Story 160: The Triumphal Entry of a Weeping King

Matthew 21:1-11; 14-17; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-10

Church of St. Anne - Palm Sunday

The Lord Jesus and His disciples began their trek from Bethany to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast.  Jesus had raised His friend, Lazarus from the dead only a few days before.  Multitudes of people who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast had gone to Bethany to see Lazarus and Christ.  It was the talk of the nation.  It confirmed to the religious leaders that Jesus had to die.  Now as Jesus and His disciples made their way back to the City of David, the crowds followed them with all the clamor and excitement of high expectations.  What was Jesus going to do when He arrived?  Would there be more miracles?  What would He say to their leaders?

When they arrived at Bethphage, which was on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of the disciples on ahead. There were special preparations that had to be made. For you see, the events of this day were going to have a high and holy meaning. Events that were predicted hundreds of years in the past would finally come true.

Jesus gave two disciples very specific directions. He said:

“‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her upon which no person has ever sat. Untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.’”

Matthew 21:2-3 and Mark 11:2b

 The disciples went off and did just as the Lord had said. They found the animals tied to a door outside in the street. When they began to untie them, some people standing nearby with the owners asked, “‘Why are you untying them?’”

The disciples said, “‘The Lord has need of them,’” just as Jesus had told them. The owner gave them permission to take the creatures. The disciples lead the donkey and her colt out to Jesus on the Mount of Olives.   Little did they understand the significance of what they were a part of. In fact, it was only after Jesus ascended into Heaven that they would think back on this day and realize the great prophecy they had taken part in. For you see, in Zechariah 9:9, the prophet said:

“‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!

Behold, your King is coming to you,

righteous and having salvation is He,

humble and mounted on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

Zech. 9:9, ESV

These verses are a part of Zechariah’s description of a time when the King of Israel would see that His people were deeply afflicted. God would move in power on behalf of His people to deliver them. After complete and final victory over their enemies, their righteous King would ride into Jerusalem in victory. His conquest would bring peace not only for Israel, but for all the nations of the world. He would be the perfect, ideal ruler, like nothing the world had ever known. He would also be humble. Though He was mighty, He would submit with perfection to the King of Creation, honoring the Most High God with His reign.

Obviously this King would be no ordinary man. These were prophecies of the coming Messiah. As Jesus operated in absolute obedience to the will of His Father, God carried out His plans in perfect unison with the things He had foretold in His holy Word.

As the disciples led the donkey and her colt to Jesus, they had no idea they were swept up in the Great Unfolding of Zecheriah’s words. They just obeyed. When they arrived, they lay their garments across the back of the colt. Jesus sat on the young creature, and they began their procession into the City of David.

As Christ and the multitudes with Him moved towards the high walls of Jerusalem, the great crowds inside the city heard that Jesus was on His way. They began cutting the branches of palm trees to wave for the royal procession. Then they rushed out to receive the One they had been waiting for. Imagine their joy and excitement as they all began to shout out praises from their sacred book of worship:

“‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’”

Psalm 118:26

 The crowds that had followed Jesus and the disciples from Bethany walked along behind Jesus as He rode on the colt. They had watched Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, and they were full of hope for the great things that He would do. Pretty soon, the masses from Jerusalem joined them in one great throng of vibrant energy and celebration as Christ rode the hill up into the City. The people began laying their cloaks and garments out on the road ahead of Him. It was an act of humble submission. They were physically showing their homage to the Man they were calling their King.

Imagine the fervor and joy! Thousands of years of national longing was pouring out in a lavish display of thankful praise. They had seen the miracles! They had heard the stories of His powerful works! The Great Day had arrived!

The entire city was alive as even more people rushed out to see the Man who had raised Lazarus from the dead.

The religious leaders heard the commotion and joined the throng of jubilation. When they heard the people give praise to Christ as King, they began to grumble to one another. “‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after Him!’”

Then some of the Pharisees went to Jesus as He rode through the shouts and praise of the crowd. “‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!,’” they demanded.

Jesus looked back at them and declared, “‘I tell you, if they kept quiet, the stones will cry out!’”

Jesus was not only the King of Israel, He is King of the universe, and every part of it is called to worship Him!

But even as the Lord rode through the excitement and clamor, He was flooded with a deep, inner sorrow. He looked up at the great walls of Jerusalem, the City of God’s special choosing, and wept, saying:

“‘If you, even you, had only known what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you in the ground, and you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’”

Luke 19:42-44

This terribly sorrowful saying was a prophecy. “If only you had known what would bring you peace.” Consider the sorrow of Jesus, reconciling His rejection with the vast and breathtaking consequences that were to come. The city of Jerusalem was going to be so devastated that every building would be crushed to the ground. But Jesus was not only mourning the future of Jerusalem. He was mourning the future of the whole nation. Jerusalem was the capitol, where God had set His special, intensified presence on earth. It was also a symbol for Israel, His treasured possession.

Even now as the people joined in wild celebration, Jesus knew what lay ahead. This moment of righteous glory would not last long. The nation that refused to repent through the Lord’s years of wondrous ministry would not stand with the Messiah in the end, either. The consequences would be great. Within the lifetime of the children who walked the streets of Jerusalem that day, the Roman army would come. When they were finished brutalizing the City and its people, there would be nothing left to call a city. The nation of Israel would disappear from the face of the earth for thousands of years.

With the rejection of their Messiah, the Jewish people were about to choose the ways of God’s enemy over the way of God’s righteous plan. And so the Lord would give them their way. Instead of having this humble King on a colt, they would have the malicious ways of the world, and it would devour them. The mighty Roman Empire would crush them. The depths of grief in this Son of David, this Son of God’s holy love, must have been great as He wept on His way into his City.

Picture the moment…the eloquent mourning of the King for the deep tragedy ahead in the midst of the jubilant crowds, waving their palms.

Yet in the midst of the disaster that faithless Israel was bringing upon themselves, Jesus carried a much deeper hope. He would have victory in spite of their betrayal.   It would be nothing like what they were hoping for. Through His perfect life, Jesus had been conquering the powers of sin and death by making the way to become the perfect, spotless Lamb. Now the time of His sacrifice was upon Him.

The grandeur of what He was going to do was far more vast and deep and high than anything they could comprehend. His deliverance was not for the nation of Israel alone. It was not merely for all the nations on earth for all time. Jesus had come to redeem the entire created order! His death would purchase the entire universe. He would make all things new!

As the throngs of people entered Jerusalem with their Messiah, they had no idea of the greatness of what they were celebrating. But the ruckus they caused stirred the rest of the city. “‘Who is this?’” was asked as the loud parade made its way inside the walls.

“‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth!’” the crowds proclaimed back to them.

The crowds journeyed with Jesus all the way to the Temple. The blind and the lame were there among the people, and an outpouring of healing came through Christ, making them whole and strong. What a delight and absolute thrill to watch men and women who were bound up and deformed jump up and dance and sing! What a marvelous party they were having, right on the steps of God’s holy Palace! The children were so swept up in the excitement that they were jumping and crying out with happy exaltation, “‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’”

In the midst of this unimaginably boisterous and absolutely appropriate happiness, the religious leaders and Pharisees grew bitter with indignation.‘Do you hear what they are saying?’” they demanded to Jesus “. They were red hot mad. The people were calling Him the Messiah, and Jesus wasn’t doing anything to stop them. It was as good as if Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah Himself.

Fortunately, Jesus was the Messiah, so He told them, “‘Yes! Have you never read:

‘From the lips of children and infants

You have ordained praise’”?

Wow. Now Jesus was quoting Psalm 8. If we read a little bit more of the Psalm, we will understand why this made the Jewish leaders even more angry:

“‘O Lord, our Lord,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens,

From the lips of children and infants

You have ordained praise.

because of your enemies,

to silence the foe and the avenger.’”

