Love to the end . . .

Reading: John 13:1-17; Philippians 2: 5-8; I John 4: 7-11

The time for public ministry was finally done. The last sick person to be healed had been healed. He would cast out no more demons. No more parables. No more disputes with the chief priests and the Pharisees. When Jesus entered the room on that final night with his disciples—he shut the door on the world. Almost. For a little while anyway. Soon, he would return to the Father. But before that . . . For the moment, his thoughts centered upon the ones he would be leaving behind.
John remembered, “He loved them to the end.” This simple phrase reveals both the duration of his love—and the extent of his love. He couldn’t possibly have loved them more—or longer. In this case, even the end wasn’t the end. He loves them still—as he loves us—and will always love us.

Sometime during that last supper, Jesus did something that shocked everyone. John describes the action as if he is seeing it all again in his memory. He probably was. And it’s as if he still can’t believe what he saw. Jesus got up. He laid aside his garments. (Stripping himself. Emptying himself.) It’s as if Jesus was reenacting the scene he had already done in heaven before coming down here in the first place. Then Jesus picked up a towel—and tied it around his waist. By now everyone in the room was wondering—what’s he doing? He then picked up a pitcher of water, and poured it into a basin—and carried it to the first disciple.

Incredibly, Jesus then knelt to perform the task that should have been done at the beginning of the evening. But apparently, there was no one willing to do it—until then. He washed their feet.

He washed Peter’s feet—in spite of Peter’s protest. I’m sure he even washed the feet of Judas. He did it to teach them all one final lesson about who is truly great in the kingdom of heaven. He made himself the supreme example. He did it to give them a concrete example of how they need to be willing to serve one another in very practical ways from now on.

And he did it as an expression of love. Love isn’t really love until it is demonstrated in meaningful ways. For example, when he did the job no one else was willing to do—because somebody had to do it. Or when he took a deep breath and taught the same lesson one more time to this collection of slow learners.

John never forgot this lesson. I’m sure this scene was somewhere in the back of his mind years later when he wrote to the churches, “ Let us love one another, for love comes from God. . . .”


To be broken . . .

Read: Matthew 21: 23-46
Think about it:
When I was a boy, we played a lot of “sandlot” baseball. In fact, if you remember the movie, Sandlot, that was us. We didn’t have much money, so any baseball equipment we had needed to last. Our gloves were ragged. Our balls were scuffed and dirty, often, reinforced with tape. And our bats . . . We didn’t have many bats to begin with, so if a bat ever cracked, we couldn’t just throw it away. We would go to elaborate lengths to save a bat. Of course, we would tape it. Sometimes we’d even drive a nail through it first. So we’d play our game, swinging broken bats. It never really had the right sound after it had been broken, even after being nailed and taped and reinforced in every way we could think of. But we never ever wanted to just give up on a bat. So the games went on—broken bats and all. About the only thing that could stop our games was the inevitable darkness at the end of the day.

Now, imagine someone coming up to us, asking us to give him our old bats—so he could break them! We would naturally resist—vigorously. This is my bat! I can’t remember a time I didn’t have this old bat. This bat is me! I’ve had a lot of hits with this bat. You say it’s broken? Well, I’ve fixed it. See? I added another roll of tape just last night. Good as new! You say it doesn’t look very good? Well—it looks just as good as a lot of the other bats I’ve seen out here. Better than some. You say it doesn’t sound good? Says who? Sounds fine to me. This old bat isn’t so bad. Just let me keep my bat. Ok?

That was the essential problem between Jesus and the religious leaders in today’s reading. Jesus was asking them to allow themselves to be broken. And they continued to resist in every way possible. (vss. 43-46) They continued to cling to their broken bats.

The thing we need to realize is that we’re all swinging broken bats. We were broken a long time ago. We’ve just been in denial. You may be used to the sounds you make by now, but God isn’t fooled. Heavens ears can discern the sound of our brokenness. And, to tell the truth, the power just isn’t there. Oh, we can scratch out a hit here and there, even with a broken bat. And after all, a thirty per-cent success rate in baseball is considered pretty good, whatever bat we may use, right? So we go on, fooling almost everyone. Even ourselves, most of the time.

