jews, but not in the way anyone expected. Today, you are still King, though not only of the Jews. You are King of kings and Lord of lords. You are sovereign over all things in heaven and on earth. I praise you today as the King.

And I recognize you as my King. You are the rightful authority over my life. You have every right to teach, guide, lead, and govern me as you wish. I offer myself today as your subject, your servant. May I live in your ways and for your purposes each day, in all that I do. Amen.


Part 66: Jesus Remembers You

Scripture – Luke 23:39-43 (NRSV)

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Focus

One of the criminals crucified with Jesus cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” When we cry out to Jesus, he hears us and responds with matchless grace. We don’t have to have perfect theology or live a perfect life in order to be remembered by Jesus. He is with us, not only in the future, but also right now.

Devotion

In yesterday’s devotion we saw that as Jesus hung on the cross, he was mocked by the leaders of Jerusalem and the Roman soldiers (Luke 23:35-37). One of the two criminals being crucified with Jesus added his own measure of derision (23:39). But the other crucified criminal sensed that Jesus was being treated unjustly. “This man has done nothing wrong,” he said. After speaking up for Jesus, he cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42).

The thief asks Jesus to remember him. Painting © Linda E.S. Roberts, 2007. For permission to use this picture, contact Mark D. Roberts.

Painting © Linda E.S. Roberts, 2007. For permission to use this picture, contact Mark D. Roberts.

Jesus responded to this criminal, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). The word “paradise,” from the Greek word paradeisos, which meant “garden,” was used in the Greek Old Testament for the Garden of Eden. In Greek-speaking Judaism of the time of Jesus, paradeisos was associated with heaven and also with the future when God would restore all things to the perfection of the Garden. Paradise was sometimes thought to be the place where righteous people went after death as they awaited resurrection in the age to come. This seems to be the way Jesus used “paradise” in today’s passage.

We have before us one of the most astounding and encouraging verses in all of Scripture. . . and also one of the most perplexing. Jesus promised that the criminal would be with him in Paradise. Yet Luke gives us no reason to believe this man had been a follower of Jesus or even a believer in him in any well-developed sense. The man might have felt sorry for his sins, but he did not obviously repent. Rather, the criminal’s cry to be remembered seems more like a desperate, last-gasp effort. If indeed Jesus was some sort of king, the man figured, then he might as well ask to be included in Jesus’s kingdom. This was indeed mustard seed faith, a tiny bit at most. Yet Jesus assured this baby believer that he would join Jesus in Paradise that very day.

Though we should make every effort to have right theology, and though we should live our lives each day as active disciples of Jesus, in the end our relationship with him comes down to simple trust, naked dependence on his grace. “Jesus, remember me,” we cry, just like the criminal in our story. And Jesus, embodying the mercy of God, says to us, “You will be with me in Paradise.” We are welcome to that place of eternal glory not because we have decent theology, and not because we are living decently, but because God is “rich in mercy” and wants to show us “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4,7).

Indeed, Jesus will remember you when he comes into his kingdom. But you don’t have to wait to be remembered by Jesus. In a matter of speaking, he “remembers” you right now. Through the Spirit, he is present in your life. When you serve others in his name, you are serving Jesus. You don’t even have to wait for Paradise in order to know that Jesus is with you. When you face the uncertainties and fears of this life, when you endure suffering and loss, when you wonder if God is there for you, know that Jesus has not forgotten you. He is with you. He remembers you . . . even right now!

Reflect

Have you staked your life on Jesus? Have you put your ultimate trust in him? If so, why? If not, why not?

Do you have confidence that, when your time comes, you will be with Jesus in Paradise? If so, why? If not, why not?

How do you respond to the idea that Jesus “remembers” you right now?

Act

Take time to ponder the fact that Jesus will remember you and is remembering you at this moment. Talk to him about this, expressing your thanks. Let Jesus know how you need him in this very moment.

Pray

Lord Jesus, how I wonder at your grace and mercy! When we cry out to you, you hear us. When we ask you to remember us when you come into your kingdom, you offer the promise of Paradise. Your mercy, dear Lord, exceeds anything we might imagine. It embraces us, encourages us, heals us.

O Lord, though my situation is so different from the criminal who cried out to you, I am nevertheless quite like him. Today I live trusting you and you alone. My life, both now and in the age to come, is in your hands.

And so I pray: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom! Jesus, remember me today as I seek to live in your kingdom in all I do! Amen.


Part 67: Giving All You Are to God

Scripture – Luke 23:44-49 (NRSV)

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Focus

Just before Jesus died on the cross, he quoted a portion of Psalm 31, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” He had done all that the Father had called him to do, and now he was giving himself fully and finally to the Father. As we face such uncertain times, as we continue to face challenges that feel overwhelming, we are encouraged to echo the words of Jesus, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” We find freedom and hope when we give to God all that we are, seeking his kingdom above everything else.

Devotion

Today is Good Friday, a day when Christians around the world remember and reflect on the death of Christ on the cross. The name “Good Friday” is ironic, of course, because in a sense what happened on this day is arguably the worst thing that human beings ever did—torturing and killing the Son of God. Yet, what happened on this day is arguably the best thing that God ever did on our behalf, taking our sin upon himself in Jesus so that in his death we might find life, eternal life, life to the fullest.

On the cross, Jesus said very little, and what he said is traditionally represented as his “seven last words.” Two of these “words” of Jesus were quotations from the Psalms. Earlier, Jesus echoed Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to express his anguish (see Mark 15:34). Later, Jesus borrowed from Psalm 31:5, which appears in Luke 23:46 as “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

By praying this portion of Psalm 31, Jesus was putting his post-mortem future in the hands of his Heavenly Father. It was as if he was saying, “Whatever happens to me after I die is your responsibility, Father. I trust you.”

But, when we look carefully at the Psalm Jesus quoted, we see that more is going on here than what at first meets the eye. Psalm 31 begins with a cry for divine help:

In you, O LORD, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me (Psalm 31:1).

But then this psalm mixes asking for God’s deliverance with a confession of God’s strength and faithfulness:

Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God (Psalm 31:5).

By the end, Psalm 31 offers praise for God’s salvation:

Blessed be the LORD,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was beset as a city under siege (Psalm 31:21).

By quoting a portion of Psalm 31, therefore, Jesus not only entrusted his future to his Father, but also implied that he would be delivered and exonerated. Jesus surely knew the full truth of Psalm 31. He understood that God would not deliver him from death by crucifixion. But beyond this horrific death lay something marvelous. “Into your hand I commit my spirit” points back to the familiar suffering of David in Psalm 31 and forward to the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, the final word of Jesus from the cross foreshadows the coming victory and joy of Easter.

We live in uncertain times. Though vaccinations are reducing the threat of the novel coronavirus and hold the promise of eventual deliverance from this deadly COVID-19 pandemic, so much is still unknown and unpredictable. We wonder what will happen with the world’s economy. We worry that injustices revealed by the pandemic might be ignored if “life returns to normal.” We recognize that the lives of millions of people have been injured by the ravages of death and disease. So, even in our hope we wrestle with uncertainty.

In such a time as this, the last word of Jesus is particularly relevant, encouraging, and challenging. Though we will do our best to mend our world and to help its citizens to flourish, in the end, we all pray as did Jesus, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” If we have put our trust in Jesus, then we belong to God both now and forever. So, as we reflect on Jesus’s death, we echo his words as we pray, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. I give you all that I am.”

Reflect

How do you deal with the uncertainties associated with the hoped-for end to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Have you put your life and, indeed, your life beyond this life, in God’s hands?

How do you experience God’s salvation through Christ in your life today?

Act

Set aside some time to examine your life. Have you given all that you are to God? Do you trust him fully? Or, like most people, are you holding back in some ways? Talk with God about what you discover through your examination.

Pray

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all. Amen.

(Hymn by Isaac Watts, 1707)


Part 68: Why the Burial of Jesus Matters

Scripture – Luke 23:50-56 (NRSV)

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

Focus

The Gospel of Luke, like the other biblical Gospels, describes in some detail the burial of Jesus. Why? First, the burial of Jesus underscored the fact that he really died on the cross. He really bore the penalty for human sin through his death. Second, the burial of Jesus sets the stage for what is coming, namely the resurrection. As we reflect on the death and burial of Jesus, we are struck by the amazing love of God for us, even as we are prepared for the celebration of Easter.

Devotion

On this Holy Saturday, I’d like to reflect with you on what happened right after Jesus died on the cross. Luke tells us that his body was placed in a tomb. This was better treatment than many crucified people would have received. Their bodies were often discarded by Roman soldiers and left exposed, unless they had families or friends nearby to care for them. The body of Jesus was fortunate enough to receive unusual attention from a man named Joseph, who was both a member of the Sanhedrin and a follower of Jesus. He made sure the body of his Lord was appropriately buried, so that, later, the bones of Jesus could be finally interred in an ossuary (a special box for bones), according to the common cultural practice. Little did Joseph know that God had other plans for the body of Jesus.

In most human societies appropriate burial of dead bodies is a sacred tradition. It matters profoundly that we ensure the proper resting place for those who have died. Yet, after burials happen, we don’t generally mention them specifically. For example, my father died in 1986. I’ve spoken of his death probably 500 times since then, but I don’t think I’ve ever said, “My dad died in 1986 and then he was buried.” Burial, however significant to us, is something we assume and don’t need to point out specifically. Perhaps the exception these days is when someone’s ashes are scattered. But if I say, “My dad died” you’d rightly assume that he was buried. Therefore, it’s notable that all four biblical Gospels describe the burial of Jesus and the help of Joseph of Arimathea as if it were essential.

Moreover, the very earliest summary we have of the Christian message also contained an explicit reference to Jesus’s burial. The Apostle Paul, writing to Christians in Corinth about twenty years after Jesus’s death, summarized the basic Christian good news in this way: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I, in turn, had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5, italics added) There it sits, unadorned but essential: “and that he was buried.”

Why did the earliest Christians, and then why did the writers of the Gospels, consider it so important to mention the actual burial of Jesus? To put the question a different way, what does “and that he was buried” add to the essential Christian message? For one thing, it prepares the way for the affirmation of the resurrection. To say that Jesus died and was raised without mentioning his burial could lead to a misunderstanding of the story. One might think that Jesus was immediately brought back to life from the cross or that he was immediately jettisoned to heaven. “And that he was buried” eliminates these options and explains the place from which Jesus was raised.

But, more important by far, the mention of the burial of Jesus makes it absolutely clear that Jesus really died on the cross. He didn’t just appear to die, as was once proposed by Hugh Schoenfield in his bestselling book, The Passover Plot (1965). Scholars of all theological stripes have discredited Schoenfield’s “swoon theory.” Whatever else can be known about Jesus, all the evidence, from both biblical and extra-biblical sources, points to the simple fact that he really died upon the cross.

When the earliest Christians proclaimed the burial of Jesus, they were saying, in effect, that he really, really died. Had Charles Dickens been among the first Christians, he might have said that Jesus was as dead as a doornail, just like Jacob Marley. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus’s death, a fairly mundane historical fact, is easy to parse out theologically. After all, Jesus was not just a man, but the God-man. He was the Word of God in flesh, the One in whom was life and who was the source of all life (John 1:1-14). That Jesus died physically, and that, in the process, he suffered the penalty of spiritual death for sin, are mysteries far beyond our ability to fully fathom. How could the One who was the Way, the Truth, and the Life actually die? How could the Author of Life lose his own life? I don’t propose to answer these questions. I’ve been a Christian for over fifty years and they still perplex me . . . and call me to wonder . . . and invite me to worship.

Perhaps Charles Wesley, early in the eighteenth century, penned one of the best responses to the question of the mystery of Christ’s death. Our closing prayer will be the words of his beloved hymn, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” I can think of no better way to conclude this Lenten devotional series on Holy Saturday than by reflecting on the reality, mystery, and mercy of the cross, so that we might experience God’s love more truly and powerfully. As Wesley wrote, “Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

Reflect

When you think of the burial of Jesus, what comes to mind for you?

In what ways does it matter to you that Jesus really died and really was buried?

If you have time, take some moments to reflect on the wonder of Christ’s death and burial. The words of our closing prayer might help you in your contemplation.

Act

On this Holy Saturday, plan for a time when you can quietly reflect on the death of Christ and its meaning for you. Talk with the Lord about what you think and feel in your time of reflection.

Pray

And can it be that I should gain, An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain – For me, who Him to death pursued?

Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

He left His Father’s throne above, So free, so infinite His grace –
Emptied Himself of all but love, And bled for Adam’s helpless race:

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, For O my God, it found out me!
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray – I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head, And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach th’eternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ my own. Amen.

(Selected verses of “And Can It Be” by Charles Wesley, 1738)


Part 69: He is Not Here, But Has Risen!

Scripture – Luke 24:1-6 (NRSV)

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, [some women who followed Jesus] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

Focus

The basic good news of Easter is found in Luke 24, when the angels say to the women followers of Jesus, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” The body of Jesus, who died a terrible death on a Roman cross, was not to be found in the tomb where he had been buried. No, God raised Jesus from the dead, thus breaking the power of sin and death. Because of the resurrection, everything changes. And it’s all based on the simple good news: Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Devotion

The final verses of Luke 23 record the actions of several faithful women who had followed Jesus. After seeing where and how he had been entombed, they gathered spices and ointments to honor his dead body. They did this on Friday, but did not go to Jesus’s tomb until Sunday because they rested on the Sabbath “according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56).

The Grand Tetons at sunset

© Mark D. Roberts. All rights reserved.

On Sunday morning, the women brought their spices to the tomb, yet they did not find Jesus’s body. This was perplexing to them. But all of a sudden two angels appeared to the women, saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (24:5).

Here is the core of Easter truth, the reason for the Easter celebration. Jesus truly died and was truly buried. But he was not in his grave because “he has risen.” The Greek verb translated here as “has risen” is a passive verb. A more literal translation would be “He is not here, but has been raised.” Jesus did not raise himself from the dead. Rather, he was raised by God. In this miracle, God vindicated his Son. God broke the bondage of sin and death. God began a whole new chapter of history, one based on the truth of the resurrection of Jesus.

For centuries, Christians have celebrated the resurrection by a traditional dialogue, the so-called Paschal Greeting. One person says, “Christ is risen!” The other responds, “He is risen, indeed!” There, in a nutshell, is the good news of Easter. There is the news that rewrites history. There is the news that changes everything.

Though the resurrection of Jesus happened almost two millennia ago, it still has the power to change everything. It can turn unbelief into faith, pessimism into hope, defeat into victory. The resurrection reassures us that, no matter how hard things are in this life, there is a life to come. The resurrection shows us that God wins and so will we.

So much more could be said about the resurrection, its meaning, and implications. But, today, I’d like to conclude by focusing our attention on the simple truth, the basic good news of Easter.

Christ is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Reflect

What difference does the resurrection of Jesus actually make in your life?

Act

Share the Paschal Greeting with people today, whether in person, via Zoom, or on the phone. Say, “Christ is risen!” so that the other can respond “He is risen, indeed!” If you have children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews, you might want to teach them this traditional Easter greeting.

Pray

Lord Jesus, you are risen! You are risen, indeed! What marvelous good news!

I praise you today as the one who died so that I might live.

I praise you as the one who was raised so that, one day, I too might be raised.

I praise you for your victory over sin, suffering, and death.

I praise you for giving us hope that endures.

I praise you for being the One who makes all things new.

All praise, glory, and honor be to you, Lord Jesus, the Risen One. Amen.


Part 70: The Resurrection of Jesus: Not an Idle Tale

Scripture – Luke 24:1-12 (NRSV)

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, [some women followers of Jesus] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Focus

When some of the women who followed Jesus returned from his tomb, announcing to the other disciples the good news of the resurrection, those who heard their announcement considered it an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). Though we can understand why Jesus’s disciples had a hard time believing that he actually rose from the dead, we can also explain why it’s reasonable to believe that the resurrection actually happened. Yet, even then, we need the Spirit of God to help us move from rational affirmation to wholehearted trust in Jesus as the risen Savior and Lord.

Devotion

According to the Gospel of Luke, on several occasions, Jesus predicted both his death and resurrection. In Luke 9:22 he said that the “Son of Man,” a title Jesus used in reference to himself, would suffer, be killed, “and on the third day be raised.” Similarly, in Luke 18:33, Jesus talked about the Son of Man being flogged, killed, and “on the third day he will rise again.” It’s likely, of course, that Jesus said things like this more times than are recorded in Luke.

But nobody believed him, not even his closest followers. At least that’s what we learn from Luke 24. On Easter Sunday morning, the women who had been faithful followers of Jesus went to his tomb, intending to anoint his body with various spices. They were shocked to find the tomb empty and terrified when two angels appeared to them with the news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The angels even reminded the women how Jesus had predicted that “the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (Luke 24:7). This seems to have convinced the women of the truth of the resurrection because they passed along this good news to the other disciples.

But, even with a reminder of what Jesus had predicted, the others did not believe the testimony of the women. Rather, “these words seemed to them an idle tale” (24:11). “Idle tale” is a slightly sanitized translation of the Greek word lēros, which, according to the standard lexicon, means “that which is totally devoid of anything worthwhile.” The NIV says that the women’s testimony “seemed to them like nonsense.” The Message puts it this way: “But the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up.”

Now, I’ve heard plenty of sermons that criticize the disbelieving disciples. I may well have preached one at some point. There’s no doubt that the disciples don’t come across very well in this story. Not only were they rejecting the testimony of women they knew well and should have believed, but, even more strikingly, they were rejecting Jesus’s own prediction of his resurrection.

I would like to offer a word of support for the disciples. Their expectations were not unreasonable, after all. They knew that dead people didn’t come back to life. They weren’t the kind of people to be caught up in hysteria or wishful thinking. Even though Jesus had talked about rising from the dead, that notion just didn’t make sense to his followers. They may have been disbelieving, but they weren’t crazy to expect something other than a genuine resurrection.

Moreover, the disciples had just experienced the heartbreaking horror of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, whom they loved dearly and expected to usher in the kingdom of God in ways that made sense to them. The events of Good Friday destroyed their faith and hope. It devastated their hearts. In their grief, they were not about to be fooled by stories of things that just don’t happen. They weren’t about to be taken in by idle tales, if you will. They were defending their hearts against even more devastation.

At times in my life, I have also struggled to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Like the first disciples of Jesus, I knew that people who die stay dead. I worried that the stories in the Gospels were made up by well-meaning but deceived followers of Jesus. Yet as I studied the historical accounts from the first century A.D., and as I put them to the best tests I could imagine, I found myself becoming convinced that the story of Jesus’s resurrection was not an idle tale, but rather an accurate account of something that was truly unique, truly miraculous, truly historical, and truly world-changing. (If you’re looking for some helpful discussions of the case for the resurrection of Jesus, I’ve gathered several solid resources here.)

Yes, in the end, the resurrection of Jesus is not something we can prove in a lab. History doesn’t work that way, especially when it comes to a unique and miraculous event. So, like the first disciples of Jesus, at some point, we have to decide whether to believe that Jesus rose or not. The historical evidence helps, to be sure. But all of us need the help of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to move beyond mere affirmation of historical probabilities to the place where we can wholeheartedly affirm, with the earliest Christians, Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Reflect

Do you ever wonder if the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection are really believable? If so, what do you do with your questions? If not, why not?

What do you find to be one of the strongest points in the case for the resurrection of Jesus?

How does the resurrection make a difference in your life, even today?

Act

Read one of the short, online articles in Resources on the Resurrection. One features Tim Keller, the other N. T. Wright.

Pray

Lord Jesus, today we continue to celebrate your resurrection. Though there is much we don’t understand, we do not consider the accounts of your resurrection to be an idle tale. No, Lord, we believe you truly rose from the dead, thus defeating the power of death.

We pray today for those who struggle to affirm the resurrection. Help them to think clearly and deeply. Give them a fresh perspective. Most of all, Lord, may your Spirit help them not only to believe the facts, but also to put their trust fully in you.

All praise be to you, Jesus, our risen Lord and Savior! Amen.


Part 71: Going Beyond Right Answers

Scripture – Luke 10:27-28 (NRSV)

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Focus

When a legal expert sought to test Jesus, Jesus gave him a chance to show off what he knew. Commending his knowledge, Jesus challenged him to go beyond right answers. “Do this and you will live,” Jesus said. We are right to seek the truth today. But if we’re going to follow Jesus faithfully, then we need to do more than give right answers. We need to live the truth we speak. We need to love God and our neighbors.

Devotion

If you’ve been reading Life for Leaders for a while, you’ll remember that we were taking a slow stroll through the Gospel of Luke. We had gotten as far as chapter 10 when we entered the season of Lent. It seemed good to me to jump ahead in Luke, focusing on the events of Jesus’s final days, concluding with his crucifixion. Rather than getting back to Luke 10 right away, I spent the last several weeks reflecting with you on the notion of calling as it appears in the New Testament letters of Paul. Yesterday, I finished that series, which was entitled God’s Transformational Calling. Now, it’s time to get back to Luke so we can finish up this amazing Gospel.

We pick up the story in Luke 10:25. As Jesus was speaking to his disciples, an expert in the Jewish law approached Jesus. Though his physical posture indicated respect (in the time of Jesus, teachers sat, students stood), and though the legal expert addressed Jesus as “Teacher,” Luke informs us that he sought to test Jesus. He was anxious to see if Jesus’s wisdom was consistent with the law.

The legal expert asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Like a skilled rabbi, Jesus answered with questions for the expert, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (10:26). Given the man he was asking, it almost seems as if Jesus was giving him a chance to show off his legal knowledge. The expert answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (10:27). This impressed Jesus, who said, “You have given the right answer” (10:28).

Now, if I had been in the legal expert’s sandals, that would have made my day. I would have been so pleased about giving the right answer that I would have forgotten for a moment my plan to test Jesus. I’ll be honest with you. I have loved giving right answers ever since I was a young boy. And, truth be told, I still like giving right answers. I confess that a good bit of my identity is based on “right answer giving.” I expect many of my Life for Leaders readers will understand.

Right answers matter in my book. Discovering and telling the truth matters. Good theology matters. I really believe this. (Yes, I believe I’m giving the right answer here!) The problem is that, from the perspective of Jesus, right answers aren’t enough. Jesus did not say to the expert in the law, “You have given the right answer. Good for you! Way to go! High five!” Rather, Jesus said, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).

Jesus calls us to more than giving the right answers. As important as it is to discern and state the truth, it’s not enough. We need to go beyond right answers to right living. We need to do what our right answers commend. Christian faith isn’t only a matter of believing. It’s also a matter of living.

As we’ll see on Monday, the expert in the law wasn’t happy with Jesus’s response. He tried to worm his way out of the implications of what Jesus told him to do by, of course, asking another question. But, before we get to the expert’s question, I want to ask some questions of my own. Are you going beyond right answers? No matter how good your theology might be, are you seeking to live it out each day? Are you doing what you profess? Or are you more like me, tempted to focus so much on right answers that you neglect right behavior? Are you so focused on what it means to love your neighbor as yourself that you don’t actually love your neighbor as yourself?

Reflect

Are you ever tempted to care so much about being right that you neglect acting rightly? If so, why do you think this is true of you? If not, why not?

Can you think of a time when you were so eager to be right that you failed to love your neighbor?

What helps you to go beyond right answers, to live what you believe?

Act

Do something today that is an intentional act of loving your neighbor.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I must confess what you already know. I am a lot like the expert in the law. Oh, I’m not trying to test you. But I am so eager to get things right that I often fail to live and love rightly. Sometimes I even do this in your name. Forgive me, Lord.

Getting things right matters. Right theology matters. Right ethics matters. But if I am believing and saying those right things while failing to live in a loving way, then I am not following you rightly, Lord. Help me, I pray, to care about what’s true, to speak the truth as I am able. But help me to live the truth, to love you with all that I am, and to love my neighbor as myself. Amen.


Part 72: Going Beyond Self-Justification

Scripture – Luke 10:25-29 (NRSV)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Focus

When Jesus puts a legal expert on the spot by telling him to love God and his neighbor, the expert seeks to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” If Jesus will answer this question, then the expert can show how he loves his neighbors . . . self-justification at its finest. Some of us can relate to the desire to justify ourselves. We want to be good people. We don’t want to confront our shortcomings. But if we want to grow, if we want to be people who truly love others, then we need God to help us see where we fall short. God’s kindness leads us to turn away from sin and to turn toward a life of loving God and our neighbors.

Devotion

In last Thursday’s devotion, we listened in on a conversation between an expert in the Jewish law (in the NRSV, a “lawyer”) and Jesus. Luke tells us that the expert’s intention was to test Jesus. Was his teaching consistent with the expert’s version of Judaism? But Jesus turned the tables on this man, answering his question – What must I do to inherit eternal life? – with another question: What is written in the law? The legal expert answered by quoting the law’s commands to love God and neighbor. Jesus affirmed his answer, adding, “Do this, and you will live.”

But this didn’t sit well with the legal expert. According to Luke, he sought “to justify himself,” so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). It’s likely that the legal expert expected Jesus to give an answer that would be typical in that time and place. Neighbors, for many first-century Jews, were not equivalent to the people whom you encountered regularly. They were not the same as those who lived in your neighborhood. Rather, neighbors were people with whom you had a culturally valued relationship: family members, synagogue members, fellow Pharisees, fellow Jews, and so forth. Others could be discounted, folks like immigrants, Roman soldiers, and others who were not Jewish. If Jesus answered the legal expert’s question as expected, giving him a list of neighbors, then this man could say, “I do love my neighbors,” thus justifying himself. Case closed! (Of course, the case wasn’t closed because, as we’ll see, Jesus didn’t give the expected answer. Instead he told a story.)

Now, I have a true confession to make. I am a lot like the legal expert. If I had been standing in his sandals and Jesus said to me, “Do this, and you will live,” I’m pretty sure I would have wanted Jesus to know that I was doing it quite well, thank you. I knew who my neighbors were – the people closely related to me – and I was mostly good at loving them. I would want Jesus and those listening to our conversation to understand that I really was okay. I was doing just fine in the crucial matter of keeping the Jewish law.

Second confession: I can respond like the legal expert today when God points out my shortcomings. Perhaps I’m listening to a sermon and some admonishment strikes home. My first inclination is not to say, “O Lord, that was for me. Forgive me! Help me! Teach me!” Rather, my intuitive starting point is to rationalize, to use my brain to justify myself. “The preacher made a good point. But, really, it wasn’t for me. I’m off the hook.”

Why do I do this sort of thing? And, if you’re like me, why do you do it? Partly, I want to think that I’m okay, and I want others to agree. Furthermore, I don’t want to live in a way that fails to love God and others. I don’t want to be that sort of person. So, if something or someone suggests that I am unloving – that I am selfish or racist or insensitive or greedy – I don’t want to believe it. But then, if I begin to believe it, I feel ashamed. And shame is terribly unpleasant. So I am wired to avoid shame by being good at self-justification.

Yet I have enough life experience to know that true growth requires dealing with reality, including the reality about myself that I’d rather avoid. And I do want to grow. Moreover, I really do want to love others well. If there are things about me that are unloving, as much as I hate them, I do want to deal with them.

Finally, and most importantly, I know that God is gracious. When God points out our sin, it’s not to leave us stewing in a stagnant pot of shame. Rather, conviction of sin is actually an expression of God’s kindness, and his kindness “is meant to lead [us] to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Thus, by God’s grace and by the nudging of the Spirit, we are able to put aside self-justification, to confront what is real in our lives, including the bad stuff, so that we might confess, be forgiven, and be renewed. As God works within us, we are enabled to live more completely as people who love both God and our neighbors.

Reflect

Do you have any tendency towards self-justification? If so, where does this come from? What underlying needs, desires, or fears lead you to justify yourself?

What helps you to be open to hearing from the Lord when you fall short?

Have you experienced God’s kindness leading you to repentance? If so, what happened? How was that for you?

Act

Take some time to reflect on whether you have allowed self-justification to get in the way of your hearing from God about something in your life that needs forgiveness and renewing.

Pray

Lord Jesus, as I read this story in Luke, I can so relate to the legal expert. Like him, I seek to justify myself. I want to feel okay about myself. I want to believe I’m a good person. I want to love God and my neighbors. So it’s hard to be confronted by my shortcomings—indeed, my failures.

Yet, Lord, I do believe that your kindness leads to repentance. You show me things in my life that need fixing, not so that I wallow in shame, but so that I might be forgiven and renewed by your grace.

Help me, dear Lord, to be open to you in all things. Help me to see and deal with the things in my life that aren’t right. Especially, help me to grow in love for God and for my neighbors. Amen.


Part 73: The Good “Bad Guy”

Scripture – Luke 10:30-37 (NRSV)

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Focus

In the parable we know as The Good Samaritan, Jesus tells the story of someone who would have been despised by his audience. In the first century, Samaritans and Jews detested each other for a variety of historical, cultural, and religious reasons. With this story, Jesus invites us to consider our prejudices, our deep dislike of certain people because they are “one of those people.” Jesus invites us to imagine a world in which those we look down upon are, in fact, people of sacrificial love.

Devotion

When you read the title of this devotion – “The Good Bad Guy” – you may have thought that sounded a little odd. But then, as you began to read the biblical passage, you realized that today’s text is the parable known as “The Good Samaritan.” Why, then, call this devotion “The Good Bad Guy”?

My title approaches this parable from the perspective of first-century Jews. As you may know, the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along well in the time of Jesus. In fact, it would be true to say that they despised each other. There was a long, complicated history of conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans, who lived in the region of Samaria between Galilee on the north and Judea on the south, believed that they were faithful descendants of the ancient Israelites. Jews, however, regarded the Samaritans as “half-breeds” and religious heretics. After all, they had their own temple and their own distinctive version of the Mosaic law. Tensions between these two historically related peoples were exacerbated by the fact that they sometimes were on opposing sides in military conflicts. The fact that a Jewish high priest, John Hyrcanus I, commanded the destruction of the Samaritan temple in the second century B.C. had exacerbated the bad relations between Jews and Samaritans.

This history helps us to understand something about Jesus’s parable that is essential. He purposefully chose the archetypal “bad guy” to serve as the “good guy” in the story. This must have grated on the ears of the Jewish legal expert who was the primary audience for Jesus’s story, not to mention any others who were listening.

When I read the story of “The Good Bad Guy, AKA Samaritan,” I don’t intuitively feel any negativity toward the Samaritan. I know the history, but I don’t have any emotional baggage when it comes to people from Samaria. Therefore, if I’m going to open my heart to this story, I need to relate it to my own situation. I need to ask myself the uncomfortable question: Who are my “Samaritans”?

Almost all human beings have people we consider to be “Samaritans.” Often, like the historical Samaritans in relationship to Jews, they are people with whom we have certain things in common. Consider my experience as a Presbyterian. I know fellow Presbyterians, for example, whose dislike of other Presbyterian denominations is much stronger than their dislike of, say, Lutherans or Methodists. Why? Because we share a common history, because there was a time we chose to separate from each other, because we’ve fallen into caring more about the things over which we differ than the many, many things upon which we agree.

Perhaps your “Samaritans” aren’t religious groups, but cultural or political groups. No matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, chances are you don’t have much love for folks on the other side. And, if you’re like millions of Americans, you despise those with whom you differ politically in much the ways Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Or, your “Samaritans” may be people of a different race or ethnicity. Or people from a different country. Or from a different generation. Or from a different economic class. Or whose lifestyle you disapprove of. Or who watch the news station you detest. Or . . . .