Psalm 8:1-2

 Jesus didn’t have to quote the whole Psalm to these men. They knew exactly what Jesus was saying. The children who give praise in these verses are giving praise to God Himself. Jesus was making it very clear that He was the divine Messiah. He was also making it clear that King David had foretold this very event.

The children were proclaiming the praise of Jesus against the religious leaders who had made themselves Christ’s enemies. These men should have led God’s nation to worship their Messiah. They had failed, and now the children cried out in their place.

Jesus spoke the truth boldly to them, and it was a kindness and a grace. There was still time, this was fair warning. They were on the wrong side of God’s holy plan. Would they repent?  They wouldn’t. They did just as the Psalm foretold. They were silenced in their rebellion, and they went away to plot once again about how to destroy the Son of the Living God.

The evening was drawing to a close on that remarkable day, so Jesus and His disciples left Jerusalem and went back to Bethany to stay for the night.

 

Story 159: Anointing and Honor: On Loving the Savior

Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 11:55-12:11

virgin mary

Everyone in Jerusalem was preparing for the Passover Feast. Pilgrims from all over Israel would begin to stream into the city. Jews and converts to Judaism from distant lands would travel to the City of David for the annual celebration. They came to purify themselves according to the Old Testament customs given by the Most High God Himself to Moses. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of setting up camp, buying provisions, visiting with family and going to the Temple, everyone was keeping an eye out for Jesus. Passover was only six days away.

Would the radical young preacher show up?

The Pharisees and the chief priests were well aware of the whispers. How it enraged them! But in the secret places of their high counsel, they were scheming and preparing for the coming of Jesus. They were making plans to seize Him. They knew it wouldn’t work to arrest Him in front of the crowds. He was far too popular, and He was too quick-witted. He always seemed to outsmart them and twist their own arguments around. They weren’t about to risk having to answer any of His questions in front of the people. They had to find some way to get a hold of Jesus when the crowds were not around. Once He was arrested and tried, it would be too late. The common people would have to accept the facts and let the Sanhedrin give Jesus His due punishment.

And so the orders went out. If anyone learned where Jesus was, they were to report it immediately to the religious leaders.

Meanwhile, Jesus and His disciples were in Bethany, just a few miles up the road from the City of David. This was the town of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was here that just a few days before, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. On the day of this particular story, they were in the home of Simon the leper…though he probably hadn’t remained a leper long after meeting Jesus.  The rag-tag band of the devoted friends of Christ were sharing a meal together.  Lazarus was there with them, reclining at the table, alive and well.  Imagine the conversations they had.

At some point during the meal, Lazarus’ sister Mary came into the room with an alabaster vial in her hand. It was filled with a pound of nard, which is a very expensive perfume. It was probably given to Mary as part of her dowry. She was meant to give it to her husband as a treasure for her marriage. Mary had found her treasure in Christ. She broke open the vial and began to anoint Jesus’ head. Imagine the quieting of the room with this beautiful motion. Imagine as the wonderful scent filled the air. Mary moved to Jesus’ feet, pouring the perfume out, bowing low on her knees to wipe them with her hair. Imagine her sweet humility as she came to her Lord with her whole devotion. She was pouring out the finest gift she could offer to the One who held her heart.

In the midst of this beautiful moment, some of the disciples grew indignant. Judas Iscariot grumbled, “‘Why this waste? Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and given to poor people?’”

Wow. That tells us the high value of Mary’s gift! Three hundred denarii would pay a laborer for a whole year. But Judas was not truly concerned for the poor. He was the disciple in charge of the moneybox, and he was stealing from it. He was reacting against her out of his own greed.

The disciples listened to Judas. He made sense. What about the poor? How could Mary be so frivolous? They began to scold her, but Jesus put it to a stop. “‘Why are you bothering this woman?’” He said:

“‘She has done a beautiful thing to Me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me. When she poured this perfume on My body, she anointed My body beforehand for the burial. She has done what she could. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’”

Matthew 26:10-13 and Mark 14:8

Wow. What a tender, loving Lord, so full of appreciation for her sacrifice. Though He is the Lord of all Creation, her offering mattered and she was honored. And the amazing thing is, we can look back now and see that His prophecy has come true. The story of Mary’s great devotion is recorded in three of the Gospels. It has been told all over the world for two thousand years. What a sorrowful and sacred privilege to be chosen to anoint the Savior in preparation for the day when He would offer up His life.

Did the words of Jesus about His coming death strike Mary in the heart? Did  His followers start to understand what was coming?

Meanwhile, the word went out that Jesus was in Bethany, and that He had just raised a man from the dead. This wasn’t the first time Jesus had performed such an amazing miracle, but this time, the man had been buried for several days. It was an impossible miracle, but so many people were there as eyewitnesses, it could not be denied.

Multitudes upon multitudes of people who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover began to make the journey to the little town of Bethany, just to get a glimpse of Jesus and Lazarus. Many who went to see Lazarus went away believing in Christ.

When the news got back to the chief priests, they called a counsel. As they discussed the new situation, they realized that Lazarus was living proof of a magnificent miracle. And there was no way they could disprove it. Too many people were there and saw it with their own eyes.

It is interesting that this didn’t make the religious leaders pause for a moment. Did they really want to kill a man that had raised someone from the dead? Did they want to mess with someone who showed such unimaginable power? What else could Jesus possibly do to convince them that He was the Messiah?

The religious leaders could have allowed this remarkable story to reconsider their plans. They could have rejoiced that one of Abraham’s children had been spared an earthly death. They could have totally and completely repented and declared that Jesus was the Messiah on the very steps of the Temple. But they didn’t. The religious leaders were too enflamed with their jealousy to be wise. This Jesus needed to die, and so did His friend.

Story 158: On Becoming A Many-Mina’ed Servant of God

Luke 19:11-28

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As the Lord Jesus moved from Jericho on the path to Jerusalem, the people wondered what would happen when He got there. Would He reveal Himself as the conquering Messiah?   Would He usher in the Kingdom of God? Would Israel have her final victory over the oppressive control of Rome?

Imagine the fervor of the people as they thought about what the days ahead might bring!

Miracles!

Victory!

Power!

Israel was the nation that had watched the Red Sea tumble down on the Egyptian chariots. Their ancestors saw God destroy the Assyrian army overnight!

But the people were missing something. The heroes in those stories…King Hezekiah and Isaiah and Moses…the great servants of the Lord…were heroes in the Bible because they listened to God. They waited on the Lord and obeyed.

Over and over again, Jesus had spoken of the coming days. The Lord was communicating His plans to His people, but they weren’t listening so they didn’t know how to obey. In fact, they were going to kill the Messenger!

Jesus knew what lay ahead for Him. The Father had purposed it before He made the world. But the people did not understand, and so Jesus told this parable. In some ways, the story is told in a way that cloaks His meaning with mystery. But in truth, anyone who sincerely pursued Jesus, who was listening intently, would find understanding, and that is exactly why Jesus told it this way. Only those with ears to hear would truly hear. This is what He said:

“‘A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. “Put this money to work,’” he said, “until I come back.”

“‘But his subjects hated him, and sent a delegation after him to say, “We don’t want this man to be our king.”

“‘He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

“‘The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina had earned ten more.”

“‘“Well done, my good servant’!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.”

“‘“The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more.”

“‘His master answered, “You take charge of five cities.”

“‘Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.”

“‘His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking what I did not put in and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?”

“‘Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.”

“‘“Sir,” they said, “he already has ten!”’”

“‘He replied, “I tell you that everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here to kill in front of me.”’”

Luke 19:12-27

Wow. In this parable, Jesus is the king. Against the hopes of the crowds and His own disciples, Jesus was letting them know He was going to go away for a time. That is what Jesus meant when He said He was going to a faraway city. He was going to die on a cross and rise again, and then He was going to ascend into Heaven. And just as He said in the parable, Jesus is coming back.

The point of the story is this: what will Jesus find when he returns? Will there be servants on the earth who have taken His generous gifts and used them for His glory?