But the Lord continues to stand before us, often without saying a word. The one whose eyes are like flames of fire sees right through us. He renews his request. Give me the bat. When we finally surrender our precious bat, he takes it—and smashes it against the rock. As the bat lies broken at our feet, it’s as if we too are lying on the ground among the scattered pieces that once was our bat. When we finally look up from our brokenness, we see that the Lord’s hands are extended toward us. And in his hands—is a brand new bat.

But first, we must be willing to surrender our broken bats into his hands. These men weren’t. So they continued to move, ever more closely toward the cross.

Whose House?

Read:  Matthew 21:12-17

Jesus walked into the Temple like the master of the household; first, checking on the servants, and then making necessary corrections as he saw fit.  He didn’t hesitate to re-arrange the furniture, and drive away all unwelcome guests.  Furthermore, he justified his actions with a reference to Isaiah 56:7, and left the clear impression that he was the speaker in this case.  In other words, this house is my house.  But who has the right to make that claim?  Only God.  Things are moving fast, and the minds of the priests and the scribes must have been in overdrive, trying to process everything that was happening.

The people began to gather.  Blind people were receiving their sight, and lame people were beginning to walk, none of which was included in the official order of service.  Finally, the children began to sing and shout their praises.  “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  They must have learned this chorus from their parents on the road as Jesus entered the city the day before.

That was too much.  The word, “hosanna,” actually could start a riot.  Or worse, bring down Roman retribution.  It was literally a cry for salvation.  For deliverance.  As in, What are we waiting for?  Let’s take back our nation now!  They further complicated the situation by calling Jesus the Son of David.  This was a clear reference to the Messiah.  Fighting words for sure.  I imagine the chief priests and scribes almost jumped out of their sandals when they heard that!

So the lines are being drawn more and more distinctly.  Everyone’s agenda is becoming increasingly clear.  And they are clearly irreconcilable.  The people are sure this is the moment to strike a blow for liberty.  The religious leaders, on the other hand, are more interested in maintaining their position of authority, and their relatively comfortable lifestyle.  That’s why the shouts of the children must be immediately silenced.  They ran to Jesus, expecting him to silence them.  “Do you hear what the children are saying?”  Surely Jesus must understand that these children were only stirring up trouble.

Jesus’ answer must have left them gasping.  He answered with a quotation from the Psalms.  (Psalms 8:2)  And it was a two edged sword.  In the first place, it justified the praise that comes from the mouths of children.  But beyond that, these praises, which Jesus had been receiving, were intended for God alone!  Wait a minute—did he just say that?  He can’t mean that . . .   But before they could gather a response, Jesus left the building, as they stood there, trying to catch their breath.

Jesus had his own agenda.  He will begin to state it with increasing clarity during these final days, as we move ever closer to the cross.

The King is coming!

Reading:      Luke 19:28-44

One day, the king will return to Jerusalem.  According to tradition, he will come right through the Eastern Gate.  This is partly based on Ezekiel’s prophecy.  (Ezek. 43:1-6) Also, Zechariah tells us that he will first stand upon the Mount of Olives, which is east of Jerusalem.  (Zech 14:3-4)  And, guess which gate is right there.

The one technical problem, however, is that this is the one gate in the entire city that has been completely sealed up with stone and mortar—for about a thousand years!  It seems the Muslims, who controlled the area at the time, decided to eliminate the possibility of this expectation ever being fulfilled.  Not only did they close the gate; but they built a cemetery immediately in front of it.  This was on the theory that a holy man would never defile himself by contact with the dead.

Now, devout Jews believe that the gate can only be opened by the Messiah himself.  “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in!”  (Ps. 24:7)  According to one story, set during the time of the 1967 war, the Jewish forces were planning to blast through the gate, as it would provide the most immediate access to the Temple Mount.  But the protests from the orthodox Jews was so strong, they decided to go in another way.  Only Messiah may enter that gate!