If you can identify your “Samaritans,” then you may try an experiment. Read Jesus’s story, replacing “But a Samaritan” in verse 33 with “But a ________.” Fill in the blank with whatever makes sense for you. Then, read about what your “Samaritan” did in Jesus’s story. How does this make you feel? What is stirring in you? What might God want to teach you through this thought experiment?

Reflect

Do you have any “Samaritans”? If so, why do you regard them negatively?

Why do you think Jesus chose a Samaritan, of all people, to be the “hero” of his story?

Act

Go ahead and do the exercise suggested in the last paragraph of the devotion.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I can only imagine how those who heard your story must have reacted: “A Samaritan! A Samaritan! Anything but a Samaritan! Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding.” Of course, I don’t have negative feelings toward people from Samaria, but there are certain kinds of people who just bug me. The things they do and say get under my skin. So do the things they watch and purchase. I can get bugged by their religious affiliations or complete lack thereof. And I can really get upset about the way they vote.

Lord, I confess that when I regard people as “Samaritans” I tend to discount them, to think of them as beyond your grace. I might pray for their repentance, but never for you to bless them. I know you tell me to love my enemies, but I’d really rather not, actually. And one way to avoid this commandment is to pretend as if I don’t have any enemies.

Lord, I know you’re not asking me to agree with all opinions, to pretend as if all ways of living and speaking are just fine. But you are asking me to love both my neighbors and my enemies. And you are inviting me to see the potential for you to do good in and through those I would discount. So help me, I pray, to be open to seeing people as you see them. Amen.


Part 74: Are You Passing By on the Other Side?

Scripture – Luke 10:30-37 (NRSV)

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Focus

In Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, when a man was beaten, robbed, and left for dead, two eminent religious leaders came upon him. Both of these men avoided the victim on the road, leaving plenty of distance as they walked by. The leaders were privileged in that they were born into their honored roles. They were used to being treated in a special way, not inconveniencing themselves to care for a victim of injustice. From their example, we learn that we mustn’t let the advantages we have in life keep us away from people in need. It’s easy for that to happen, but it’s not the way of Jesus.

Devotion

In the parable of Jesus we call The Good Samaritan, a man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead along the side of a road. While he’s lying there, two potential helpers come along. Both are honored Jewish religious leaders. One is a priest; the other a Levite. Levites assisted the priests, taking on a variety of duties in the temple. Both priests and Levites received financial support from the tithes given to the temple. A Jewish man did not earn the right to become a priest or a Levite. Rather, this was a matter of heredity. Levites were descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob, a grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Priests were also descendants of Levi, though they traced their lineage back through Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first high priest.

Jesus doesn’t tell us very much about the priest and the Levite in his parable. All we know is that when they came upon the wounded man, they “passed by on the other side” of the road (Luke 10:31-32). In particular, we are not told why they avoided the injured man.

In my work at the De Pree Center, I am one of the leaders of our Road Ahead cohorts. A crucial exercise in this cohort experience is regular engagement with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the things we talk about is why the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road. In this conversation, someone usually brings up the possibility that the victim, being “half-dead” (Luke 10:30), might have appeared to be completely dead. The priest and Levite would not want to touch a dead body because that would defile them ceremonially (see Leviticus 21), keeping them from performing their temple duties. Others in the Road Ahead groups wonder if the religious leaders are too busy to help someone in need, or if the men fear that robbers might still be lurking nearby. All of these explanations are possible and not mutually exclusive.

I wonder if something else is going on here, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned. Priests and Levites were people of high status. They were used to being special people in their cultural and religious context. Yet their specialness, as I noted above, was not a matter of earning or accomplishment. It came by virtue of their ancestry. They were classic examples of people with privilege.

We hear the word “privilege” quite a bit these days. It shows up in the familiar phrase “white privilege,” but also in phrases like “male privilege” and “ableist privilege.” Basically, privilege is an unearned advantage or status, especially an advantage or state that some people have while others do not. Priests and Levites had many advantages by virtue of their birth. They were treated specially and had special benefits. They were clearly privileged.

Privileged people are used to living in a different way from unprivileged people. They receive unearned advantage, perhaps without even thinking about it. It’s a normal aspect of their reality. So, it makes sense to me that the priest and the Levite avoided the wounded man because they were used to living as privileged people. They were not used to going out of their way, compromising, inconveniencing, and perhaps even endangering themselves in order to assist a man badly in need of help.

As I reflect upon the story of the Good Samaritan, I see myself naturally fitting into the roles of the priest or the Levite. I have plenty of privilege as a white male, a citizen of the United States, a person born into a loving family that was committed to my personal and spiritual growth. Even what I have earned, such as my educational degrees, depends to a considerable extent on what I did not earn. Being privileged is part of my reality.

Thus, I find the Parable of the Good Samaritan troubling because I’d much rather be like the Samaritan rather than the people I’m naturally like. I want to be someone who cares for people who are victims of injustice. I don’t want to “pass by on the other side of the road.” Yet, as I reflect on my life, I recognize that I have done this very thing. I expect in some ways I continue to do it, even though I wish this were not true.

What can we who are privileged do so as not to be people who pass by on the other side of the road? A couple of things emerge from Jesus’s parable, one of which I’ll save for tomorrow. What I want to mention today is so obvious that it almost feels simplistic. But, in practice, I don’t believe it is. Here’s what I’m thinking: If we want to be people who love in the way of Jesus, then we shouldn’t pass by “on the other side of the road.” Notice that the priest and Levite didn’t just walk by. They made an effort to avoid the injured man. They got as far away as they could. Distance allowed them to be disengaged, to avoid any feelings of empathy or compassion. And distance from people in need, from victims of injustice, from those Jesus wants us to love, is something that goes hand-in-hand with privilege.

In tomorrow’s devotion, I’ll suggest another way the Parable of the Good Samaritan helps us overcome the limitations of our privilege. In the meanwhile, I’d invite you to consider the following questions.

Reflect

Why do you think the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s parable didn’t stop to help the injured man?

Can you think of times in life when you have done something similar, when you have “passed by on the other side” of the road, so to speak?

What helps you draw near to people who need your help? What helps you to engage with victims of injustice?

Act

Ask the Lord to help you see people in need and how you might help them.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It continues to speak with insight and power today. It certainly speaks to me.

As I reflect on this parable, help me to learn what you want to teach me. Show me how my own privilege keeps me away from loving people as you would have me love them. May I learn, by your grace, not to walk by on the other side of the road.

Lord, I want to love as you loved. Help me to do so in the real-life situations and challenges of my daily life and work. Amen.


Part 75: Don’t Pass By on the Other Side!

Scripture – Luke 10:30-37 (NRSV)

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Focus

In Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, when a man was beaten, robbed, and left for dead, two eminent religious leaders came upon him. Both of these men avoided the victim on the road, leaving plenty of distance as they walked by. The leaders were privileged in that they were born into their honored roles. They were used to being treated in a special way, not inconveniencing themselves to care for a victim of injustice. From their example, we learn that we mustn’t let the advantages we have in life keep us away from people in need. It’s easy for that to happen, but it’s not the way of Jesus.

Devotion

In the parable of Jesus we call The Good Samaritan, a man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead along the side of a road. While he’s lying there, two potential helpers come along. Both are honored Jewish religious leaders. One is a priest; the other a Levite. Levites assisted the priests, taking on a variety of duties in the temple. Both priests and Levites received financial support from the tithes given to the temple. A Jewish man did not earn the right to become a priest or a Levite. Rather, this was a matter of heredity. Levites were descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob, a grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Priests were also descendants of Levi, though they traced their lineage back through Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first high priest.

Jesus doesn’t tell us very much about the priest and the Levite in his parable. All we know is that when they came upon the wounded man, they “passed by on the other side” of the road (Luke 10:31-32). In particular, we are not told why they avoided the injured man.

In my work at the De Pree Center, I am one of the leaders of our Road Ahead cohorts. A crucial exercise in this cohort experience is regular engagement with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the things we talk about is why the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road. In this conversation, someone usually brings up the possibility that the victim, being “half-dead” (Luke 10:30), might have appeared to be completely dead. The priest and Levite would not want to touch a dead body because that would defile them ceremonially (see Leviticus 21), keeping them from performing their temple duties. Others in the Road Ahead groups wonder if the religious leaders are too busy to help someone in need, or if the men fear that robbers might still be lurking nearby. All of these explanations are possible and not mutually exclusive.

I wonder if something else is going on here, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned. Priests and Levites were people of high status. They were used to being special people in their cultural and religious context. Yet their specialness, as I noted above, was not a matter of earning or accomplishment. It came by virtue of their ancestry. They were classic examples of people with privilege.

We hear the word “privilege” quite a bit these days. It shows up in the familiar phrase “white privilege,” but also in phrases like “male privilege” and “ableist privilege.” Basically, privilege is an unearned advantage or status, especially an advantage or state that some people have while others do not. Priests and Levites had many advantages by virtue of their birth. They were treated specially and had special benefits. They were clearly privileged.

Privileged people are used to living in a different way from unprivileged people. They receive unearned advantage, perhaps without even thinking about it. It’s a normal aspect of their reality. So, it makes sense to me that the priest and the Levite avoided the wounded man because they were used to living as privileged people. They were not used to going out of their way, compromising, inconveniencing, and perhaps even endangering themselves in order to assist a man badly in need of help.

As I reflect upon the story of the Good Samaritan, I see myself naturally fitting into the roles of the priest or the Levite. I have plenty of privilege as a white male, a citizen of the United States, a person born into a loving family that was committed to my personal and spiritual growth. Even what I have earned, such as my educational degrees, depends to a considerable extent on what I did not earn. Being privileged is part of my reality.

Thus, I find the Parable of the Good Samaritan troubling because I’d much rather be like the Samaritan rather than the people I’m naturally like. I want to be someone who cares for people who are victims of injustice. I don’t want to “pass by on the other side of the road.” Yet, as I reflect on my life, I recognize that I have done this very thing. I expect in some ways I continue to do it, even though I wish this were not true.

What can we who are privileged do so as not to be people who pass by on the other side of the road? A couple of things emerge from Jesus’s parable, one of which I’ll save for tomorrow. What I want to mention today is so obvious that it almost feels simplistic. But, in practice, I don’t believe it is. Here’s what I’m thinking: If we want to be people who love in the way of Jesus, then we shouldn’t pass by “on the other side of the road.” Notice that the priest and Levite didn’t just walk by. They made an effort to avoid the injured man. They got as far away as they could. Distance allowed them to be disengaged, to avoid any feelings of empathy or compassion. And distance from people in need, from victims of injustice, from those Jesus wants us to love, is something that goes hand-in-hand with privilege.

In tomorrow’s devotion, I’ll suggest another way the Parable of the Good Samaritan helps us overcome the limitations of our privilege. In the meanwhile, I’d invite you to consider the following questions.

Reflect

Why do you think the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s parable didn’t stop to help the injured man?

Can you think of times in life when you have done something similar, when you have “passed by on the other side” of the road, so to speak?

What helps you draw near to people who need your help? What helps you to engage with victims of injustice?

Act

Ask the Lord to help you see people in need and how you might help them.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It continues to speak with insight and power today. It certainly speaks to me.

As I reflect on this parable, help me to learn what you want to teach me. Show me how my own privilege keeps me away from loving people as you would have me love them. May I learn, by your grace, not to walk by on the other side of the road.

Lord, I want to love as you loved. Help me to do so in the real-life situations and challenges of my daily life and work. Amen.


Part 76: Learning Not to Pass By on the Other Side: A Personal Story

Scripture – Luke 10:30-37 (NRSV)

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Focus

If we want to be people who love like Jesus, if we want to be set free from the bonds of privilege, then we can’t allow ourselves to “walk by on the other side” of the road, safely distanced from victims of injustice. Rather, we need to draw near and allow our minds to be educated and our hearts to be moved. As Bryan Stevenson says, “There is power when we get proximate and only then can we have mercy and compassion.”

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion I talked about how opening our hearts to people can help us overcome the limitations of privilege. Empathy is not the only solution to the world’s problems, to be sure. But if we really see people in their full humanity, if we really listen to their experiences, if we allow ourselves to feel their pain, if we attend to the injustice they experience, then we will be less constrained by our privilege and more enabled to love in the way of Jesus.

Monument at Camp Manzanar in California with Japanese characters reading "Soul Consoling Tower".

This is a monument at Camp Manzanar in California. I took this photo when visiting the camp with my daughter. The Japanese characters mean “Soul Consoling Tower.” Copyright © Mark D. Roberts.

We hear a lot these days about privilege, especially privilege in relation to racial injustice. Personally, I have come to understand that an aspect of my own privilege has been the opportunity not to deal very much with issues of race. Even though throughout my life, I’ve had friends who are people of color, and even though we talked about many personal things, we did not very often talk about race. Why? Partly, the topic made me nervous. I didn’t want to say the wrong things. I didn’t want to look stupid or be insensitive. But I now believe that being able to ignore issues of race was evidence of my privilege, and it was keeping me from loving like Jesus.

About two decades ago, I began to recognize that I had unacceptable blind spots when it came to race. If I was going to be the kind of Christ-follower I wanted to be, then I needed to learn to see in new ways. I decided to approach my friend Steve for help. Steve was a Japanese man who had much wisdom about racial issues. I knew that he was a gracious brother in Christ who wouldn’t make me feel ashamed about my ignorance. So, while we were sharing a meal together, I asked Steve to help me understand more about issues of racial justice and injustice in our country.

Steve shared with me part of his own family story. In 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, members of Steve’s family were sent to an internment camp, as were more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. Steve’s mother and her immediate family were among those who lost everything they couldn’t carry with them, including their home and possessions. For years they were incarcerated at Camp Manzanar in eastern California. The deprivation and shame of that experience left deep scars.

As I listened to Steve, I felt a profound sadness. I knew before that conversation what had happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II. In fact, my grandmother had told me about this when I was young and conveyed how wrong it was. But now I was listening to a very human story and somehow that touched me in a new way.

I realized during my conversation with Steve that I needed to learn more about the racism experienced by Japanese-Americans during World War II, so I took my elementary-school-aged daughter, Kara, to Camp Manzanar. Little remains of the camp today, though there is a visitor center filled with informative and moving displays. I came away from that visit feeling sorrowful. Kara was angry. She couldn’t believe that our country had done something so obviously wrong to Japanese people. This injustice really bothered her.

Though I had for years “passed by on the other side” when it came to issues of race, my conversation with Steve and what followed made me realize that I could do so no longer. I had to deal with the racism in the world as well as that which lay hidden in my own heart. I couldn’t let what I would now call privilege to give me a pass. I didn’t want to be like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s parable because I could get away with it. I wanted to be like the Good Samaritan, someone who didn’t pass by on the other side, but who drew near to a person in need. I wanted to be someone whose heart is moved by injustice and who seeks in all things to “do justice” (Micah 6:8).

The opposite of passing by on the other side is drawing near, near enough to see people clearly, near enough to feel empathy, near enough to care tangibly. Bryan Stevenson, a human rights lawyer and the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, talks about what needs to happen if we’re going to create a more just world. The first thing, according to Stevenson, is “getting proximate.” “We’ve got to find ways to get closer to the poor, the neglected, the abused, the excluded, the marginalized,” Stevenson said, “because it’s in proximity to these communities that we hear things that we will not otherwise hear; we will see things that we will not otherwise see.” Moreover, Stevenson observed, “There is power when we get proximate and only then can we have mercy and compassion.”

Only then can we have mercy and compassion. Not like the priest and the Levite. But like the Samaritan. Drawing near. Being proximate. That’s how we can begin to love in the way of Jesus.

Reflect

Have you had a conversation – or conversations – that helped you to feel empathy for victims of injustice? Is so, what happened and how did you feel?

In what ways are you able to be “proximate” to people who are suffering?

Act

Decide to do something that will help you to have empathy for someone who is hurting.

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about Manzanar and the story of Steve’s family, check out this video from FULLER Studio.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you again for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Thank you for all the different ways this parable teaches us what it means to follow you.

Lord, help me not to walk by on the other side when I encounter people who hurt. Help me not to close my heart to victims of injustice. Teach me to draw near, to be proximate, to know people in their full humanity.

If there is anything in me that holds me back from loving as you would have me love, I ask you to expose it to me. May my soul be open to you, so that my heart might be open to others. Amen.


Part 77: Reversing Neighborliness

Scripture – Luke 10:30-37 (NRSV)

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Focus

Jesus told that Parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus didn’t really answer that question. Rather, he reversed the discussion of neighborliness. Jesus’s parable encourages us to ask not “Who is my neighbor?” so much as “Am I being a loving neighbor to the people in my life, not only those I know and love, but even those I might tend to ignore or despise?” Jesus’s story encourages us to ask ourselves, “What sort of neighbor am I?”

Devotion

In last week’s Life for Leaders devotions, we began reflecting on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As you may recall, Jesus told this parable in response to an expert in Jewish religious law. This expert had sought to test Jesus by asking how to inherit eternal life. Jesus reversed ground by asking the man what he read in the law. When the man responded by saying that we should love God and our neighbor, Jesus said he had given the right answer, adding, “Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28).

Wanting to dodge the implications of Jesus’s exhortation, the legal expert asked, “And who is my neighbor?” (10:29). Both Jesus and the expert knew that there was a debate among the interpreters of law over who counted as a neighbor. If you could define neighbor in a limited way, such as members of my family or tribe, then you could limit the people you were commanded to love. I suppose that the legal expert expected Jesus to lay out his view of who counted as a neighbor and who did not. If he was lucky, the expert could show that he was already doing what Jesus had told him to do.

But Jesus didn’t answer the expert’s question in the way he had anticipated. Instead, Jesus told a story, the one we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, a man was robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. Two Jewish religious leaders pass by the wounded man without stopping. But a Samaritan, the sort of person the legal expert would have despised, stopped to help the injured man. This “Good Samaritan” acted out of compassion, bandaging the man’s wounds and bringing him to an inn where he could recover. The Samaritan even picked up the tab at the inn!

Upon completing this story, Jesus asked the legal expert, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). “The one who showed him mercy,” answered the expert (10:37). Once again, Jesus wasn’t finished just because the man had given the right answer. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus added.

So much could be said about this parable, but now I want to focus for a moment on something I find both fascinating and relevant to our lives as followers of Jesus. Remember that that legal expert had asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Strictly speaking, Jesus didn’t answer that question, though you could certainly conclude that your neighbor is someone in need whom you have the capacity to help. But the point of Jesus’s story was different. We see this most clearly in the question Jesus asked the legal expert. He did not ask, “Who was the neighbor in this story?” Rather, he asked the expert, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (10:36).

Jesus reversed the conversation about neighborliness. Neighborliness, he showed, is more about how we act toward the people we encounter than it is about defining who is in and who is out. Neighborliness is acting in love toward another person, even when that person lies on the other side of a vast cultural divide. Yes, we are to love our neighbor as ourself. But we do this by seeking to be a loving neighbor to those in need of the love and care we are able to provide.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us to love the people in our lives in a generous and sacrificial way. Jesus encourages us to focus, not so much on whom we might love as on actually loving those we encounter “on the road.” Surely this will require wisdom in making choices, since we can’t love everyone we meet each day. But the way Jesus reframes the neighborliness question reminds us not to get so caught up in trying to figure out what love means that we don’t actually love the people God brings into our lives.

Reflect

What sort of neighbor are you?

Can you remember a time you helped someone in need, even though you didn’t know that person?

What helps you to feel compassion for people, especially those you might tend to overlook?

Act

Ask the Lord to help you be a neighbor to someone this week. Be attentive to the Spirit’s guidance.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. There is so much for us to learn in this story, and in your relationship with the legal expert.

Lord, forgive me for the times I get so wrapped up in trying to figure out who my neighbor is that I fail to be a neighbor to the people you “on my road.” Help me, I pray, to have a heart of compassion for those who are hurting. Show me what I can and should do as a neighbor. Stretch me, Lord, beyond my comfort zone, as I seek to love in imitation of you. Amen.


Part 78: Compassion and Capacity

Scripture – Luke 10:30-37 (NRSV)

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Focus

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan was able to generously help a victim of injustice because he had substantial financial capacity. If we are going to love people in tangible ways, like the Samaritan, we need both compassion and capacity. God has entrusted you with a variety of gifts to be shared. Take stock of what God has given you and consider how you can use it to serve others in need.

Devotion

In the last several days my Life for Leaders devotions have been inspired by Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan. Yesterday, I reflected on how Jesus “reverses neighborliness,” turning a question “Who is my neighbor?” into a question “Who was a neighbor to a man in need?”

Before I move on from this marvelous parable, I want to consider something that for many years I had overlooked. It appears near the end of the parable, in verses 34-35: “Then [the Samaritan] put [the injured man] on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

For much of my life, I assumed two denarii was enough for perhaps one more night in the inn. But it turns out my assumption missed by a lot. Commentators on this passage who dig into the culture and history of the first century conclude that two denarii was actually enough to cover the costs of room and board for two or three weeks. Among other things, this reinforces the seriousness of the victim’s injuries. We’re talking about much more than scrapes and bruises. Moreover, not only did the Samaritan pay up front for many days of care, but he also promised to cover additional expenses when he returned many days later.

Why does this substantial generosity of the Samaritan matter? Well, surely it’s a clear sign of his deep compassion for the injured man. But it points to more than this. Tom Nelson, in his insightful book The Economics of Neighborly Love, observes that “The Samaritan was motivated by heartfelt compassion, but he was also able to engage in loving action because he had the economic capacity to do so” (p. 15). Nelson goes on to explain, “Jesus goes out of his way in this story to describe not only the merciful compassion of the Samaritan but also the economic generosity the Samaritan exhibited” (p. 15). Nelson underscores the fact that if we are to help people with tangible needs then we need to have both compassion and capacity.

I appreciate what Nelson is saying here and have learned from his insight. I’d like to draw out two implications for today’s devotion. First, if you are someone with financial resources, no matter how large or small, you have the opportunity to express your compassion in tangible ways. God has entrusted you with money, in part, so that you can give generously to those in need.

Second, though Nelson’s point about economic capacity is a good one, I would add that God entrusts us with all sorts of capacities so that we might serve others. You may not have abundant financial resources, but you might be great at tutoring someone in English. Or you might be good at helping people learn practical skills that are essential for whole-life thriving. Or your strength might be in praying for the sick. Or it could be mentoring younger business leaders. Or you might give blood to help folks in the hospital. As you think about how to respond to Jesus’s message in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, be sure to consider all the capacities God has entrusted to you.

Reflect

What has God entrusted to you that you can use to serve people in need?

What helps you to steward well the gifts of God?

What challenges do you face that make it difficult for you to serve others in a generous way?

Act

Ask the Lord to show you which gifts of his you can use to care for others who are in need. Then, see how you can use one or more of these gifts in the next couple of weeks.

Pray

Lord Jesus, today I’m struck by the generosity of the Samaritan. Truly, he was able to be generous because he had a decent financial capacity. Thank you for how he models both compassion and capacity in service to others.

Lord, help me to be like the Samaritan. Help me to be generous with all of the gifts you have entrusted to me. Show me what I can do to help folks in need, to serve victims of injustice, to use my capacities to show your love to others.

May I do it all in your name and for your glory. Amen.


Part 79: Martha’s Welcome

Scripture – Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Focus

One of the ways we live the gospel of Jesus is by welcoming people with heartfelt warmth and tangible care. We offer comfort, sustenance, and community. Scripture encourages us to be hospitable, not only to those we know and love, but also to strangers (Romans 12:13). Showing hospitality is a practical expression of Christ-like love.

Devotion

As a long-time Christian, I’ve probably been in at least a dozen conversations about today’s passage from Luke 10, including sermons, Bible studies, and small group discussions. Each conversation has ended at more or less the same place:

Martha was so busy with all of her work that she didn’t have time for Jesus. Mary, on the contrary, had time for Jesus. When Martha complained, Jesus said Mary made the right choice. The bottom line: Martha, bad. Mary, good. Now go be like Mary, not Martha.

For much of my life, that conclusion seemed slightly off base to me. Perhaps it had to do with my bias in favor of people named Martha: I have Martha in my DNA. I’m not saying this metaphorically, in the sense that I am a worker bee like Martha, though this happens to be true. No, I mean I have literal Martha DNA. You see, my mom was named Martha. And her mom was named Martha. And, believe it or not, her mom was named Martha. I’ve got Marthas in me going back three generations. So I’ll admit my bias up front, a clear Martha bias.

I grew up in a family where Marthas actually were a lot like Martha in Luke 10. Take our family Thanksgiving celebrations, for example. We would gather at the home of Grandma Martha. She and my mom Martha would immediately get busy with preparations for the meal. Meanwhile, the men and children would sit, not at the feet of Jesus, but at the feet of the television, watching some holiday football game. The Marthas worked; we sat. Just like Martha and Mary. Well, not “just like.” But you get the picture.

I look back on that practice today and think, “How unfair! Why weren’t the men sharing in the work?” But honestly, I don’t think the Marthas in my family minded this inequity because they wanted to work hard to make sure everyone felt welcome. On most Thanksgivings, we would have, not only lots of family, but also an assortment of others who had nowhere else to go for the holiday. The Marthas were especially eager to help these guests feel truly welcome.

And that’s just like Martha in our story. As it says in verse 38: “Now as they [Jesus and the disciples] went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” The focus here is on Jesus, but the story acknowledges the effort of Martha.

The Greek verb used here meaning “to welcome” is almost a technical term for not just saying hello at the door, but for treating visitors with gracious generosity. It would surely have included preparing a meal for the guests, perhaps also a place for them to sleep. This explains why Martha was so busy. She had a lot of work to do in order to welcome Jesus and his entourage. And she, like the Marthas in my family, wanted them to feel welcome.

Notice that nothing in this text suggests that Martha was doing anything wrong at first. No critical word of Jesus or disapproving sign from Luke. On the contrary, what Martha did was absolutely appropriate in her culture. It was an act of expected kindness. It was a way of affirming the value of visitors. Moreover, later in the first century A.D., welcoming guests was something that the early followers of Jesus devoted themselves to. Generous hospitality was a way of showing the love of Christ to others (see Romans 12:13, 15:7).

And it still is. You and I can demonstrate the good news of the gospel by welcoming others into our lives, our homes, and our church. True welcome isn’t just a “Hi, how are ya?”, but rather an opening of heart and life, a focus on caring for others, meeting their needs. And this does take work, Martha kind of work.

So, before we get to how Martha got off track, it’s worth remembering that she was doing her best to welcome Jesus and his crew. Welcoming people into our lives is a good thing. So is welcoming Jesus into our lives. And so is receiving the welcome of Jesus. I’ll have more to say about this in our next devotion. For now, let me encourage you to reflect on the following questions.

Reflect

As you read the story of Jesus’s interaction with Martha and Mary, what stands out to you?

Can you think of a time when you were warmly welcomed? What happened? How did you feel?

How natural is it for you to welcome others?

In what ways do you welcome Jesus into your life?

Act

Ask the Lord if there is a way you can welcome someone this week. Depending on COVID-related restrictions, this might be challenging. But see if you can come up with something you can do to welcome someone, perhaps a new employee at your work, or a neighbor, or someone new to your church, or ???? As God leads you, show hospitality to someone.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for this story in Luke. It evokes many things in us as we read and reflect on it.

I’m struck today by the fact that Martha sought to welcome you well. Though she didn’t get everything quite right, her intentions were right. And in this I am inspired by Martha. I want to welcome you, Lord, into my life, my home, my work, my everything.

I also want to welcome others as an expression of the gospel. Guide me, Lord, to exercise hospitality in your name. Amen.


Part 80: Jesus’s Welcome

Scripture – Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Focus

In Luke 10:34-42, we see Jesus welcoming Mary as one of his disciples. Though male rabbis almost never taught women, Jesus was glad to include one who would ordinarily have been excluded. The example of Jesus makes me wonder: Who are the people we need to welcome, the people who have been or who have felt excluded by us and our tribe? Do we follow Jesus in welcoming those who aren’t like us? Or who don’t “believe the right things”? Or who differ from us in the color of their skin, their politics, their country of origin, their language, their lifestyle, or their socio-economic status? To whom is God calling us to reach out and say: “You are welcome here”?

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, I began reflecting on Luke 10:38-42, a passage featuring Jesus and his friends, Martha and Mary. I tried to show how Martha’s intention to welcome Jesus into her home was honorable. Yes, she did get things a little skewed, as we’ll see later, but Martha’s desire to welcome Jesus and his retinue is surely something laudable. Moreover, her example encourages us to welcome Jesus into our own lives as well as to extend hospitality to others.

Returning to our story, as Martha was welcoming Jesus and his crew, Luke says, “She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (Luke 10:39). As we read this, we may not find it particularly notable. But if we were part of Jesus’s first-century Jewish culture, this would be a shocking scene. Why? Because Mary was openly breaking the rules, right in front of Jesus, no less.

What rules? First of all, Mary was breaking the cultural rule that said the women of the household were responsible for providing hospitality for guests. According to what people in first-century culture expected, Mary should have been helping her sister with the preparations for the guests, not sitting at the feet of the visiting rabbi and listening to his teaching.

Second, and even more shockingly, Mary was breaking gender rules that limited the education of women. Almost without exception, Jewish teachers in the first century were men, and they did not teach women. Period. Women were generally excluded even from learning Torah (the Jewish law). Many Jews believed that it was wrong for men even to speak with women. Yet Mary was sitting there in plain sight, right at Jesus’s feet, learning from him. It’s worth noting, by the way, that, in the Gospel of Luke learning is an essential element of discipleship. Mary was putting herself in the position of a disciple of Jesus. How scandalous!

But what’s even more scandalous here is Jesus’s response. He permitted Mary to sit at his feet and learn. He didn’t tell her to get into the kitchen and help Martha. Instead, he taught her. He included her. He honored her. He welcomed her. If Mary was breaking gender rules, Jesus was shattering them in an egregious way. Of course, this was consistent with his behavior elsewhere in Luke, where Jesus taught women, included them among his followers, honored them in his teaching, and even allowed them to travel with him and support him financially (see Luke 8:1-3).

Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus welcoming people who were culturally unwelcome. In addition to teaching women, he touched lepers, embraced children, spoke with Samaritans, healed Roman servants, and hung out with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus preached the good news of God’s reign, in which those who had been excluded would be not just included but welcomed with God’s open arms.

As I reflect on this story in Luke, I find myself challenged to be more like Jesus, to express love by offering hospitality to people, especially to those who are often ignored or excluded. It’s no accident that our story about Martha and Mary comes right after Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable calls us to love sacrificially, beyond safety and cultural barriers. Ultimately, Jesus welcomes us by giving his life for us, offering us the fullness of life through his sacrifice. And that is a model for us to follow. Romans 15:7 puts it clearly: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”

I wonder, who are the people we need to welcome, the people who have been or who have felt excluded by us and our tribe? Do we follow Jesus in welcoming those who aren’t like us? Or who don’t “believe the right things”? Or who differ from us in the color of their skin, their politics, their country of origin, their language, their lifestyle, or their socio-economic status? To whom is God calling us to reach out and say: “You are welcome here”?

Reflect

Have you ever felt excluded by some group? Why do you think you were excluded? How did it feel?

How likely are you to welcome people who are different from you? Or with whom you have theological or political disagreements?