Apparently, there will be! In the parable, there were two servants who took their mina and multiplied it. A mina is a coin that is worth about three months of a common laborer’s wage. The servants who used their mina to create more minas are an image of what God wants His people to be doing as we wait for His return. Will we work to take His gift and multiply it during our time on earth?

We can ask ourselves: How will we live, now that we have the precious gift of salvation? What will we do now that the Spirit of the Living God is inside us? How will we pray and seek the Word? How will we love others? Where will we proclaim the Gospel, telling the world the Good News about our coming King? As we step out in the small areas of faithfulness that God provides…the one mina…He will honor it with even greater responsibility and reward in Heaven!

Everyone who puts their faith in Jesus will spend their lives in eternity with Him. That alone is an unimaginably great gift. But there are degrees to the greatness of the reward that each of His servants will receive, and these depend on our faithfulness to Him in how we live our lives on earth.

The servant who did nothing with his mina had no thoughts about how he could work or labor for his King. As opportunities came, he turned away from them. He grumbled about the austere, high standards of the King, but in truth, he was lazy! The King had given him a very generous opportunity, but he groused around in self-pity while the other two men got to work.

And then he blamed his failure on God. In the story, he accused the king of being harsh.  Is that true? How did the king treat the men who had multiplied their minas? He gave them lavish and gracious rewards! But the man who had done nothing couldn’t see it. What a shameful way to abuse the blessings of the King!

In many ways, this is a dangerous temptation for followers of Christ. The Lord said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” He said, “Blessed are you when they persecute you.” If Jesus is our model for how to live, then life as His followers should show a radical separation from the ways of this world. But rising to faith and hard work means rising to value the things of God over the other options. In those things, Jesus is abundantly, powerfully generous. When He denies us the things of the world, it is to help us let go of them so we can long for the things of Heaven. The one-mina-man wanted nothing to do with heavenly things.

Jesus knew that there would be many followers to come who would be like the ten, five, and one-mina men. He also knew that as He headed into Jerusalem, there was another sort of man waiting for Him, full of venom and hate. The characters in this parable who followed the King to the far off kingdom to reject His leadership are an image of religious leaders who were plotting Jesus’ death. They believed that they had the power and authority to oust the King and decide who they wanted as their leader.

They were entirely mistaken and the judgment of the wicked will come to them and those like them.

We can see in history that one stage of that judgment has already happened. The city of Jerusalem would not last longer than the generation of men that put Jesus to death. The Romans would come and lay it to utter waste. The stories of that horrific time are recorded by Josephus, a Jewish historian.

But there is another time to come when Christ will fully judge those who reject His rule. It will not only be for the tyrants and evil men whose terrible deeds make us shiver as we read about the darkest moments of human history. Each person has been given authority and dominion over their little square of the world. Each of us has people who God has called us to love. We each have work that God has prepared for us to do. Will we act like little tyrants, managing our little worlds out of selfishness or fear? Or will we make our mina count for the name of Jesus Christ?

Story 157: Zaccheaus and the Glorious Indignity of Tree Climbing

Luke 19:1-10

Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall

It was the time of the Passover Feast for the nation of Israel. Over two thousand years before, God had brought the Hebrew people out of their slavery to the Egyptian Pharaoh. The Pharaoh had been given chance after chance to set God’s people free, but he had refused. The Lord sent frogs and gnats and hail and boils, but still the Pharaoh’s heart was hard against the will of the King of Creation. And so God brought the final judgment… God declared that He would reclaim the life of every firstborn son in the nation of Egypt. It was life that God had given in the first place, gifts of deep joy to the citizens of the nation who were oppressing His own chosen people. In response to the Egyptian king’s continued refusal to let the Hebrew people go, the Lord would withdraw the life He had given to sustain their firstborn sons.

In many ways this was a great reversal. The Pharaoh had been taking the lives of the firstborn sons of Israel so that their population would stay small and under his control. The difference was that he had no right to take these lives. It was murder, pure and simple. But the Lord, the Author of Life and the King of Eternity, sits in a very different position than that of a human king. The way we respond to God is supposed to be very different from how we think about human rulers. If we truly believe that He is Lord, if we commit to trust in His Word, if we recognize that there is a Creator who is the definer of wisdom and truth, then the only right response is to respect His choices and honor Him with obedience.  As He wisely governs over kings and nations, He can see things that we cannot, and His choices are beyond our comprehension. Our role is to simply trust Him.

In many cultures of the world today, it is taught that the human mind is the highest form of intelligence in the universe.  It becomes our job to figure out God, to decide if He is right or wrong, and if  He doesn’t measure up to our standard, we are taught we are wrong to believe in Him. While it is true that God has made humans in His image and that we are responsible to use our minds to discern right from wrong, the way we understand this has to come from God.  There is only One True Lord.  Humanity is far too messy, far too captive to their own needs and the power of their culture to be the final arbitrators of absolute truth.  The only Being great enough for that role is God Himself.

As we look out at all the other options in the world, there are many things we can put our faith in.  We can trust in our own abilities, in other people, in wealth or power, in our leaders or our nation, or in any one of the many religions that claim they are showing the way.  Or we can pray and ask the true and living God to reveal Himself to us and show us how to follow Him.  The Bible is where He tells His side of the story for humanity.

One of God’s major movements in history to bring us salvation came when He set the Hebrew people free from slavery to the Egyptian Pharaoh.  The night that the Lord would claim the lives of the firstborn sons of Egypt, He told the Israelites to sacrifice a  lamb and share it as a meal with their families. They were to take the blood of the lambs and put it on the doorposts of their homes. This act of faith would tell the Lord to pass over their homes and keep them safe from judgment (see Exodus 12).

The judgment of God came on the nation of Egypt in that long, dark night, and all the firstborn sons lost their lives…including the son of Pharaoh, the future king. In his grief, the Pharaoh finally agreed to let God’s people go.

God told Moses that His people were to commemorate that remarkable release from bondage every year in the great Feast of Passover.  And they did.

Over 1,500 years later, Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to celebrate that great Feast. Only this time, He would be the firstborn son who would bear the brunt of the judgment brought by the sin of humanity. He would be the Passover Lamb whose blood would bring protection from judgment for all who respond to God by faith. God had already planted deep in the heart of His people the images of and understanding of sin, judgment, and grace…images that would find their final resolution in the Person of Jesus Christ. The images that pointed to the coming of the Son of God were in their history…they were in their beloved symbols of faith and rituals and the pilgrimages that marked their calendar year.   Would the people of Jesus’ time have eyes to see what was unfolding before them?

As Jesus headed towards the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem, He was flanked by crowds of people. When they passed through the city of Jericho, a 45-mile distance from Jerusalem, everyone must have stopped to see what all the ruckus was about. The rumors of Jesus’ coming had probably preceded Him for days. Everyone wanted a peek at the Miracle Worker who was turning the nation upside down.

One of the men of Jericho was named Zaccheaus.  Zaccheaus was a tax collector, which meant he was doubly despised by the Jewish people. He was a pawn in the hand of the Roman government, collecting taxes for them from his own countrymen. Not only that, but he overcharged his fellow Jews, collecting more than necessary to line his own pockets. Zaccheaus’ work was especially wicked because he was chief over the other tax collectors. He oversaw the corruption that put heavy burdens on the people. Jericho was a major city on a major road, and he could demand a heavy toll.

But Zaccheaus had heard things about Jesus that were curious. It was said that the tax collectors and sinners were flocking to Jesus, and that He wasn’t turning them away. What could it mean? Was there hope for Zaccheaus, in spite of all that he had done?

As the crowd moved down the road, Zaccheus, who was very short, realized he would never get a good look at Jesus unless he got himself to a higher place. So he ran ahead of the mob and found a sycamore tree. He scrambled up onto the branches just as Jesus was about to pass by. When the Lord got there, He looked up and said, “‘Zaccheaus, hurry up and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’”

Wow! Can you imagine? With all the people around Him, and with all that was going on, Jesus was compelled to stop.

