In awe

Driving along, minding my own business, and a police car pulls out of a side road behind me. I’m doing nothing wrong, car’s all legit, not speeding or anything, but I feel uncomfortable! Just having that police car on my tail, and I’m squirming. What must it feel like for criminals, or knowing the car’s not insured, or even stolen…Are they after me? Do they know…? How can I get out of their line of vision without it being obvious I’m avoiding them?

Now consider how the evil spirits felt who possessed the two men in Matthew 8:28-34, when they saw Jesus approaching. They recognised his authority immediately – far greater than any police force. No-one could approach because of their violence, but when Jesus arrived, they came to him, cap in hand, begging for a way to get out of his line of vision.

Matthew 8:28-34

Matthew 8:28-34

The area on the far side of lake Galilee, known as the Decapolis, had several Roman settlements, and no doubt the pigs were kept for their benefit, as they were considered ‘unclean’ for Jews. A fitting place for those unclean spirits, who begged Jesus to let them flee there.

The townsfolk must have felt that sense of guilt in the presence of Jesus’s authority, for they ‘pleaded with him to leave their region’. They could see the impact of his power all around them: the change in the men; the fate of the pigs –– and they felt over-challenged, overwhelmed.

I wonder, if as Christians, we are rather too blasé with our mate Jesus. Yes, he calls us friends, and he does love us; but that does not give us the right to take him for granted. His power is awesome! His deeds are majestic! He requires righteousness; but we are often sloppy, casual, indifferent.

When the apostle John described his vision of Jesus in Revelation, he said (1:17) “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” Jesus does not want us to be afraid of him, but a god that we do not stand in awe of, is not our God at all.

Lord, thank you that you love us and call us to come near to you, even though you are so great. Please give us a fresh revelation of your righteousness, and help us grasp anew the awesomeness of your power; help us to worship you as you deserve.

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When storms rage

Maybe it’s because I was a teacher, but there’s something about the story of Jesus calming the storm, in Matthew 8:23-27 that makes me think it was an orchestrated learning opportunity. There’d been a large crowd round him, which would likely have still been disbursing when it all happened ‘without warning’. There’d been nothing that had told those seasoned fishermen that trouble was likely. Then Jesus appeared to have fallen asleep in the blink of an eye, and stayed that way through the noise of the storm, the shouts of the disciples, and the frantic rocking. And then Jesus’s response when they woke him. Not a bleary-eyed, “Why, what’s going on?” but, “You of little faith!” I’m convinced it was a set-up!

So who learned what?

The crowds learned that Messiah had come. Only he could have that power.

The disciples learned that Jesus could be trusted in times of danger.

The powers of darkness found out Jesus’s power was greater.

So why did Jesus rebuke the disciples for waking him? Jesus was equipping the disciples for the future. They were learning to trust his power even when he wasn’t around – on that occasion because he was sleeping, but in the future, when he would no longer be physically present, and they would have to trust the Holy Spirit within them. They learned that it was safe to be out in a boat in a storm with that kind of God. And they learned that they could still whatever storms life or the Jewish and Roman authorities threw at them.

We, the readers, learn that it is safe to be in life, however stormy, with that kind of Lord. It is safe, but challenging just the same.

Oh, and one more thing…if it was orchestrated, then maybe some of the storms in my life are more about God teaching and training me to trust him better, to live more in his power, and to learn how to manage situations in his wisdom and strength… As I said, challenging just the same.

Matthew 8:23-27

 

Head in the game

My unfavourite moment. When the teacher would choose two sporty types to pick their teams from the rest of the class. And I would be one of the last selected. Ah well, you can’t be good at everything!

A teacher of the law wanted to be picked to be on Jesus’s team (Matthew 8:18-22). They were riding pretty high in the popularity stakes just then, and he didn’t want to miss out on any privileges of being one of the in-crowd in the new kingdom Jesus was going to establish. Jesus quickly burst that bubble. Material gain was not part of the package.

Matthew then talked about another would-be follower, who wanted to ‘first bury his father’. Given that burials then followed within hours of a death, it’s unlikely his father was dead, but this man wanted to wait until his filial duties were done and dusted before following Jesus full-time.

Neither of these guys were going to be picked onto Team Jesus. Their heads were not in the game. One wanted the glory, the other didn’t want the commitment.

Sometimes it’s hard to see our own motives. Some church jobs come with benefits, a bit of honour; whereas with some tasks we’ll find some very good reasons why we can’t take on that role. We might hide behind our employment, our kids, our ageing parents, or some specific situation.