Can you think of a time in your life when you welcomed someone who made you uncomfortable? If so, what was that like for you?

What helps you move outside of your comfort zone by welcoming those whom you would not be naturally inclined to welcome?

Act

Ask the Lord to show you how you might welcome someone you would ordinarily overlook or ignore. Then, reach out to that person with the welcome of Christ.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for this short story in Luke. I’m so glad he included it in his Gospel.

Thank you for welcoming Mary as you taught, for affirming her and including her. Thank you for demonstrating the importance of educating all people, even when that requires breaking down cultural walls of exclusion.

Lord, I want to be like you. So help me, I pray, to know how I can welcome people in your name, especially those who have been excluded in the past. May your ethos of welcome permeate my life, also my family, my workplace, my church, and my community. Amen.


Part 81: Martha’s Welcome, Revisited

Scripture – Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Focus

Sometimes we can get so busy doing good things for Jesus that we forget to spend time with him, to enjoy his company, to learn from him. Serving Jesus by serving others is a fine and godly thing to do. But, if we are so busy serving that we neglect the relationship with have with Jesus, then our faith is out of balance. Jesus welcomes us into his company, inviting us to be his disciples and even his friends.

Devotion

Last week I began reflecting on Luke 10:38-42, a story of Jesus’s interactions with his friends Martha and Mary. In this story, Jesus and his entourage showed up at the home of Martha and Mary. Martha welcomed Jesus and then got busy with preparations for a meal for him and his disciples. Mary, Martha’s sister, didn’t help out, but rather sat at the feet of Jesus, learning as he taught. Martha was not happy. She asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her with the work. But Jesus declined, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

Our translation says that Martha was “distracted by her many tasks.” The original language reads more literally, she was “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40, ESV). The original language for “serving” is surprising. “Serving” translates the Greek word diakonia, which is sometimes rendered in the New Testament as “service,” but is commonly translated as “ministry.” In secular Greek, diakonia was used for a variety of kinds of service, including serving a meal. It has this connotation in Luke 10. But it the use of diakonia here also testifies to Martha’s desire to minister to Jesus through her hospitality. She wasn’t just filling her time with incidental chores. She was working hard to make sure Jesus and his crew were well taken care of.

Jesus did not do as Martha asked. He did not send Mary to work with her sister. Rather, Jesus explained that Martha was distracted by the service she was performing. “There is need of only one thing,” he said. “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42). What is this one thing? What is the better part? In context, being with Jesus is the one thing, not preparing a meal for him as Martha was likely doing. The one thing is listening to Jesus, learning from him, receiving from him, enjoying his company. This, Jesus said, was the “better part.”

If we’re going to understand this scene, we need to note a couple of details. First, doubling up on a name, saying “Martha, Martha” was not a form of rebuke in the linguistic culture of Jesus. Rather, it was a tender way of speaking, a sympathetic address. Jesus wasn’t chewing out Martha here. He was reaching out to her in kindhearted love. In fact, implicitly he was welcoming her, inviting her into his circle of teaching and fellowship.

Second, though Jesus said that “there is need of only one thing,” we must read this in context. He was not suggesting that Mary should spend her whole life doing only one thing. She was not supposed to spend the rest of her waking hours doing anything other than sitting at Jesus’s feet. He was not saying that she should never work, never welcome people with a meal, never do anything but sit and learn. No, in context, Jesus was effectively saying, “There is need of only one thing right now, in this moment, as I am teaching. There will be plenty of time for other things later.”

Martha’s problem wasn’t that she was working hard to welcome people graciously into her home. It was that her efforts took her attention away from what mattered most in that moment. The text says that she was “distracted” by her service. Distracted from what? From listening to the teaching of Jesus, like her sister. She was distracted from being with Jesus by trying so hard to serve him. In seeking to welcome Jesus by serving him, she was not welcoming him as her teacher and Lord. Moreover, she was missing out on the chance of a lifetime to be with Jesus in this intimate learning setting.

If you’re like me, you can relate to Martha. You really want to serve Jesus in your life. You seek to serve him in a wide variety of settings: in your daily work and your home, among your friends and your neighbors, in your church community and your city. It’s a wonderful thing to serve Jesus. But you may be the sort of person that gets so busy doing things for Jesus that you don’t spend much time with him. Your faith is so much about what you do that you neglect experiences of communion with the Lord, times of worship and prayer, moments of silence and solitude, practices of contemplation and adoration.

If this sounds at all familiar, then you may need to hear the invitation of Jesus, not to do more for him, but to be with him more. Jesus welcomes you into fellowship with him, even into friendship (John 15:13-15). He wants to teach you, to listen to you, to receive your love, and to give you even more love in return. He welcomes you just as you are, right now. Will you join him?

Reflect

Are you like Martha, eager to serve Jesus, but with a tendency to do so much that you neglect the relational dimensions of your faith?

When in your life have you had particularly intimate encounters with the Lord? What made those distinctive?

What spiritual practices are built into your life, so that you are regularly “sitting at the feet of Jesus?”

Act

Set aside a chunk of time in the next week for being quiet in Jesus’s presence. See what you learn from this experience.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for your tenderhearted response to Martha. Thank you also for making it clear that Mary’s choice to be with you was the right choice in that moment.

Lord, I know that often I am more like Martha than Mary. I really do want to serve you well with every part of my life. But I can get so wrapped up in doing that I fail to spend time with you. Help me, I pray, to find the right balance of service, learning, and adoration. May I learn to enjoy your presence, to listen quietly to you as you speak through the Spirit. Amen.


Part 82: The Lord’s Prayer, Well, Sort Of

Scripture – Luke 11:1-4 (NRSV)

[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

Christians often pray a prayer that Jesus taught his first disciples. The Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father, comes to us in various versions, all of which faithfully convey the meaning of Jesus. By paying close attention to this prayer, we can learn from Jesus how to pray with greater depth, truth, and intimacy. Through the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites us into a deeper relationship with our Heavenly Father.

A Note from Mark

Friends, this summer I’ll be teaching a one-week online course at Regent College. The course is called: The Bible and Work – Going Broader and Deeper. I’m looking forward to digging into Scripture with my students and auditors. We’ll be spending three hours each afternoon (Pacific Time) during the week of July 12-16. If this sounds interesting to you, you can take the course either for credit or audit. And if you’re over 65, you can get a 50% tuition discount! For more information about the course, click here. To learn about how to register, click here. It would be fun to have some of our Life for Leaders readers in this course with me. – Mark

Devotion

I spent my first six years of life as a Methodist. In my Sunday School classes I learned to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, I also learned one of the biggest words I knew at that time: “trespasses.” Methodists, among many other Christians, render one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer in this way: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I have no idea whether I knew back then what “trespasses” meant. But I did learn the “right” words to this prayer. In fact, I started saying the Lord’s Prayer every night before bed.

When I was six years old, however, my family moved and my parents started taking us to a Presbyterian church. There, much to my chagrin, they said the Lord’s Prayer, but with the wrong words! Instead of “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” those renegade Presbyterians said, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” I didn’t like that. I didn’t like the sound of the words “debts” and “debtors.” And I didn’t like having to learn a new version of the Lord’s Prayer. But I did, and before too long, I forgot about my old version with its “trespasses.”

Even today, it can be unnerving for us to hear or say versions of the Lord’s Prayer that are unfamiliar. Mainly, the differences are in the “trespasses” or “debts” petition, with an increasing number of churches going instead with “sins.” (Of course many churches don’t say the Lord’s Prayer regularly, these days.) Highly liturgical churches sometimes break what they call the “Our Father” into two sections, separating “Deliver us from evil” from the ending, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.” Anglicans and Episcopalians add an extra “and ever” after “forever,” to emphasize the point.

Now, if you’re one of those who isn’t fond of variations in the Lord’s Prayer, you might well have raised your eyebrows when reading today’s passage from Luke. After all, the prayer that Jesus prays in Luke 11:2-4 sounds a whole lot like the Lord’s Prayer we know and love. Yet it’s different. Mainly, it’s much shorter. Lines we have memorized are left out. So Luke 11 gives us the Lord’s Prayer . . . sort of. It’s the Lord Prayer . . . yes and no.

Most of us are much more familiar with the version of the Lord’s Prayer found in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 6:9-13 includes what sounds much more like the Lord’s Prayer with which we are familiar. (And, for the record, it uses “debts” and “debtors.”) But Matthew’s version of this prayer doesn’t include anything like the traditional conclusion of our Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” We might want to ask, “Excuse me, Lord, but didn’t you memorize your own prayer all the way to the end?”

Scholars have different theories about why Luke’s version of this prayer differs from Matthew’s version. I’m convinced that Jesus himself prayed different forms of this particular prayer at different times, and that these various forms were passed on in the early church. Clearly, there was not one, set-in-stone form of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and that they memorized word for word. (In fact, in the first-century Christian document called the Didachē, there is yet another version of the Lord’s Prayer, one that sounds more like what we pray in church today. See Didachē 8.)

Why might this variation in forms matter to us today? The fact that the Lord’s Prayer comes to us in different forms gives us the freedom not to fret over our own varieties. We don’t have to argue about whether “trespasses” or “debts” or “sins” is best. We don’t have to worry about getting all the words just right. We can let this prayer of Jesus teach us to pray, without feeling as if we must rigidly repeat the words Jesus actually said. (Of course, it’s likely that Jesus’s words were originally in Aramaic. There are very few people among us today who are able to say anything in Aramaic, besides perhaps abba, hosanna, and maranatha. So repeating the exact words of Jesus, even if we knew them, isn’t possible for most of us.)

Today I’m beginning a multiple-day devotional study of Luke 11:1-4. I invite you to join me as we let Jesus teach us how to pray. We’ll pay close attention to the words he uses in Luke 11:2-4, not because these words are magic or need to be repeated precisely, but rather because these words draw us into a deeper, truer, and more intimate conversation with our Heavenly Father. Of course, if you wish, you might even choose to memorize the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer. You might experience something new praying these particular words. But the main point is not to get all the words absolutely right. Rather, it’s to let those words tell us more about God and how God wants us to talk with him. Through the words in Luke 11:2-4, we can learn from Jesus how to pray.

Reflect

When did you first learn the Lord’s Prayer? In what context and with what version?

How often do you pray the Lord’s Prayer in your personal devotions? In church? In other contexts?

How did you first learn to pray? Who taught you? How did this happen?

How do you feel about your prayer life? Are you in a season of intimate communication with God? Or are you in a time of dryness? Or something in between?

Are you eager to grow in your prayer life? If so, why? If not, why not?

Act

Read the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer several times, letting its words sink in to your soul. What strikes you about this prayer today? What words or lines resonate with you? Why?

Pray

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive our sins,
+++as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial. Amen.


Part 83: The Example of Jesus Praying

Scripture – Luke 11:1-4 (NRSV)

[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

We learn to pray in many ways, from sermons and teachings, from books, devotional guides, and Bible studies. But, in addition, we learn to pray by watching and listening to others. This is also true as we work to be taught by Jesus how to pray. He gives us simple models of prayer that inspired and instruct us, to be sure. But he also demonstrates for us a consistent commitment to regular communication with our Heavenly Father. From the example of Jesus we learn to pray often, making time to be alone with God so we can openly share our hearts and attentively open them to whatever God has for us.

Devotion

Our passage from Luke begins with a simple description of Jesus at prayer: “He was praying in a certain place” (Luke 11:1). Though this verse doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s likely that, in this situation, Jesus had been praying by himself. Elsewhere, Luke is clear that Jesus “would withdraw to a deserted place and pray” (4:16). Though he sometimes he took companions with him (9:28), Jesus often withdrew from the crowds and even his own disciples so he could be alone as he talked with his Heavenly Father (6:12; 9:18).

In our passage, after Jesus finished praying, “one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples’” (Luke 11:1). Apparently, John the Baptist did as was common among Jewish teachers at that time, teaching his followers certain prayers that they could use in their personal communication with God. It’s likely that the unidentified disciple who asked Jesus to teach all the disciples how to pray wanted specific instructions, including the best words and phrases to say. Jesus obliged by giving his disciples a prayer that is short enough to be easily memorized. We recognize this prayer as a shorter version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. (A longer version is found in Matthew 6:9-13.)

Before we examine closely the words Jesus taught his disciples, though, it’s worth noting that he was already teaching them how to pray by his personal example. This is what inspired one disciple to ask for additional instruction. Surely all of the disciples of Jesus were familiar with their Master’s pattern of taking time to pray, often going out into the countryside alone so he could communicate freely and intimately with his Heavenly Father. On at least one occasion, Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). (Don’t you wish you could have eavesdropped on that prayer?!). One of the things Jesus’s closest followers knew about him was that he was deeply committed to regular communication with God through prayer.

You may have learned to pray from doing a Bible study on prayer, from praying the Psalms in your personal devotions, or from reading a book on prayer. You may have heard a good sermon on prayer that taught and inspired you. All of this helped you to learn to pray, no doubt. But I expect that you learned to pray by following the example of others. Perhaps you listened as your parents or grandparents prayed when you were young. Or maybe you imitated the example of your Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, and pastors as they prayed. Perhaps you didn’t even hear the words someone was praying, but you watched them closely. My friend John remembers how, when he was young, his father would come into his bedroom after John was supposedly asleep. John’s father would kneel by John’s bed, put his hands on the cover over John’s feet, and pray silently for his son. John loved those moments so much he would often try to stay awake just to experience his father’s silent prayers. It’s no wonder that, as an adult, John is a man of regular prayer.

When I think of how I learned to pray, I remember those who taught me by their example. I think of my Sunday School teachers, my junior high director Bill, my pastor Lloyd Ogilvie, and my mentor Howard Butt, Jr. I’m sad to say I don’t have many memories of my parents praying out loud, besides saying grace before meals. My parents were both deeply prayerful people who encouraged me to pray. But for some reason they didn’t pray out loud with me when I was young. When I went to a prayer conference in my late 20s, my dad attended as well. We ended up in a small group together where we were supposed to pray for others in the group. I panicked because I was sure it would feel awkward when my dad didn’t pray for me. But then he did! Out loud, so I could hear. I was shocked. And then I was overwhelmed with emotion as I heard him tell the Lord how thankful he was for me and ask the Lord to bless me in several specific ways. That was truly one of the highlights of my life.

In the devotions that will follow this one, we will be paying close attention to the words Jesus used to teach his disciples to pray. But, before we do this, I think it’s important to emphasize that prayer is often “caught” more than “taught.” We learn by watching, listening, and imitating. Thus, if we want to learn how to pray from Jesus, then we should pay close attention to his own practice. Luke gives us plenty to go on in passages I noted above and others (see Luke 3:21-22; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 10:21-22; 22:39-46). The main takeaway from these is that Jesus prayed often, in many cases finding a place of quiet and solitude where he could communicate without interruption to his Father in Heaven. If such a practice of prayer was crucial for the Son of God, surely it’s something we need in our own lives.

Before finishing this devotion, I’d like to encourage you to consider how you are teaching others to pray through your example. You may never give a lesson, write a devotion, or preach a sermon on prayer. But if you pray with others, they will learn from you. We all have the opportunity to model prayer for others. This is especially true and particularly important for those of us who are in relationship with younger people, for parents, grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles, or mentors. If you’re already praying with the people in whose life you have a major influence, that’s wonderful. If you’re not, perhaps you should might consider doing so. It’s never too late to start.

Reflect

Who are some of the people who taught you how to pray through their personal example? What did you learn from them?

What experiences of prayer did you have in your family? What did this teach you? Are these good memories for you, or awkward ones, perhaps even painful ones?

Why do you think Jesus often went out into the countryside in order to pray by himself?

Are there places you sometimes go when you want to be alone with the Lord in prayer? What are those places? How often do you go there?

What hinders your prayerful relationship with God?

What helps you to pray with greater openness and intimacy?

Act

Sometime in the next week, set aside some time for prayer, preferably a time when you can be alone and quiet. If possible, go to a place that supports your prayerfulness. This could be a park, a beach, a church, or a special place in your home. Take time both for talking to God and for listening to the still, small voice of God’s Spirit.

Pray

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive our sins,
+++as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial. Amen.


Part 84: Knowing the Words You Pray

Scripture – Luke 11:1-4 (NRSV)

[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

Sometimes we use words in prayer without really understanding them. God, who knows our hearts, isn’t grading or judging us. But if we want to pray in the way of Jesus, then we would do well to learn the meaning of the words he used in prayer. We need to know what it means, for example, for God’s name to be hallowed or for God’s kingdom to come. The more we understand what Jesus meant when he prayed, the more we’ll be able to pray in the way of Jesus.

Devotion

When one of Jesus’s disciples asked him to teach all of his disciples to pray, Jesus responded by giving a model prayer in words. Prayer, for those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is, first of all, a matter of communication with words. Yes, we can be silent in prayer. Yes, we can express emotions as we pray with cheers or sobs. And sometimes the Spirit of God helps us to pray “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). But, most basically, prayer is talking with God, and we talk with words.

If words are essential to prayer, then the meanings of the words we use are also extremely important. Now, to be sure, God searches our hearts so if we don’t the words quite right, God knows what we intend (Romans 8:27). God is not up in heaven judging our vocabulary, saying, “Ah, you messed up that word, so I’m not listening anymore.” But, when we pray, we should strive to say things that matter, truly conveying to the Lord as best we can what’s in our mind and heart. In fact, Jesus warned his disciples about saying things without meaning them: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

Sometimes, in spite of Jesus’s warning, we can use words in prayer without really understanding what we’re saying. For example, biblically-informed Christians will sometimes use the following words in prayer: “exalt,” “extol,” and “exult.” These are fine words from Scripture, but I have found that very few people know what they actually mean. We’d do better to learn the meanings of the words we use.

Years ago, I heard a humorous story from a friend about Christians using in prayer a word they didn’t understand. My friend had gone to a week-long prayer retreat led by Henri Nouwen. This retreat was filled with people who adored Nouwen and his teaching, understandably so. While leading the retreat, Henri prayed, apparently asking God to be with the participants “now and at the hour of our dess.” None of the retreatants knew what dess was. They thought is must be some deep theological concept. Some of them figured it was something like desolation.

It made sense to everyone to pray for God’s help in this kind of dess, so pretty soon the retreatants imitated Henri by repeatedly praying for God’s help “now and at the hour of our dess.” Near the end of the retreat, Henri heard people doing this and asked about it. They explained how they were asking for God’s presence in their desolation. Henri laughed, explaining that that was not what he was praying. He was actually using a phrase from the Catholic “Hail Mary,” though addressing this to God, not to Mary. Henri, in his thick Dutch accent, was actually asking for God’s presence “now and at the hour of our death.” Death, not dess! There is no such thing as dess.

I can chuckle at the sweet mistake of the retreatants, knowing that if I had been there, I would have been one of those enthusiastic folk asking God help in the hour of my dess. I’ve learned so much from Henri Nouwen that I would surely have wanted to imitate him in my prayers. Such imitation, as I suggested in yesterday’s devotion, is not at all a bad thing. But if we’re going to pray authentically and meaningfully, then it would be good for us to know what we’re saying.

Jesus’s prayer in Luke 11:2-4 contains lots of words that are familiar to most Christians. But, I wonder, do we really know what it means to say to our Father, “hallowed be thy name”? And what are we really asking when we say, “Your kingdom come”? Are we sure we know what Jesus meant by “daily bread”? And what about “everyone indebted to us?” Finally, what was Jesus thinking of when he used the phrase “time of trial”?

The point of learning the true meaning of the words of Jesus is not to score 100% on some spirituality test. Nor is it to show off our great learning. Rather, we want to learn what Jesus meant because the closer we can get to what Jesus intended, the better we’ll be able to pray in the way he wants us to. As we do this, our thinking, feeling, and, indeed, our souls will be formed by the words we say. We will know more intimately and truly the God who invites us to speak to him in prayer. And we will discover words that give expression to the deepest desires of our hearts.

So, as we continue our devotional study of Jesus’s prayer in Luke 11:2-4, we will focus on the words of Jesus. Doing so is not meant to limit our communication with our Heavenly Father, but rather to inspire it, guide it, empower it, and expand it. For now, let me encourage you to consider the following questions.

Reflect

As you think about your own experience of prayer, can you remember a time (or times) when you prayed with words you didn’t quite understand? What was this experience like for you?

As you read Jesus’s prayer in Luke 11:2-4, are there words here the meaning of which is not clear to you? If so, which words? What do you think they might mean?

Why do you think God wants us to pray with words? Might it be better if we prayed mainly (or only) with silence? Why or why not?

Do you ever find yourself saying things in prayer that you don’t really mean? If so, when? If not, why not?

Are there certain words, phrases, or short sentences that you often use in prayer, perhaps when you need to offer a quick prayer at work, or when you need God’s help, or when you are struck by God’s grace to you? What are things you often say as you pray?

Act

Jot down a list of questions you have about the meaning of the words in Jesus’s prayer in Luke 11:2-4. When you have your list, ask the Lord to help you understand this prayer more deeply and truly.

Pray

Father, hallowed by your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive our sins,
+++as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial. Amen.


Part 85: Praying Like Jesus: Father

Scripture – Luke 11:2-4 (NRSV)

“Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches his followers to pray to God as Father. This simple address was unprecedented in the time of Jesus. Yet Jesus knew God so deeply that he called God Father. Amazingly, he taught us to do the same, thus inviting us into a truly intimate and humbly respectful relationship with God who is also our Father. When we pray to God as Father, we open our heart to a God who loves more than we could ever imagine.

Devotion

If you were an ordinary person in the Greco-Roman world of the first-century A.D. and you wanted help from a god, you had to be sure to address that god in the right way. An exaggerated example of this requirement appears in the second-century Latin novel Metamorphoses by Apuleius. The novel’s protagonist, Lucius, is in a difficult spot, so he decides to pray to the goddess. Not wanting to address her incorrectly, Lucius covers his bases generously, praying: “O queen of heaven—whether you are bountiful Ceres, the primal mother of crops, who in joy at the recovery of your daughter took away from men their primeval animal fodder of acorns and showed them gentler nourishment, and now dwell in the land of Eleusis; or heavenly Venus, . . . ; or Phoebus’ sister . . . ; or dreaded Proserpina of the nocturnal howls . . . – by whatever name, with whatever rite, in whatever image it is meet to invoke you: defend me now in the uttermost extremes of tribulation . . . .” (Metamorphoses 11.2).

The contrast between the opening of this prayer and that of Jesus in Luke 11 couldn’t be more striking. When asked by one of his disciples to teach them to pray, Jesus began with a simple address: “Father” (Luke 11:2). In Matthew’s Gospel, we find a more detailed address, “Our Father in Heaven.” But even this is modest compared to what we saw in Metamorphoses.

It’s likely that Jesus was speaking Aramaic when he prayed the prayer in Luke 11:2-4. The Aramaic word Jesus used to address God was abba. A transliteration of this word actually shows up in a prayer of Jesus in Mark 14:34, strengthening the case for Jesus’s use of the Aramaic abba in Luke 11.

What did abba mean? Several decades ago, some biblical scholars claimed that abba was the word small children used for their fathers, rather like the English words “Papa” or “Daddy.” Many Christians jumped on board, addressing God as “Daddy.” The problem with this understanding and practice is that it neglects the broader use of abba among speakers of Aramaic in the time of Jesus. Yes, young children used abba, but so did grown children, speaking of their fathers with grown-up respect. Thus, the use of abba conveys both intimacy and respect.

Praying to God as Father had some precedent in Judaism, though no rabbi or spiritual writer in the time of Jesus addressed God so directly, simply, and personally as Jesus did when he prayed “Father.” How did Jesus come up with such an unusual practice? No doubt, Jesus’s understanding of God as Father was nurtured by his Jewish upbringing. In the Old Testament, God is seen as the Father of Israel (for example, Isaiah 63:16). But there is no example in ancient Jewish writings of someone addressing God simply as “Father.” That was unique to Jesus.

Jesus’s unique use of “Father” surely reflects his unique relationship with God the Father as God’s unique Son. Jesus experienced unprecedented intimacy with his Heavenly Father. Moreover, he understood that he was uniquely positioned as the Son of God to reveal the Father to others. We see this dramatically in a passage in Luke that comes a few paragraphs before Jesus’s prayer in Luke 11. There Jesus said: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (10:21-22).

Thus, Jesus is uniquely able to reveal to us who God is as our Father. But his freedom to speak to God as Father is not unique to Jesus. Rather, Jesus teaches his disciples – including us – to address God in the same way he did, as Father. By doing this, Jesus is inviting us into his experience of intimacy with God. Yet, at the same time, his use of “Father” encourages us to communicate with God in a truly respectful way. Plus, by teaching us to say Father, Jesus sets us free from any notion that we have to get the words right when we pray. Also, he keeps us from falling into the first-century pagan trap, trying to impress the gods with many lofty words.

By teaching us to pray to God as Father, Jesus summons us into a transformative experience with the God who loves us as a father loves his children (see 1 John 3:1). That’s surely a wonderful thing. But, in my pastoral experience, I knew people who struggled with the notion of God as Father. Because their personal experience of their own father was so abusive, they had a difficult time thinking of or speaking to God as Father.

What these dear folks needed was the healing that comes when we come to know God as the kind of Father Jesus revealed him to be. Jumping ahead in the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus’s stunning picture of God as Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32). In that story, when a son utterly dishonors his father and abandons his family, the father waits for his son to return. When the son comes home, the father doesn’t rebuke or reject him. And he certainly doesn’t abuse him. Rather, the father runs to embrace his son, forgiving him and restoring him into the family.

When we pray to God as Father, therefore, we’re praying in the way of Jesus to the Father Jesus knew and revealed to us. We’re praying to a Father who yearns to have a relationship with us, who forgives us when we stray, and who loves us with a love that will never let us go.

Reflect

In your prayer life, do you tend to address God as Father? If so, why? If not, why not?

Do you think your experience of your own father colors in any way your feelings about God? If so, how?

When you imagine God as Father, what comes to mind? What images or ideas or questions?

How might your prayers be different if you addressed them to God as Father?

Act

This week, try speaking to God as Father when you pray. See how this affects your communication with God.

Pray

“Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Amen.


Part 86: Praying Like Jesus: Hallowed Be Your Name

Scripture – Luke 11:2-4 (NRSV)

“Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

There is a phrase in the Lord’s Prayer that uses words we don’t otherwise use very often. “Hallowed be thy name” can feel familiar, but do we really know what we’re saying when we utter this prayer? In fact, Jesus teaches us to recognize God’s unique holiness as we pray, to remember that our God is a consuming fire. We aren’t talking to our Big Buddy in heaven, but rather to a God who is utterly just, utterly pure, utterly holy. Because of his grace, we are not consumed and we do not fear. Rather, we approach our holy God with boldness, confident that he will give us the help we need.

Devotion

When my daughter, Kara, was about four years old, I decided it was time to teach her the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t use some simplified version that had words appropriate for a young child. No, I wanted to teach Kara the real thing, the grown-up version of the Lord’s prayer.

Kara had an amazing memory. After only a few evenings of practice, she could say the Lord’s Prayer flawlessly. Well, sort of flawlessly. A few phrases sounded right, but weren’t quite correct.

One of those errant phrases came after “Our Father, who art in heaven.” The following line should have been, “Hallowed be thy name.” But Kara, who at four didn’t relate to the word “hallowed” or to the word “thy,” made up her own version. Enthusiastically, she prayed, “Hollywood be my name!” I’m not making this up. That’s exactly what she said. Of course, I started to laugh, which didn’t make Kara all that happy with me. But we had a good chat about the meaning of the unfamiliar words in the Lord’s Prayer, especially that odd word “hallowed.”

“Hallowed” is not a common word in today’s English. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, “hallowed” was much more popular in 1840, but its usage declined measurably since then, with a slight resurgence in recent years. About the only time we hear “hallowed” these days is in the phrases “hallowed halls” or “hallowed ground.

Of course we also hear and say “hallowed” in the Lord’s Prayer. Our phrasing is just like what we find in Luke 11:2: “hallowed be your name.” We can say this phrase without accidentally coming out with “Hollywood be my name,” but do we know what we’re praying?

To “hallow” something means to set it apart for some special purpose, to treat it as holy or with reverence. That was also the sense of the Greek word used in Luke 11:2. “Hallowed be your name” means “Let your name be holy” or “Let your name be special.”

In Jewish tradition, the name of God represented God’s presence, reality, and character. Hallowing God’s name, therefore, meant more than merely using the word “God” or “Father” in a special way. Hallowing God’s name was a matter of recognizing God’s unique holiness, of treating God – not just God’s name – with dignity, honor, and reverence. Hallowing God’s name is what we do when, in worship, we praise and adore God. But hallowing God’s name is not limited to a corporate worship setting. It’s something we do in every part of life as we live for the praise of God’s glory (see Ephesians 1:11-14).

When we pray “Hallowed be thy name,” we’re reminded of the holiness of God. Thus, even as speaking to God as Father invites us into an intimate relationship with the God who loves us dearly, hallowing God’s name reminds us that God is not some heavenly Santa Claus. Rather, the book of Hebrews reveals, “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). Often in Scripture God’s holiness is represented by fire. And fire is something that can quickly burn us up. Yet because of God’s matchless grace given through Christ, we do not have to fear being consumed in God’s presence. When we approach God in prayer, we can be confident that God will give us his mercy and grace (Heb 4:16).

When we pray “Hallowed be thy name,” we are also reinforcing the priority of God’s glory in our lives. I understand why my four-year-old daughter prayed “Hollywood be my name.” The word “thy” was unfamiliar to her. Most of us don’t use this word either very often, though we understand it. Using it near the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us where we’re focusing, not just our prayers, but our lives. Our purpose in life is not to make our own names great. Rather, we live for God’s sakes, for God’s glory. When we pray “Hallowed be thy name,” we are once again pointing our lives in the direction of God’s praise and glory.

Reflect

When you pray, “Hallowed be thy name,” what does that mean to you?

When you think of God as holy, what comes to mind? What thoughts, images, or feelings?

What helps you to remember God’s awesomeness when you pray?

God invites us to ask in prayer for what we need. How can we do this and still keep in our hearts the centrality and authority of God?

Act

When we say the Lord’s Prayer in church, we quickly recite the lines we have known for years. They are so familiar. Yet, I wonder sometimes if we shouldn’t pause at times, to let the words of this prayer fill our minds so that the truth of this prayer might fill our hearts. I’d encourage you to experiment with this in your personal prayers. In particular, let the petition, “Hallowed be your name,” rest in your heart as you consider its meaning and implications.

Pray

“Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Amen.


Part 87: Praying Like Jesus: Your Kingdom Come

Scripture – Luke 11:2-4 (NRSV)

“Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come.” When we do this, we are asking for God to come fully in just the right time in the future and reign over all the earth. But we are also praying for God to reign right now on earth, in every life, home, family, workplace, neighborhood, church, and city. If we pray “thy kingdom come” and mean it, we are also asking God to rule more completely in our lives, using us for his royal purposes.

Devotion

Every now and then you’ll hear the phrase “kingdom come” in pop culture. The bad guys in the movies will threaten to blow the good guys to “kingdom come.” Or someone with tons of homework might say, “I’m going to be working till kingdom come.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the colloquial use of “kingdom come” goes back to the eighteenth century, where the phrase referred to the afterlife, either Heaven or Hell. It could also signify a time far out in the future, which explains the “till kingdom come” usage. What is the origin of the phrase “kingdom come”? According to the OED, it derives from the Lord’s Prayer, from the line, “thy kingdom come.”