Have you noticed how often Jesus was moved by boldness? Whether it was the crying out of Bartemeaus, the bleeding woman who reached out and touched His cloak, the centurion who trusted Jesus to heal from miles away…or Zaccheaus casting aside his dignity to climb a tree…Jesus seems to have been compelled by those acts which fell outside the norm, those moments where someone’s need and faith compelled them to move past their usual ways, often at the risk of looking foolish.

When Zaccheus heard the words of Christ, he wasted no time.   He clamored back down the tree and welcomed Christ to his home joyfully.

When the Jews saw who Jesus was going to spend the evening with, they all began to grumble. How quickly their mood changed from praise to complaint! They hated Zaccheaus! “ ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,’” they said.

They could have asked Jesus why He was doing something that was so far from what their own religious convictions would tell them to do.  They could have waited to see what He was going to do.  But they didn’t.  Instead, they gossiped.

Jesus was not interested in obeying the crowds. He was loyal to the will of His Father, and God the Father knew a great work was happening in Zaccheaus’ heart.

Zaccheaus stood before Jesus and declared, “‘Look Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’”

Wow! What a beautiful picture of true repentance. Zaccheaus had turned completely around.  Imagine it. He was going to give away half of everything he owned…that might include selling houses and farms and gold. Imagine the wonderful things he would do for the poor.  Imagine how it would change their lives!

It was not only the poor whose lives would change.  Anyone that had felt the bite of his corruption was going to be blessed now...four times over.  This is the beauty of salvation at work.  This was the repentance Christ had been looking for as He traveled around the nation of Israel.  Zaccheaus’ heart was transformed by the Good News.

Jesus declared to Zaccheaus and the crowd, “‘Today salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.’”

Wow.  It might be easy to miss the power of what Jesus was saying here.  The Jewish people were very proud to be the descendants of Abraham, and rightly so.  It meant they were a part of God’s chosen people. This is the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon a nation.  But they did not consider tax collectors a part of their family. Zaccheaus showed by his repentant faith in Jesus that he truly was a member of Abraham’s family. And Jesus showed the Jews in a bright and beautiful way that God has a wealth of compassion and grace for all who believe.

You will notice that Zaccheaus did not tell Jesus, “I believe, but I’m not going to change anything. I’ll just keep right on robbing the people and living in sin.” When we come to the Lord, we need to come with humility and repentance.

Imagine how the world changes when we do that. Imagine how it blessed the poor and the people that Zacchaeus had once overcharged? They could pay their debts, feed their children, take care of their homes. They didn’t have to live in fear of the new tax season. The men that worked under Zaccheaus would learn to do their work without corruption. All that had been crooked and deceitful, the sin that caused so much damage, would become untwisted and straight. Greater peace would be brought to the people of Jericho and everyone that passed through.

This is one of the powerful ways that the Kingdom of God is established on earth.

It is easy to think of Jesus as serious and intense…because He often was. But imagine His joy at the party as they celebrated the change in the life of Zaccheaus.   In just a few days, Jesus would be heading for the cross, yet He took the time to celebrate this one transformed life.

In Hebrews 12:2, the Bible says that Jesus endured the cross and despised its shame because of the joy set before Him. On the other side of the cross, Jesus would be raised up to sit at the right hand of the Father, on the Throne of Heaven. And because of His sacrifice, people like Zaccheaus and you and me will be able to join Him there.  Our salvation was part of the joy that was set before Him.

Was the incredible gift He was about to win for Zaccheaus on His mind as they celebrated? Was the beauty of Zaccheaus’ transformation a comfort to Jesus…a reminder of the beauty of what He was about to do?

Story 156: Blind Bartemeaus

Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-19:10

 Christ healing sick and blind people. Stained glass.

The eyes of the whole nation were on Jesus, wondering what the unpredictable young preacher would do next. Everyone knew that the most powerful religious leaders in the land had turned against Him. They were looking for any excuse to get rid of Him. Yet there was such great authority in His teaching.  It was as if He took all the gross distortions and lies of humanity and made them right and true again.  What is more, His remarkable miracles seemed to fulfill the prophecies of old.  His works of healing and freedom for the broken were so powerful and beautiful that the crowds continued to be in awe of Him.  He couldn’t be silenced.

The Lord Jesus had traveled all over the nation of Israel, starting in the north, around the Sea of Galilee where He had grown up. He began by going to the synagogues, offering the religious leaders of Israel a chance to recognize that their Messiah had come. All they had to do was honor Him. And yet they didn’t. Their determination to protect their own positions of power and status and their own rules and traditions about what God meant in the Bible kept them from surrendering when God actually showed up. What an honor it would have been for them to be the generation of Israel that welcomed the Savior! But in clinging to the honors of this world, they lost the honors of eternity.

And so Jesus left the synagogues and began preaching out in the countryside, on the hills and plains where the crowds would come by the thousands to meet Him. He traveled to the towns and villages all across the land, reaching out towards those who hadn’t come to Him, preaching the Good News of His Kingdom all along the way.

Now the time of Jesus’ preaching ministry was coming to a close. The Passover Feast had come and the people of Israel would be making the pilgrimage to offer their sacrifices at the Temple.  They would bring their wheat and lambs, but Jesus would bring the ultimate sacrifice, He, Himself.  He was going to lay down His own life. Yet His sacrifice was not only for Himself or His family and it was not only for the generation in which He was living. It was for every generation that has ever lived. And for that, Jesus had to journey straight into the heart of danger…to the City of David, the great king and ancestor of Christ. Jesus would die outside the gates of King David’s city, and in doing so, He would make the way for the fulfillment of God’s covenant with David.

This is what God promised David a thousand years before Jesus came:

I have found David, My servant;

with My sacred oil I have anointed him.

My hand will sustain him;

surely My arm will strengthen him.

The enemy will not get the better of him;

the wicked will not oppress him.

I will crush his foes before him

and strike down his adversaries.

My faithful love will be with him,

and through My name his horn will be exalted.

I will set his hand over the sea,

his right hand over the rivers.

He will call out to Me, ‘You are my Father,

my God, the Rock, my Savior.’

And I will appoint him to be My firstborn,

the most exalted of the kings of the earth.

I will maintain My love to him forever,

and My covenant with him will never fail.

I will establish his line forever,

his throne as long as the heavens endure.

Psalm 89:20-29

By the time of Jesus, King David had been long dead and the king that then reigned over Jerusalem was Herod, a man of great folly and corruption. But the True King was coming to wage war on sin and death and the victory would be totally His.

Would the people understand? Would they worship the One who had come? Did they have the courage to acknowledge Him now as He journeyed towards Jerusalem?

When Jesus and His disciples arrived in Jericho, just forty five miles outside of Jerusalem, they had been joined by a great crowd on the way to the Passover Feast. How exciting it must have been to be journeying with this radical Preacher.

Imagine the sight of the energized multitudes converging on Jericho. Can you feel the hustle and bustle of people bumping up against each other, trying to get a look at Jesus, wondering to one another what He would do next?

As they went along, they came upon a blind beggar, who sat by the side of the road. His name was Bartemaeus, and he was the son of Timaeus. When he heard the crowds coming, he asked what all the noise was about. They told him that it was Jesus of Nazareth, coming his way.

As soon as Bartemaeus heard that, he began to cry out, “‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

People began to rebuke him harshly, telling him to shut his mouth, but Bartemaeus refused. It only made him shout out even louder than before: “‘SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME!!!’” Wow! That is the power of perseverance!

Jesus heard him. In the midst of the throng and the forward motion of the crowd, He stopped. “‘Call him here,’” He said. The people called out to Bartemaeus and said, “‘Take courage, arise! He is calling for you!’”

The second he heard that, Bartemaeus threw off his cloak, jumped up, and ran straight to Jesus.

Jesus asked, “‘What do you want Me to do for you?’”

“‘Rabboni,’” Bartemaues implored, “‘I want to regain my sight!’”

The Lord Jesus touched his blind eyes and said, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.’”