Jesus rode through that gate.  And everything about his entrance was calculated to make a statement.  Luke tells us he approached the city from the direction of Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives.  (Lk. 19:29, 37)  That means he approached the city from the east.  He chose to make his entrance, not walking, as he had been doing all this time—but riding the colt of a donkey.  According to Matthew, this was deliberately done to fulfill prophecy.  (Mt. 21:5)  The king was coming!

That’s how the disciples, and the growing crowd of people understood it.  Immediately, they threw their cloaks over the donkey, and spread them in the way as he approached the city.  When they ran out of cloaks, some began cutting down palm branches.  This wasn’t a red carpet—but it made the point!  And they shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”  (Lk. 19:38)  Jesus was completely surrounded—embraced—by the crowd, both before and behind.  (Mt. 21:8-9)  And the noise level became so intense, the Pharisees had to protest.  (Lk. 19:39)  Jesus’ answer made it clear.  The King is coming—the King of all creation—and he will be worshipped!  (Lk. 19:40)

But as he approached the city, Jesus wept.  (v. 41)  Just as he had wept at the tomb of Lazarus.  And probably for many of the same reasons.  So many people.  Each one caught up in their own expectations.  Their own agendas.  With no real clue about the nature of the kingdom that was indeed at hand.  “If you had known . . . you did not recognize the time of your visitation. ‘  (v. 42, 44b)  It broke his heart.

But in the midst of the celebration that was breaking out everywhere—no one seemed to notice.  As the crowd noise and expectation reached its peak—Jesus walked straight into the temple.  Here it comes!  Now, he’ll make his announcement,  His call to arms!  Quiet everyone—let’s listen . . .

In the hush that must have settled upon the crowd, Jesus stood within the Temple . . . and looked around.  Just looking—keeping his thoughts to himself.  And then he left.  (Mk. 11:11)  There must have been an audible gasp running throughout the temple courts, and in his wake, as he walked away.  And then—nothing.

In the conflict of competing agendas—the King will never submit himself to ours.  Jesus wept because he knew that so many who were filling the temple with their own expectations that day would never accept his.

One day, the King will return to the city.  And if it’s really all that important for him to come through that Eastern Gate, I’m sure he’ll manage to do that just fine.  Nothing—and no one will be able to stand in his way—on that day.  On that day, every competing agenda will be burned to ashes—dropped at his feet.  Until that day, we continue to pray, “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

At the end of the road to Jerusalem—is a cross.  Jesus and his disciples are still one week away from that.  And the drama continues to build, as shattered expectations will lead to disappointment—and frustration—and anger—and the eventual cry—“crucify him!”

Now, we’re walking toward Calvary.

Do you know who you are?

