Shout for Joy
The Pool of Bethesda lay just inside the north wall of Jerusalem near a small opening called the Sheep Gate. That’s where the sheep were washed before being taken to the sanctuary for an offering. And that’s also where the sick and the physically disadvantaged lay by the pool waiting for the waters to stir, a sign that the first to get into the pool would be healed. One of them, an invalid, had waited expectantly by the pool for 38 years – that’s right, 38 long difficult years – waiting, BUT . . . and here is the sad part of the story . . . Jesus asked him if he wanted to get well and he answered, “Sir, I don’t have anyone to put me in the pool when the water begins to stir” (John 5:7).
A picture is beginning to form in my mind. I see a beautiful lake surrounded by expensive vacation cottages and lots of apparently happy people. They are wearing beautiful self-righteous clothing and telling one another how hard they have worked to become so morally acceptable that at the end of time they will be swept right into heaven. However, every now and the picture begins to fade and changes into what seems to be the same scene although now the lake has turned into a swamp and all the people are either blind or lame. They are huddled together in their dirty clothes looking so forlorn, although some seem to be waiting for something. Yes, sin has done its work, but deep in some hearts is a longing to believe what they were told, that is, if they can only get into the lake when the waters of conscience are stirred they will be cured of all that is wrong. But again and again when the water is stirred, there’s no one to help them get in. That is so sad.
So there’s the double picture of the state of the human race. They were created to enjoy waters of Paradise, but they messed up everything with their decision that they knew better than God how to run things. They turned a lake into a swamp and the result was tragic. But Jesus came and drained that swamp of sin so now if they step in when the waters are stirred they can step out again onto the beautiful beach of redemption and enjoy the sunshine of eternity.
Some, however, need a bit of help and that is something that the rest of us can supply, at least should be able to supply. In case we need help at this point here is a little 3 step process The FIRST thing for us to do is to ALLOW GOD to develop within us a more sensitive awareness of the needs of others. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen apart from the Spirit. God has never been known to disregard the soul’s humble desire to be like Christ. Natural man may say he wants to grow spiritually – after all, that’s what’s everybody says on Wednesday night after prayer meeting – but the real motivation for change comes from Him.
And that leads us to step TWO: START! Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting there is to get started.” Okay, tonight before I go to bed I’ll get started on a really good plan to become more sensitive to the needs of others.
“No, here’s a better way; put your phone down (or turn off the computer) and . . Do you remember step number 1? Right. Sincerely ask him to help you in your desire to be more other-centered. I’ll wait until you’ve finished praying.”
So what could step THREE be? Right, THANK HIM that you are on your way, thank him for staying right there helping you, that you will find yourself even this evening as you are sitting around the dinner table thinking about how hard your spouse has worked today and how you can help lift her/his spirit . . . there is no end to life’s possibilities for turning our attention first to the needs of the other.
Look, the water is stirring. Let’s help that man over there whose been waiting here for 38 years to finally make it in first!!
Jesus was very serious about telling stories. In Matt. 13:35 we learn that “he always spoke in parables,” because that was the best way to explain “things unknown since the foundation of the world.” It occurs to me that this is an extraordinary claim. Remember, it was early in his ministry and he was simply a Galilean peasant who only recently had left the carpenter’s bench and gone out to the people to declare that the kingdom of God had come. So, as he went from village to village he taught “things unknown from the very beginning.” The people who stopped to listen were bound to ask, “Who did you say he is?” and “How does he teach things that have never been known before?” And the answer, at least as to how he did it, was to use the parable, a short allegorical story, undoubtedly the most effective method to teach a truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.