Bartemaeus’ sight came back instantly. Imagine how he felt as the light came flooding in!

Sit for a minute and imagine all the ways his life would change.  He would see the blue sky again.  He would be able to look on the faces of the people he loved.  He would be able to work and provide for himself and his family.  The days where he had to stumble around and be led from place to place were over.

But that was not the only healing that took place. His faith in Jesus had brought the far greater healing of his heart and soul as well. He was saved!

As Jesus began to walk forward with the throng of people, Bartemaeus followed along, giving glory to God and praising Him with outrageous joy.  When the crowds saw the jubilant happiness of Bartemaeus and realized what had happened, they were amazed and gave praise to God as well.

There is so much richness in this story that is easy to see just by reading it through the first time. But the amazing thing about God’s stories is that we can never go deep enough…there is always more treasure to find if we only dig a little deeper. One of the tools we can use to dig are questions about the story. We can pay closer attention to what happened in the story by asking: What did each character say and do at each stage of the story? What choices did they make…and what other choices could they have made? And what were the impact and consequences of these choices?

For example, the crowd that was so excited to be traveling with Jesus were also very quick to try to shut up Bartemaeus.  Their reaction to him was very different from the response of Christ.  What do we learn about the people who showed such contempt for a blind beggar seeking the attention of a spiritual leader?  They seemed to like the idea of the radical nature of Jesus’ teachings and healings, yet in the practical outworking in daily life, they found it rather inconvenient.  But for Jesus, His radical words matched His radical way of life.

Or think about what Bartemaeus did when he learned that Jesus was in the crowd.  He immediately began crying out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Why did he choose to call Jesus the Son of David? Didn’t Bartemaeus know that it was dangerous to say that he believed that Jesus was the Messiah? What if the religious leaders found out? What if one of them was there in the crowd, taking notes? Bartemaeus could have chosen to cry out the name of Jesus instead. It would have been safer. But he chose to declare Jesus for who He was.  Blind Bartemaeus could see what so many others refused to see, and he was bold in faith and proclamation.

Jesus had many choices, too. He was bearing the greatest burden any human has ever had to carry…and He was walking towards the greatest suffering any human ever had to experience. Yet when He heard Bartemaeus cry out in faith, it compelled Him to stop. The whole force of the movement of the crowd was going forward; the people themselves thought Bartemaeus was a nuisance.  The disciples were there and they didn’t do anything to help him.  But Christ stopped everything to show him mercy.

There are many times in life when the people in our lives…the crowds…may fail to see what God is doing. Sometimes these people will be among the Lord’s most faithful followers.  But if the Lord has given us sight…if we have a chance to declare the Son of David…if there are ways we need to cry out for His mercy…then Blind Bartemaeus, the beggar, is our model. We are never too inconvenient for the Lord, and He will stop everything to respond to the cry of faith.

Story 155: Heading Towards Jerusalem

Matt. 20:17-28; Mark 10:35-45

Jerusalem

Jesus was headed for Jerusalem. As they walked along the road, He strode with determination to move towards His task ahead. The disciples were amazed and full of fear. Everyone knew the rumors about the plans of the Sanhedrin. Jerusalem had become a dangerous place. Something seemed to loom over them as they drew nearer and nearer to the City of David. The national tension was building as everyone waited to see how the story of the radical young preacher would play out. In the midst of it all, Jesus set His face like a flint towards the capitol and journeyed on. How could He face such danger so steadfastly?

At one point in their journey, Jesus took the twelve disciples aside. Once again, He tried to warn them about what was going to happen. For Him, it was clear as day. He said:

“‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled…

“‘…He will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death.

“‘He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him, and kill him. On the third day, he will rise again.’”

Wow. Jesus knew exactly, exactly what was about to happen. How? Well, He read the Word and understood the prophecies. He also had the Holy Spirit guiding and leading His understanding. The Spirit revealed the plans of His Father to Him, and He trusted His Father to carry them through. God was entirely in control of the unfolding situation. The Sanhedrin and all of the other characters that would play a part in the story were moving to accomplish God’s will, whether they meant to or not.

The Lord was going to use even the darkest evil in the hearts of men to bring about His good and perfect plan.

But even as Jesus explained the coming events in detail, His disciples didn’t get it.

Was the thought of Jesus’ death too terrible to think about? Or was His declaration that He would rise from the dead too strange to comprehend? All the disciples could seem to grasp was the vision of the conqueror, the Messiah who would come to rule and reign. THAT was the mission they wanted to join! That was the Son of Man they wanted Jesus to be.   They could think of little else.

Imagine the chatter between the band of disciples and faithful followers who went everywhere with Jesus. Were they guessing how Jesus might take His seat of power? Were they hoping for even grander miracles than the ones they had already seen? How did they think He was going to squash the Roman Empire?

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to go back in time and join them for a mile or two as they walked towards Jerusalem?

At some point in their journey, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus. Now, this woman was not only the mother of two of Jesus’ closest disciples. She was also Jesus’ aunt. As she and her two sons came to Jesus, she got down and bowed before him. It was a sign of request. For you see, she was about to ask Jesus for something big. Her sons said, “‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’”

Wow, that was a bold. What could they possibly be seeking? “‘What do you want me to do for you?’” Jesus asked.

Their mother answered, “‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at Your right and the other at Your left in Your kingdom.’”

Ah. So that was their goal! They were trying to secure positions of honor for themselves for the day when Jesus established His realm. And since they were headed for the nation’s capitol, it probably looked like that time was coming soon.

As Jesus spoke of His Kingdom, they assumed that He was talking about a day when He would sit on the throne of David. And Jesus never denied this, for some day it is going to happen. He will fulfill all the prophecies that tell of a day when a descendent of David will sit on an everlasting throne. But that time was thousands of years in the distant future! There was much work to be done in the meantime.

John and James and their mother had no eyes to see the things that would come before the glorious time of Christ’s absolute rule. All they knew was that if the twelve disciples were going to sit on thrones and judge the nation of Israel, these two wanted to be the ones sitting on the thrones of highest honor.

Surely John and James had good reason to believe that they would be so highly chosen. They were His cousins after all! And while Jesus had His twelve disciples, He had an even closer, inner circle of three, and these two brothers were a part of it. Yet this grasping ambition was far from the ways of Christ. They were busy seeking the way to be first. They did not hear Jesus when He said that the last will be first and the first will be last.

Jesus answered them, “‘You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’”

One way the Bible describes God’s sovereign work is through the symbol of a cup. The cup holds God’s divine plan for a person or a group of people that He pours out on their lives. Sometimes it is a cup of blessing. At other times it is the cup of God’s wrath against sin.   Jesus knew what was ahead on the cross. Before He became the crowning glory of God’s Kingdom, He knew the cup of God’s wrath would pour out on Him, bringing Jesus unimaginably great suffering. The agony we should rightly bear for our rebellion and rejection of God would be bourn by God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. It would be the most stunning victory in the history of humanity…but in the days ahead for James and John, it would look like a devastating defeat. Would James and John want to follow Him there?

They answered, “‘We can.’”

Jesus knew their great weaknesses. But He also knew what would happen after His great conquest. His death and resurrection would win the way for His Holy Spirit to come to James and John and empower them. They would be given the strength to sacrifice the things of this life in order to live for God. He would make the way so that they could become like Him. So He said:

“‘You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for Me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.’”

Wow. Jesus knew what His life and death would mean for His disciples for the rest of their lives on earth. They would drink His cup of suffering. John alone would live on to be persecuted. He would watch the Church grow even as all of the other disciples lost their lives for the sake of the Gospel. John would end up exiled on an island because of His loyalty to Jesus. He would write five books of the Bible before the Lord took Him home, including the last one that tells us what happens when Christ returns.