In God’s Kingdom, it’s not about what we do. It’s about willingness. Submission. Obedience. And it’s about relationship. Knowing who Jesus is; knowing how important I am to him. Knowing I can trust him, so that if he tells me to do a job, however demanding, however menial, he will give me the skills, energy and time I need to do it. Like for the father in the second story,  sometimes our obedience demands a cost from others. But I must trust God to take care of whatever situation might be holding me back.

Jesus couldn’t appoint the two guys in the reading because of their motives and attitudes. If you want to live up close to Jesus, where you can see him in action in the world around you, then get your head in the game: be prepared to do whatever he asks, and commit to doing it with all you’ve got, whatever it costs.

Matthew 8:18-22

Matthew 8:18-22

Just a word

In one of my classes as a special ed teacher, there was this small boy. He had significant learning disabilities and he was severely deaf, but he was such an imp! He thought it was hilarious if you suddenly made a loud noise behind him, because he could hear it, and he loved that. Trouble was, when he had his impish moments, shouting at him was pointless, and if he saw you trying, he just thought it was so funny! One day, after a significant misdemeanour, I took him to one side, and simply stared him down. Gradually the smile faded, and he began to realise I meant business, then eventually he got really uncomfortable under my gaze. From then on, I’d just have to look at him, with that ‘look’, to bring him to order!

In Matthew 8:14-17, Jesus first healed Peter’s mother-in-law, then drove out evil spirits from many who came to him for help. How did he do it? With a word. Just a word. What word? Could anybody utter that word and have the same effect? I don’t think it was any particular word; I think it was the authority with which it was spoken. My little ‘imp’ toed the line because he recognised my authority. Those evil spirits could not refute the authority of Jesus, because he had exerted it so many times already.

But more than that, they knew the words of Isaiah – that the Messiah would have power over ‘infirmities and diseases’ (Isaiah 53:4) because of who he was, and that his Messiahship could be recognised by his anointing to ‘preach the good news, proclaim freedom, restore sight, release the oppressed…’ (Isaiah 61:1-2).

Even more than that, they knew he was THE Word. Authorised by the Father, anointed by the Holy Spirit, the Word made flesh, come to dwell among men. And this was a demonstration of the power Jesus rightfully exerted over the powers of darkness.

Jesus has commissioned his followers to do likewise. When we are submitted to him, we too are authorised, anointed and empowered. Jesus’s ministry was not just a 3-year event, it was a demonstration of how his followers should be living, in the power of his authority. How do I get to carry that authority? By living like Jesus did, praying like Jesus did, having a relationship with Father like Jesus did. That’s how.

Matthew 8:14-17

Matthew 8:14-17

Just do what he says

I love the story of the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). I love that he cared so much about someone who worked for him. I love the humility of this guy, who had significant authority; and I love how he recognised the chain of command. He was able to give orders and expect them to be obeyed, because he received orders and obeyed them. That’s how authority works. Anything else and it’s anarchy, really. Chaos.

Jesus had authority over the powers and principalities, which enabled him to heal, restore and set free – because he obeyed his Heavenly Father in leaving the glory of heaven, to come to Earth and die on a cross. He maintained his authority because he lived a wholly righteous life. And as he died his obedient death, he continued to keep mastery over the powers of darkness: sin was overcome, death was defeated.

That is why Jesus was able to simply give the word for the servant to be healed. Obedience. The Centurion knew that.

What do you, what do I, expect to achieve in this world? For God, for his Kingdom? Any power we have comes from obedience.  If we are not listening, hearing and following through on what we have been given to do, then we cannot expect to have the power to bring healing, flow in the gifts of the Spirit, or achieve anything. There is a requirement to do what he says. Repent. Live righteously. Love God. Love your neighbour. Make disciples. Pray. Rejoice. Love one another. Be filled with the Spirit…

And then those things that he has specifically spoken to us as individuals. The things we plan to get round to sometime.

If we are lacking power, could it just be that we need to follow through on what he’s told us to do?

Matthew 8:5-13

Matthew 8:5-13

Embarrassing bodies and more

I’ve been in plenty of healing meetings where there’s been a call for anyone with back problems to come forward for healing. Knees, shoulders, elbows get their fair amount of coverage too. I’ve never heard a speaker announce, “I feel there’s an anointing for healing from impotence.” Or Aids or constipation. Yet don’t those people need God’s touch just as much?