Reading: Matt. 17:24-27; I Cor. 6:7-8; 8:1-13; 9:1-7, 15-23
We spend so much of our time in constant power struggles with—everybody! Everyone seems to be trying to power up on us in one way or another. We feel the urgent need to protect our dignity—our rights. We do everything we can to power up right back at them. And the conflict escalates to the next level.
The irony is that all this strife really stems from our own insecurity. The truth is, we don’t know who we really are. If we did, there would be no more need for the manipulation or intimidation or withdrawal that is so characteristic of so many of our interpersonal encounters. And Jesus demonstrates that truth perfectly here.
As soon as they arrived in Capernaum, Peter was confronted by the tax collectors. How intimidating is that? These weren’t from the IRS. They were from the religious authorities. Their purpose was to inquire about Jesus’ intention regarding the temple tax. (cf. Ex. 30:11-14; II Chron. 24:6-9) They were looking for a reason to be offended, and to bring accusations against Jesus. Peter assured them that Jesus indeed intended to pay his tax. I suspect this was, for the most part, a statement of faith.
Don’t miss the fact that Jesus was already aware of this conversation before Peter entered the house. He made the point that children of the king don’t pay taxes. By rights, Jesus, the son of God, should not be required to pay the temple tax. He had no reason to be intimidated. But he didn’t want to offend them.
Wait a minute—what was that? Jesus, did I actually hear you say you didn’t want to offend these people? Why should you care? They should be the ones worried about offending you! And here is the beauty of this story. Precisely because Jesus knew who he was . . . Because he was confident in his place and his power, he could afford to extend grace to these men. Yes, I said grace. Jesus came to save these men too. He didn’t want anything to become a stumbling block to their potential faith in him or his message. Not if he could help it. Not if a simple thing like going the extra mile, and paying a tax he wasn’t really obligated to pay, could prevent it.
This is true kingdom greatness. It is demonstrated in the proper balance of authority and mercy. It’s knowing who we are so that we are neither bullied by men—nor intimidated by Satan. Neither do we feel the need to manipulate or intimidate others. We can quietly rest in the confident knowledge of who we are—and who our father is. We can stand our ground—with a smile—and open arms. No clinched fists necessary.
From this position of strength, we may find the grace to do the things we aren’t required to do—and refrain from doing the things we have every right to do—for the sake of those we must live with, or work with, or influence . . . for heaven’s sake.
It’s just one more important lesson we must learn—on the road to Jerusalem.

Holding on–at a time of loss . . .

It should be universally understood that students must never be taken before their teachers.  And children should never go before their parents.  And friends should always be there for us.  Always.  Cameron had been my student.  He was also a son to his mother and father, and a friend to many.  And yesterday, in a single tragic moment, he was snatched from us all.  And something deep within us groans.  This should never be. . .

Death should never be.  It should never have been.  The word tragedy should never have entered the human vocabulary.  We should have never needed words for sickness—or sin.  In this fallen world, we’re confronted on every side by things that should never be.  But they are.  And something within us rises up in protest, even anger at the injustice of it all.

At such times we instinctively huddle together in circles.  Like Job with his friends.  I mean those first few days when they simply sat together in silence.   They probably hugged—and sat very close—and wept together.  After that, they started trying to fix Job—and ruined everything.  But in the beginning, they were doing what we all must do in the face of sudden loss.

Later, we’ll take the time to articulate a more complete theology about the warfare we’re in.  And the meaning of death—and the resurrection.  We’ll reaffirm our faith in eternal life.  We’ll strengthen our grip upon God, our father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to destroy every work of the enemy of us all.  Defiantly, we’ll shout into the very gates of hell, “O death, where is thy sting?”  We’ll learn that we must hold every material thing, even our own lives, loosely in this present evil world.  We are at war, after all.  But we will win this thing!  Believe it.  That must all come later.

For now, it’s enough to come together and weep.  We need to embrace each other more closely.  More purposefully.  We long to crawl up into the lap of our father, like the children we all are.  We need him to enfold us in himself.  We cry “Abba, Father.”  We ask the Holy Spirit to restore our souls. . .

Yes, this morning, I just need a hug.  We all do.