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come,” was he also thinking about the afterlife, about Heaven, in particular? Or was Jesus referring to a time in the distant future? And if either of these are true, what sense does it make to pray for the kingdom to come, rather than for us to go to the kingdom, either in the sky or in the future? How could the kingdom of God come now?

As you might imagine, the answers to these questions could require far more words than would fit in this devotion. In fact, I’ve written a concise but comprehensive article on this very subject, which you can read on the De Pree Center website: Jesus and the Kingdom of God: What You Need to Know. I’ll try to summarize the main points here.

Whenever you read the phrase “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” in the Gospels, you’d do well to replace the word “kingdom” with the words “reign” or “rule.” When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he was not referring to the place where God is king so much as the actual reign, rule, or authority of God. Wherever and whenever God is exercising his sovereignty, that’s the kingdom of God. So, though the reign of God is closely related to the church, it’s not the same as the church. And though the reign of God exists in Heaven, it is not limited to Heaven. That’s why Jesus can teach us to pray, “thy kingdom come.” We are asking for God to rule now, on earth, in our lives, in our churches, in our cities, and throughout the world.

Now, to be sure, the kingdom of God has a future dimension. Jesus knew that at some time in the future God would fully restore heaven and earth, setting all things free from the bondage of sin, and ruling unopposed over all creation. Thus, Jesus often talked about the coming of the kingdom as something in the future. So, for example, at the Last Supper Jesus said, “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).

Yet Jesus also talked about the kingdom of God as something rapidly approaching or even currently present. So, for example, he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). And he also said, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matt 12:28).

Theologians use the phrase “Already and not yet” to talk about the way in which the reign of God is something out there in the future and right here in the present. In particular, when Jesus was doing his messianic work, God was reigning in and through him. Those in his presence were experiencing first-hand the kingdom of God. Thus, he could say to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20-21). The kingdom of God was among the Pharisees because they were in the presence of Jesus, hearing the good news of the kingdom and observing the power of the kingdom in the miraculous works of Jesus.

So then, what does it mean for us to pray “thy kingdom come”? Yes, we are asking for the future reign of God to come to earth, to transform all things, to bring healing, justice, and multifaceted peace. But we are also asking God to reign right now, in our personal lives, families, workplaces, neighborhoods, businesses, churches, cities, and throughout the world. In Matthew’s longer version of Jesus’s prayer, we ask “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth it is in heaven.” We could add, “thy kingdom come now and in this place; thy will be done right here in every dimension of earthly life, as it is in heaven.”

Though praying for the coming of God’s kingdom has to do with the whole cosmos, it is a request that has a very personal dimension. If I pray “thy kingdom come” and really mean it, then, among other things, I am asking God to reign fully in my life today. I am submitting to God’s kingly rule. I am pledging myself to God’s purposes and glory. I am saying, in effect, “Let me be about your business today, my King. May I live today fully for the praise of your glory.”

Reflect

Before you read today’s devotion, what was your sense of the meaning of the phrase, “thy kingdom come”?

Given that the kingdom of God has both future and present dimensions, how do you make sense of this? Can you think of other situations in life that have an “already and not yet” reality? (I offer some options in my article, Jesus and the Kingdom of God: What You Need to Know, in case you’re interested.)

In what ways is God ruling over your life right now? Are there areas of your life that you have yet to surrender to his reign?

If God were to be reigning in and through you each day, in your ordinary actions, what difference might this make?

Act

Be intentional about offering yourself as God’s subject when you pray “thy kingdom come.” Make yourself available to God and his will for you today.

Pray

Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial. Amen.


Part 88: Praying Like Jesus: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Scripture – Luke 11:2-4 (NRSV)

“Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

Jesus taught us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” When we pray in this way, we are set free from the pretense that we are fully self-sufficient. We are reminded of just how much we depend on God, even for the ordinary things we need to be alive. Plus, when we ask for “daily bread,” we’re also looking forward to the coming of God’s kingdom, which is portrayed in Scripture as a lavish banquet. We’re saying, in effect, “God, give us right now a foretaste of the justice, peace, and love of your future kingdom.”

Devotion

Several years ago while walking along a street in New York City, I saw a sign that intrigued me. It read, “Le Pain Quotidien.” Curious as to what this might be, I walked over to discover a bakery-based restaurant. It seemed to be fairly popular, given the crowd of people filling the place. And it certainly smelled wonderful when I poked my head inside. But I wondered if it was actually a good idea to have the word “Pain” in the name of your restaurant in an English-speaking city. I also wondered how many of the people walking along that street in New York would have known that this restaurant had borrowed its name from the Lord’s Prayer. You see, “Le Pain Quotidien” is French for “The Daily Bread.” French-speaking Christians ask God to give them their “pain quotidien,” their daily bread.

At first glance, the meaning of “Give us each day our daily bread” doesn’t seem terribly complicated. It appears to be a straightforward request for God to give us the food we need to survive. This petition may harken back to the Exodus, when God fed the Israelites each day with manna—daily bread from Heaven, if you will. Though God doesn’t usually provide food in such a miraculous manner, asking for daily bread acknowledges that everything we have, including our ordinary food, ultimately comes from the Lord.

The Greek word translated in verse 3 as “daily” (epiousios) is quite unusual. It shows up in the New Testament only in the Lord’s Prayer, both in Luke and in Matthew. For centuries (literally) scholars have debated the meaning of the word epiousios. One third-century biblical interpreter was convinced that the Gospel writers made it up. Options for the meaning of epiousios include “necessary for existence,” “for the current day (today)”, and “for the following day (tomorrow).” Though there is still no scholarly consensus, the strongest arguments support the third option. Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray, “Give us each day tomorrow’s bread.”

Now, while this could surely mean something like “Give us the food we need each day,” it’s quite possible that Jesus was praying with a double meaning here. Not only was he asking for literal food, but he also was asking for tomorrow’s bread in a metaphorical sense. Later in Luke, we’ll encounter Jesus saying, “The people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (13:29). One of the ways faithful Jews in the time of Jesus envisioned the future kingdom of God was as a lavish banquet (drawing, for example, from Isaiah 25:6-10). Because Jesus thought of God’s future kingdom in this way, “Give us today the bread of tomorrow” seems to have had a dual meaning. On the one hand, it was a prayer for the daily provision of basic food. On the other hand, it was also a poetic way of asking for the coming of God’s kingdom, following on the heels of the more literal “Your kingdom come” (Luke 11:2).

There is one more curious matter in the language of “Give us this day our daily bread.” The imperative, “Give us” is a present tense imperative in Greek, unlike the other imperatives in Luke 11:2-4. In Greek, the present imperative had an ongoing or continuous sense. It meant not just “Give us this day our daily bread” but “Give and keeping on giving us each day our daily bread.” In other words, the tense of “Give” reminds us that we need God’s provision not just once, but day after day after day.

When we pray “Give us our daily bread,” we are asking God to provide what we need to sustain ordinary life. Doing so reminds us of how much we depend on God and his grace each day. When I pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” I’m reminded that I am not as self-sufficient as I would like to think I am. Yes, it’s true that the food I eat today was purchased with money my wife and I have earned. But our capacity to work, our having people who want to pay us for our labor, our ability to easily purchase, store, and prepare food—all of this and so much more are gifts from God’s own hand. Thus, asking for daily bread reminds me of my need for God. It also encourages me to be grateful for the ordinary things of life, like the bread on my table.

Saying to the Lord “Give us this day our daily bread” is also a way to ask, once again, for the coming of God’s future kingdom. But we aren’t saying in effect, “May your kingdom come someday in the future.” Rather, we are asking for “tomorrow’s bread” today. We are urging God to give us a foretaste now of the messianic banquet of the future. We are yearning for an appetizer of God’s grace, justice, and world-transforming peace. We are expressing our longing for the future kingdom to permeate our lives and our world right now.

Reflect

To what extent do you regularly sense your dependence on God?

What helps you to realize just how much you need God, even for your “daily bread”?

If you’re someone who has a strong need to feel self-sufficient, where does this come from?

When you imagine God’s future kingdom actually being present today, what comes to mind? What thoughts? What images? What feelings do you have?

Act

Set aside some time to thank the Lord intentionally for the “little things,” for the ordinary things in your life that are gifts from him.

Pray

Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial. Amen.


Part 89: Praying Like Jesus: Forgive Us Our Sins

Scripture – Luke 11:2-4 (NRSV)

“Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

In teaching us how to pray, Jesus includes an essential element, “And forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4). Though we are free to confess our sins in a variety of ways, Scripture is clear that this is something we all need to do. When we admit our sins to God and ask him to forgive us, we experience the freedom that comes as God releases us from the bondage of our guilt and shame. God’s forgiveness through Christ fills us with the joy of knowing that nothing in all creation will ever separate us from God’s love for us.

Devotion

Several devotions ago I talked about the curious difference in the way Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer. Most notably, some of pray, “Forgive us our trespasses” while other Christians pray, “Forgive us our debts.” No matter which of these we use, we understand that we’re not talking about literal trespasses or literal debts. Rather, these are metaphorical ways of talking about sin.

Well, just to make things more interesting, in Luke 11:4 Jesus complicates things even further by teaching us to pray, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” As I explained previously, I think it’s likely that Jesus actually said what we call the Lord’s Prayer in a variety of ways, two of which are captured in the New Testament Gospels.

Though the language may vary, what remains constant is the instruction of Jesus that we ask for God’s forgiveness when we pray. Though we know that we are forgiven through the work of Christ on the cross, and that God’s forgiveness doesn’t depend on our efforts, if we are going to experience that forgiveness, we need to ask God for it. As it says in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We will enjoy the benefits of forgiveness when we tell the Lord what we’ve done wrong and ask him to forgive us.

I grew up in a church in which a Prayer of Confession was an essential element of every worship experience. A pastor would stand before the congregation and offer a prayer on our behalf, mentioning both sin in general and specific kinds of sin. This time of confession often included several moments of silence during which worshippers were to tell the Lord about their own sins. I must say that I found this particular practice a little odd because the time of silence was so short. I barely had time to confess one sin, not to mention the list of sins that I had accumulated during the past week. Nevertheless, after the brief moment of silence, the pastor would finish up, say “Amen,” and then speak the Assurance of Pardon, often reciting the passage from 1 John that I quoted above: “If we confess our sins . . . .”

These days, many churches continue to feature a Prayer of Confession in their times of worship. But as I worship in a wide variety of churches these days, I am struck by how rare a dedicated prayer of confession has become in many congregations. I don’t really know why this is, because these churches don’t shy away from talking about sin. But the regular corporate confession of sin appears to have been set aside, along with repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, I might add.

One of the things I miss when corporate confession disappears is the experience of admitting in public my own sin, not in words others can hear, but in my participation in our shared confession. Something essential happens when brothers and sisters can say together, “Lord, we have sinned. We need your forgiveness.” It’s as if for a few moments we let down our guard, we stop pretending, and we agree together that we are in need of God’s grace in our lives. Moreover, something equally essential happens when we hear together that we are forgiven. If we take this seriously, among other things it will help us to offer forgiveness to each other, something vital for healthy church life.

I’m not necessarily criticizing churches that don’t use the traditional elements of worship I grew up with. Christians are free to worship God in a variety of biblically-inspired forms and expressions. And I expect for some worshipers the familiarity of a certain form of confession may lead to a kind of spiritual dullness. But I do wonder if many believers are not being taught by their churches to confess their sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. Given what we learn from 1 John 1:9, not to mention the Lord’s Prayer, this does concern quite me a bit. I wonder if some who have been saved by God’s grace through faith are, nevertheless, missing out on the discipline and joy that come from regular confession of sin.

I am convinced, however, that you and I are both free and encouraged to employ the model prayer of Jesus in our personal communication with God. I believe we should regularly confess our sin – and our specific sins – and ask the Lord to forgive us. This can happen in a variety of ways and forms. In my own devotional life, I often am guided by the Book of Common Prayer. The Daily Office includes a variety of Morning Prayer rites, all of which put confession of sin right near the beginning, followed by a priestly prayer that serves as an assurance of pardon. I have many friends who employ the ACTS model of prayer in their devotions: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. These are just two of many ways to include confession in your personal communication with the Lord.

I also find it helpful to confess in relationship to the biblical passage upon which I am reflecting in my devotions. If you’ve been reading Life for Leaders for a while, you’ll see this modeled in what I have written. Many times the prayers that come at the end of a devotion include a paragraph of confession that responds to the biblical text upon which the daily devotion is built. Again, I’m not saying this is the only way or the best way. But it is one more way we can include regular confession of sin in our prayers.

In tomorrow’s devotion we’ll examine the rest of what Jesus says we’re to pray in relationship to forgiveness, “for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). For now, I’d like you to consider your own prayer life as you respond to the simple line, “And forgive us our sins” (11:4). The following questions might help.

Reflect

In what ways has confession been a part of your experience of corporate worship?

How does confession play a role in your personal devotions?

Why do you think confession of sin and asking for God’s forgiveness are so important?

What holds you back from confessing your specific sins to God?

What helps you to confess on a regular basis?

Act

If you do not have a practice of regular confession, think and pray about how you might add this practice into your life.

Pray

Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial. Amen.


Part 90: Praying Like Jesus: And Do Not Bring Us Into the Time of Trial

Scripture – Luke 11:2-4 (NRSV)

“Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

Jesus taught his first followers to pray, “And do not bring us to the time of trial or temptation.” When we pray this way, we remember just how much we depend on the Lord. When our faith is tested, we need God’s help. When we are tempted to sin, we need God to protect us. The good news is that God is there for us, ready to help in our time of need.

Devotion

As you read the shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke, the language sounds quite familiar, rather like the prayer that many of us have said in church for decades. But when you get to the final petition in the Lukan prayer in our translation, it sounds quite unfamiliar. Rather than something like “Lead us not into temptation,” the prayer in Luke concludes with, “And do not bring us to the time of trial” (Luke 11:4, NRSV). We wonder what’s going on here. Why “time of trial” rather than “temptation”?

Our curiosity is heightened if we examine other contemporary translations of Luke 11:4. The NIV and the ESV have, “And lead us not into temptation.” The CEB uses, “And don’t lead us into temptation.” Similarly, the NLT translates, “And don’t let us yield to temptation.” So, it turns out that among modern English translations, the NRSV is an outlier with its preference for “time of trial” over “temptation.” What is happening here? How do we know what we’re praying if the translations don’t agree?

The NRSV option reflects a particular interpretation held by some Bible scholars. They get to this reading from several starting points. First, the Greek word translated as “temptation” in the traditional Lord’s Prayer (peirasmos) can mean “test” or “trial” instead of “temptation.” Second, saying “Lead us not into temptation” could imply that God is tempting us to sin, which is inconsistent with biblical teaching such as found in James 1:13: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.”; For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” If God would never tempt us, what sense does it make to ask God not to lead us into temptation? Third, some commentators believe that peirasmos in this context refers to the testing that will happen shortly before Christ returns in glory. We can still pray for Christ’s return while asking to be protected from the persecutions that will precede it.

Nevertheless, most modern translators do not go along with the “time of testing” option, preferring the more traditional “Lead us not into temptation.” They argue that we can pray this way without implying that God is the tempter. To say “Lead us not into temptation” means, in their view, something like, “Lead us away from temptation” or, like the NLT, “Don’t let us yield to temptation.” Several commentators point to the similarity between this request and one found in the written record of Jewish rabbinic teaching known as the Talmud. In the tractate Berakot, one is encouraged to ask the LORD, “Lead me not into error, nor into iniquity, nor into temptation nor into disgrace” (b. Ber. 60b, William Davidson Talmud). Thus, if ancient rabbis could pray this way, it seems likely that Jesus taught his disciples to pray something like “Lead us not into temptation” without turning God into the tempter.

I am convinced, however, that the main point of Jesus’s petition, “Do not bring us into temptation/trial,” stands no matter how you interpret the word peirasmos. What is this point? Jesus is teaching us to pray in a way that emphasizes our utter dependence on God. In this sense, “Lead us not into temptation/trial” is rather like “Give us each day our daily bread.”  We’re not standing before God in bold confidence saying, “Lord, no matter what happens, I will remain faithful. I will be strong.” Rather, we’re acknowledging our weaknesses. We’re saying, in effect, “Lord, when the hard times come, times of trial, times of temptation, I need you to save me. I need you to protect me, to lead me away from that which I cannot handle. And if I must go through hard times, then I need you to give me strength.” I realize that I’m reading more into the text than it says on the surface, but I think something like this is intended.

When I was a teenaged Christian, I had confidence in my ability to be faithful and strong in the Lord. When I went to college, for example, many in my family and my church were worried about whether my faith would survive. Harvard in 1975, after all, wasn’t known to be supportive of Christian faith, unlike in the time of its founding. Harvard’s original mission statement included the line, “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” By the time I got there, however, challenges to Christian faith were multiple and powerful. But as I prepared to leave home for school, I knew I had done my homework. I had prepared my mind and heart. I was sure I would persevere.

Yet within weeks of the start of my freshman year, I came into a time of great testing. It wasn’t of the “temptation to sin” variety. It was more the testing that comes when one’s faith is challenged from all sides. Soon I found that my own ability to uphold my faith was failing. I was desperately afraid and discouraged. Day after day I cried out to the Lord for help. Finally, one night God met me in an utterly miraculous and life-transforming way. He delivered me from the demonic grasp of doubt. He stirred up faith in me like I had never known before.

From that moment on, I have never believed that I can be a faithful Christian on my own. I know how much I need the Lord to uphold me and to help me. So, whether I pray “Lead us not into temptation” or “Do not bring us to the time of trial,” I am utterly convinced that I need God’s help no matter what comes my way. And, from Scripture and my own experience, I am also convinced that God is there for me. That truth lies behind the prayer of Jesus in Luke 11:4. God is there for us, ready to help. It’s true for me . . . and it’s true for you as well.

Reflect

Do you tend to think of yourself as self-reliant, not needing help from others? If so, why? If not, why not?

How about in your relationship with God? How much are you aware of depending on God each day?

What helps you to realize how much you need God’s presence and strength?

Can you think of a time in your life when God helped you as your faith was being tested?

Can you think of a time when God helped you resist temptation?

What might it mean for you to live with a stronger sense of reliance upon God each day?

Act

Consider what you might do on a daily basis to remember just how much you depend on God. Then do it. See what you learn.

Pray

Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial. Amen.


Part 91: Praying with Shameless Audacity

Scripture – Luke 11:5-8 (NRSV)

And [Jesus] said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

Focus

In Luke 11, Jesus tells a story that encourages us to pray boldly, and not just boldly, but with shameless audacity. When we need something from God, we are free to ask and ask and ask, even if it seems rude. God can handle it. Jesus encourages it. What an amazing invitation!

Devotion

In Luke 11, after Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer, an abridged version of the Lord’s Prayer, he continues to teach a bit more about prayer with a parable (Luke 11:5-8) and some additional instruction along with illustration (11:9-13). Today we’ll focus on the parable. On Monday we’ll examine Jesus’s supplementary teaching.

The parable in Luke 11:5-9 doesn’t require lots of interpretation. When a man is visited late at night by an unexpected out-of-town guest, the man wakes up a neighboring friend to ask for three loaves of bread, enough to satisfy the guest’s hunger. But the friend declines, explaining that his children are in bed with him. Poor families in the time of Jesus lived in one-room homes and slept in a common family bed. The man with the bread didn’t want to wake his children. If you’ve ever been a parent with young children, you can understand his concern. Waking them up would mean a whole less sleep for the whole family!

Nevertheless, when I read this parable, I think to myself: What a lousy friend! Surely any true friend would help the man in need of bread, even if it required waking his children. I don’t think I’m projecting my own friendship values onto the first century, either. Friendship was highly valued in that time, perhaps even more than it is in my current cultural setting.

Jesus understands that the guy in bed is not being a great friend. That’s the assumption behind verse 8. Jesus recognizes that the man with the bread won’t give what a friend ought to give. But, and this is the main point of the parable, if the man in need of bread exercises persistence, if he keeps on knocking and asking, then the man in bed will finally give his friend the bread he needs.

It’s true that the man in need of bread exercised persistence. But that language – which I borrowed from the NRSV – actually misses the nuance of Jesus’s teaching here. If you were to look up the Greek word translated as “persistence” (anaideia) in the standard Greek-English lexicon you’d find, not “persistence,” but “shamelessness, impertinence, impudence.” So, Jesus isn’t only saying, “Pray and keep on praying” but, as the NIV puts it, Pray with “shameless audacity.”

Isn’t that amazing?! Jesus is encouraging us to go for it completely when we pray, not to worry about having good manners with God. I do find this surprising. Though, when I consider the Psalms, I remember how brash the psalm writers can be when they pray. For example, consider Psalm 44:23: “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! To not reject us forever.” The Message puts it this way: “Get up, GOD! Are you going to sleep all day? Wake up! Don’t you care what happens to us?” If you didn’t find that line in the Spirit-inspired Psalms, you’d never think it was appropriate in prayer.

The New Testament book of Hebrews provides a solid theological basis for bold outspokenness in prayer. In chapter 4 we read, “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.” We can come before God in prayer with boldness – the Greek word means, more literally, “saying everything that’s on our mind” – because of who Jesus is and what he has done. He not only understands our weaknesses, but also has opened up for us free and full access to God’s throne.

So, the parable of the man needing bread is shocking, but it’s not inconsistent with what we see elsewhere in Scripture. Jesus encourages us to be persistent, to ask, and keep on asking in prayer. But, even more, he urges us to be unafraid of breaking the rules, of going too far, of being shameless, impertinent, and impudent. God seeks our complete honesty. God is not put off when we speak boldly, even brashly. Yes, to be sure there is also good reason to be humble before God, to submit our will to his. But that should not keep us from telling God exactly what we need, again and again, and again. You see, God is not like the man in bed, even though it might seem like it sometimes. God is ready to offer “mercy and grace to help in time of need.”

Reflect

How do you respond to this parable of Jesus?

Have you ever asked anything of a friend that created inconvenience? What happened?

How much freedom do you feel when you pray?

Can you imagine praying to God with “shameless audacity”? If so, why? If not, why not?

What holds you back in your communication with God?

What helps you to pray freely and boldly, without worrying about politeness?

Act

If there’s something in your life that needs God’s help, practice what Jesus encourages in this parable. Pray with persistence. Even more, pray with shameless audacity. Pay attention to what you think and feel as you do this.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for this amazing parable. If you hadn’t told this story, I would not believe that shameless audacity was fitting in prayer. But you encourage us to pray in ways that seem to break the rules of politeness. That’s almost beyond my comprehension.

Lord, I know there are also times when it’s right to be humble in prayer, to submit my full self to God. And there are times when it’s good to wait in silence. Help me, I pray, to experience the full range of prayerful communication. May I know the freedom to come before God without holding back, without fear or hesitation.

Thank you for the invitation to approach the throne of grace with boldness. Thank you for the promise that, when I do, I will receive mercy and grace. Amen.


Part 92: Ask, and It Will Be Given to You

Scripture – Luke 11:9-10 (NRSV)

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Focus

Jesus encourages us to ask God for what we need, confident that God will indeed respond to our prayers. When it seems that God isn’t responding, we’re urged to ask and keep on asking, search and keep on search, knock and keep on knocking. Though it can be discouraging when God’s answer to our prayers isn’t what we had hoped for, we continue to pray on the basis of Jesus’s promise. When we pray, God will respond, doing what’s best for us even if it doesn’t seem that way.

Devotion

In Luke 11, after giving his disciples a model prayer, Jesus has some more things to say about prayer. First, he encourages us to pray with “shameless audacity” (see last Thursday’s devotion). Then Jesus adds some additional reasons why we can pray with confidence in God’s response. He says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (11:9-10).

This passage uses three verbs in the imperative mood: ask, search, and knock. All three of these verbs are in the present tense in Greek, which conveys the sense of ongoing action. We could accurately paraphrase the Greek by translating, “Ask and keep on asking, and it will be given to you; search, and keep on searching, and you will find; knock, and keep on knocking, and the door will be opened for you.” In other words, the form of these imperatives underscores what we learned in the previous section. Jesus teaches us to ask God for what we need in prayer and to keep on asking until we receive it. Preachers who advocate an “ask only once” view of prayer must have forgotten what Jesus teaches here.

In this section of Luke, Jesus reinforces the fact that God will indeed answer our prayers. In fact, his teaching appears at first glance to promise that we will always get from the Lord what we request of him. That’s one way to read “For everyone who asks receives” (11:10). Now, to be sure, Jesus is saying that God will answer our prayers. But he is not saying that God will always give us exactly what we want. When we ask something of the Lord, we will receive. Sometimes God will do precisely what we request. Often, however, God’s answer is not what we were expecting, or even what we wanted.

One might say that Luke 11:9-10 points to the problem of unanswered prayer. But the phrase “unanswered prayer” is not quite right. It would be more consistent with what Jesus teaches to say that this passage raises for us the challenge we face when God’s answers are not in line with our hopes. Sometimes when we ask for something in prayer, God says “No.” Many times, in my experience, God says “Yes and no” or “Not yet.” In times such as these, we can easily feel as if God is silent. We might even wonder if God is withholding his grace from us. We see this kind of questioning in Psalm 77:7-9: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

The presence of such a prayer in the Psalms gives us freedom to say to the Lord exactly what’s in our minds and hearts, without holding back. There are times when it feels as if God has forgotten to be gracious. You might even be in one of those times right now. If your personal theology is built on Scripture, then you know that God has really not ceased to be gracious. But it sure can feel that way. In such times, you don’t have to constrain your prayers, making sure you dot every theological ‘i’ and cross every theological ‘t.’ Rather, you are invited to speak to the Lord freely, opening your heart to him without fear or hesitation.

Jesus will address the question of God’s goodness in the next verses of Luke 11 (see tomorrow’s devotion). So far, he promises that if we pray, God will in fact answer. And, through Luke’s use of present imperative verbs, Jesus urges us to keep on praying no matter what. Even when it seems as if God isn’t answering us, in faith we ask and keeping on asking, seek and keep on seeking, knock and keep on knocking.

Reflect

Can you think of a time (or times) in your life when you asked God for something in prayer and were astounded by his quick, positive response? How did you respond to this?

Can you think of a time (or times) when you asked God for something repeatedly but did not receive the answer you had hoped for? How did you respond to this?

How do you deal with the problem of so-called “unanswered prayer”?

What helps you to pray and keep on praying, even when God’s answer is not what you’d like?

Act

Take Jesus at his word. Ask and keep on asking for something you’d like God to do. Pay attention, not only to God’s answer, but also to what’s going on in you in the process.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for hearing my prayers. Thank you for the privilege of telling you whatever is on my mind and heart, without needing to hold back. Thank you for the encouragement to pray and keep on praying. Thank you for the promise that if we pray, you will listen and you will answer.

Lord, sometimes it’s hard to receive your answer to prayer. I’m quite happy with “Yes.” Sometimes “Yes and no” is okay. “Not now” isn’t easy for me. “No” can be so discouraging, especially when my request makes so much sense to me. Help me, I pray, to receive your answers to prayer with consistent trust in you, even when you’re not responding as I had wished.

Help me, gracious God, to be persistent in prayer, to pray and keep on praying. May I remain in conversation with you through the day, whether I’m at work or at home, in my neighborhood or at the grocery store, in church or on the soccer field. Amen.


Part 93: God Gives Good Gifts

Scripture – Luke 11:9-13 (NRSV)

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Focus

If a child asks a parent for a fish, no parent gives a snake instead. And if a child wants an egg, no mentally healthy parent would give the child a scorpion. Jesus uses this commonsense parenting illustration to underscore the goodness and grace of God. When we ask God for things in prayer, God does not give us that which will hurt us. Sometimes the good God gives is not what we had hoped, true enough. But God is generous, not only with many good gifts, but also with the gift of his own Spirit. When we pray, God makes his very presence known to us, and that is indeed a wonderful gift.

Devotion

This passage from Luke 11 reminds me of things I’d rather forget. No, I’m not talking about times when God said “No” to my prayers. The things I’d rather forget are actually snakes and scorpions. I’m not being metaphorical here, using “snakes and scorpions” as ways of talking about spiritual warfare. I’m talking about real snakes and real scorpions. I know they’re essential in the circle of life, but I really don’t appreciate them.

When my family and I lived in the Texas Hill Country, I encountered only a few scary snakes, by which I mean venomous. In seven years I saw only three rattlesnakes in the wild. I did find a coral snake in my back yard once, which was unsettling even though this poisonous snake is quite beautiful and relatively harmless. But, for the most part, the snakes I encountered in Texas were the non-venomous kind.

A scorpion in a fish tank under UV light, making it glow aquaScorpions, on the other hand, haunted my days and nights. Shortly after we moved into our home in Texas, I almost stepped on a scorpion in my bedroom. That night, I examined the exterior of our home with an ultraviolet light, which causes scorpions to glow in the dark. I discovered several of those ugly little creatures on the walls of our house. So, over the next seven years, even with help from the pest control folks, we had several dozen scorpions inside. Somehow, I managed to avoid being stung. Not so for my wife, however. The good news was that the scorpions in Texas have a painful but relatively harmless sting, so Linda survived her two scorpion stings.

Given my experience in Texas, I get completely what Jesus says about prayer in Luke 11:11-13. I cannot imagine any parent responding to their child’s request for a fish by handing over a snake. Plus, no parent I know would ever give their child a scorpion, certainly not if the child had asked for an egg. Such things just don’t happen.

Jesus uses the parent-child-snake-scorpion illustration to make a strong point about God’s good gifts to us. He says, “If you then, you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). We are evil, not in the sense that everything we do is morally wrong, but in a more intrinsic sense. Our hearts have been corrupted by sin. We cannot avoid the presence of evil in our lives and in our souls. Yet, even so, we give good gifts to our children. Therefore our Heavenly Father, in whom there is no evil at all, will be even more gracious and generous in giving good gifts to us when we ask for them. This encourages us to be bold and persistent in prayer, to tell God exactly what we’d like him to do for us, to pray and keep on praying, as we saw in yesterday’s devotion.

Notice, though, that Jesus does not say in Luke that our Father in heaven will “give good things to those who ask him.” He did say that in Matthew 7:11. In Luke, however, Jesus says that God will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (11:13). Isn’t that interesting?!?! Though we may not receive from the Lord exactly what we had asked, we will receive something even better, the indwelling, comforting, empowering Spirit of God. That’s quite a promise.

This passage from Luke reminds me of a time in my life when I prayed and prayed and prayed, yet without receiving the answer I wanted. My dad was dying of cancer, slowly, painfully, over the course of two years. It was agonizing to see him suffer. So I prayed for the Lord to heal my dad. I expect I asked for his healing well over 1,000 times. I took Jesus up on his offer to “ask and keep on asking.” But every time God’s answer was some version of “No.”