As you read the words of Jesus, do you sense how He had a much bigger picture than everyone around Him? They were confined to the smaller landscape of things that were happening in their own time. But through the power of the Spirit, Jesus could understand His purposes for all time, and even beyond! He lived with the constant awareness of a far better life ahead in eternity. He was returning to His Father to sit on an everlasting throne, and His disciples would join Him. His Father had purposes for each of them in this life. He also has a plan for each of them in their everlasting life, but those plans are still hidden in the mystery of His wonderful will. The amazing thing is that we will be there to see it!

When the other disciples found out what James and John had asked for, they were annoyed. All of their competitiveness and pride came roaring to the surface. James and John had tried to get an upper hand over them in the Kingdom…and they tried to use their family ties to Jesus to get it! How quickly the disciples descended into the ways of grasping, sinful men. Surely if God could be trusted, He could be trusted about this! Yet they did not trust. And now they were divided. Was this how the leaders of God’s people were meant to act? They were starting to look like the Pharisees! Jesus said to them:

“‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.’”

Matthew 20:25b-28

Wow. Everything in God’s Kingdom was upside down! Actually, everything in God’s Kingdom is right side up, and the things of this world are upside down. In most societies, servants and slaves are constantly laboring to care for everyone else, but they receive the least pay, have the lowest status, and often receive very little kindness.   Anyone who lives with that kind of humility in Christ’s Kingdom is the very greatest of all. And as Jesus prepared to lay down His life for the world, He became the perfect model of that greatness.

Story 154: On Joining or Resenting the Generosities of God

Matthew 20:1-16

Vineyard at sunset in autumn harvest.

Jesus had a way of turning everything upside down. When the disciples tried to block the crowds from troubling Him with their children, Jesus not only told them to let the children come to Him…He told them that they needed to become more like the children! When the young, rich, and influential came to Jesus, He didn’t tell declare that their wealth was evidence of God’s favor…He told them to walk away from it altogether!

That might have been comforting for His disciples because they had left everything to follow Jesus. When Peter pointed this out, Jesus said that it was true. The reward for the choice of His disciples to walk away from their former lives and follow Him would bring them great treasures in this life and the next.

But that reward was not for them alone. Jesus went on:

“‘I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields-and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.’”

Mark 10:29-31

Did you notice that Jesus describe great blessings in this life and the one to come?

As the disciples listened to Jesus teach, they believed that what He said was truth. In fact, their hope and future depended on what He said. They had not only left everything because they took His words seriously, they had put themselves in great danger for His sake. The religious leaders were paying close attention to Jesus, looking for ways to silence Him. Surely they were paying attention to who His favored students were as well.

There was another great danger for the disciples, far worse than anything another human could bring against them.

What if in their great sacrifice for Jesus, their hearts grew just as proud and hard as the Pharisees?

What if they began to see themselves as better than everyone else and lord it over them? Jesus told them another parable:

“‘…the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.

“‘He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”

“‘“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.

“‘He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”

“‘When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers to pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going to the first.”

“‘The workers who were hired at the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when the those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These men who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of work and the heat of the day.”

“‘But he answered one of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have a right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

“‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’”

Matthew 20:1-16

As Jesus told this parable, He was talking to His disciples who had given up their lives to follow Him. They were like the first group of men that were hired to work in the field. The first workers would have toiled in sweat and discomfort as the blazing sun beat down on them from high in the noonday sky. As the hours went slowly by, their backs would ache and their arms would grow sore. Their clothes would grow dirty with sweat and dust. By the time evening came, they would be exhausted. The effort of their labor was a picture of what the disciples were giving to Jesus. They had already begun to make tremendous sacrifices for Him. Most of them would go on to die for the sake of His name. And though their offerings would greatly please God, it was nothing less than what they owed Him. God deserves every part of their lives and ours…Jesus brings us salvation for all eternity!

Many others would come along and put their faith in Jesus as well. They are like the men who came to work in the vineyards later in the day. They wouldn’t suffer, and their work would be short and quick. They started when the day was already cooling off, and they were finished almost as soon as they started. Yet they would receive the same wage as those who worked all day. That doesn’t seem fair, does it? How would you feel?

While Jesus’ disciples would serve Him in powerful ways, their faith and their strength to follow Him were actually gifts from God. The right attitude for them was grateful humility, not arrogance or demanding pride. If their hearts were right, they would rejoice in the generosity of their Master as He gave lavishly to others as well. Pettiness and competition have no place in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus repeated once again that those who are first will be last, and the last will be first. In His Kingdom; it is those who seek to serve that are honored in the eyes of God. When we humble ourselves before God by showing generosity and kindness to others, we are surrendering our natural selfishness to the hands of God. We are turning to His goodness and greatness with trust, finding our significance and hope in His love and power. Once we have let go of our own ambition and the need to prove ourselves and bring ourselves honor, we make the way for God to work. We are able to hear and see. But as long as we are worrying and jostling and pushing for our own way, we limit His work in our lives. We put ourselves in last place for spiritual growth.

Jesus was saying that in the end, we will be very surprised at who is most highly honored by God in Heaven. God will sift through all that we have done, looking for thoughts and actions that were pursued with a pure heart. He will be looking for everything about us that was infused with meekness and humility and mercy. Those are the true, eternal treasures that will last forever. Many who went about quietly and humbly on the earth doing the work of the Kingdom, whose names are long forgotten, will shine magnificently with God’s praise. And many who worked in the name of God, but sought their own glory and honor will find themselves last on the list for God’s rewards. May we seek the exalting grace of humility on earth so that our reward in Heaven will be great!

Story 153: The Priorities of God

Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17

Jerusalem - The paint of Jesus among the children

One of the best things about reading about Jesus is how surprising He often was.  He never seemed to do quite what His disciples, the religious leader, or even His family, expected.  It is as if His straight and perfect path, the one that absolutely honored the goodness of God, kept rubbing up against the crooked confusions and deceptions that the rest of humanity fall into and live out of.  The story for today is one of those stories.  It is famous because it is beautiful, and it has the power to help us reset what we think is important with what God says is important.

In the midst of Jesus’ teachings, some of the people started bringing their children to Him so He could bless them. The disciples tried to stop the parents. Why bother the Lord with these kids? But when Jesus saw them come between Him and little ones, He rebuked His men. He said:

“‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’”

Mark 10:14b-15

Wow. Imagine that moment for a second. What was the expression in Jesus’ voice when He said this to His disciples?

Jesus took each of the children in His arms. He lay His hands on each one and blessed them, giving them His time and attention.

What do you think was the expression on His face when He looked at the children? Can you imagine His kindness, acceptance, and embrace? Can you imagine being one of those children, or bringing your own children to Jesus and watching His love for them?

It is interesting that Jesus taught us to call God our Father. That is what happens when we put our faith in Him. We become the children of God. The Lord Jesus is keeping the entire universe going (see Colossians 1:13-20). He knows how many hairs are on the head of every person in the world (see Matthew 10:29-31). Yet when you come to Him, He has the same response to you that He had towards those kids. You have His full attention.

Do you remember the story of the praying widow? Do you remember the story of the tax collector who cried out in humble repentance? The Lord honored them for how they came to God. Now children were the model for the relationship God wants to have with His faithful ones. When we talk about being childlike, we think of the sweet trust that we see in kids: the way they seek out the help of adults, depend on them, take them by the hand, freely express their love and freely express their need for love. Childlikeness is one of the most disarming and tender things in the universe, and it has a powerful effect on the heart of God.

As Jesus began to journey on, a young man came running up to Him. He was from a very rich family who were rulers in the nation of Israel. As he drew near, he knelt down in front of Christ and said, “‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”

Jesus answered, “‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good, if you want to enter life, obey the commandments.’”

“‘Which ones?’” the ruler asked.

Jesus said, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The young man said, “‘All of these I have kept.’”

Jesus looked at him and was filled with a great love for him. Then He said, “‘One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow Me.’”

Wow! What a bold thing to ask of someone! Yet what an amazing privilege. What a glorious invitation! Jesus had been among thousands upon thousands of people as He travelled all over Israel. Yet the only other times we see Him inviting someone to follow Him was when He invited the disciples.