When Heaven Invades Earth

Reading: Luke 9:28-36
It’s a fact of life. I mean the kind of life God originally intended for us to experience. It’s as solid as the table at which I sit and the chair that supports me. But it can’t be proven by the things we see, or hear, or touch or taste, or smell. It’s the world of the spirit. And it is everywhere. We could say it’s “at hand.” (cf. Mk. 1:15)
We’ve grown up thinking that heaven is the place where God sits on his throne and commands angels to go here or there. Upon truly exceptional occasions, he’ll throw down a lightning bolt. But all of this happens in a place far removed from where we are right now. God is up there. Way up there. Beyond the stars—all of them. And we have no idea how far that is. To infinity—and beyond, I guess. That’s the image we grew up with. But it’s wrong—for at least two reasons.
First, when we think about the world of the spirit, we can’t afford to confuse ourselves with images of physical space. It’s not up there—as opposed to down here. It’s everywhere! Mostly because God is everywhere. Theologians call that omnipresence.
Second, God never intended for us to be strangers to his world. We were created to walk and talk comfortably in fellowship with him. God, who is spirit, created the physical world and surrounds it—and fills it. We just don’t see him much—since the fall. Since our sin deadened our spiritual senses. But that wasn’t the original design. And it won’t be our final state. Finally, in the end, we will once again walk with him and talk with him, just as Moses and Elijah spoke with him in today’s reading.
This story is just one example of many in the Bible when heaven invaded earth. And it all began with a prayer. As Jesus prayed, his appearance began to change. Prayer pulls back the curtain that otherwise conceals the world of the spirit from our natural sight.
The disciples woke up from their nap just in time to see Jesus, face shining, speaking with Moses and Elijah, as naturally as three old friends would gather around a table at Starbucks. Then a cloud enveloped them—and they heard the voice of the Father.
Then, just as suddenly as they appeared, the men, and the cloud, and the voice went away. Once again they were standing alone with Jesus. Everything was back to normal.
But normal would never have quite the same meaning after that. Not after that day that heaven invaded earth. A necessary reality check—on the road to Jerusalem.

Everybody’s talking . . .

Read:  Matt. 16:13-20

Think about it:

Everybody has opinion, and most are more than willing to share it.  However informed, or ill-informed they may be.  God, the great communicator, began the grand dialogue—among Father, Son and Holy Spirit in eternity past.  He invited us to join the conversation when he created us in his image.  Our own rebellion continues to interfere with our lines of communication, of course; but it hasn’t stopped us from talking.  Everybody has an opinion; and everybody wants to be heard.

In today’s reading, Jesus opens the conversation with his disciples by asking a question.  He asks, in effect, what everyone is talking about.  This, of course, assumes that the disciples had been listening to what the people were saying.  Please don’t miss the point that God expects us to be good listeners.  We might even say that our mission begins with good listening.  Until we know what the people around us are really saying—and what they really mean by what they’re saying—we haven’t yet earned our own right to speak.

The disciples’ answer reveals that they had indeed been listening.  It also reveals that the people had no clue who Jesus truly was.  It’s probably safe to say that many of the people expressing an opinion had never even heard Jesus for themselves.  They were reacting to random stories they had heard, some of which may not even have been accurate.  Rumors.  Second and third hand reports.  Come to think of it, it’s something like people today who have formed their own opinion about Jesus without ever bothering to actually read the Gospels for themselves.  They have certainly never entered into any sort of conversation with him.  The whole idea strikes them as absurd.  And yet . . .

Jesus followed up on his opening question with a second, and more important, question.  “But who do you say that I am?”  This was a challenge to his disciples to think clearly about the things they have seen and heard for themselves.  It challenged them to connect their own observations with the message of the prophets, and draw careful conclusions.  Furthermore, it challenged them to declare themselves.  What do you believe?

Peter’s ready response indicates that he had indeed been watching, and listening, and reading, and thinking.  It also indicates that he had been listening to God.  Jesus made this point.  “ . . . flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven . . . “  Our own powers of observation and analysis can bring us so far; but we need to hear the voice of God’s Spirit to really get the picture.

Yes, everybody’s talking—and we must understand what they’re saying.  But above all, God is talking.  And we absolutely must be sure to hear him, and learn the lessons, as we continue on the road to Jerusalem.

To see . . . and not to see

Reading:      Mark 8:11-21;  Psalms 139: 23-24

The question made Jesus groan.  Ok, most translations say that he “sighed deeply.”  But this “sigh” was ripped from the deepest places of his soul.  Remember, this is the same Jesus who had accepted the flat rejection of the Samaritan villages with little more than a shrug and a renewed declaration that he had, in fact, come to save them.  But this left Jesus speechless—almost.