One day I was walking in the hills near my parents’ home, telling God how much I wanted him to heal my dad and how disappointed I was in God’s failure to do so. As I peered down upon my parents’ home from a steep cliff, all of a sudden I felt the presence of God in a powerful way. God was not answering my prayer in the way I had wanted. He was, instead, filling me with the Holy Spirit. In that moment, I sensed God speaking to me with unusual clarity. What I heard was this, “I’m not going to heal your father” and “I love your father. I love you. I love your family. You can be sure of this.” God did not heal my dad, who died a few months later. Nor did God help me to understand why he chose not to heal. That’s still a mystery. But God gave me something wonderful that day through the presence of the Spirit. And that experience sustained me in the difficult months ahead. I still grieved as my dad suffered and died. But I knew with great assurance that God was present and God was good. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Reflect

So, do you have any stories of interesting encounters with snakes or scorpions?

Can you think of a time in your life when you prayed for something and God said “No” to your specific request, but gave you instead an experience of the fulness of the Spirit? If so, what happened? What was that like?

When in your life did you experience God as giving you what you asked for in prayer? What was that experience like for you?

Are there things you would like from the Lord, but for some reason you’re not mentioning in your prayers?

What helps you to trust God in prayer even in times when it seems like God is not paying attention to you?

Act

As you remember a time (or several times) when God responded to your prayers by giving you a fresh experience of the Holy Spirit, thank God for his goodness. Ask that he might fill you once again with the Spirit.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for giving good gifts when we ask. Thank you for always giving us what is best for us, even if we can’t understand what you are doing in the moment. Thank you, especially, dear Lord, for the times you give us your Spirit to comfort us, encourage us, teach us, and empower us.

Help me, Lord, to pray freely and confidently, know that you are a good, good God. Even when I cannot make sense of what you are doing – or not doing – may I continue to pray. In those times, gracious God, bless me with the presence and power of your Spirit. Though I want many things from you, what I need most of all is a deeper experience of you. May it be so! Amen.


Part 94: The Finger of God

Scripture – Luke 11:19-20 (NRSV)

“Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”

Focus

When Jesus’s opponents accused him of doing miracles by the power of Satan, he responded by explaining that the finger of God was at work through him, and therefore the kingdom of God was present. Wherever God is at work – both in obvious miracles and in daily blessings and empowerments – God is ruling. We would do well to pay attention to how God’s “finger” is active in our lives, so that we might thank God and join in his work of healing, saving, restoring, and reconciling.

Devotion

In the 1996 blockbuster film Twister, a group of storm chasers are explaining the measurement of the sizes of tornadoes to a novice. Referencing the Fujita scale, they talk about some impressive tornadoes they have witnessed, including F-2s, F-3s, and even F-4s. One of the storm chasers explains that an F-4 “will relocate your house efficiently.” The novice asks innocently, “Is there an F-5?” As chasers sit in reverent silence, the novice adds, “What would that be like?” One of the chasers answers, “The finger of God.” You don’t need to know anything about the background of that phrase, “the finger of God,” to get the sense of that comment. The finger of God represents something extraordinarily powerful, something that takes your breath away and could indeed take your life away.

The phrase “finger of God” has its beginning in Scripture. It occurs in the Old Testament account of the Exodus in a couple of places. The first occurrence comes during the third plague. Moses told Aaron to strike the ground with his staff. When this happened, “all the dust of the earth turned into gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt” (Exodus 8:17). Pharaoh’s magicians tried to produce gnats with their trickery, but were unable to do so. They explained to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” (Exodus 8:19). God’s finger has power far beyond anything else in the world. The second occurrence of the phrase “finger of God” comes in the description of God’s giving the law to Moses: “When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). In this case, God’s finger represents both power (to write in stone with a finger) and authority (to dictate the law).

With this background in mind, we pick up the story of Jesus in Luke 11. After he had cast a demon out of someone, his critics said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons” (11:15). Jesus responded by to this charge by noting that if demons are being cast out by the power of Satan, then Satan must be divided against himself, which makes no sense. Then Jesus added, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (11:20). Here, as in Exodus, the finger of God is God’s extraordinary, supernatural power.

What Jesus said about the finger of God is fascinating. Because he was casting out demons by God’s own power, “the kingdom of God has come to you.” This is an unusually strong statement by Jesus of the presence of God’s kingdom. In other contexts, Jesus said “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), with the sense that it is very close but not yet here. But Luke 11:20 uses a Greek verb that means “to arrive” or “to reach a position.” This verb is in the past tense (aorist). Thus, Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God had already arrived when he was casting out demons.

Remember that the phrase “kingdom of God” in the teaching of Jesus could easily be rendered as “reign of God” or “rule of God.” It points to God’s sovereign authority and power more than to the place in which God rules. Thus, when Jesus demonstrated the very power of God in his ministry, such as when casting out demons, indeed God had begun to rule. The kingdom was not fully present yet. That would come in the future. But it was truly present, even if not completely.

God’s finger is still at work today. Yes, we recognize the presence of God’s finger when God does exceptional miracles—healing bodies, casting out demons, and the like. But God’s finger usually moves in ways that are less dramatic, even though they are still workings of God’s power. When people who have been wronged choose to forgive, when divided groups act to reconcile, when the powerful lower themselves in order to raise up others, when people exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we see evidence of God’s finger at work (Galatians 5:22-23).

So, you don’t have to wait around for an epic tornado or for a plague of gnats to witness the finger of God. Though God’s kingdom will come completely in the future, it is present now, especially when God’s people act in ways that demonstrate divine power, whether in casting out demons, binding up the brokenhearted, or loving enemies.

Reflect

Can you think of a time (or times) in your life when you experienced God’s power in a particularly powerful and obvious way? What happened? How did you respond?

What does it mean to you to live right now under God’s authority and by God’s sovereign power?

Where do you see the finger of God at work in the world? In your workplace? In your family? In your neighborhood? In your city? In your church?

Act

Set aside some time to reflect on that last question. You may even want to jot down in a journal ways in which God’s finger has been at work in your life.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for exercising your power for our benefit. Thank you that your “finger” isn’t like a huge tornado, something from which we must flee for our lives. Thank you for using your power to help us, rather than to hurt us, to heal, rather than to wound.

God, I ask for your “finger” to be at work in my life, not just in the major miracles, but in my daily activity as I work, rest, learn, and play. May I be aware of what you are doing and how I can join you in your work.

All praise be to you, O God, for your awesome power and your amazing grace. Amen.


Part 95: True Purity

Scripture – Luke 11:37-41 (NRSV)

While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.”

Focus

Sometimes we get so obsessed with how others see us that we fail to pay attention to our hearts. We can be clean on the outside but mucky on the inside. Jesus urges us to focus, not on the “outside of the cup,” but rather on the “inside.” Instead of making sure we do the right things with water when we wash our hands, we should allow the Lord to give us new hearts, pure hearts filled with God’s love.

Devotion

When you hear the word “purity,” what comes to mind? For some reason, I think immediately of water, which, when all contaminants are filtered out, is gloriously pure. Or I picture water of the frozen variety, as in the phrase “pure as the driven snow.” Snow that has not yet landed and therefore is free from dirt is also wondrously pure.

Many Jews in the time of Jesus would have associated water with purity. They used water, for example, to wash their hands before they ate. People like the Pharisees did this for ceremonial rather than healthful reasons. By pouring water over their hands before a meal, they signified their ritual purity. Though they lived in the world, they were not polluted by it. The Pharisees actually had quite precise rules for how much water to use and how to use it when washing their hands. It was much more complicated than “wash with soap and warm water for 20 seconds” (see, for example, Mishnah, Yadayim 1:1ff).

Thus, in Luke 11, when Jesus went to dinner at the home of a Pharisee, his host “was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner” (11:38). Jesus, supposedly a holy man, was not doing what any Jewish holy man should do. Apparently, Jesus knew what his host was thinking, so he said, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you” (11:39-41).

Jesus’s point was that a person could look great on the outside, all cleaned up, without being great on the inside. You could look like a holy person but have your heart “full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39). This was not okay, according to Jesus. So, he advised the Pharisees with whom he was dining, “give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you” (11:41).

What did Jesus mean by “give for alms those things that are within”? When we remember what he had just said about the Pharisees being full of greed, it’s likely that Jesus was urging them to give away their financial resources rather than clutching to them. The very act of giving can help set the heart free from greed. It can lead us down the road of genuine moral purity. At the same time, the more your heart is pure, the more you’ll be eager to share generously with others what God has generously given to you. Giving is also an expression of a pure heart.

I’ve been a follower of Jesus for over five decades. I will admit that during this time I have sometimes cared more about my “outside” than my “inside.” I want to look good to others, to have people think of me as morally upright. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I can easily worry much more about virtue signaling than the substance of my character. I know I’m not alone in this. Maybe you can relate, too.

Jesus is not saying that our behavior doesn’t matter. Not at all. But he is reminding us that what’s in our hearts is of paramount importance. If our hearts are pure, then from our hearts will come pure actions of grace, mercy, and generosity. If our hearts are pure, then we can stop worrying about how others see us. We can offer the “alms” of our heart to God, honoring God with our inner intentions, with the things we do, say, and think when we’re away from the gaze of others. No one will see us . . . except the Lord, and the Lord will be well pleased.

Reflect

When you think of the words “pure” or “purity,” what comes to mind?

Are you ever tempted to focus on your moral appearance rather than the character of your heart?

What helps you to get your focus back in the right place?

Are there elements of your life that fall short of genuine purity? Are you willing to let the Lord deal with these?

Act

In light of what Jesus said about giving alms, talk to him about whether you should make a contribution to some worthy charity today. If you feel led to give, then do so.

Pray

Lord Jesus, though I’m not obsessed with hand-washing, I confess that I can sometimes care more about how I look than how I am on the inside. I want people to think highly of me. But what about my soul? What about making sure that you think highly of me?

Lord, help me to open my heart to you. May your Spirit show me where I need to repent, where I need to be forgiven, where I need your grace to renew me. And then, Lord, with a heart made pure by you, help me to live not for my reputation but for your kingdom and glory. Amen.


Part 96: Where Should You Focus?

Scripture – Luke 11:42 (NRSV)

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”

Focus

Many people in the time of Jesus sought to do all of the religious things just right. Sometimes they became so focused on the tiniest things that they neglected the big things, the things that matter most. Jesus said it was fine to care about religious rituals, but not if that meant neglecting things like God’s love and justice. As we seek to follow Jesus today, may we focus on what matters most to God.

Devotion

Several years ago, a friend of mine I’ll call Sandy moved into a new community. On her first Sunday in town, she decided to visit one of the local churches. Now, this was a conservative church in a fairly conservative town, so she dressed up, putting on one of her best suits. After the worship service, while she was attempting without much success to mingle on the patio, a woman from the church approached Sandy, apparently wanting to talk. Sandy was encouraged. Maybe this was a friendly church after all.

The woman introduced herself and learned Sandy’s name. So far, so good. But then the woman said in a very stern voice, “Young lady, woman wear skirts and dresses in this church. We don’t wear pants. If you’re going to join us, you’ll have to dress appropriately.” Sandy stood there, speechless. Not wanting to pick a fight, she thanked the woman, turned around and walked to her car, never to return again.

Now, depending on where you live, what kind of church you go to, and what sort of religious background you’ve had, you might find this story almost unbelievable in addition to being terribly sad. But, in my experience, most churches care an inordinate amount about things that really shouldn’t matter. If it’s not your clothing, it could be your way of worshiping, your ethnicity, or your political preferences. Now, in defense of churches, I’d add that “most churches” get mired in things that aren’t so important because, frankly, most Christians do.

Jesus, however, points to another way of being in a curious passage in Luke 11 about tithing, of all things.

The Old Testament law was clear about the fact that God’s people were to tithe on what their farms produced. It says in Leviticus 27:30, “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the LORD’S; they are holy to the LORD.” A tithe was equal to one-tenth of the whole. So, if some grew ten bushels of wheat, that person set aside one bushel for the Lord.

The Pharisees were extremely zealous about keeping the law of God. In order to make extra sure they followed the law flawlessly, they expanded upon it, creating all sorts of specific rules that went beyond what was in the Torah. So, for example, no place in the law specifically required tithing of herbs and spices, such as “mint and rue and herbs of all kinds” (Luke 11:42). But it appears that the Pharisees had rules for such things (unless Jesus was simply being hyperbolic here, which is possible).

It’s a bit surprising that, in this passage, Jesus did not actually reject tithing as practiced by the Pharisees. He said they should not neglect things like tithing, even if they took things way too far. The main idea of devoting a tenth of your produce to God was a good one, according to Jesus. The problem was that the Pharisees focused so much attention on the minor details of legal observance that they completely forgot about the things that mattered most, in this case “justice and the love of God” (11:42).

I wonder how many times I have done this sort of thing. No, I’m not talking about tithing on the contents of our family’s spice rack. Nor am I admitting to telling a young woman she can’t wear pants to worship. But I am thinking about how I can get so wrapped up in being right about certain matters of faith that I overlook things like God’s justice and love. I am capable of arguing for my right points in a way that is fairly unloving. Moreover, I labor intensively to get my theology right, but sometimes fail to love my neighbor, not to mention my enemy. Or I can act as if God’s justice is of secondary importance, rather than something Jesus teaches us to value highly, following what we see throughout the Old Testament.

Though Jesus didn’t quote from the Old Testament, what he said in Luke 11:42 reminds me of what we read in the book of the prophet Micah. In the sixth chapter, someone is asking how best to worship God: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7). Micah responds with a classic, concise statement of what truly honors the Lord: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humble with your God?” Now there are actions worth focusing your life upon: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Reflect

Are you ever so worried about little things that you neglect the big things? Can you think of an example? Why are your priorities like that?

In what ways are you focusing on the justice and love of God?

If you were to prioritize God’s justice and love more than you do right now, what difference might this make in your life?

Act

Ask the Lord how you might do something today as an expression of his justice and/or love. Then, do what God puts on your heart.

Pray

Lord Jesus, though I’m not concerned about tithing on my spices, I can get pretty obsessed about things that really don’t matter. And, in the process I can forget about what matters most to you. Forgive me, Lord, when I get my priorities out of balance.

Help me, I pray, to invest my life in what matters most, in loving you with all that I am and my neighbor as myself. Help me to express love for others by seeking to live according to your justice. As I do, may I never forget to love mercy and to walk humbly with you all the days of my life. Amen.


Part 97: Woe to Whom?

Scripture – Luke 11:52 (NRSV)

Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.

Focus

Jesus does not hold back in his criticism of lawyers. But the lawyers he had in mind were not experts in secular law. Rather, they were supposed experts in religious law, in the Torah given by God to Moses and the children of Israel. Thus, Jesus’s strong words about lawyers ought to rouse any of us who seek to interpret God’s Word for others. Whether we’re pastors, seminary professors, parents, or members of a small group, we have the responsibility of personally knowing God and faithfully helping others to know God in truth. This is indeed a high calling!

Devotion

A recent headline in the American Bar Association Journal caught my eye. “What can lawyers do to combat their bad PR?” asks the writer, Danielle Braff. The article begins by referencing “hundreds if not thousands of lawyer jokes.” Braff notes, ironically, “there are really only three lawyer jokes – the rest are true stories.” Ouch!

I find myself feeling defensive for lawyers. To be sure, there are some bad-egg attorneys, but there are plenty of those in my pastoral line of work, too. Yet, in my experience with lawyers, they are usually people of integrity who use their legal training for good. I know several lawyers who not only care for their own clients, but also who do quite a bit of pro bono work for those who couldn’t afford legal assistance.

But then we come upon Luke 11 and Jesus’s censure of lawyers. He criticized them for loading people with impossible burdens and approving the killing of prophets (11:46-51). Then Jesus added, “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (11:52). He wasn’t making lawyer jokes here, but rather offering stern condemnation of “you lawyers.”

Now, before we start into a litany of lawyer jokes, it’s important to pay attention to what Jesus meant here. It’s true that the word translated as “lawyer,” nomikos in Greek, could refer to an expert in secular law. But in Luke 11, Jesus has another kind of lawyer in mind. He’s referring to experts in the Jewish law, the Torah that was to guide the life and faith of Israel. Lawyers, in Luke 11, aren’t those who bear the brunt of contemporary lawyer jokes. Rather, they are much more like people who have training in biblical interpretation. The lawyers Jesus had in mind were much more, well, like me.

What did Jesus have against the biblical interpreters of his day? He said that they “have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52). Jesus pictures knowledge of God and God’s truth as something that can be found behind a door. A key opens that door, the key of biblical interpretation. But the religious scholars of Jesus’s day did not actually use the key to find truth. They didn’t enter into the place where truth could be found. Moreover, they kept others from entering as well. Those who were supposed to interpret and teach actually kept people from knowing God and his ways.

As I read Luke 11:52, I am reminded of the significant responsibility God has entrusted to me as an interpreter of his Word. For years I did this work as a parish pastor, doing my “lawyer work” mainly through preaching in my church along with some adjunct teaching at Fuller Seminary. Today, the vast majority of my biblical interpretation goes into writing devotions. Since 2008, I have written more than 2,500 devotions, all based on a close reading of the Bible. That’s quite a bit of biblical “lawyering,” if you will.

My heart’s desire to use wisely the “key of knowledge” God has entrusted to me so that those whom I serve will truly enter into a deeper understanding and experience of God. Every time I write a devotion, I pray for God’s guidance. But I also seek to do what the religious lawyers in Jesus’s time did not do. According to Jesus, they did not enter themselves into the place of knowledge. Though they were experts in techniques of biblical interpretation, they did not know God in truth. They were not personally engaged with the God whom they studied. I know this is an easy trap for biblical interpreters to fall into. And it’s one I try to avoid by always seeking to let God’s truth touch me in a personal way as I share my insights with others.

Most of the readers of Life for Leaders are not trained as “biblical lawyers,” so to speak. Thus, you may be wondering how this devotion is relevant to you. Let me suggest three possibilities. First, though you may not have a seminary degree, you are in possession of “the key of knowledge” if you are committed to learning and doing God’s truth in Scripture. Thus, you are responsible for how you use this key, not just for yourself, but also for others. Whether you’re with your children, colleagues, neighbors, or small group partners, God can and will use you to help others engage with divine truth. Your job is to open the door, rather than hindering them from entering. (By the way, in my experience, hindering takes the form not only of poor interpretation of Scripture, but especially of poor obedience. Hypocrisy can be powerful and pernicious hindering.)

Second, if you’re going to be effective as a bearer of the “key of knowledge,” then you need to be sure and enter yourself into the place where God can be known. Don’t get so wrapped up in biblical interpretation that you fail to know truly and intimately the God who is revealed in Scripture.

Third, and finally, I would ask you to pray for the writing team at Life for Leaders (Uli, Inés, Jennifer, Sheff, Matthew, and me), and also for your pastor(s) and others who help you to understand God’s truth in Scripture. Pray that God would grant us wisdom, insight, and humility as we seek both to understand what God is saying and communicate that to you. Thank you.

Reflect

Do you use the “key of knowledge” to open the door into a truthful, intimate relationship with God? If so, in what ways do you do this?

In what contexts do you act as an interpreter of Scripture for others?

How committed are you to deeper learning about God and deeper experience of God?

What helps you to know God and God’s Word better, so that you might be a trustworthy teacher of others?

Act

Talk with God about your own growth in knowing God through the Word. Consider whether your current spiritual practices are helping you to know God more truly and intimately. If it seems right, make one commitment to doing something new or different in the next week. Then do it.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I want to know you truly, deeply, intimately. Thank you for making yourself known to me, most of all through Scripture. Thank you for giving me “the key of knowledge.” Not that this is something I own myself. Rather, this key is knowledge of the gospel. It’s knowledge of who you are. And it’s also the indwelling presence of your Spirit, who helps me to rightly understand Scripture.

Help me, I pray, to be a faithful interpreter of your Word. May I be diligent in study. May I always be open to your Spirit.

Lord, I’m quite sure that some of what I believe about Scripture isn’t quite right. I’m certainly not an inerrant interpreter of your Word. So help me, I pray, to study hard, but also to be humble before you and others.

Use me, I pray, to open the door so others might come to know you in truth. May I be a faithful steward of the “key” you have given me. To you be all the glory! Amen.


Part 98: God Knows You and Values You

Scripture – Luke 12:6-7 (NRSV)

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Focus

In the first century A.D., sparrows were a dime a dozen. Yet, according to Jesus, God knows and values sparrows. If this is true, then how much more does God know and value us? The fact is that God knows each one of us through and through. And God cares for us more than we will ever comprehend.

Devotion

I write most of my devotions while sitting on the patio behind my home in Pasadena. Since the weather here is relatively mild, I can do this during much of the year. Give me a fan in the summer and a space heater in the winter, and I’ll do my writing out with the squirrels and the birds.

A number of goldfinches on Mark Roberts' birdfeederWe have lots of birds in our back yard, mainly because we keep several bird feeders well stocked. For the most part, our avian visitors are small: Lesser Goldfinches, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Finches, and a variety of sparrows. (As you can see in today’s photo, sometimes my feeders attract quite a crowd, in this case, of Lesser Goldfinches.)

I’ve never actually thought about what one of our tiny bird visitors might be worth in dollars. Given how small and common they are, not too much, I expect. So, I’m not surprised by the statement of Jesus in Luke 12:6 that five sparrows are sold for “two pennies.” The NRSV slightly understates the worth of two assaria in Greek, which were copper coins equal to what a day laborer could make in a half hour or so. But Jesus’s point is clear. Sparrows aren’t worth very much money, which is why they were used as food for people who were quite poor. Yet, according to Jesus, “not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight” (Luke 12:6).

Now, it’s certainly possible that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically here. But I must admit I rather like the idea that God is watching the birds in my backyard, enjoying them as small wonders of his creation. If I like watching the birds day after day, surely God likes doing so even more. This reminds us of just how much God values what he has created, something we learn from Genesis 1 but sometimes forget.

Jesus’s main point is that God, who pays attention to even for one of the least valuable animals on earth, cares so much more for you and me. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said, “you are of more value than many sparrows” (12:7). What is implied but not stated here is this: You are of more value to God than many sparrows. God knows you. God cares about you. God values you more than you’ll ever fully know.

As an added illustration, Jesus said, “But even the hairs of your head are all counted” (Luke 12:7). The ironic and irreverent part of me wants to respond, “Yes, but that was more impressive when I was young and still had a full head of hair.” But, at the same time, I take Jesus’s point. After all, even now with thinning hair, I have no idea how many hairs are on my head. I can’t imagine trying to figure that out. But God knows me so well that even such a trivial fact about me matters to him.

Jesus used these common illustrations to emphasize how intimately God knows us and how much we matter to him. If you stop and think about it this is really wonderful. The truth is that God knows everything there is to know about you and he values you more than you will ever comprehend. Amazing!

Now, the context for this good news in Luke is persecution that followers of Jesus experience in both the present and the future (Luke 12:4, 11). Jesus reassured his first disciples – and us, by implication – that God knows our sufferings and cares deeply for us. That’s encouraging, for sure. But Jesus did not say that this means God will always deliver us from hard things. So we’re left with holding in tension the fact of God’s deep care for us and the fact that this doesn’t mean God will always rescue us from hardships. I must confess that I find this perplexing at times, especially when people I care about are hurting. I can wonder why God doesn’t intervene more directly to set people free from pain, injustice, and oppression.

Nevertheless, today I am cheered by the fact of God’s care. I hope you are too. No matter what you’ve experienced in life, God knows and God cares. I’d like to close with the version of this good news that appears in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35, 37-39).

Reflect

How do you respond to the idea that God knows absolutely everything about you? Is this comforting? Unsettling? Or????

Do you live as if God cares greatly for you? If so, why? If not, why not?

When in your life have you been especially aware of God’s care for you?

Act

You may be in a place of deep assurance about how much God cares for you. If so, that’s great. But many of us are not in such a place. If you would like to have a deeper experience of God’s care for you personally, let me encourage you to talk with God about this. Then, pay attention to how God will let you know just how much he knows and values you.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the reassurance in today’s passage from Luke. Thank you for letting us know that God knows us through and through, and that God cares for us more than we can truly comprehend. Help me, Lord, to take in this knowledge.

I want to pray today for those who are going through hard times. It can be difficult to experiences God’s loving care when we’re suffering pain or injustice. You know that, Lord. So I ask for an extra measure of your grace to be poured out on those who are in pain today.

I ask that you help me to live each day with the assurance of God’s care. May I truly know that nothing in all creation can take me away from God’s love given to me through you, Lord Jesus. Amen.


Part 99: Knowing How Much God Loves You

Scripture – Luke 12:6-7 (NRSV)

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Focus

Sometimes it’s hard for us to know God’s love deep in our hearts. This is especially true if our experiences of human love have been inadequate or hurtful. Yet the fact of God’s love for each one of us is solidly and consistently affirmed in Scripture, including the passage in which Jesus talks about the value of sparrows. The same God who cares even about each sparrow knows and loves us more than we’ll ever fully understand. Yet, we can know God’s love through the good news of Jesus’s death for us. Moreover, God’s love will be poured into our hearts through the work of the Holy Spirit. Don’t you yearn to know more of God’s love for you today?

Devotion

Yesterday’s devotion focused on Jesus’s teaching about how much God knows us and cares for us. The God who values even a tiny sparrow knows and cares about us more than we’ll ever fully comprehend. Such amazing and encouraging news!

After I finished writing yesterday’s devotion, I continued to reflect on the truth of Luke 12:6-7. I wondered why it is sometimes so hard for us to believe the God cares for us as much as he does. As I mentioned yesterday, when we’re going through difficult times, we can struggle to believe God’s concern for us. If God really loves us so much, why is he letting us suffer?

Sometimes experiences of human love can help us understand and have confidence in God’s love. This is especially true for folks who, for example, had a particularly loving parent. Conversely, it can be hard for us if one or both of our parents did not express love to us in ways that touched our hearts.

As I was thinking about my experience of God’s care for me, I reflected on my relationship with my dad. He was a man who loved truly. But he did not find it easy to express his love in ordinary ways. My dad had a hard time saying “I love you” and he wasn’t very comfortable with physical expressions of love. Yet, at the same time, he found ways to communicate his love through actions that spoke louder than words.

Let me share one story with you that still sings in my heart. When I was five years old, my family went on a trip to the Pacific Northwest. One day we took a hike in a stunning redwood forest. I chose to bring along my favorite teddy bear, sticking him in my jacket pocket. Teddy (yes, not the most creative name ever) was precious to me. I took him almost everywhere and slept with him each night. He was my comfort and my constant companion. (Proof of Teddy’s belovedness can be seen in the fact that my mom had to make a suit of clothes for him to keep him from completely falling apart. See the photo of Teddy.)

Mark’s childhood teddy bear.

When it was time for bed one the evening after the hike I realized I had left Teddy in my jacket pocket. But when I went to get him, he wasn’t there. Terribly worried, I told my parents, who searched our car and all around our campsite. No sign of Teddy. They figured, much to my horror, that Teddy had probably fallen out of my pocket somewhere on our hike in the woods. At that point, I was sobbing, fearful that my precious Teddy was gone forever.

My dad said he would go look for Teddy. He would retrace our hike from earlier that day to see if he could find him. Even at five years of age, I realized that the odds were not good. How could my dad find Teddy in the dark with just a flashlight? And if Teddy had fallen out of my pocket on the trail, probably somebody else had taken him. I felt despair, though I was glad my dad was going to look for Teddy.

I cried myself to sleep that night, believing that I would never see Teddy again. I have no idea how long I was asleep when my dad woke me up. He had found Teddy hiding under a bush along the forest trail. Teddy was fine and he was mine again. As I hugged my dad tightly, I resolved never to lose Teddy again. (For the record, I never did. That’s why I still have him.)

As I think back on that experience, I realize that I felt utterly known and utterly valued by my dad. He knew how much Teddy meant to me and he was willing to be considerably inconvenienced so as to find him for me. Even though it’s unlikely that my dad told me he loved me that night, I felt dearly and deeply loved because of what he had done for me.

You may have had experiences of being known and cared for in ways that have helped you to “get” God’s love for you. If so, that’s wonderful. I’d encourage you to remember those experiences and let them bring to life God’s care. Yet, as a pastor, I have heard time and again from people who struggle to believe in God’s love because their own parents were not very loving. In some cases, their parents were not just withholding of love, but outright abusive. This can make it difficult for people to know God’s love for them in a personal way.

So how can someone truly know God’s love if their experience of human love is lacking or tainted? In some cases, folks like this have experienced deep love from others, from friends, or people at church, or a spouse, or their children. This can make such a difference.

But, no matter your experience of human love, you can know God’s love in a healing and transforming way. How? First of all, you can pay close attention to what you read in Scripture. The fact of God’s love for you is affirmed again and again, including the passage in Luke 12 about the sparrows. Second, you can let the truth of the gospel fill your mind and touch your heart. God’s love is communicated most profoundly through the death of Jesus. As it says in Romans 5:8, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” As you meditate on this truth, God’s love can become more real to you.

Moreover, we are not on our own when it comes to knowing God’s love. We read in Romans 5:5 that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” This means that God, through the activity of the Spirit, is making God’s own love known to us. This is great news for folks whose experience of human love is flawed. (And, in the end, that’s true for all of us because human love is never perfect.)

So, even if you grew up in a loving home, even if you’ve had powerful experiences of God’s love in the past, don’t you yearn to know more of God’s love for you? I know I do. It’s so easy for me to slip into assuming that God’s love is something I must earn by my performance. And, when I fail to live up to my own expectations, I can project my lack of love for myself onto God. So, I need to know that the God who has loved me through Jesus Christ is like a father who goes out into the dark night to look for a child’s beloved Teddy. Or, if you prefer, like a father who runs unashamedly to embrace the son who has hurt and dishonored him (Luke 15:11-24). That’s how God loves us. That’s how God loves you.

Reflect

As you think about your childhood, what memories do you have of being truly known and loved?

If you really didn’t know that kind of love as a child, have you experienced such love as an adult?

What helps you to know deep down in your heart that God loves you?

Are you willing to ask the Holy Spirit to pour even more of God’s love into your heart?

Act

As you consider that last question, if the answer is “Yes,” then go ahead and ask. Make yourself as available as you can to the love-pouring work of the Spirit.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for those who have helped us to experience true, gracious, knowing love. Their care for us makes it easier for us to know how much God loves us.

Yet, sometimes it’s hard for us to believe in God’s love. There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes they’re related to the inadequacy of the love we’ve experienced in the past. Sometimes we just get stuck in thinking that we have to earn God’s love through our performance.

I pray today, Lord, for all who need to know the love of God more deeply and personally. That would include me! May the truth of the gospel penetrate our souls. May your Spirit pour the love of God into our hearts. Help us, Lord, to be open. Help us to receive. Help us to know just how much we are known and loved by God. Amen.


Part 100: The Holy Spirit Will Teach You

Scripture – Luke 12:11-12 (NRSV)

“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

Focus

Jesus promised to his first disciples that when they were put on trial for following him, the Holy Spirit would teach them what to say. Though we may never be tried in a court for our faith, the promise of Jesus applies to situations when we’re talking about the Lord to others. The Spirit empowers us to be faithful, truthful, and sensitive witnesses, even giving us the right words to say. The more we trust God and take risks for him, the more we will experience God’s amazing grace and power in our lives.

Devotion

In Luke 12 Jesus was preparing his first disciples for the persecution they would experience after his death and resurrection. He foretold a time when government and religious leaders would “bring [them] before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities” (12:11). This may not have been much of a surprise to the followers of Jesus, given how Jesus himself was treated by those who opposed him. But it surely wasn’t good news, either. Who wants to be put on trial? I know I don’t.