Yet when the young man heard him, the excitement on his face fell to disappointment. He rose up and walked away sad. The cost was too high. For you see, he was tremendously wealthy with great properties, and he couldn’t let them go. Not even for Jesus.

What a heartbreaking story. This young man could confidently proclaim that he had earnestly obeyed the Law of God. He was truly devout, and since Jesus believed him, we can be sure he was being honest. The Spirit didn’t warn Him otherwise. All of those Laws from the Old Testament were given to the Jewish people to prepare them for the coming of Jesus, their Messiah. Yet now that this young man stood there, face to face with the Lord, he faltered.

It is interesting that when Jesus learned that the young man had truly obeyed the words of Scripture, He was filled with love for him. Obedience, purity, seeking after righteousness…while we will never be perfect in any of these things as we walk this crooked world, we can have the deep joy of knowing that our efforts profoundly delight the heart of Christ.

Imagine walking away from the Lord after seeing that look of love in His eyes. Imagine the heaviness of heart, the disappointment in himself…the stark, new awareness of what was really important to him.

This story can be a powerful moment for each of us to consider what our choice would be if we were faced with the same decision. All that we have is from the Lord. If He asked you to give it all up to follow Him into some new obedience, what would you do?

As Jesus and the disciples watched him walk away, the Lord said, “‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven!’” How sorrowful Jesus must have felt to watch the young man leave. Yet He understood the heart of humanity caught in the grip of “having things.”

The disciples were stunned! The Jewish people of their day believed that the rich were wealthy because they were good. They assumed that God had blessed them because they were better than everyone else. This can often be true today as well. How often do people assume that someone who is rich or talented or powerful is so because they are better, smarter, or more spiritual than everyone else?

Yet here was Jesus, speaking with total authority about why things work the way they do. He almost made it sound like wealth was an unhappy burden! How could that be?

Well, the character and emotional strength of most men and women is too weak to withstand the temptations of wealth. It is intoxicating and deceiving. Their money and property and ease, the social status and influence and lack of want that it brings, are like a bondage that keeps them from living for God’s Kingdom, which is where true, living wealth really exists. Jesus understood the vast splendor of God’s Kingdom. He understood how impoverished this world is by comparison. From God’s perspective, anything that keeps someone from the wealth of Heaven is crippling.

Think about how freely a child is able to come to Jesus! Think how desperately the widow knew her need…the tax collector’s repentance was beautiful next to the reluctance of this rich young ruler (see Story 151 for both stories). The freedom of a child, the desperate dependence of the widow, and the humble repentance of the tax collector are the signs of true, heavenly wealth. They are gifts from the Lord, great treasures that aid His children in coming to Him with right hearts. In God’s view, people that are rich in this world are often very poor. But those who know their need for God and cling to His hope are bathed in eternal riches!

Jesus went on:

“‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’”

Matthew 19:23b-24

Wow. Do you know how big a camel is? They can weigh over 1,500 pounds! Jesus picked the biggest animal that could be found in Israel. Do you know how small the eye of a needle is? It is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle! The disciples were shocked to hear this. “‘Who, then, can be saved?’” they asked. If even those they had grown up believing to be the people on the fast route to salvation were hopeless, what chance was there for anyone else?

‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” Jesus answered.

Then Peter jumped in and said, “‘We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?’”

Jesus’ answer is absolutely stunning. If we really read it, and we really think about what it means, it is a breathtaking truth:

“‘I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’”

Matthew 19:28

Wow. After all of Jesus’ teaching about how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, this must have been a great relief! Not only were His disciples going to be welcomed into eternal life, they were going to have commanding roles to play! What Peter said was true, he and the other disciples had left everything. They had stood by Jesus even when the most powerful men in the land were plotting to have Him killed. They served long hours with no pay, allowing their faith and knowledge to be challenged every day as they walked in the presence of the Son of God and confronted all of their own misconceptions and confusion. And for them, there would be a magnificent reward.

Can you picture it? At the end of days, God is going get rid of the Curse completely and make all of Creation brand new. At that time, the Lord’s twelve disciples will sit on their own thrones and act as judges over their nation. Wow. They had not left their homes and lives for nothing. Their reward would be far more than they could ask or imagine.

Story 152: Sacred Romance

Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12

Couple holding hand at sun rise

As Jesus finished His astonishing teachings about prayer (see Story 151), He moved on from the region in the north and worked His way through Perea. He journeyed as far as the region of Judea, on the far side of the Jordan.   Still the crowds gathered around Him, and He went on healing one person after another. Imagine the people as they watched His glorious miracles, the shouts from thrill and amazement as broken people were made whole! Imagine them listening intently to His teaching.  Surely nothing like this had been seen in Israel for hundreds of years. Who could this Man be?

In the midst of His bright, beautiful Kingdom work, some Pharisees came to Jesus. They had carefully crafted questions to catch Him in a trap. If they could get Jesus to say something that went against the Law, they would have a good reason to arrest Him.

It might be worthwhile at this point to consider what other choices these leaders had. They could have looked around at all the people who had been healed and rejoiced. They could have asked Jesus questions to help them understand why He was doing things that seemed to violate what they thought God wanted them to do. They could have bowed down in worshipful repentance before Him, just as Peter had done at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (see Story 37). They could have declared to the nation that He was the Messiah and encouraged the people to follow Him. But they didn’t, and that tells us a lot about their hearts.

Instead, they asked Jesus, “‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’” This was a question that the people of their own time argued over. It was difficult because there were different passages of the Old Testament that seemed to give different answers. But Jesus wrote the Old Testament, so it wasn’t a challenge for Him.

Jesus answered:

“‘Haven’t you read that from the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate”’”

Matthew 19:4-6

What a pure and holy ideal! What a beautiful truth! It was straight from the story of Creation. Marriage was designed at the beginning of time to make two souls one. It is part of who we were made to be as humans. In God’s perfect Garden, He brought Adam and Eve together for a perfect love. Imagine being a part of a romance where there is total acceptance and love that never fades.  Imagine a marriage where there is no failure, disappointment, or sin.  That is what we were created for.  That is why it hurts when sin and brokenness damage love…something in us knows that this is not how things were meant to be.  The Lord continues to call His children to strive for the goodness of what was meant to be in paradise, and He uses the challenges that our broken souls in this broken world bring to marriage to transform us.

But the Pharisees weren’t interested in pondering the good things of God. They were too busy trying to catch His Son in a mistake. Imagine the crowds of people as they listened to their elite leaders try to stump Jesus once again.   “‘Why, then,’” asked the Pharisees, “‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’”

Now they were trying to pit Jesus against Moses! It wasn’t going to work. Jesus said:

“‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’”

 Once again, the Lord took the twisted words of the Pharisees and made them straight. The Pharisees were talking about Deut. 24:1-4.   In that command, Moses said that if a man divorced his wife for being unfaithful and she married another man and then he divorced her, her first husband was not allowed to remarry her. What a twisted possibility, creating confusion for families and children, wreaking havoc on emotional and financial stability, inviting jealousies and division at the very point where we are meant to feel the most united intimacy and security.  It was a detestable offense against what God meant marriage to be, so far from the splendor of the Garden!

The Pharisees used the very law that should have pointed the Jewish people away from divorce and towards God’s wonderful hope for marriage to justify divorce. Once again, Jesus held pure light up against the dark compromises of the Curse that were running rampant among God’s people.