The question was couched in an argument. They were testing him. Looking for an opportunity to attack him.  To discredit him before the people.  Possibly, to gather ammunition to use against him later when they took him to trial.  At the very least, they were looking for excuses to reject his message and his persistent call to repentance.  They weren’t honest seekers after truth.  They were way beyond misguided.  They were committed to opposing everything Jesus said and did.  As such, they had allied themselves with the enemy.  Their arguments and questions actually had their source in the pits of hell.  So he refused their request for a “sign.”

And, by the way, where had they been the whole time Jesus had been feeding people by the thousands with a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish?  Or the times he cast out demons, or opened blind eyes, or healed every other disease brought to him?  A sign, you say?  Exactly what kind of sign do you think you need?

They had, in fact, seen—yet they hadn’t seen.  They could hear—but they didn’t hear.  This wasn’t a case of poor eyesight or hearing.  They didn’t want to see—or hear.  It was a simple case of hard hearts.  And what was worse, Jesus seems to believe his own disciples were in some danger of falling into the same trap.  And that’s what bothers me about this passage.

Even his disciples didn’t connect the dots from the lessons of the past days.  They just didn’t get it.  Were their hearts hard?  Jesus apparently felt the question was worth asking. But I have to ask, how is it possible for people who had walked so closely with Jesus for so long to develop hard hearts?  And if they were in danger, could you and I be in the same danger?  We haven’t seen a fraction of what they saw every day!  How do hearts become hard?

For one thing, our hearts become hard when our agendas come into conflict with God’s agenda—and we refuse to yield.  That was clearly the case with the scribes—and the Pharisees—and the Sadducees—and the Herodians.  The coming days will focus upon this fact with increasing clarity.  But what about the disciples?  After all this time, were they still pursuing their own personal agendas?  And what about you—and me?  I’ll confess from personal experience that it’s often easy to substitute my own purposes for God’s purposes and never realize it—until I’m finally broken.  That’s why David had to cry out in today’s reading, “Search me, O God, and know my heart . . . “

Only one agenda is possible—on the road to Jerusalem.

Of what spirit are you?

Read: Luke 9: 52-56;   I John 4: 7-21;  Isaiah 61: 1-3

Think about it:

I’ve decided that one of the hardest skills for a soldier of the cross to acquire is the ability to maintain a warrior’s stance—and a tender heart at the same time.  There are times we must be hard—like flint.  But we can never afford to let our hearts become stone.  Some never get it.  They become so locked into their battle mode—against sin and Satan—that the strain of conflict becomes permanently etched upon the lines of their face.  They’re prepared to take on the whole world, if necessary.  All for Jesus, of course.  Like James and John.  Yes, this was the same John who would later write so eloquently about our need to love one another.  But on the day of our reading, he was much younger—and he had much to learn.

Jesus had already begun his final journey into Jerusalem.  It seems fitting that this journey had to pass through Samaria—one more time.  (cf. John 4:4ff.)  Jesus continued to break with the Jewish tradition of avoiding all travel through Samaria.  He shattered the barriers that had been erected by racial bias.  These too were people he had come to save.  Nothing would deter him from his purpose.

But racial bias cuts both ways.  And since it was apparent that Jesus’ final destination was Jerusalem, certain villages of Samaria decided to refuse to receive him.  This was too much for James and John.  Jesus had already picked up on their fiery temperament.  (Mark 3:17)  And on this day, it was on full display.  In their righteous (or unrighteous) zeal, they naturally decided that it would be a good idea to call fire down to consume these ungrateful sinners.

Jesus must have shocked them when he said “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.“  The Spirit that was upon him was bringing a message of salvation and deliverance and hope.  It was not the time for judgment.  And they quietly went to the next village.

The man with a face like flint—had a tear in his eye, and compassion in his voice.  His heart was moved with mercy—even as they refused to receive him.  Nothing could deter him from his purpose.  Not fear of suffering and death.  Not longstanding racial bitterness.  Not even personal rejection.  His need for personal vindication was completely overcome by his sense of mission—to save those who are lost.

James and John were still learning as they followed the Lord—on the road to Jerusalem.