Yet, Jesus offered some encouragement. When you’re forced to speak to those in power who are opposing you, “do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11-12). God’s own Spirit would help them say just the right things at just the right time, so the disciples didn’t need to worry or even to prepare their defense in advance.

Now, this was certainly welcome news. But I confess that if I had been one of Jesus’s disciples, I would have had mixed feelings. Yes, it’s great that the Spirit will help me when I am put on trial. Yet, frankly, I would have preferred another plan, perhaps one of two possibilities. First, if the Spirit was going to help me defend myself, I would have wished for this to happen in advance of the trial itself. I would have been happy to have the Spirit help me prepare for what was coming. That would have felt better than relying on the Spirit in the moment of extreme need. In general, I like feeling prepared for difficult challenges. Perhaps you can relate.

Second, what I really would have preferred was a promise that the Spirit would somehow protect me from persecution. I would have wanted to avoid going to trial in the first place. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like being in trouble. And I really don’t like being treated unfairly or threatened with punishment. Why couldn’t the Spirit bail me out in advance, so to speak?

But Jesus didn’t offer either of my preferred options. He knew that persecution was coming. And he promised divine help, but only in the moment in which it was most needed. This meant that the disciples had to trust God enough so that they were willing to put their wellbeing, even their lives, on the line.

I have never experienced anything like the persecution that was coming for the first disciples of Jesus. I have known mockery, teasing, and prejudice related to my faith. I have sometimes been accused of things like narrowmindedness, foolishness, or bigotry. But I have never been arrested for my faith or put on trial because I follow Jesus.

Yet, I have been in places where my faith was being put to the test in unsettling ways. One of the first times was during my sophomore year of college. My friend, Leland, was a relatively new Christian. When he would talk about his faith to his roommates, they would quickly hit the limits of Leland’s understanding. So he figured it would be a good idea to invite me to meet with his roommates to talk about Christianity. I was willing to do this, even though I was nervous about what was coming. I didn’t even know how to prepare.

One Saturday I went to Leland’s suite to meet with him and his roommates. To my horror, the room was filled with about 25 people, all of them ready to make life miserable for me. They had their tough questions, not to mention lots of jokes about Christians and other religious people. I remember praying silently, begging God to help me.

As the conversation started rolling, I was being asked questions I had never encountered before, challenges to Christian faith that were substantial. But a most amazing thing happened in that discussion. Each time a question came my way, I found myself ready with answers that were far beyond my theological capabilities. When I needed to quote a passage from Scripture, the exact verse and reference would come to me even though I had never memorized the verse and its location in Scripture. Soon, Leland’s crowd was impressed. Their questions became more earnest and less mocking. I imagine they thought I was pretty darn smart.

The thing is, though, I knew what was going on. I knew that I was getting tons of help from the Holy Spirit. As this went on, I felt both elated and humbled. I knew just how much I was relying on God’s power, and I knew how faithful God was being in that moment.

Since that fateful evening many years ago, I have had similar experiences of the Spirit’s miraculous assistance. I have been amazed again and again by God’s goodness and grace, but not just in my life. I have heard similar stories from many Christians who, stepping out to talk about their faith, have been empowered by the Spirit to speak beyond their own wisdom. What Jesus promised to his first disciples is available to all of his disciples today, including you and me. The tricky part is that in order to experience the Spirit’s power in this way, we need to take a risk by putting ourselves in a situation where we need God’s help or we’ll fall flat on our face. That never feels comfortable, but it does open us up to a fresh experience of the power of the Spirit.

Reflect

Have you ever had an experience of the Holy Spirit teaching you what to say in a given situation? If so, what happened? How was that for you?

Do you ever hold back when it comes to talking about your faith because you’re afraid you won’t say the right things?

Are you in situations right now where you need the Holy Spirit to guide your thoughts and your words?

Act

If you answered that last question affirmatively, ask the Lord to help you. Then, as you step out in faith, be open to the power of the Spirit working in and through you.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the promise you gave to your first disciples. Thank you for the presence and power of your Spirit in our lives, for all the ways the Spirit helps us. Thank you, in particular, for the times when you have given me just the right things to say.

I confess, Lord, that sometimes I fail to speak up because I’m afraid I won’t say the right things. I forget to trust in the guidance of the Spirit. Forgive me. And give me fresh confidence in the Spirit.

Today, Lord, I want to pray for your disciples who are this very day experiencing persecution of various kinds. Sustain them by the power of your Spirit. May they have the words to say when put on trial. Protect them. Encourage them. Draw near to them. May your justice roll down like waters in their lives. Amen.


Part 101: Be Rich Toward God

Scripture – Luke 12:15-21 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Focus

Jesus tells us to be on guard against greed. Real life does not consist of the abundance of possessions. Rather, it’s being “rich toward God.” This kind of wealth is not something we hoard for ourselves, but something we share generously with others. When we put our hope in God rather than in riches, and when we give freely to those in need, then we are able to experience “the life that really is life.”

Devotion

Our passage today begins with a warning: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Surely that word of caution is as relevant now as it was 2,000 years ago, if not even more so. In our consumeristic society, it’s tempting to believe deep down that life actually does “consist in the abundance of possessions.” We can find ourselves envious of those who have more or better things than we do. We can even measure our self-worth by our stuff. But Jesus says, “Watch out for this! It will hurt you.”

Following his word of warning, Jesus told his audience a parable about a rich farmer. One year, the farmer had an abundant harvest, more than he could store in his barns. So he decided to tear down his existing barns and build larger ones. Then he would be able to say to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). But God had bad news for the rich farmer: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus wrapped up his lesson by concluding, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (12:21).

How do you respond to Jesus’s teaching here? I must confess that, at first, I’m puzzled. I mean, wasn’t the farmer acting wisely? He had a harvest too big for his barns so he built larger ones to store his grain. Wasn’t that sensible? Suppose, for example, that one year your income is much greater than usual for some legitimate reason. What would you do? Wouldn’t you be wise to put more into savings? Wouldn’t that be better than spending it all right away? Isn’t Jesus being too hard on the rich farmer?

The more I reflect on this parable and what Jesus said about it, however, the more I’m able to get what I believe Jesus was teaching. Notice, for example, how the farmer talked to himself. In particular, notice the abundance of personal pronouns: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? . . . I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” This man’s language reveals something sad about the state of his soul. For him, it’s all about himself. The crops are his. The barns are his. The grain and goods are his. He shows no evidence of seeing any of these things as God’s blessings, God’s gifts. The farmer appears not to believe what we find in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”

Jesus said that the farmer who stored up treasures for himself was not “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). What would being “rich toward God” entail? There are many ways to answer this question. But the contrast in verse 21 is between saving your treasures for yourself and being rich toward God. This suggests that richness in God’s direction is a matter, not of saving up for yourself, but rather of giving away generously to others. In Jesus’s parable, the rich farmer had a bountiful harvest. It’s highly unlikely that he did all of the farming by himself. Rather, he had others who worked for him, who helped to produce such a bounty. Yet, the farmer did not consider sharing any of the excess with them. Nor did it occur to him that there may well have been people in his town who were poor and in need of food. The farmer showed absolutely no inclination to be generous. Rather, it was all for him and all about him.

Jesus’s parable in Luke 12 reminds me of a passage in 1 Timothy where it says, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). The foolish farmer in Jesus’s parallel got everything wrong. He set his hopes on the uncertainty of riches rather than God. He was not generous or ready to share. Rather he stored up treasures for himself. In the end, he missed out on “the life that really is life.”

From a positive perspective, this passage from 1 Timothy teaches us part of what it means to be “rich toward God.” It involves, first of all, setting our hopes on God rather than our possessions. We put our confidence in that which is truly reliable. Then, we are to be “rich in good works,” especially by being “generous, and ready to share.” Thus we are storing up for ourselves, not our riches, but our cache of future heavenly rewards.

Moreover, in the present day, we are able to “take hold of the life that really is life.” This is the life of trusting God, recognizing that all we have comes from God’s hand. It is the life of generosity, sharing freely and unselfishly with those in need. It is the life of rewarding and empowering others as well as caring for those in need. It is the life that’s not “all about me,” but rather “all about serving God and others in God’s name.” It is the life of deepest meaning, deepest gratitude, and deepest love.

Reflect

To what extent are you tempted to measure your value by your possessions?

In what ways are you “rich toward God”?

Do you find it easy or hard to be generous? Why?

When you think of “the life that really is life,” what comes to mind?

Act

One tangible way to be “rich toward God” is by giving generously to those in need. You may already be doing this. But, if you’re like me, sometimes you need a nudge to remind you. So, this could be your nudge. If the Lord puts it on your heart, give today to help those who are hungry. You may have a local church or trustworthy charity that you support. (For many years I have supported World Vision, including their Hunger Relief Fund, because I trust their vision and their stewardship.)

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for warning us not to be greedy. It can be easy for us to fall into believing that life does exist in the abundance of possessions. Forgive us, Lord, for letting the love of stuff have so much power in our lives.

Teach us, Lord, how to be “rich toward God.” In particular, may we learn to be generous with others, giving freely and joyfully some of what you have entrusted to us. Help us to remember that, in the end, all things belong to God, not only our things, but also ourselves.

By your grace, may we take hold of the life that really is life, a life of giving, a life of service, a life of freedom, a life of tangible love. Amen.


Part 102: Words for the Worried

Scripture – Luke 12:22-24 (NRSV)

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!”

Focus

2000 years ago, Jesus told his disciples not to worry about their lives. How much we need to hear these same words today! There is so much going on around us – and in our own lives – that causes us to worry. It’s almost as if we have a pandemic of anxiety. So we need to learn from Jesus how to replace worry with confidence in God’s love and provision.

Devotion

As you may know, during the last weeks of summer I took a break from writing Life for Leaders. During my fourteen years of devotion writing, I’ve found that time off in the summer refreshes my soul and prepares me for a new season of thoughtful reflection.

When it was time for me to start writing again, I was eager to discover what biblical passage awaited me and my readers. I knew I had left off in Luke 12, but I wasn’t quite sure what was coming next. A little research reminded me that I had paused at Luke 12:21. So I began reading with Luke 12:22, where Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.”

After reading only that one verse, I stopped, thinking to myself, “Oh my, I need this verse today. We need this verse today.” I followed up with a quick prayer: “Thanks, Lord, for bringing us to this passage at this time in our lives. We desperately need it!”

I expect you may understand why I responded to Luke 12:22 in this way. I’m sure you understand if, like me, you’re finding much to worry about these days. We live in times permeated by anxiety, often with hearts filled with anxiety. I probably don’t need to mention reasons why we feel anxious, but I’ll note a few that come quickly to mind: the doggedness of the COVID pandemic, now driven by the delta variant; devastation and danger from natural catastrophes, including raging fires and overwhelming floods; the threat to world harmony from many quarters, most recently Afghanistan; hostile division and unbridled anger permeating both our country and the world; persistent global injustice that threatens all people, especially the vulnerable and the oppressed.

In addition to these widespread worries, many of us feel anxious about things closer to home. Parents fret about how best to care for their children when disease might lurk in schools, daycare facilities, and friendship groups. Some of us are dealing with scary diagnoses and fear-inducing illnesses besides COVID-19. The pandemic has added considerable tension to many relationships, at work and home, in churches and neighborhoods. We worry about our financial well-being in a time of economic uncertainty.

I realize that I’m starting out on a pretty low note for my first devotion since vacation. As you were reading the last two paragraphs, you might have been thinking, “This is the last thing I need from Mark today.” Believe me, I’m not wanting to bum you out. But, as I talk with folks from so many different contexts, and as I pay attention to what’s going on around us, I think we need to acknowledge the anxiety that most of us are feeling. And, let me add, if you’re not worrying much these days, good for you! After all, Jesus did not say in today’s passage, “Make sure you worry a lot!” Rather, he said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life . . .” (12:22).

It’s worth noting that folks in the time of Jesus had plenty to worry about, which is, no doubt, why Jesus was helping them not to worry. Many people in the time of Jesus were relatively poor and were just a dry season away from losing whatever they had, with no social safety net available. Medicine was primitive and people suffered painfully and died from all sorts of diseases. Life expectancy in the time of Jesus is estimated to have been around 35 years. Many who were born never made it to adulthood. Plus, the Jews in Galilee and Judea lived under the iron fist of Rome, facing heavy taxation and the inevitability of unjust local leadership. So it seems to me that the people Jesus told not to worry actually had much more to worry about than I do.

In the next series of Life for Leaders devotions, I will reflect with you on Jesus’s teaching about worry, or, better, about not worrying. I promise that there’s plenty of good news here, as well as teaching that will challenge us. If you’re at all inclined to feel anxious these days, I expect Jesus will speak right to your heart. And if you’re fairly free from anxiety, then the upcoming devotions will encourage you and strengthen your good habits. Plus, you might know some folks who really need to hear what Jesus has to say about worrying. If so, perhaps you can forward these devotions to them.

In the meanwhile, let me invite you to use the following prompts to consider your experience of anxiety and to talk with the Lord about it.

Reflect

When you first saw that Jesus told his disciples “Do not worry,” how did you respond?

In general, are you someone prone to worry? Do you often suffer from anxiety?

Do you feel more anxious these days than usual? What do you tend to worry about?

When you worry, what you do you do with your feelings?

Do you experience God helping you not to be anxious? If so, how does this help come?

Act

With a trusted friend, your spiritual director, or your small group, talk about the things you worry about these days.

Pray

Lord Jesus, about 2,000 years ago you told your disciples not to worry about their lives. Oh, how we need to hear this today! With all that’s going on in our world, not to mention our personal lives, worry comes easily. We can be caught in the grip of anxiety. It can rob our sleep, our joy, and our ability to be kind to others.

As we work our way through this passage in Luke, Lord, teach us and help us so that we might not worry. May we come to a deeper trust in you, to a stronger belief in the presence and goodness of your kingdom.

No matter what we are facing today, may we give it to you, receiving from you the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.


Part 103: You Matter So Much More!

Scripture – Luke 12:22-24 (NRSV)

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!”

Focus

We live in a time filled with anxiety. But Jesus urges us not to worry. Why can we be free from anxiety? Because, according to Jesus, God cares about birds . . . but so much more about us. We matter to God more than we can begin to imagine!

Devotion

Yesterday I began a series of devotional reflections on Luke 12:22-32, a passage that begins with Jesus saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” I suggested that, in a time of history filled with anxiety, we desperately need to hear this word from Jesus. Of course, we need more than just the admonishment not to worry. We also need to know why we shouldn’t worry. Jesus explains why in the rest of our passage, offering several reasons why we can be free from worry.

He begins by talking about birds. “Consider the ravens,” he says, “they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them” (Luke 12:24). It’s curious that Jesus chose ravens for this example. For one thing, ravens aren’t the sort of birds we enjoy having in our gardens. They’re not colorful and they make quite obnoxiously loud screeches. Moreover, in the Jewish law, ravens were included among unclean birds of prey, birds that Leviticus refers to as “detestable” and “an abomination” (Leviticus 11:13-19). But, according to Jesus, God feeds even such unpleasant and despised birds. That says something about God’s common grace, doesn’t it?

Jesus’s main point, however, isn’t about ravens. Rather, after explaining that God feeds ravens, he adds, “Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (12:24). If God cares for even for ravens, therefore, how much more does he care for you and me. We don’t need to worry about our lives, Jesus says, because our gracious God cares and provides for us.

Lesser Goldfinches on my bird feeder. Copyright © Mark D. Roberts 2021. Used with permission.

Lesser Goldfinches on my bird feeder. Copyright © Mark D. Roberts 2021. Used with permission.

As I write this devotion, I can relate to what Jesus is saying in an unusual way. You see, I’m sitting outside on my patio right now, about ten feet away from a bird feeder covered with goldfinches. I took the photo for today’s devotion to show you what I’m seeing right now. So, in an odd way, I’m filling the role of God in Jesus’s teaching. (It’s always a little risky to say I’m like God, but you get my point.)

Why am I feeding these birds? Partly, I do care for them. I want these goldfinches to flourish. But my bird-feeding isn’t only gracious. I feed the goldfinches because doing so gives me joy. I love their skittishness and high, melodious chirps. Plus, these little birds have been my friends during the pandemic, my embodied company in a time of isolation.

So, I do indeed value my hungry goldfinches. But how much more do I value the people in my life, my wife and children, my siblings and their families, my friends and colleagues, the folks in my church and the ones I have the privilege of serving through my work. So I can relate in a personal way to what Jesus says about God’s care for us. And so can you, I expect.

Jesus has plenty of good news for us in this passage. Today we learn that we don’t have to worry because God values us greatly, more than we can imagine, actually. Yes, God cares even about birds. But you matter so much more! Your life, your wellbeing, your soul, your flourishing . . . all of these matter to God. The more you let this truth penetrate your heart, the more you’ll be set free from worry.

Reflect

How have you experienced God’s valuing of you?

How have you experienced God’s care for you?

Do you sometimes struggle to believe that you really matter to God? If so, why? If not, why not?

What helps you to know, deep inside, that God values and cares for you?

Act

Take some time to jot down ways in which you have experienced God’s care this year. Then, thank God for the ways he has been there for you.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for urging us not to worry. And thank you for helping us understand why and how we can be free from worry. Thank you for the good news that God cares for us far more than birds.

Help me, Lord, to take this teaching to heart. Help me to have confidence in God’s care for me. Help me to live today as if my life really matters to God. And, as I do this, please help me not to worry. Amen.


Part 104: Worry Doesn’t Help

Scripture – Luke 12:25-26 (NRSV)

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?

Focus

Jesus encourages us not to worry about our lives. One reason, he explains, is that by worrying we can’t add even an hour to our span of life. (In fact, studies show that worry can actually shorten our lives.) So, worry doesn’t help us live better or longer lives. What does help is realizing that our lives are in God’s gracious hands.

Devotion

Today we continue our devotional series based on Jesus’s exhortation in Luke 12:22, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” Jesus urges us not to worry. But he doesn’t leave us on our own to figure out how to avoid anxiety. Rather, he gives several reasons not to worry. In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we encountered the first reason for not worrying. We can see God’s care for birds, and that’s great, but God cares for us so much more. Because we matter to God way more than birds, we don’t have to fret about our lives.

Jesus follows his first reason with a different, practical argument. “And can any of you,” he says, “by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:25-26). Now that’s a good, commonsense argument against worry, isn’t it? By worrying you don’t lengthen your life.

Now, one might object, “Wait a minute. Sometimes when I worry about something I’m led to act in a way that does help me.” For example, if you’re having heart palpitations, you may very well worry about them. So you go to your doctor and get it checked out. This leads to a treatment plan that helps you to get better. So, could you say that worry added to your span of life?

Not really, when you think about it. Worry didn’t help. Using your mind to decide to see a doctor helped. Choosing to act wisely helped. If you’re one who’s inclined to worry about your health, and I admit that I’m one of these people, then you know that often worry can keep you from choosing to get the help you need. Worry is constrictive and debilitating.

In fact, worry not only doesn’t add to your span of life, but it can actually shorten it. A study published in 2012 in the British Journal of Medicine found that anxiety “is associated with increased risk of mortality from several major causes.” This led CBS News to run a story with this provocative title, “Mild cases of anxiety, depression may lead to an early death.” The findings of the 2012 study were confirmed by a 2018 study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry. In a nutshell, researchers found that “anxiety disorders significantly increased mortality risk.”

So Jesus was surely right about the practical limitations of worry. Yet, the part of us that wants to guarantee our longevity, that wants to control our lives, balks at the notion that we aren’t ultimately in control. We think we’d like to be sovereign over our lives, and we can even assume that we are. But, in truth, we do not have such authority and influence. That can feel like bad news. But good news is coming in just a few verses. We get to live under the gracious sovereignty of God, and when we do, God is pleased.

Today, however, we would do well to remember the ineffectiveness of worry. It really doesn’t help. It doesn’t lengthen our lives. In fact, it can even shorten them. When we’re facing difficult circumstances, we need to act wisely as we deal with what is challenging us. But, more important even than this, we need to realize that our lives are in God’s hands. And that includes our lifespan. When we’re worried about our lives, we would do well to remember the prayer found in Psalm 31:14-16: “But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”

Reflect

For you, is there a difference between worrying about something and feeling concern that leads you to action?

Do you ever get stuck in anxiety? If so, why?

What are the things in life that cause you to worry?

What helps you to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over your life?

Act

If you are worrying about something these days, talk with a close friend or your small group about it. Be honest. And then have someone pray for you and check-in with you in a few days.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for encouraging us not to worry. And thank you for giving us reasons to avoid worry.

Yes, Lord, worry doesn’t help. We can’t add to our span of life by worrying. If something in our life is causing us concern, help us to act wisely in response.

But, beyond this, help us, Lord, to trust that our lives are in your gracious hands. May we let go of worry as we acknowledge your sovereignty. May we trust you with all the things we cannot control. Amen.


Part 105: Wearing God’s Glorious Clothing

Scripture – Luke 12:27-28 (NRSV)

Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!

Focus

If you’ve ever gazed on a field of glorious flowers, then you have an idea of God’s generous care for the natural world. This is good news, not only because we get to enjoy the splendor of God’s creation, but also because we are reassured of just how much God cares for us. The God who “clothes” the flowers with striking color will also “clothe” us will what we need to flourish.

Devotion

My family and I lived in the Texas Hill Country for seven years. During our time there, we loved much about Texas: the warm-hearted people, the spectacular thunderstorms, and the tasty breakfast tacos. One of the things I loved most of all about Texas was the spring wildflower display. Along the highways and covering endless miles of ranch land were stunning displays of color, growing without human assistance. I’m including one photo I took while in Texas just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. You can see a few of the famed Texas bluebonnets in this picture.

Colorful wildflowers in the Texas Hill Country. Photo by Mark D. Roberts.

If Jesus had lived in Texas instead of Galilee, I expect he might have begun Luke 12:27 by saying, “Consider the wildflowers . . . .” Like most English translations, the NRSV has “Consider the lilies.” But it turns out that scholars really don’t know exactly which flowers Jesus had in mind. There are many options for the Greek word krinon, which could refer to a kind of lily, but also to a variety of other flowers. No doubt Jesus’s listeners knew what he meant. They would have been quite familiar with the radiant wildflowers that covered the hills of Galilee.

Why does Jesus bring up flowers? Because they are gloriously clothed by God, so to speak. Their beauty does not depend on their hard work, nor on human effort. Rather, it comes from God, who created the beautiful world (see Genesis 2:9). Even King Solomon, famed for his glory, couldn’t compare to the magnificence of the flowers of the field.

Jesus adds another comment based on nature: “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28). Fields of grass, though not nearly as stunning as fields of flowers, are also “clothed” by God, a sign of God’s generous provision. Yet grass is short-lived and has relatively little value. In contrast, human beings are worth so much more. So, Jesus reasons, we should expect God to clothe us both gloriously and dependably.

As I reflect on this passage from Luke, I’m struck once again by how much God cares about and delights in all that he has made, including you and me. You’ll recall how, in Genesis, God would make things and then note that they were good. Finally, we’re told that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 12:31). The point here is not only the “very-goodness” of everything, but also the fact that God saw it. God looked at everything he made and delighted in it.

Of course, we know that sin corrupted God’s perfectly beautiful world and we’re caught in that corruption. But sin hasn’t completely obscured earthly and human beauty. Moreover, because of what God has done in Christ, we are now clothed in Christ and his righteousness (Galatians 3:27). When God looks upon us, he sees us as beautiful in Christ and takes delight in us.

Jesus brings up the beauty of flowers and the “clothing” of grass as part of his explanation for why we mustn’t worry. God’s bountiful care for earthly vegetation suggests that he will care for us in ways we can only begin to comprehend. The God who created all things, who made them beautiful, and who causes the natural world to flourish will, indeed, provide for us. “The lilies” and “the grass” invite us to put worry aside and trust in the gracious provision of God.

Reflect

When you think of God’s gifts of natural beauty, what comes to mind?

Do you ever think of God as delighting in you? If so, why? If not, why not?

What helps you to have confidence in God’s provision of what you need to flourish in life?

Act

If you are able, go to a place of natural beauty and take time to reflect on what this means for you and your relationship with God. If you can’t go to such a place in person, you may want to look at photographs you have taken or simply to remember an experience you have had of nature’s splendor. Talk with God about what you’re thinking and feeling.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for reminding us of how God clothes flowers and grass. Thank you for all the ways nature is beautiful, and for our ability to see and appreciate it.

As we consider God’s “clothing” of the flowers, may we be encouraged to believe that God will faithfully and gloriously “clothe” us. May we be set free from worry and empowered to trust God more deeply and consistently. Amen.


Part 106: Don’t Put Yourself in God’s Place

Scripture – Luke 12:29-30 (NRSV)

And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them.

Focus

Sometimes we worry because we feel as if we’re responsible for everything, even the things over which we have no control. Jesus urges us not to allow our hearts to be lifted up in this way. Rather, when we can be like a child held by its mother, trusting fulling in the gracious sovereignty of God, then we will be free from worry.

Devotion

At first glance, Luke 12:29 seems to reiterate what Jesus has already made clear in his discussion of worry: “And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.” A few verses earlier Jesus said plainly, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear” (Luke12:22). Then he asked if by “worrying” we can add an hour to our lives and why we “worry” about things we can’t control (Luke 12:25-26). Verse 29 in the NRSV and other recent translations (NIV, NLT, CEB, ESV) appears to reinforce the command not to worry.

But, in fact, the original language of verse 29 does not use the standard Greek verb for “to worry,” the one that is found in verses 22, 25, and 26 (merimnaō). Instead, verse 29 features the verb meteōrizō. If this looks a bit familiar, it’s because it is related to our English word “meteor.” A meteor is a small piece of matter way up in the sky. The basic meaning of the Greek verb meteōrizō is “to raise to a height, buoy up, elevate.” It was occasionally but rarely used in the sense of being anxious, perhaps because people up on a high precipice can feel nervous about falling (at least that’s how I would feel!).

The only use of meteōrizō in the New Testament is in Luke 12:29, so we’re not going to know how to translate this verb by looking, for example, at other times it might show up in Luke. Meteōrizō does appear, however, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Septuagint version of Psalm 131:1 reads in translation, “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, nor were my eyes raised too high [meteōrizō], nor did I go about in great things, nor with things too marvelous for me.” Rather, the psalm writer “calmed and quieted” his soul like a child with its mother (Psalm 131:2). He urges us to put our hope, not in ourselves, but in the Lord (Psalm 131:3).

Why would Jesus talk about being lifted up in the context of his teaching on worry? The answer, I think, has to do with what often gets us into an anxious frame of mind. We start worrying about things that are above us, things that are beyond our control. We put ourselves in a place that belongs to God, a place of sovereignty and ownership. We take on responsibility for things that are not ours to manage. And this leads to worry, worry that persists because we can’t make it go away, worry that keeps us up at night fretting about things we cannot control.

What would be the opposite of meteōrizō? It would be, literally, to lower ourselves. Metaphorically speaking, it would be to humble ourselves before the sovereignty of God, admitting that we are dependent on God’s power and grace, acknowledging our limitations. It would be leaning back into the strong arms of God, trusting that God will hold us and care for us, especially in matters that our too great for us. It would be assuming the posture of Psalm 131, which will be the closing prayer of this devotion. The more we allow ourselves to be calm and to be held in the strong arms of God, the more we will be free from worry.

Reflect

Do you ever worry about things that are beyond your control? If so, what things? Why do you worry about them?

What makes it hard for you to trust God with things “too high” for you?

What helps you to trust God with things “too high” for you?

Act

Psalm 131 is both short and memorable. Perhaps you might memorize it so that you could “take it with you” each day.

Pray

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
+++my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
+++too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
+++like a weaned child with its mother;
+++my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
+++from this time on and forevermore. Amen.


Part 107: What is the Kingdom of God?

Scripture – Luke 12:29-31 (NRSV)

And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Focus

Jesus urges us to strive for the kingdom of God. That’s great, except we need to know what the kingdom of God is. In the teaching of Jesus, it’s not just the same as heaven, or the world filled with God’s justice and peace, or the place where God rules. Rather, the kingdom of God is God’s reign, rule, authority, sovereignty. When Jesus says that the kingdom of God is at hand, he means that God is coming to reign “on earth as in heaven,” and that this is happening soon. In fact, the reign of God begins in the earthly ministry of Jesus, even as it continues today among those who live intentionally with God as their King and Lord.

Devotion

For the past several days, we have been focusing on a passage in Luke 12 in which Jesus urges his disciples not to worry, supplying several reasons why worry is both unnecessary and unhelpful. Toward the end of this passage Jesus offers an alternative, something that deserves our full attention and effort. In light of the fact that our Heavenly Father knows what we need, instead of worrying, we should “strive for his kingdom” (12:31). That’s quite clear and simple, except for one thing. Do we know what the kingdom of God is? Do we know that for which we should be striving?

In my experience as a pastor and a professor, I have found that many Christians aren’t quite sure what the kingdom of God is. Others think they know, but their notions of the kingdom aren’t quite in sync with the teaching of Jesus. For example, sometimes people equate the kingdom of God with heaven, with what we will experience after we die. There is a close connection between the kingdom of God and life beyond this life, but we shouldn’t equate the kingdom and heaven. Other Christians believe the kingdom of God is what will exist when peace and justice fill the earth. To be sure, there is a close connection between the kingdom and God’s peace and justice, but it’s not quite right to equate them.

Finally, it’s understandable that some people think of the kingdom of God as the place where God’s reigns. That’s consistent with the meaning of the English word “kingdom,” but it doesn’t quite capture Jesus’s teaching. Yes, there is a sense in which the place where God rules is God’s kingdom. But Jesus emphasizes, not so much the place as the power, not the real estate but the reign.

So, if the kingdom of God isn’t heaven or the world made right or the place where God rules, what is it? If you’re looking for a more in-depth answer to this question, you might find helpful an article I wrote called, “Jesus and the Kingdom of God: What You Need to Know.” You can find it on the De Pree Center website. I will briefly summarize my findings here.

The kingdom of God, according to the proclamation of Jesus, is God’s reign or rule. It’s not so much a place or a quality of life as it is God’s authority, God’s sovereignty, God’s dominion. So, when Jesus announced that the “kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), he was proclaiming the imminent coming of God’s reign on earth. We see this understanding of the kingdom of God in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, which we call The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth at it is in heaven” (see Matthew 6:10). Because God reigns fully in heaven, God’s will is being done there. When God reigns fully on earth, God’s will will be done here as well.

At times, Jesus talked about the reign of God as something that was coming in the future: “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). Yet, at other times, Jesus talked about the kingdom as a present reality: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matthew 12:28). How do we make sense of this? What we need to understand is that the reign of God will come fully sometime in the future. Yet, beginning with the ministry of Jesus, the reign of God has begun to be present on earth right now. Though God is ultimately sovereign over all things, God has chosen not to reign completely right now. Things are moving in that direction. Yet, wherever God’s authority is recognized, wherever God’s sovereignty is honored, in those times and places, in those hearts and minds, the kingdom of God is present now, not completely, but truly.

Though I continue to use the phrase “kingdom of God” or, as it appears sometimes in Matthew’s Gospel, “kingdom of heaven,” I find it helpful always to think “reign of God” when I see, say, or hear “kingdom of God.” What Jesus announced was the coming of God’s reign on earth. What Jesus did was to demonstrated the presence and power of that reign. He displayed both in word and in deed the reality of God’s authority, sovereignty, and power.