It was probably about as socially acceptable for the man with leprosy to present himself to Jesus, in the midst of a very large crowd (Matthew 8:1-4) as for someone to shout out their need for healing from gonorrhoea. Yet this man was desperate. Desperate enough to ignore the social stigma and risk severe punishment.

As well as compassion, Jesus had an agenda in healing this leper. It had begun way back in Moses’ time, when God gave long and precise instructions of what the priests were to do when someone got healed from leprosy – see Leviticus 14. But as far as I know, no priest had ever got to use this lengthy piece of legislation, since leprosy was incurable – until this moment. Jesus wanted the priests to understand that God had planned for this centuries before; that God was on the move, that Messiah had arrived. Other versions of this story in Mark and Luke tell us that the healed man did not obey, so the priests missed that opportunity.

That aside, this man did not allow social dogma to govern his actions. He knew his need, and went directly to Jesus. I wonder how much courage it took to engage Jesus, to challenge his willingness to engage with a social outcast.

There are few of us who don’t have some issues we are embarrassed about. An unsavoury history. Skeletons in the cupboard. Relatives who flout the norms. An unmentionable health issue. A bad habit. Needs… Things we don’t feel able to share with others. Things we most certainly would not like to be made public. And neither should we feel pressurised to do so.

One thing is certain. Jesus was willing. He reached out towards the man,  engaged with him, healed him, wanted to use his testimony. The stigma was irrelevant. Jesus wanted to bring change to this man’s life.

Whatever our issues, Jesus is not embarrassed to deal with them. He is willing to touch every area of our lives we are willing to entrust to him.

Matthew 8:1-4

Matthew 8:1-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

Survival methods for life dwellers

Bad things happen to good people. They also happen to bad people, at about the same rate. I hate that children get sick and that disasters happen. I hate divorce, poverty, unemployment and all the other ills of life. But they happen anyway – to all of us, in one way or another.

Jesus never promised an easy life. In fact he assumed that life would be tough. Take this parable in Matthew 7:24-29

Matthew 7:24-29

Matthew 7:24-29

The expectation was that attack would come from all sides – rain pitching, floods rising, gales blowing on wise and foolish alike. The difference wasn’t in what happened to them, but in the spadework they’d put into life. That’s what affected the outcome.

In the Galilee area, stream beds dried up in summer, leaving a tract of land that looked to the unknowing newcomer a very convenient location for building. But of course, when winter came the water would reclaim its territory. The locals would recognise the stupidity of such plans. They knew that if you wanted a house to survive all climates, you had to put much effort into its foundations.

Crowds would gather wherever Jesus stopped to tell his stories. It was easy listening for the most part. A rest from work, sociable, lots of humour, miracles from time to time, even the odd free lunch. Who wouldn’t want to stop by and listen? So long as you didn’t take it too seriously.

But listening wouldn’t help, Jesus said, when the going got tough. You had to put the words into practice. That was, and still is, the only remedy against succumbing when disasters come along in life.

Going to church never saved anyone. Being there, one of the crowd, listening to what the preacher says is not enough. Even reading the bible for yourself won’t do the trick on its own. The words have to go deep inside to the point where they change what you do, how you live life, your language, your attitudes, how you press on in faith. When the storms of life come – and no-one is immune – the ones who cope are those who have absorbed and fed on the Word of God, anchoring their lives, obeying.

Lord make me hungry for your Word. Help me dig deep, so it affects every area of my life, that I may hold fast to you when storms come, and know your peace in every situation. 

The real deal

I must be the luckiest person alive! Some person in Africa that I don’t even know, has emailed to tell me that he’s going to give me buckets of money if I just let him have my personal and bank details. How good is that!?! Don’t worry, I’ve spotted the con. But they are getting more sophisticated, and sometimes I’ve really had to read carefully to check it isn’t something genuine. The best clue generally, is that if it looks too good to be true, then it almost certainly is (too good to be true).

A bit like the false prophets Jesus talked about in Matthew 7:15-23.

They were the ones who were trying to lead people down an easy-looking path: a very attractive form of religion with a comfortable life style and not too many challenges. The problem with easy religion is that it doesn’t develop your character. It doesn’t challenge and change you into the best ‘you’ you can be. So, if you want to know if what someone is preaching is true, take a look at their life. If you can see the fruit of the Spirit all over them – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control – then they are the genuine article. Rub them up the wrong way and see what comes out. That’s the test.

Scary thought. What happens in me when I’m rubbed up the wrong way? When I’m kept waiting, or treated rudely, or unfairly – how’s my self-control then?