Yet the compromises and teachings of the Pharisees ran deep in the Jewish people. Even His disciples were stunned by what Jesus said. Later on, after they had gone away from the crowds and into a house, they talked about it. “‘If this is the situation between a husband and a wife, it is better not to marry!’” they declared.  Jesus answered:

“‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the Kingdom of Heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’”

Matthew 19:11-12

Wow. Jesus was issuing quite a challenge. When the disciples said, “It is better not to marry,” Jesus basically said, “You’re right!” In the paradise of the Garden, marriage was God’s ultimate plan to reflect His image. But many things were broken by the Fall. In the age of the Curse, there are many men and women who are called to be the Lord’s special servant warriors. They lay aside the wonderful gifts and treasures of marriage so they can live fully and completely for service to God’s Kingdom.   But humans are full of passions and emotions that God created for rich blessing in marriage. We were created for partnership, to become one soul with a husband or wife. Most people will not be able to accept giving up marriage. The power to accept a life apart from marriage is a sacred gift from God. It is part of a high and holy calling.  Imagine how it pleases the Lord.  Imagine how He blesses these set-apart ones with nearness to Him, the exclusive Lover of their souls.  Imagine the way their hearts are being prepared for eternity.  It is the richness of God’s Kingdom that the world does not understand.

As we look at the longer story of the lives of Jesus’ apostles, we see what a powerful gift it is. Men like the Apostle Paul had the freedom to go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel. When their lives were at risk, as they were beaten and stoned, and as they travelled all over the known world, they had no fear of abandoning a wife or children. They sacrificed many of the delights of this world, counting all things as nothing compared to winning victories for Christ and the greater glory ahead (check out 2 Corinthians 4Galatians 2:20, and Philippians 1:21-26).

As valuable as the men and women who give up marriage for the sake of the Gospel are to God , this in no way diminishes the goodness of marriage or God’s blessings and strengthening power to bring renewed love between a man and his wife. God hates divorce because He loves marriage.

It is interesting that this story came right after two stories about prayer…one was about praying relentlessly to God for justice, and the other was about praying with genuine humility and repentance over sin. For a man and wife, the desire for justice in the marriage and the challenge of having genuine humility about one’s weaknesses are great obstacles to loving each other for a lifetime. Jesus said that prayer is a powerful way to engage God’s heart and guidance.  Surely He will hear the prayers of those who come to Him like the persistent widow on behalf of their marriage.

Story 151: The Prayers that Capture the Heart of God

Luke 18:1-17

Light Wisdom

When Luke wrote the stories of Christ’s life down in his Gospel, he made sure to record how Jesus wants His followers to live life for Him. Many times, Jesus chose to explain it through stories of His own, called parables. In our parable for today, Luke said Jesus told it “…to show them that they should always pray and never give up.” Here is the story:

“‘In a certain town there was as judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God nor care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming.”’”

Luke 18:2-5

Then Jesus explained what He meant by the story:

“‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly.’”

Luke 18:6-8

 Do you see how Jesus makes an argument with this story? If even a wicked judge will listen to someone who harasses him with her appeals…and even if it is a lowly widow…what will a good and gracious Lord do for those He loves ardently? If even a weak, corrupt person will give in to urgent appeals out of annoyance, what will the pursuing, initiating God do for His own lavishly adored children?

It is important to remember that these verses are first and foremost about the return of Christ, for that will be the time when everything is made right. Every injustice and wrong will be turned on its head, and God will make all things new. It is worth spending a great deal of time in earnest prayer about that epic day…for when we finally understand the tremendous goodness awaiting us, all the things of this world will be like tin cans to diamonds by comparison (see 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 and Colossians 3:1-4).

We know that total justice will be exercised at the end of time, and that can be an incredible comfort. But God also works to bring goodness and righteousness for His followers who are suffering right now. His chosen ones should not lose heart! They can cry out to their Father, knowing that He is not a stubborn, mean-spirited judge. He will hear our prayers. He might take more time bringing His help than we want Him to, and there may be days when it feels like our prayers have gone unheard. And with some things, we may have to wait until we have joined Christ in Heaven to see full healing and the full righteousness of God. But those who persevere in faith will see the deliverance of the Lord in the end.

As Jesus finished His story, He asked, “‘However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?’” Why do you think He asked this? Was He worried? Is there a chance that there will not be a single faithful person left when He returns? Why would He ask that?

Well, Jesus was issuing a challenge. Nobody knows the time of His return. It could happen tomorrow. It could happen in a hundred years. But each generation is to live and pray as if He might come today because when He does come, He will be looking for those who are earnestly faithful to their Mighty King. We can read Jesus’ question as, “When I come, will I find you being faithful?”

In many ways, this was also a mournful question. For all that Jesus was doing as He preached and healed the people of Israel, for all that He was willing to do for us in His excruciating sacrifice on the cross, the hard-heartedness of humanity is still capable of faithlessness…we still prefer sin and self-sufficiency over the Lover of our souls.  If you think about how great the love of God is for us…He sent His own Son to die on our behalf…it is stunning to think how sorrowful it must be that so many of us continue to reject Him and run away.  And yet generation after generation, He perseveres in His mercy and love, pursuing a race that bent on it’s own destruction.

That must be part of Christ’s reason for telling the story of the widow.  Rather than run away from her judge, she ran to him, seeking his help and protection even though he was totally unworthy of her trust.   In the days of Jesus, a widow was a very vulnerable woman. She wouldn’t have a husband to watch over her or protect her against greedy and sinful men who might take advantage of her weaker position in society. But when we picture a feisty widow going to a hardened judge appealing to him over and over again for justice, crying out for help, and driving him to move on her behalf, we have a different image entirely. The widow was not without a way.  Her determination changed her story.  There was something she could do, and even if circumstance were against her and the judge was a bad man, it was something she could work with.  And she did.

A widow is a powerful image of someone who is defenseless. That is how many of us often feel in this harsh world.  Many of us feel overwhelmed by circumstances that seem impossible.   But there is Someone we can go to. In fact, there is Someone we are meant to go to. He is supposed to be our hope and trust. The great, big, magnificent difference is that our Judge in Heaven loves us and longs to give us justice, mercy, and peace. We can come to His throne with our prayers in freedom and confidence at all times.

If you think about that, it is a pretty stunning truth, and the fact that we often are not amazed is because we haven’t really grasped it. The God who created the universe wants to hear from us…a lot. With this parable, Jesus is telling us to PESTER GOD continually and relentlessly in prayer because God wants to be the center of how we think about getting our needs met.

After telling the story about the widow, Jesus told another parable. This time, He gives an example of two people saying their prayers. One of them comes with beautiful humility. The other comes with a much different attitude. He is obnoxious. The only problem is, there is a powerful temptation in every human heart to be just like him! Stories are a powerful way to help us see how ugly certain attitudes and behaviors are in the characters that might be the very same ones we harbor in our own hearts…and that can be a strong motivator for change. Listen to what Jesus said:

“‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, robbers, evildoers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”’”

Wow. That guy sure sounds spiritual, doesn’t he? This is what Jesus said about the other man:

“‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”’”

Then Jesus said:

“‘I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

The disciples were shocked. What? The twist at the end of the story was a bit too much for them. In Israel, tax collectors were considered the scum of the earth. Regular Jews wouldn’t even eat a meal with them. But a Pharisee would be considered a highly honored guest.

Jesus was explaining that it is the person who comes before the Lord with humility who pleases God, even though he truly is sinful. The Pharisee who came before God with arrogance was an offense! He took prayer, a sacred, solemn gift that should bring us in to humble, repentance and gratefulness before Almighty God, and used it to feed his own selfish pride. And that pride is not usually satisfied with silent thoughts. A person of pride demands that others submit to his superiority. Did you notice that the Pharisee got up and prayed in the middle of the Temple? This kind of pride not only seeks to diminish the value of others, it wants others to feel diminished in the face of its own greatness. The Pharisees were using the holy things of God to elevate themselves like mini-deities over the people.

The most important thing about our lives is whether we relate rightly to God. It is the most critical thing to get right. The Pharisee in this story wasn’t really praying to God out of worship and love. He was really worshipping himself, and his competitive malice towards sinners showed how little he really cared for God’s other children. He was doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons.

The tax collector didn’t have time to judge others or to condemn them. He was too busy coming to God with his own repentant desire to be made right before his Lord.   That greatly pleases God, and it is the truest way to honor His Word.

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