In next Monday’s devotion I’ll consider how we can do what Jesus urges in Luke 12:31—namely, strive for God’s kingdom. For now, let me encourage you to reflect on the kingdom of God and its relevance for your life both now and in the future.

Reflect

When you hear the phrase “kingdom of God,” what comes to mind?

Do you think very much about God’s kingdom and its relevance for your life? If so, why? If not, why not?

Christians sometimes use other language to convey the reality of God’s reign. Can you identify one or more of those ways of speaking?

Act

As you begin your day, commit to living intentionally under the reign of God in all you do.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for teaching about the kingdom of God. Thank you for inviting us to strive for this kingdom. Help us, Lord, to know what this means and to do it faithfully.

Father in heaven, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.


Part 108: Strive for the Kingdom of God

Scripture – Luke 12:29-31 (NRSV)

And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Focus

Jesus tells his disciples to strive for God’s kingdom. We do this by seeking intentionally, energetically, and consistently to live under God’s reign in every part of life. You can strive for God’s kingdom at work and at home, in your neighborhood and in your church, in your relationships and in your finances, in your volunteering and your citizenship. It’s about putting God first, always and everywhere.

Devotion

In several recent devotions, we have been focusing on a passage from Luke 12 in which Jesus urges us not to worry. After offering several reasons why worry is unnecessary and unhelpful, he exhorts us to reorient the focus of our lives. Rather than striving for the material stuff like those who do not know the Lord, Jesus tells us to “strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:31).

Years ago, when I first read the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) translation of Luke 12:31, I was a little peeved. I had been very familiar with the language of the RSV, which read, “Seek his kingdom,” not “strive for.” I was even more familiar with the parallel text in Matthew that read in the RSV, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). That also changed in the NRSV to “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Why did they have to mess with such a familiar verse? I wondered. (Plus, are we now supposed to sing, “Strive ye first for the kingdom of God” rather than “Seek ye first the kingdom of God”?)

Well, since my initial unhappiness with the NRSV’s use of “strive,” I’ve done some further thinking about it and I must admit that I support it. “Strive,” in my opinion, actually does a better job conveying Jesus’s meaning than “Seek.” Let me explain why.

First of all, though the Greek-English lexicon does give “try to find, seek, look for” as the first definition of the Greek verb zēteō, the verb that appears in Luke 12:31, it also gives this option, “to devote serious effort to realize one’s desire or objective, strive for, aim (at), try to obtain, desire, wish (for).” It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus was not encouraging us to “try to find” or to “look for” the kingdom of God. He surely meant something like “devote serious effort” to entering and living in the kingdom. “Strive” suggests more intentionality, more exertion” than “seek.” It conveys accurately, I believe, what Jesus was saying to his disciples, including us.

So then, how do we strive for the kingdom of God? In last Thursday’s devotion I explained that the kingdom of God isn’t the same as heaven. Seeking first the kingdom does not mean “Prioritize going to heaven when you die.” The kingdom of God isn’t the same as the world filled with God’s justice and peace, either, though these things are connected. Seeking first the kingdom is not a matter of making the world a more just and peaceful place. Rather, according to Jesus, the kingdom of God is God’s reign, God’s rule, God’s authority, God’s sovereignty. Now, when God reigns fully and finally, we will experience what we call heaven, and the earth will be filled with God’s justice and peace. But these are implications of the kingdom. These come along when God reigns.

You can strive for the kingdom of God by seeking intentionally, energetically, and consistently to live under God’s reign in every part of your life. You can strive for God’s will at work and at home, in your neighborhood and in your church, in your relationships and in your finances, in your volunteering and your citizenship. It’s about putting God first, always and everywhere.

Striving for the kingdom of God is another way of talking about what Christians often call living under the lordship of Christ. When we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord over everything, including every part of our lives, and when we seek to submit to his lordship in all we do, we are striving for the kingdom of God.

So, no matter where you are or what you are doing today, you can strive for the kingdom by offering all that you are to the Lord, seeking to honor him in every part of your life, striving to follow his guidance at all times. You can begin to do this today—well, right now, actually. Or, maybe you’ve already been striving for the kingdom today. If so, way to go! Keep it up!

Reflect

In what ways are you already striving for God’s reign in your life?

Are there areas of life in which you rarely think about God’s rule?

What might it look like for you to seek God’s kingdom in your workplace? In your family? In your neighborhood? In your citizenship?

Act

As you begin the new day, tell God you want to strive for his reign. Ask for God’s help. Submit your whole self to God, to God’s purposes and glory.

Pray

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, in my life today:
In my work and my rest,
In my actions and my relationships,
In my hoping and my spending,
In every moment of this day, by your grace. Amen.


Part 109: What God Loves to Give You

Scripture – Luke 12:32 (NRSV)

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Focus

Here’s an amazing truth we learn from Jesus: our Heavenly Father loves to give us the kingdom. God’s joy is rather like that of a parent giving their child a wonderful gift on Christmas morning. God delights when we receive his offer to live each day under his gracious rule. God takes pleasure in blessing us, guiding us, and empowering us for the work of the kingdom.

Devotion

I’ve always loved Christmas. Some of my earliest memories – very happy ones – are of family Christmas celebrations when I was a young boy. Yes, I enjoyed being with family, eating delicious food, and, of course, celebrating Jesus’s birthday. But, to be honest, I think what I loved most was getting presents. After days of dreaming about what was inside those brightly wrapped boxes, I was finally able to see and play with my new toys. Such great fun!

I still love Christmas. And I still enjoy getting presents. But my experience of this holiday changed dramatically when I became a father. Instead of wondering what I was getting for Christmas, all of my energy and excitement went into what my children were getting from my wife and me. I could hardly contain myself on Christmas morning when they got to open their presents and I got to delight in their excitement. I loved – and still love – giving good gifts to my children.

So, as a gift-giving parent, I can relate in a way to what Jesus says in Luke 12:32: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Our Heavenly Father delights in giving us good gifts, in particular, the gift of God’s own kingdom. God loves to reign over our lives, to guide us, empower us, and bless us with the gifts that accompany the kingdom, gifts of grace, love, justice, and peace.

You and I need Luke 12:32 in order to understand fully what Jesus says in Luke 12:31 about striving for the kingdom of God. Yes, indeed, we are to seek to live under God’s reign with energy and intentionality. Our effort matters when it comes to our experience of the kingdom. But, and this is so important, we do not somehow make it to God’s kingdom because we tried hard. It isn’t something we accomplish through our own efforts. Rather, living under God’s authority is a gift of God’s grace. It’s something we receive by grace. Now, we still need to open the gift, as it were. God does not impose his reign upon us. But what enables us to live in God’s kingdom is God’s grace.

Even more amazing than this, God loves to give us the kingdom. God loves to reign in our lives, to guide us, to bless us, and to empower us for God’s glorious purposes. When we choose to open the gift of the kingdom, God rejoices as a loving a parent rejoices when their child opens a wonderful gift on Christmas morning. Isn’t that something?!?

Reflect

Can you think of times in your life when you felt pleasure when giving a gift to someone? Perhaps a child or a grandchild, a spouse or a friend? What was that like for you?

How do you respond to the truth that God delights in giving you the kingdom?

We “open the gift” of the kingdom of God when we choose to live under God’s authority and for God’s purposes. In what ways do you “open the gift” of the kingdom?

Act

Take time to reflect on the fact that God takes pleasure in giving you the kingdom.

Pray

Gracious God, how amazing you are! How wonderful that you love to give us the kingdom. When we receive the gift of your reign, when we choose to live under your authority and for your purposes, this gives you pleasure. Amazing!

Help me, Lord, to delight you today as I live. May I bring my whole life under your rule today, seeking your will and serving you in all I do. Amen.


Part 110: Where is Your Treasure?

Scripture – Luke 12:33-34 (NRSV)

Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Focus

Jesus says some surprising things about treasure. For example, he observes that real treasure, treasure that lasts, isn’t about what you accumulate for yourself but rather what you give away to others. As people who strive for God’s kingdom, we choose to value what God values most of all, and this leads us to a life of generosity.

Devotion

When I was a boy, I loved treasure hunts. Every now and then Mr. Goff, who lived up the street from my family, would make treasure hunts for my friends and me. He’d create a bunch of clever clues that led us all over the neighborhood. Sometimes his hunts would take a couple of hours. But, at the end, there would always be an ample supply of candy, thanks to Mr. Goff and his generosity. Tricky clues, lots of running and scrambling, plenty of candy, sharing with friends . . . what’s not to love about a treasure hunt!

As far as I know, Jesus never talked about treasure hunts, but he did have things to say about treasure. In Luke 12:32, after noting that our Heavenly Father loves to give us the kingdom, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” This is a surprising way of talking about treasure. Usually, treasure has to do with having valuable possessions, the more the better. Treasure is something we keep in purses and protect from thieves and moths.

But Jesus tells us that real treasure is something else. It accumulates when we sell our possessions in order to give to the poor. It’s a matter of giving, not getting, of generosity, not gathering. Through giving to others, Jesus says, we will produce “an unfailing treasure in heaven.” The Greek work translated here as “unfailing” can also be rendered “incessant, uninterrupted, infinite, inexhaustible.”

Scholars often talk about the kingdom of God as the “upside down kingdom.” Here is a good example of how God’s ways are the reverse of the world’s ways. If you want lots of lasting treasure, then start giving away your earthly treasure to those who need it. Not only will you experience joy in the moment, but also you’ll be accumulating a kind of treasure that lasts forever.

One reason to be generous, according to Jesus, is that you actually receive much in return. You receive the joy of giving. You receive the gratitude from those who are blessed by your generosity. You receive God’s blessing and the knowledge that God delights in your altruism.

But that’s not the only reason. Jesus adds in verse 34, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This isn’t only a statement about your emotions, though we do tend to love that which we treasure and treasure that which we love. Yet the heart, in the language of Jesus, isn’t only or even primarily the location of our feelings. Rather, it’s the faculty by which we choose. The heart, in Scripture, includes our thoughts and feelings, but has everything to do with our will. When you choose to act in a certain way, that choice is an exercise of your heart. Our choices reflect the things we treasure. We pursue that which we value the most.

Jesus urges us to value things that will last forever, things like love and grace, generosity and justice, kindness and worship. When we strive for God’s kingdom, we choose that which God values most. Our beloved treasure is no longer what we accumulate for ourselves, but rather what we give to others.

Reflect

What do you treasure in life, really? Can you identify what you value most of all?

To what extent are you storing up treasure in heaven?

What makes it hard for you to be generous?

What helps you to choose to give generously?

Act

Let me encourage you to consider giving a gift today in support of the poor. If you have an organization you already support, you might make an additional gift. (My wife and I support World Vision, and I just now gave a modest gift online. I trust World Vision to get resources to those who need it in a wise and effective way.)

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for your challenging words about treasure. I can easily treasure things that do wear out, things that thieves can steal or moths can destroy. I sometimes cling to my stuff more than I should. My treasure can be in the wrong place.

Forgive me, Lord, for my confused priorities. Help me, I pray, to value you what you value most of all. May I learn to be generous and kind. May I choose to strive for your kingdom in all things, including how I spend money.

Today I pray with gratitude for organizations that help folks like me to “give alms” wisely. Bless their work, Lord. Provide for them and those they serve. Give them wisdom as they seek, not only to care for the poor, but to empower the poor in ways that set them free from poverty. Help me to be faithful in playing my part in this work. To you be all the glory. Amen.


Part 111: Use Your Gifts Well!

Scripture – Luke 12:48b (NRSV)

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

Focus

Jesus says that from those to whom much has been given, much will be required. But how easy it is for us to receive God’s gifts as if they are mainly for our own benefit. Oh, may God show us how to use all of our gifts in service to others as we live each day under God’s authority and for God’s kingdom purposes.

Devotion

When I was a boy, my family lived just up the street from my mother’s parents Because I enjoyed the company of my grandparents, and because they cleverly filled their kitchen cupboards with abundant treats, I spent hundreds of hours with the people I called Ama and Poppy.

Each of them had a profound influence on my life. From Poppy I learned how to build and invent, and how to think rationally about my faith. From Ama I learned about the history of my family and how to give public speeches. And from both Poppy and Ama I learned the core truth of Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

My grandparents were always very affirming of my gifts and talents. They would compliment me generously when I used my strengths well, whether in school, in my grandfather’s workshop, or in oratorical competitions. But with their affirmations came a consistent exhortation: “From one to whom much has been given, much will be required.” Ama and Poppy expected me to steward well all of my gifts, which, for them, meant doing things to make the world a better place. The “score” of my life wasn’t a matter of fame, riches, popularity, or achievement. It was all about improving the quality of life for my fellow human beings, especially those who were not born with the advantages I had been given.

I expect both Ama and Poppy inherited this “stewardship ethic” from their own families of origin. But I think they were also influenced by Jesus’s statement in Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” What did Jesus mean by this? In context, he was commenting on a parable in which a master entrusted all of his possessions to one of his slaves. Yet this slave did not steward well what had been given to him, taking advantage of his fellow slaves while indulging his own fleshly desires. Though he had been given much, he did not measure up to what was required of him.

As we reflect on what Jesus said in Luke 12:48, we’re reminded that we must steward well what God has given to us. This includes such things as personal talents and spiritual gifts, to be sure. And so much more. I’d imagine that if you took some time to write down all that God has given to you, your list would be quite lengthy. Remembering what Jesus said in Luke 12:32, it should include the kingdom of God, the gracious reign of God over your life. You get to live in an intimate, meaningful, transformational, and purposeful relationship with the King of kings and Lord of lords, not because you earned it, but because of God’s amazing grace in your life.

Reflect

What has God given you so that you might steward it well for his purposes?

How do you think you’re doing on your “stewardship” score?

Is there anything in your life right now that you might use more effectively in God’s service?

Act

As you think about all that you’ve received from the Lord, consider whether you’re stewarding well these gifts. Ask the Lord to show you how you might be a more faithful steward of his gifts.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the reminder that to whom much has been given, much will be required. That means you expect much from me because you have given so much to me. For your lavish gifts I thank you. Help me to steward them well for you and your purposes.

Lord, if there is some gift I am not using well right now, help me to see it. Show me how better to use this gift for work of your kingdom. May all I do and all I say honor you and give you glory. Amen.


Part 112: What is Your Manure?

Scripture – Luke 13:6-9 (NRSV)

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Focus

Manure is not particularly pleasant, but it helps trees and other plants to be fruitful. Similarly, there are things that function rather like manure in our lives, things we don’t enjoy but that help us to grow and be productive. We need the Lord’s help to engage in practices that form our lives in positive ways even though we experience them negatively. May God help us to engage with “manure” so that we might bear much fruit and glorify God (John 15:8).

Devotion

When it comes to blunt literalness, the NRSV wins the prize for its translation of Luke 13:8. Whereas many recent translations prefer a more polite “fertilizer,” the NRSV goes with “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” The Greek word translated here as “manure” (koprion) had the basic meaning of “dung” or “excrement.” Koprion functioned as fertilizer, of course. But the word referred to what animals left behind in the field after they had eaten, whether it was used as fertilizer or not.

This “manure” shows up in a short parable of Jesus. A man planted a fig tree and was angry when it failed to produce figs. He told his gardener to cut down the tree, but the gardener interceded on behalf of the tree, offering to put manure in the ground around the tree in hopes of helping it to be fruitful. Thus endeth the parable.

As I reflected on this passage from Luke, I found myself wondering “What is my manure?” At first I was more in the “fertilizer camp,” wondering what helps me to bear fruit in life. But then I moved over to the “manure camp.” I started pondering the question “What unpleasant things help me to be fruitful?” Manure, after all, is a rather distasteful thing. But, in spite of this fact, it turns out to have a significantly positive impact when worked into the soil around a tree. Unsavory manure is a crucial ingredient in fruitfulness.

What would be an example of “manure” in my life? What unpleasant things have helped me to be fruitful? I think, for example, of studying languages while in graduate school. My PhD program in New Testament required me to achieve competency in at least six languages (biblical Greek, biblical Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, academic French, and academic German, in addition to English). Some of my fellow students were genuine linguaphiles, that is, people who love learning languages. But I was not. I received no pleasure from investing hundreds of hours memorizing vocabulary, sorting out grammar, and struggling to translate obscure sentences.

But, the “manure” of language study helped me to be fruitful in ways I truly valued. In particular, learning Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic enabled me to understand the Bible more truly and interpret it more accurately. (Don’t you wish you knew the literal meaning of koprion? Well, maybe that’s not a great example. Never mind.)

Why is it valuable to identify the “manure” in our lives? Because this can help us do things or endure things that we don’t enjoy, but that help us to be fruitful. I expect there are things you need to do at work or at home that aren’t what you prefer, even though they lead to a beneficial payoff. Moreover, identifying the unpleasant experiences that add value to our lives can also help us to be grateful. When I look back on the language study I did in grad school, for example, I feel thankful for God’s help in getting me through something that I found tedious and irksome.

Sometimes the practices that help us grow spiritually can feel rather like manure. Though we don’t enjoy them, we do them because we know how important they are in our formation. I will confess, for example, that I don’t particularly like memorizing passages of Scripture. This sort of memorization doesn’t come easily to me. Yet, when I finally internalize the words of a key biblical text, I’m glad I invested so much time and effort in a practice I don’t especially relish.

As I wrap up today’s devotion, I want to ask you some simple questions. See if these help you to think in new ways about the “manure” in your life.

Reflect

What is your “manure”? What things or experiences that you don’t enjoy help you to be fruitful in life?

Can you think of “manure” that helps you to flourish in your work? In your spiritual life? In your relationships? In your personal well-being?

Is there a kind of “manure” that you’re avoiding, even though you know you should engage with it?

Act

Talk with a wise friend or with your small group about the “manure” in your life. See what you learn about yourself and others through this conversation.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I know that sometimes I’m like the fig tree in today’s parable. I fail to bear fruit because of the absence of “manure” in my life. Forgive me, Lord.

Help me, I pray, to do the things that will enable me to be fruitful, even when I don’t enjoy them. By your Spirit, may I have the discipline to engage in practices that lead to fruitfulness. Amen.


Part 113: Embracing the Priorities of Jesus

Scripture – Luke 13:10-17 (NRSV)

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Focus

Often in the gospels Jesus clashes with religious elites over the matter of priorities. For example, Jesus chose to set someone free from physical and spiritual bondage, even if this required “working” on the sabbath. Others prioritized a version of sabbath keeping that put off healing for another day. Though we can easily criticize the opponents of Jesus, we should acknowledge that we too can value our preferences more than people. As we learn to strive first of God’s kingdom, our priorities will become more and more like the priorities of Jesus.

Devotion

In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus healed someone on the sabbath day. And not just someone! He healed a woman who had been severely handicapped for eighteen years. It’s no wonder that, having been healed, she “began praising God” (Luke 13:13).

But not everyone shared in her celebratory praise. The leader of the synagogue in which this healing took place was not pleased. He believed that healing was a kind of work, and work was forbidden on the sabbath. “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he objected. “Come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13:14).

That’s not how Jesus saw it, however. Noting that law-abiding Jews do certain kinds of work on the sabbath and that the woman was set free from Satan’s bondage, Jesus put his opponents to shame. Not only were they self-serving in their interpretation of the sabbath law, but also they were hard-hearted in their failure to celebrate the healing of someone who had suffered for so many years.

Like the synagogue leader in this story, sometimes well-intentioned Christians can get so wrapped in our religious rules that we fail to embrace the kingdom priorities of Jesus. For example, years ago on a retreat with men from my church, a young man named Kurt put his faith in Christ for the first time. The retreat participants and I were thrilled, of course. When Kurt mentioned that he didn’t have a Bible, Bill, one of the men at the retreat, offered to buy him one. So they drove to a nearby Christian conference center that had a bookstore. After Kurt picked out the Bible he wanted, he and Bill went to the cashier so Bill could pay.

“Are you part of our conference this weekend?” the cashier asked. “No,” Kurt said, “I’m at another retreat center nearby.” “Oh,” said the cashier, “then I can’t sell you that Bible. Only our conferees can buy books here.” Bill explained to the cashier that his companion was a brand-new Christian who needed a Bible. Bill expected the cashier to be excited and make an exception to the “only our conferees” rule. But the cashier was adamant. His conference center had rules and that meant he would not sell a Bible to Kurt. Period.

Later that day when I heard what had happened, I said to myself sarcastically, “Great! What a wonderful introduction to Christianity for Kurt. Now he knows that we Christians value our rules more than letting a new believer have a Bible.” But, as I settled into my cabin that night, I wondered if I also had misplaced priorities. Did I value things in the way of Jesus? Or did I sometimes let my preferences take precedence over people?

Today, as I reflect on Luke 13:10-17, I wondering again. Which of my priorities need to be set aside as I adopt the priorities of Jesus? What will change in me as I strive for the kingdom of God most of all?

Reflect

Have you ever experienced anything like what Kurt did in the bookstore? If so, what happened? How did you feel? What did you learn from this experience?

Do you ever recognize that your priorities are out of sync with the priorities of Jesus? When?

Can you think of ways your values and priorities have changed because of your relationship with Jesus?

Act

Set aside some time to talk with the Lord about your priorities in life. Ask him to show you where your values need adjustment.

Pray

Lord Jesus, as I read this story in Luke, I’m struck by the fact that my own priorities are not fully in sync with yours. I’m sure there are times when I want what I want, not what you want. Forgive me, Lord.

Help me, I pray, to be open to the realignment of my priorities. May I be honest about what I value more than I should. May I learn from your example, Lord, even as your Spirit transforms my heart. May I love as you loved. May I see as you saw.

To you be all the glory. Amen.


Part 114: Living a Mustard-Seed Life

Scripture – Luke 13:18-19 (NRSV)

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

Focus

Today, you may not be engaged in “big tree with bird nests” kingdom work, but if you seek God’s guidance in all you do, if you are committed to do everything in the name of the Lord (Colossians 3:17), then the kingdom of God is truly present in your life in lots of “mustard seed” size actions.

Devotion

As a citizen of the United States, I have relatively little personal experience of an actual kingdom. Most of what I know about royalty comes from television, watching British royal weddings or the award-winning TV series “The Crown.”

But, in spite of my inexperience, I can say with confidence that kingdoms are often full of pomp and circumstance. When a king or queen shows up somewhere, it’s time to pull out all the stops. And when the Crown puts on a royal wedding, it isn’t what you’d call subtle.

The association of kingdom and bigness isn’t anything new, and it isn’t reserved for the British. In the first century A.D., when the Jewish people envisioned the coming of the kingdom of God, they pictured something even more spectacular than a British royal wedding. The King of kings would come with earthquakes and fire, with thunder and lightning. The whole world couldn’t miss it. Every nation would take notice.

Thus, when Jesus talked about the coming of the kingdom of God, his listeners were surely confused. Yes, many were also intrigued. But what Jesus said about the kingdom didn’t match their expectations. For example, when he said that the kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden,” this would have been perplexing. Mustard seeds were tiny. And when sowed in a garden, they would have been completely invisible, at least for a season. The kingdom as a tree big enough for bird nests might have gotten traction with Jesus’s audience, but it takes a long time for a tiny seed to become a bit tree. This just wasn’t what faithful Jews were expecting or hoping for.

Though we live in a different time and culture, and though we may not have much experience of royal galas, we may also expect God to do it up big. We’re impressed by big churches, big concerts, big preachers, and big results. Things the size of a mustard seed just don’t cut the mustard with us, if you’ll pardon a garish pun.

But the truth is that God is still in the mustard seed business. Yes, sometimes the kingdom of God shows signs of its future growth. But, for the most part, God’s work in this world happens in small ways, in faithful actions that are virtually invisible. A boss treats an employee with unexpected kindness. A colleague stands up for a co-worker who is unfairly treated because of her race. An older adult invests in the life of a neighborhood kid whose father is serving overseas in the military. And so forth and so on. Each day throughout the world, the kingdom of God shows up in millions of actions that will never make headlines.

Today, you may not be engaged in “big tree with bird nests” kingdom work, but if you seek God’s guidance in all you do, if you are committed to do everything in the name of the Lord (Colossians 3:17), then the kingdom of God is truly present in your life in lots of “mustard seed” size actions.

Reflect

When you think of the kingdom of God in the world today, what comes to mind? What ideas? What images? What feelings?

Are you ever tempted to think that what you do for the Lord doesn’t matter because it’s not big enough? Or are you happy to be engaged in kingdom works of the mustard seed variety.

Act

Do something today – something small, perhaps something nobody will ever see – as an expression of God’s reign in your life.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I must confess that I can be overly impressed by big things. Thus, I can easily discount my contribution to the activity of your kingdom in the world. After all, I’m mostly in the “mustard seed” category of kingdom life.

Help me, Lord, not to worry about whether what I accomplish is big or small. Rather, may I seek to serve you in dozens of mustard seed activities. May I do this in my and in my home life, in my neighborhood and in my church.

To you be all the glory. Amen.


Part 115: Choosing Humility

Scripture – Luke 14:7-11 (NRSV)

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Focus

Whether among our colleagues at work or in the wider world of social media, we who seek to follow Jesus can choose the way of humility. We can make an effort to serve others and lift them up. We can acknowledge and celebrate the successes of our colleagues, perhaps even our competitors. Doing so will feel odd in today’s world, but it is the way of Jesus.

Devotion

For us, humility is mainly an attitude or frame of mind. It’s not thinking too highly of ourselves. There is certainly a biblical basis for this notion of humility. In Philippians 2:3, for example, we read: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Humility is a matter of how we think about ourselves in relationship to others.

Yet, Scripture also envisions humility as a matter of choiceful action. We see this in Luke 14:7-11, a passage in which Jesus talks about where you might choose to sit at a wedding. Humbling yourself, in this case, is a matter of deciding to put yourself in a lowly place. You could choose to do this no matter what you thought or felt about yourself. Of course you’d find it easier to act in humility if you were truly humble in heart. But, in today’s Bible passage, Jesus emphasizes humble action.

Most of us aren’t going to be choosing where we sit at weddings very often. In fact, for the most part we don’t have much choice about such things. We’re usually escorted to our seats by ushers in wedding ceremonies, and wedding receptions generally have assigned seats. For us, choosing to act humbly happens in other settings.

You could opt for humility in your workplace, for example. This could be a matter of not taking advantage of perks you have earned, like a corner office (or a larger screen for Zoom meetings). But I think in our cultural setting, workplace humility has more to do with how you relate to others. Do you choose to serve those who rank lower than you in the company hierarchy? Do you try hard to affirm your colleagues, both in private and in public? Are you genuinely committed to the success and advancement of your co-workers?

Social media doesn’t encourage humility of heart or action. Whether we’re tweeting or posting or uploading, social media encourages us to promote ourselves. I find it interesting to watch how some fine Christian leaders seem to have bought into the “promote yourself” ethos. They’re always talking about their accomplishments and opportunities. And they rarely congratulate others for their successes or promote the good work of their colleagues. Those who choose the path of self-promotion may even be personally humble, but their actions have been shaped by the self-promoting ways of social media.

Whether among our colleagues at work or in the wider world of social media, we who seek to follow Jesus can choose the way of humility. We can make an effort to serve others and lift them up. We can acknowledge and celebrate the successes of our colleagues, perhaps even our competitors. Doing so will feel odd in today’s world, but it is the way of Jesus.

Reflect

As you think about your friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, whom do you consider to be truly humble? Why?

In what ways do you choose the way of humility?

Are there ways you could serve others and/or lift them up, things you are not doing very often now?

Act

Do something today to serve someone else or to lift up that person.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I confess that I find it natural to seek my own position, power, and glory. Humility doesn’t come easily to me. So I ask for your help. Jesus, you chose the path of humility, becoming human and even deciding to give your life on the cross. May your example teach me and inspire me.

Even this day, Lord, help me to humble myself in service to others.

To you be all the glory. Amen.


Part 116: Favoring People Who Cannot Return the Favor

Scripture – Luke 14:12-14 (NRSV)

[Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Focus

Jesus exhorts us not to be motivated by self-interest in how we treat others. We should serve people and extend hospitality to them, not because of what’s in it for us, but because of what’s in it for them . . . and for the kingdom of God.

Devotion

When you first read Luke 14:12, you may have wanted to say, “Really, Jesus? I shouldn’t invite my friends or relatives to dinner? Really?” On the surface that’s what Jesus appears to have said. But it’s unlikely this is what he meant. Let me explain what I think is going on in this passage.

What Jesus is really getting at is your motivation for your actions. If you invite someone to a meal for the purpose of being with them, for the chance to serve them, that’s one thing, and it’s not wrong. But if your invitations are mainly self-motivated and strategic, if you invite someone to dinner in order to reap a reward from them, then you’re missing the mark. Rather than hosting those who can host you back, you should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13). Why these people in particular? Because “they cannot repay you” (14:14). Your reward for showing kindness to such people will come later, “at the resurrection of the righteous” (14:14).

As I reflect on this passage, many thoughts come to mind. I’ll share two of them with you, one today and one tomorrow.

First, I’m struck by the relevance of this passage for much more than meal invitations. Jesus is critiquing a natural human tendency to act mainly out of self-interest in a wide variety of settings. I’ve witnessed this sort of behavior in my professional life, among both business leaders and non-profit leaders. It’s natural for those of us who lead organizations to seek to build relationships with people who can help our organizations in some way. We invite to dinner those who are potential customers, clients, connectors, or donors. This practice makes sense in a variety of professional settings. However, I’ve found that such behavior can easily corrupt my heart. I can begin to see people mainly or only in terms of what they can do for me and my work. Those who have something to offer have value because of what they can do for me, not because they are people who bear God’s image. And those who can’t do something for me have little value in my selfish calculus. Jesus clearly warns against such self-serving behavior and attitude.

Let me provide a specific, recent example. In my work with the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life initiative, I’ve been reading a lot about mentoring. I believe that serving as a mentor to others is often an essential element of third third flourishing and I want to grow in wisdom related to mentoring. One of the books I read was written by a well-known Christian leader and author. He had many fine things to say about mentoring. But, at points, it seemed that one of his strongest arguments in favor of mentoring was self-serving. If you mentor successful people, then you’ll be more successful yourself. Now, I expect this is often true. But I wish it didn’t figure so prominently in this author’s rationale for mentoring. Wouldn’t it be better for someone to choose to mentor in order to serve another person, rather than to serve himself or herself?

Even for those who are engaged in “for profit” business, focusing exclusively on the financial bottom line seems out of sync with Jesus’s counsel in Luke 14:12-14. You can endeavor to serve others and still have a profitable business. In fact, know many excellent and thriving businesses whose owners and/or leaders care truly for the customers and their well-being. The businesses are built to serve their communities well by offering good products, good services, and good jobs. By emphasizing service to others, these businesses have been able to be financially solid as well.

So, Jesus exhorts us not to be motivated by self-interest in how we treat others. We should serve people and extend hospitality to them, not because of what’s in it for us, but because of what’s in it for them . . . and for the kingdom of God. Tomorrow I’ll share another thought in response to Jesus’s teaching on self-interested invitations. For now, let me encourage you to consider the following questions.

Reflect

How do you respond to what Jesus says about invitations?

Do you ever worry that your “strategic” thinking about relationships might lead you to treat people mainly in light of how they can benefit your and/or your organization?

When do you serve others freely, without expecting something in return?