When we hear the message of salvation preached, be sure it is no easy sell. The wonderful news is that it costs absolutely nothing to become a Christian – Jesus paid the price for all our wrongdoing once and for all on the cross. That is absolutely true. But, it costs you everything to BE a Christian. God expects a life surrendered to him – that is what Jesus paid the price for. The contractual obligation, actually. Anything less is not honouring our side of the bargain.

Jesus never promised an easy life – just read his parting words in John 15 and 16. “In this world you will have trouble…” But he did promise to be with us, and to empower us to bear good fruit even in difficult times, through his Spirit.

If your Christian life is easy, are you sure you’re on the right path? Short-changing God is not the way to go.

Matthew 7:15-23

Matthew 7:15-23

 

Going counter-flow

There was this 3-hour evening course I really fancied, and invited my friend to come to tea, then to the course with me, and I’d drop her back home at the end. Good plan. But I hadn’t figured on the weather. She lives in a tiny village at the top of a steep hill served only by single-track winding lanes. And as we worked away on the course, the snow set in. And she needed to get home that night. I hate driving narrow lanes at the best of times – give me a motorway any day! I battled my way up against the blizzarding snow, dropped her home, then slithered down again, terrified of meeting another vehicle on its way up. So glad was I to finally meet the main road!

Jesus talks about main roads and narrow lanes in Matthew 7:13-14.

Matthew 7:13-14

Matthew 7:13-14

I always used to wonder why God made the right way so difficult. But that is 21st century western thinking. Back in Jesus’ day, what made the difference between a track and a main highway? The number of people that used it. Much trampling of many feet caused the ground to be beaten down, the grass to stop growing and the hedgerows to be pushed back. It’s easy to travel where so many have gone before. The right road is more challenging because it’s less travelled.

So I suppose these couple of verses have a simple enough meaning – if most people are doing it, then don’t. Jesus often saw people like sheep – all following one another. Going counter-flow is what is needed; not for its own sake, but because we have listened to God, heard his instructions and obediently followed his directives.

I’ve been re-reading Brother Andrew’s God’s Smuggler. What has impressed me most was his sheer dependence on God. I don’t see those sort of provision miracles simply because I don’t have those needs. I don’t put myself in those risky places. Is that because God hasn’t asked me to do anything exciting, or because when he has, I haven’t listened? Or maybe my ‘counter-flow’ is a different shape, not so dangerous, but challenging all the same.

The important lesson here, is that we don’t get stuck in the rut carved out by others; that we hear God’s directives for our own lives, and follow them wherever they lead. That’s what makes it exciting!

What do you want?

My family know all too well I have one enormous failing. I am an absolutely awful person to buy gifts for. I don’t do fancy stuff, and I’m pretty low maintenance. I dread the question, “Mum, what do you want for your birthday?” It’s not good. They want to bless me, make me smile, give me something I’ll enjoy, and I can’t think of anything I need!

God has loads of gifts he wants to give us. What do you want? Don’t waste your time asking for tacky stuff. And in this passage, Matthew 7:7-12, I don’t think Jesus was talking about basic essentials. No this is about the really valuable, precious gifts. And it’s for something you really, really want. Begging for it, hunting it down, hammering on the door for it.

Matthew 7:7-12

Matthew 7:7-12

The difficulty we have, is that, like me, we don’t know what we want, so we don’t desperately seek it out. There’s a list of some of the gifts available to us in 1 Corinthians 12.

1 Corinthians 12:8-11

1 Corinthians 12:8-11

And we can be fooled into thinking that we just have to wait and see what gift(s) the Holy Spirit chooses to impart to us. But look down the page to the end of the chapter. The gifts are placed into an order of seniority, and we are commanded to ‘EAGERLY DESIRE the greater gifts’.

And so we come back to Matthew 7 – God has good gifts for us, and we must beg for them, hunt them down, and hammer on Heaven’s door. We can be assured that he will never give us anything that will harm us, for he is a good Father, and knows how to give good gifts. So there’s nothing to fear there.

Take a look through that list of gifts. What do you want? What do you really want? You aren’t restricted to just one gift. What restricts me, and probably most of us, is the wanting. We don’t do enough of it. And we don’t do it eagerly. We’re aware that gifts come with a responsibility. Using them. The parable of the talents makes that clear enough (Matthew 25:14-30). We need to shake off that lethargy. It holds us back from all God has for us.

God has only good gifts for us. Ask for them, seek them, hammer for them, with everything you’ve got. What do you want?

 

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