Act

Do something today for someone else without expecting anything in return.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for bringing up the subject of our motivations. It is so easy for us to do even good things because of how they will benefit us.

Help us, we pray, to seek to serve others most of all. May we be generous, not for our sake, but for the sake of others . . . and for the sake of the kingdom.

In particular, Lord, teach us to reach out those on the margins, to those who are not able to respond to our efforts. Give us generous, open, giving hearts. Amen.


Part 117: Favoring People Who Cannot Return the Favor, Part 2

Scripture – Luke 14:12-14 (NRSV)

[Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Focus

Jesus calls us to be generous to those who cannot be generous to us. We’re to invite into our lives those on the edges, those whom we can serve without the promise of an earthly reward. In serving others, we are blessed, not by their ability to reciprocate, but by God’s delight in our self-giving actions.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, I began reflecting on Luke 14:12-14, a passage in which Jesus tells us not to invite people to a meal because they are able to return the invitation. Rather, Jesus says, we should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13), namely, those who are unable to reciprocate. Whether we’re inviting people to dinner, mentoring them, or doing business with them, we should not be dominated by self-interest. Rather, we should seek to serve others, to be generous in the way of God’s kingdom.

Today I’d like to share another thought with you in response to Luke 14:12-14. It has to do with whom we should invite to our dinner parties and the like. “When you give a banquet,” Jesus said, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13). In Jesus’s day, these folk were on the outer margins of society. They lacked power and privilege. They were, in particular, not able to reciprocate when others were generous to them. Jesus’s exhortation challenges me to look at my own life, both my personal life and my professional life. Am I including those who are often excluded? Am I serving those who are unable to serve me in return? Am I stretching the boundaries of my life and work so as to reach out to folk who are on the margins of my cultural life? Am I willing to be generous with those who cannot respond with equal generosity?

I know I have much to learn here, much room for growth. But I also know that, at least in some ways, I have tried to follow the directive of Jesus. Take Life for Leaders, for example. As you know, we at the De Pree Center make this devotional available to people without charge. We do this out of a desire to serve people whether or not they are able to serve us in return. We’re glad to give this devotional away for free. (We are able to do this, I should add, because of the generosity of many of our readers, who support the work of the De Pree Center, making it possible for us to produce Life for Leaders in addition to other resources. So, in a very real way, the generosity associated with Life for Leaders isn’t just that of the De Pree Center. Rather, it reflects the generosity of the larger De Pree Center community, including Life for Leaders readers.)

Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing organizations that sell their resources. There is certainly a place for this. Even Jesus said that “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7). The De Pree Center charges for some of our resources and experiences, though we try to find funding for those who can’t afford what we offer. But it’s one thing to charge a reasonable amount for something and quite another to be motivated mainly by self-serving desires. It would be very sad, and contrary to the teaching of Jesus, if we worked mainly to enhance our own sustainability.

I get to talk with a lot of church leaders these days. It’s one of the perks of my job. Often, folks want to talk with me about our third third initiative and its relevance for their church. A couple of months ago, a pastor shared his desire to reach out more effectively to older adults in his church. So far, so good. Yet, as he explained why he wanted to do this, everything he said related to the benefit for the church and its future. Though I agreed with him that more effective third third work would help his church thrive, I was worried about what appeared to be his lack of expressed concern for the older adults in his church and community. Were they valuable only because of what they could do for him and his church? Or to put the matter in the way Jesus framed it, would third thirders get invited to the meal mainly because they could return the invitation? I wonder.

Please understand that I’m not criticizing pastors and other church leaders who think seriously about how to support and sustain their churches. We need leaders with this sort of vision. But the teaching of Jesus warns us about becoming overly motivated by what’s good for us and our organizations. If our primary purpose is self-serving, then we are missing the target set up by Jesus. Ironically, though, Jesus promises that we who favor those who cannot return the favor will, in fact, “be blessed” (Luke 14:14). Our blessing will come, not in the form of reciprocal pay back from those we serve, but rather in the form of God’s blessing “at the resurrection of the righteous” (14:14). Among other things, we will get to hear God’s delight in us and our efforts as God says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Reflect

Can you think of a time when you’ve invited someone to something (a meal, an event, etc.) even though this person was different from you and not able to return the favor?

If you’re in business, how does your business seek to serve people? Is service a genuine motivation? Or is service always secondary to the financial bottom line?

How can churches, and the pastors who lead them, be rightly concerned about church sustainability and also prioritize ministry to others, whether or not they can help the church thrive?

Act

Again, do something today to serve someone who is not able to serve you in return.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for your strong encouragement in this passage from Luke. Thank you for giving us a vision of generosity and inclusion. Thank you for challenging us to open our homes and hearts to those who are not people of power and privilege.

By your grace, Lord, may our priorities be in the right place. May we always seek your kingdom most of all. And may we then seek to serve others in your name. Be glorified, Lord, in all that we do. Amen.


Part 118: Should We Hate Our Families?

Scripture – Luke 14:25-26 (NRSV)

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Focus

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says that those who wish to be his disciples must “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” (14:26). Upon first reading, this can be quite distressing. What does Jesus mean by hating those we love most in the world? How is this even possible?

Devotion

When I was a young boy, my parents taught me that hate was wrong. I first learned this lesson when I was about five years old. A kid up the street had mistreated me in a game. When I got home, I announced to my mother that I hated him. Instead of joining me in my fully-justifiable hatred, my mother sent me to my room to “think about it.” She informed me that it’s wrong to hate someone. “You can be angry with them or even dislike them,” she said. “But you can’t hate them.” That was just plain wrong, according to my mother. To back up her claim, she reminded me of the call of Jesus to love our neighbor and even our enemy. Since that boy up the street was a literal neighbor, and since it felt to me like he was my enemy, I had no counter-argument with which to vanquish my mother. So I went to my room to think about how I had to love that kid who had been so mean to me, rather than enjoying how much I hated him.

If I had been a better Bible scholar at five years of age, I might have countered my mom’s claim about Jesus and hate by quoting Luke 14:26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Not only does Jesus appear to endorse hate in this verse, but also he specifically mentions hatred of one’s own mother. I do wonder how my mom would have reacted if I had proof-texted my hatred with that quotation from Jesus. (I also wonder how I would have reacted. After all, I loved my mother deeply. Hating her was the last thing I’d want to do. How would I have understood the meaning of Jesus in Luke 14:26?)

My mom was pretty sharp, actually. I expect should would have tried to explain to me that when Jesus talked about hate in Luke 14:26, he wasn’t referring to angry feelings toward the kid up the street. I’m pretty sure my mom would have talked about how we should love Jesus most of all. And, you know what, she would have been right about that.

Why should we believe that Jesus’s use of “hate” in this verse has more to do with priorities of affection and loyalty than despising other human beings? Well, first of all, we must remember that Jesus often used hyperbole (exaggeration) to make strong and memorable points. If we interpret his hyperbole literally, we misconstrue Jesus’s meaning. We might conclude, for example, that if we are tempted to sin by something we see, then we should actually gouge out our eyes (Matthew 5:29).

But, in addition to Jesus’s use of hyperbole, something else in the teaching of Jesus points to the fact that “hate” in Luke 14:26 has a particular and non-literal meaning. I’m referring to what Jesus said about love. He was quite clear in his teachings that we’re to love others, including our neighbors and even our enemies (see Luke 6:27, 35, 10:27). We have no reason to believe that Jesus excluded our closest relatives from the command to love. So, unless we think Jesus bluntly contradicted himself, then we’re on the right track if we think that “hate” in Luke 14:26 has a figurative meaning, something other than “feel intense dislike for.”

We are helped in our interpretation of this passage from Luke by a similar text in the Gospel of Matthew. There, Jesus talks about setting family members against each other, adding “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matthew 10:35). Then he says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Surely, this helps us understand Jesus’s meaning in Luke 14:26. Our love for and loyalty to Jesus must be stronger than all other loves and loyalties if we’re going to be his disciples.

Now, I’ve heard teaching like this at least a dozen times in my life, probably more. I’m told I must love Jesus more than my beloved relatives. I get it. But I don’t think I live it, at least not very much of the time. So, when I’m told that I must love Jesus the most, I feel rather stuck. How am I supposed to do this? I can’t rev up love for Jesus by an act of will. At least it doesn’t seem that way. So how can I respond faithfully to Jesus’s teaching about hatred of relatives, and even life itself?

In tomorrow’s Life for Leaders devotion I’ll suggest a couple of ways to answer this question. For now, however, let me invite you to reflect on your own. See what the Lord reveals to you as you wrestle with this passage in the power of the Spirit.

Reflect

How do you respond to the teaching of Jesus in Luke 14:26?

What do you think Jesus meant in saying that we should “hate” our relatives?

What would it mean for us to hate our own lives?

What helps you to love Jesus? What helps you to be loyal to him most of all?

Act

Set aside to time today to reflect on your loves and hates in life. Ask the Lord to show you whatever you need to see as you seek to be a disciple of Jesus.

Pray

Lord Jesus, sometimes the things you say are obviously wonderful. Sometimes, though, they’re hard to understand, even hard to like. I confess that I’m not immediately fond of your saying that I need to hate my closest relatives if I’m going to be your disciple. I know I need to dig deeply into what this means. And I know that following you faithfully will upset the apple cart of my priorities, even my loves.

So I ask for your help, Lord, help in understanding what you are calling me to, help in doing what you commend. I want to be your disciple, whatever it might cost me. But a part of me holds back. Help me, Lord. Amen.


Part 119: Growing in Love for Jesus

Scripture – Luke 14:25-26 (NRSV)

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Focus

We will grow in our love for Jesus, not by trying to “hate” others, and not by feeling shame over the inadequacy of our love for Jesus, but rather by growing in our knowledge and experience of his love for us. The more we know the love of Jesus for us, the more we will be able to love him more with our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion we began to examine a verse in which Jesus says that if we are going to be his disciples we have to hate our closest relatives. I suggested that this is an example of Jesus using hyperbole to make a strong point. It’s not as if his command to love our neighbors and even our enemies is irrelevant to our closest relatives. Rather, Jesus is using figurative language to talk about the priority of our loves. If we are truly to be his disciple, we need to love him with such commitment that it is as if we hate the others in our lives who usually receive our greatest love.

I’ve heard at least a dozen sermons and teachings on this passage from Luke. The bottom line, or so I’ve been told many times, is that I need to love Jesus more than anyone or anything else in my life. I need to love him even more than my closest family members. Though I take the point, I often feel frustrated by what preachers and teachers don’t say. They usually don’t explain how I’m to love Jesus more. It’s not exactly as if I can simply will myself to do this. I can’t just force myself to love Jesus so much that I “hate” my family. So, I wonder, how can I grow in my love for Jesus?

As I’ve considered what helps us to love Jesus more, I’m impressed by a couple of things. First of all, our love for Jesus is a responding love. As it says in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” We don’t stir up love for Jesus in our hearts by an exercise of will or by fanning some flame of passion. Rather, our love for Jesus is a clear and direct response to his love for us. Thus, if we want to love Jesus more, it makes sense that we need a deeper and truer experience of his love for us.

And where does that come from? Certainly our love for Jesus can be kindled as we read about him in the Gospels. We see Jesus’s compassion for the sick, his inclusion of those who were culturally excluded, his proclamation of God‘s kingdom, his kindness to children, and so much more. The more we get to know Jesus through the Gospels, the more we find ourselves loving him.

Of course, the love of Jesus is revealed most dramatically through his death on the cross. When we hear the Gospel accounts of what Jesus suffered, and when we realize that he took on this suffering for our sake, love for Jesus inflames our hearts. Therefore, if you want to love Jesus more, perhaps the main thing you can do is pay attention to his love for you on the cross. This happens in personal devotions, as we listen to preaching and teaching, and most of all when we celebrate communion. In the Lord’s Supper we join with our brothers and sisters in Christ to remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. Moreover, we allow the Holy Spirit to stir up in us a fresh experience of his transforming love.

As I think about my own relationship with Jesus, in addition to what I’ve already said, I find that my love for him is kindled by my ongoing experience of his grace, mercy, forgiveness, patience, and faithful presence in my life. I think of so many times when I reached out to the Lord in desperation and he was there for me. I think of how he has forgiven me my sins over and over again. I think of ways that Jesus has blessed me far beyond anything I deserve. So, my real-life experiences of Jesus and his love help me to grow in my responsive love for him.

Such love includes but is not simply a matter of feeling. My love for Jesus, like my love for my wife and my children, must be expressed in tangible actions. Of course I can and should tell Jesus that I love him in prayer. I can sing of my love in worship services. But I demonstrate my love in tangible ways when I choose to obey my Lord, to honor him in all I do, and to live my life for his kingdom purposes. I find that when I act out my love for Jesus, often my feelings of love for him grow. But my love isn’t just these feelings. It’s a whole-person response to the whole-person love of Jesus for me.

We will grow in our love for Jesus, not by trying to “hate” others, and not by feeling shame over the inadequacy of our love for Jesus, but rather by growing in our knowledge and experience of his love for us. The more we know the love of Jesus for us, the more we will be able to love him more with our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Reflect

When have you experienced Jesus’s love for you most strongly?

What helps you to feel love for Jesus?

What helps you to express love for Jesus?

What helps you to act in love for Jesus?

Act

As you begin this day (or tomorrow, if you’re reading this later in the day), tell Jesus you’d like to live this day as an act of love for him. Ask for the Spirit’s help to do this.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I would like to love you more. Yes, I’d like to feel more love for you. But I’d like to love you more in a complete way, in heart, soul, mind, and strength. I’d like to live my life as an expression of love for you. I’d like to grow in love for you such that, by comparison, my other loves are clearly secondary.

My love for you is a response to your love for me. I love because you have loved me first. Thank you for your initiating love. Thank you most of all, Lord, for giving yourself for me on the cross. There I see the ultimate expression of love. At the cross my heart catches fire for you. At the cross I gladly devote all that I am to you.

As I pray for myself today, I also pray for others, for my family and friends, for the folks in my church, for those who will read this Life for Leaders devotion today. O Lord, may we grow in our love for you, in the love we feel, in the love we express in action. May it be so today! Amen.


Part 120: The Cost of Discipleship

Scripture – Luke 14:27 (NRSV)

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Focus

Jesus said that “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). These are not easy words to read, and they certainly aren’t easy to put into practice. Yet, if we desire to follow Jesus truly and fully, we will seek his guidance about our own cross-carrying. We will, by grace, be able to deny ourselves and follow Jesus even when it is costly.

Devotion

In 1937, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published a book called Nachfolge, the German word for “following.” Basing his writing on the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer explained what it means to follow Jesus as his disciple. He was especially concerned to counter the tendency among Christians to offer what he called “cheap grace,” that is, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (p. 45, Touchstone edition). When his book was translated into English and published eleven years later, it was called The Cost of Discipleship.

Bonhoeffer took seriously the hard sayings of Jesus, sayings that made clear the high cost of following him. In an oft-quoted passage from The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (p. 89).

Of course, when we think of the cross, we associate it with the saving death of Jesus, with the sacrifice that brings abundant and eternal life. But when the first disciples of Jesus heard him speak of carrying the cross, they would not have envisioned its ironic and grace-filled dimensions. For them, carrying the cross was something criminals sentenced by Rome had to do on the way to their painful death. It conveyed in a powerful way the complete giving up of one’s life.

When I first read The Cost of Discipleship in college, I found it quite unnerving. I wanted to be a faithful disciple of Jesus, but the “come and die” part distressed me. What did this really mean for me as a college student with big hopes for my life? Did I have to give them up? Should I quit college? Should I head off to a faraway part of the world and become a missionary? Of course, my unsettledness when reading The Cost of Discipleship was really not about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. It was about what Jesus said. It was about sentences like “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” in Luke 14:27 and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” in Luke 9:23.

I would confess that I’m still unnerved by the “cost of discipleship,” not the book so much as the reality. What does it mean for me to carry my cross today? What might I be clinging to that keeps me from fully following Jesus? Forty-five years ago, when I first read The Cost of Discipleship, those questions burned in my soul. And when I reflect on Luke 14:27 and similar passages from the gospels, such questions still do.

I don’t have all the answers, that’s for sure. But I do know this. As one who truly wants to be a disciple of Jesus, I need to take seriously his call to costly discipleship. I can’t let the appeal of cheap grace keep me from wrestling with the call of Christ upon my life. And so, once again, I talk to my Lord, asking: “What does it mean for me to carry my cross today? How can I follow you more fully? What do I need to lay down so that I might take up your yoke?” Perhaps you’ll want to join me in this conversation with our Lord.

Reflect

When you hear Jesus saying things like “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” how do you react? What do you think? How do you feel?

Has there been a time in your life when you experienced the cost of discipleship? If so, what was that like for you? If not, why not?

Do you sense that the Lord is asking you to give up something so that you might follow him more completely? If so, are you willing to do it? If not, are you willing to be open to whatever the Lord might ask of you?

Act

First, pray about how you might carry your cross today. As the Lord for wisdom and guidance. Then, do what he puts on your heart.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I want to be your faithful disciple, I really do. But I must admit I’m not always clear about what that means. And sometimes, even when I’m clear, I’m reticent to pay the price. I confess there’s part of me that doesn’t want to carry my cross. I pull back from the sacrifice, the humility, the pain. Forgive me for my reticence and fear.

Help me, Lord, to know what you are asking of me. Help me to want to follow you more than anything else in life. Help me to be willing to deny myself and carry my cross. May I follow you truly and faithfully each day, in every part of life. To you be all the glory. Amen.


Part 121: How Tasty Are You?

Scripture – Luke 14:34-35 (NRSV)

“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Focus

Jesus calls his disciples to be salt, tasty salt. In addition to functioning as a preservative in the world of Jesus, salt helped other things to taste better. True disciples of Jesus aren’t killjoys who make the world less interesting, less beautiful, less true, and less zesty. On the contrary, we help the world to be more what God intended it to be in the first place: more interesting, more beautiful, more true, and more zesty.

Devotion

During my years as a student at Harvard, The Tasty was a familiar friend in Harvard Square. For over 80 years until its unfortunate closure in 1997, The Tasty served thousands of Harvard students and other residents of Cambridge, Massachusetts, though it was only 210 square feet in size. If you’ve seen the film Good Will Hunting, then you’ve seen The Tasty. That’s where Will (Matt Damon) and his girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver) had their first kiss.

The Tasty Sandwich Shop, a diner restaurant in Cambridge. Photo by Davidputhenry in WikiCommons.

I always thought The Tasty was a clever name for a diner, for obvious reasons. If you’re going to stop in for a burger and fries, you want them to be, well, tasty. According to Merriam-Webster, “tasty” means “having a marked and appetizing flavor.” That pretty much sums up what I’d like in a meal.

And that also sums up who we’re to be as disciples of Jesus, though not literally, of course. In Luke 14:34-35 Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Here Jesus implies what he makes clear in Matthew 5:13 when he says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Commentators on the Gospels point out that salt had two primary functions in the world of Jesus. It was used both to preserve food and to season it. Faithful disciples of Jesus will serve a similar role in the world, both preserving what is good and enriching the world’s “flavor.” Our role in the world isn’t so much to be tasty as it is to help other things to become tastier. True disciples of Jesus aren’t killjoys who make the world less interesting, less beautiful, less true, and less zesty. On the contrary, we help the world to be more what God intended it to be in the first place: more interesting, more beautiful, more true, and more zesty.

I think the analogy of The Tasty in Harvard Square works here. It was, after all, a tiny fixture in the Square. From the size of its footprint, one might have assumed its influence was equally minuscule. But, in the experience of thousands of students and thousands of town residents, The Tasty was one of the most significant institutions in the Square. Because it lived up to its name, serving tasty food, its impact far exceeded its size.

So it can be for those of us who follow Jesus. We may not be “big” people, we may not have obvious influence and power, but if we are living out our faith in the world, we will make a difference for God’s kingdom that truly matters.

Reflect

When you think of Christians who are truly salt in the world, who comes to mind?

In what ways do you help to preserve what is good in the world?

In what ways do you help the world to be “tastier”?

Act

Do something today that will help your part of the world to be “tastier.”

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for calling us to be salt in the world. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to make a difference for good. Thank you for the gifts, talents, education, and opportunities you have graciously provided to us.

Help me, Lord, to be “salty” today. Help me to make a difference for your kingdom in my part of the world. May I enrich the experience of others as I go about my day. And may it all be for your glory. Amen.


Part 122: The Scandalous Welcome of Jesus

Scripture – Luke 15:1-2 (NRSV)

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Focus

Jesus got in trouble with the religious elites because he welcomed into his life people the elites considered to be “sinners.” Are we willing to welcome into our lives people who don’t live up to our expectations? Will we welcome those with whom we disagree about lifestyles or politics? Are we open to imitating the scandalous welcome of Jesus?

Devotion

The first verse of today’s passage from Luke is surprising if you stop to think about it. After all, Jesus was known to be a holy man. He preached a demanding message, calling people to turn from their past lives and live under the reign of God. Given these facts about Jesus and his activity, you might think that the religious people would have hung out with him while the non-religious would have avoided him like the plague.

But the opposite was true. Luke tells us that “tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him” (15:1). And not just a handful of tax collectors and other notorious sinners, but “all the tax collectors and sinners.”

The fact that these folks flocked to Jesus bothered the religious elites. “The Pharisees and the scribes,” Luke tells us, “were grumbling” with disapproval (15:2). They were not only bothered, however, by the fact that sinful people were gathering around Jesus. It was Jesus’s posture toward these people that was particularly offensive. They complained that Jesus actually “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). What he did was truly scandalous, in their view.

In the culture of Jesus, welcoming people meant opening your home, even your life to them. Sharing a meal with someone was a powerful symbolic gesture of acceptance and relationship. So, from the perspective of the religious elites, it was bad enough that Jesus went to the homes of the tax collectors and sinners in order to eat with them. But he even welcomed them into his own “home,” wherever that may have been, given that Jesus was traveling most of the time.

As I reflect on this short passage from Luke, I wonder whether I’m more like Jesus or more like his critics. Do I welcome people I don’t necessarily like? Am I generous to those with whom I disagree? Do I extend myself in love to people whose lifestyles I don’t approve of? Would anybody accuse me of welcoming today’s version of “tax collectors and sinners”? Or would I be seen playing the role of the Pharisees and scribes?

What, I wonder, helps us to be more like Jesus, to welcome and share life with “sinners”? Perhaps the most compelling answer I can think of is the simple fact that Jesus welcomes me into his presence. In spite of my own penchant for sin, in spite of my tendency toward judgmentalism, in spite of all the ways my heart can be hard toward others, Jesus welcomes me. He even invites me to his table, not because I’m got my act together, but because his grace is greater than my sin. The more I reflect on how Jesus welcomes me, the more I am encouraged and empowered to extend this kind of welcome to others.

Reflect

Do you know Christ-followers who welcome our equivalent of “tax collectors and sinners”?

Are you one of those Christ-followers? If so, why? If not, why not?

Are there certain kinds of people you find it hard to welcome? Perhaps people whose lifestyles bug you? Or people whose politics offend you? Or . . . ? How might you welcome these people into your life?

Are you willing to ask the Lord to help you be more like him in the matter of welcoming “tax collectors and sinners”?

Act

Think about how you can imitate the welcome of Jesus this week, and then, by God’s grace, do it.

Pray

Lord Jesus, first of all, I thank you for welcoming me into your life. I may not be a notorious sinner, but I certainly have a penchant for sinning. If you weren’t open to sinners, I’d be completely out of luck. But even as you welcomed “sinners” to your table, so you have welcomed me into your life, your kingdom, and your table. Thank you!

Help me, Lord, to be more like you. Help me to put aside my judgment and prejudice. May I learn to welcome others into my life. May I show them the same kind of grace that you have shown me. Amen.


Part 123: Reason to Celebrate

Scripture – Luke 15:3-7 (NRSV)

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Focus

In response to some religious elites who showed little concern for those who were spiritually lost, Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who leaves his large flock to seek one lost sheep. When he finds the one, he rejoices greatly, inviting his friends to join in his celebration. The more we become like Jesus, the more we will be eager for those who are “lost” to know the saving love and grace of God in Christ, and the more we will celebrate when the “lost” are “found.”

Devotion

In the opening scene of Luke 15, the religious elites are grumbling because Jesus is hanging out with people they consider to be unsavory: tax collectors and other notable sinners. In response to their crankiness, Jesus tells two stories, one about a lost sheep and the other about a lost coin. Both stories make a similar point. In today’s devotion we’ll focus on the first story about the lost sheep.

Jesus begins, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4). The way he asks this question shows that Jesus expects his listeners to be the kind of shepherds who would in fact leave the ninety-nine to search for the one. Though he doesn’t say so in the story, Jesus probably assumes that the ninety-nine sheep are in good care, perhaps being watched by another shepherd.

The main point of the story is not what happens to the ninety-nine sheep, however. It’s not even focusing on the finding of the lost sheep. Rather, the emphasis of Jesus’s story is upon the reaction of the shepherd when the lost sheep is found. First, “he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices” (Luke 15:5). That seems quite sensible. If you’ve ever lost something and looked hard to find it, you probably rejoiced when it was found as well.

But the shepherd is not satisfied with his individual joy. Rather, when he gets home, “he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’” (15:6). Communal rejoicing of this sort must have been a party, a happy celebration. The shepherd wants his friends and neighbors to share in his joy. For those of us who live in individualistic cultures, such sharing might seem a bit over the top. But Jesus wants to emphasize the greatness of the joy experienced first, by the shepherd, and then by his friends.

The moral of the story, according to Jesus, is this: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). In the context of Luke 15, Jesus is delivering bad news to the religious elites who, no doubt, would have thought their righteousness would have mattered most to God and the angels. Though not denying the value of right living, Jesus reveals that the hosts of heaven are most excited when one who is lost is found. Being found, in this case, is a matter of turning away from sin and toward God. It’s choosing the way of God’s kingdom. When someone does this, Jesus reveals, there is a rocking heavenly celebration.

As I reflect on this story of Jesus and its punchline, I think of my time as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. When I began there was an abundant concern for lost sheep as long as they were in faraway lands with missionaries we supported. We weren’t as concerned for the lost sheep in our neighborhood, but were mainly interested in the spiritual flourishing of ourselves and our families. But, as God worked on our hearts, our priorities began to shift. We realized that we existed as a church, not just for ourselves, but also for our neighbors, including the “lost sheep” who didn’t know the Lord. We discovered the joy of seeing people come to faith in Christ. Now, I’m not suggesting we completely abandoned our baseline self-interest. But we did shift a good bit from the perspective of the religious elites to that of the shepherd and his friends celebrating the finding of the sheep.

The more our hearts are formed by the Holy Spirit, the more we become like Jesus, the more we will discover that our priorities are transformed from self-interest to other-interest. And the more we will rejoice when we see God’s saving grace find those who were lost.

Reflect

To what extent do you sometimes feel rather like the religious elites in this chapter of Luke?

How much do you care for those who are lost?

In what ways do you participate in looking for the “lost sheep”?

When people respond to God’s grace through faith, how do you respond? What do you feel? What do you do?

Act

Talk with a wise friend or with your small group about this passage from Luke and its implications for your life.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for telling the story of the lost sheep. This is such a moving picture of the tenderness of God and the heavenly host.

Help me, Lord, to be like the shepherd. Give me compassion for the lost. Move me to action in an effort to reach them with your grace.

And when people turn to you, may I rejoice, joining in the celebration of heaven. Amen.


Part 124: Drinking in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Scripture – Luke 15:11-13 (NRSV)

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.”

Focus

If you live in a place where the trees change colors in the fall, you are indeed blessed. What a joy it is to drink in the beauty of autumn leaves! Sometimes it’s also good to “drink in” the beauty of Scripture. Even though Jesus’s parable of The Prodigal Son is familiar to many of us, it’s still wonderful to read slowly through this story, savoring and delighting in it. As we do, the Spirit of God will touch our hearts.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

My son, Nathan, is in Vermont today. After a business trip to Boston, he decided to head up north to enjoy the fall leaves. So, he and a buddy headed off to Vermont. They’re in a section of the state that is in the fall foliage peak. I know, not only because I’m following various online fall foliage trackers, but also because Nathan just sent me a “Here’s where we are” photo. So, at this moment I’m caught between being happy for my son, living vicariously through him, and feeling terribly envious. (I’ll share Nathan’s photo so you can join me in this emotional tension.)

© 2021 Nathan Roberts

I love the colors of fall more than most things in life. This love affair began when I was four years old. My parents took me on a vacation to New England in October. There, for the first time, I saw brilliantly colored fall leaves, and I was mesmerized. I spent much of my time looking for trees that were completely red and found hundreds as we drove through the forested hills of Vermont and New Hampshire. My love for fall foliage was renewed in 1975 when I was a freshman at Harvard. I’d take the subway out into the suburbs of Boston so I could walk along quiet streets, immersing myself in the glories of autumn.

When I find myself in a panoply of brilliant autumn leaves, I like just to sit and look. I bask in the diversity of colors and shapes. I marvel at the artistry of God—who, by the way, made trees to be “pleasant to the sight,” according to Genesis 2:9. To that I say an enthusiastic “Amen.” It’s God’s gift to us to drink in the colors of fall.

In today’s Life for Leaders devotion, I’d like to suggest that you drink in something besides autumn leaves (though if you’re in a place to see some vibrant leaves, by all means enjoy them!). But even if, like me, you’re sipping coffee alongside a busy city street, you can still do some figurative “drinking in.” Let me encourage you to drink in the beauty and wonder of one of Jesus’s most famous parables, the one we call The Prodigal Son. Not only is this parable the longest Jesus told, thus offering lots to observe, but it’s also one of the richest when it comes to plot, character, and soul-stirring good news.

I’ve read this particular parable or had it read to me at least a hundred times throughout my life. Yet even though it’s so familiar I still marvel when I read it. Sometimes I see things I haven’t seen before. At other times things I have noticed previously touch my heart in a new way.

So, if you have several minutes right now, I’d suggest that you take time to read the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). You can find it here online. If you don’t have time right now for a relaxed reading of the passage, I’d encourage you to plan to do this exercise later in the day.

In tomorrow’s Life for Leaders devotion, I’ll reflect with you on things in the Parable of the Prodigal Son that have struck me. For now, though, I hope you’ll find time to drink in this amazing story. Savor the words, the images, the feelings. Allow Jesus to inspire your imagination. Pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling. See if you relate to any of the characters in the story. Note any questions you might have. Most of all, be open to whatever the Spirit of God might want to say to you through this unrushed reading of Scripture.

Reflect

These questions are meant to follow the “Act” suggestion below.

  1. As you read slowly through the parable of The Prodigal Son, what stood out to you?
  2. Did you see anything you have not seen before?
  3. Do you relate to any of the characters in the story? If so, why?
  4. Do you sense the Spirit of God saying anything to you through this parable? If so, what is it? (If not, don’t force it. Just be open to whatever God might be stirring in your heart.)

Act

Set aside several minutes for a slow, thoughtful reading of the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). As you read, take time to appreciate the phrases of this story, allowing the Spirit of God to speak to you.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for this amazing parable. Though it’s so familiar to me, it still fills me with wonder and gratitude.

As I reflect on this story, I find myself like both brothers in different ways. Oh, how much do I need the Father’s grace!

As I continue to meditate upon this parable during the week ahead, may my heart be open to whatever you want to say to me, and to do whatever you want to do in me. Amen.


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