How would we have done it? And what would we want people to know about that world of undiscovered reality? What would you say to your class? I’m stretching the point of course, but it is important to understand that ultimately essential truth doesn’t come through the procedures effective for understanding things like quantum physics and molecular biology. The yet to be realized insights of reality that Jesus taught were not so much about some thing as they were existential involvement with that thing. For instance, we know the love of God, not as something that has been described to us and that we can visualize as though it were part of our world, but as an experience of being swept up into the very arms of the eternal God whose active compassion for us has no bounds. That is what it means to learn God’s love. It isn’t out there to be analyzed, but in here to be experienced
And did Jesus teach these ultimate truths by using the more erudite professors of the Harvards and Yales of the day. No, he told stories. In the current chapter of Jesus, In His Own Words (“My Parables,” pp. 91-17) we have a group of rather simple parables: one is about the sower, another about a seed that grows whether we watch it or not, and others about weeds that come up at night and kill the crop, a tiny little mustard seed that becomes the largest bush in the garden, fermented dough of all things, hidden treasure, and finally a great big net used to catch fish. These are the stories, the allegories, used by Jesus to teach what are the most important truths that man will ever know: ”truths that will change human nature, redirected western culture, and most importantly, offer eternal life to those who believe.” The parable; sort of a simple little thing , , , but, WOW.
Yesterday it was the rocky road; today it’s those thistles. Growing a crop is not an easy task. Based on the ratio laid out in the parable, only 1 seed in 4 managed to produce what the farmer intended. But today we are going to see what we can learn from the experience of the 3rd seed, the one that landed among the thistles, which soon chocked the life out of it. Here’s the text:
“The seed sown among thistles stands for people who hear the message, but the worries about this life and the deceitful nature of wealth strangle it so it yields nothing” (Mark 4:19).
You may have observed in reading this parable that in the first unit the “seed” is Jesus’ teaching., but it's people in the other three. What I take from this is certain caution about making the interpretation too precise. It leaves a bit more room for imaginative understanding (a boon for a good speaker). In any case the seed in this case represents people who hear the message and come to life, but the thistles grow a lot faster and strangle the plant so that it yields nothing. The strong opportunity for application to life lies in the nature of thistle – what is it that keeps the plant from becoming what it was intended to be? And now the preacher warms up as he begins to describe what happens to his parishioners if they choose to live too close to the thistles of contemporary culture.
The two things mentioned that will strangle new spiritual life are worries about this life and the deceitful nature of wealth. The coupling of theses two, worry and wealth, suggests undue concern to get ahead materially. First you worry whether you will gain wealth and then when you get it you worry about losing it. It is a sly method of the adversary to begin with a natural desire for financial stability and then become so enamored with the entire lifelong process that concern about maintaining what one has achieved takes charge of that wonderful period of life when the battle has supposedly been won and you can enjoy the spoils of having the ability to maintain a proper balance between what is and what could be.
Worry, for the believer is the failure to believe that God knows what he is doing and needs your nervous help right now. It is what you might call “practical atheism.” And the deceitfulness of riches, not the riches themselves, keeps telling you that if you could only have that (the thing over there) your deeper need would be met. In other words, God is essentially equivalent to something you can purchase, a house, a new car, beach property in Southern California. The assumption is that they will both meet that sense of emptiness that hovers over the heart. Worry and desire, they will choke new life; that’s what the parable is teaching.
Jesus was a master storyteller. The parable was his most effective way of communicating truth, and that’s because the mind continues to roll over a truth that is understood in a sense, but by its very nature calls for additional reflection. One never understands the meaning of a parable in its most complete sense and that is exactly why it is such an effective tool for teaching. So today we are going to look at one of the four parts of Jesus’ well-known parable of the sower. You will remember that one day some people came to learn from Jesus why he used parables to teach and he responded by explaining the parable of the sower as an example of how to understand a parable. We’re going to look at what he said about “the seed that fell on rocky ground” and then allow the Spirit to help us apply what it teaches to life.
“The seed that fell on rocky ground represents the person who hears the word and accepts it with enthusiasm. But he lacks depth and cannot hold out for long. When persecution comes because of the message, he quickly turns against it” (Matt. 13)
The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is not a good idea, but a life transforming power. It is not something you hear and since it sounds sort of exciting you sign up for a free month trial period. Quick acceptance normally indicates either a momentary interest or the inability to say No. The demands of the gospel are exactly that – demands. Only the insignificant presents itself as available without cost.
“But,” you say, “isn’t salvation just believing in Jesus? We sing, ‘Jesus paid it all,’ so since he did, what’s left for us but to accept it and enjoy it?”
Look at it this way: The price of salvation, that is, what God paid that we might be saved, was incalculably high. It was God himself, sovereign creator of all that exists, who gave up his only Son to come and give his life as a sacrifice in order to pay that debt. Jesus, bless his name, paid the debt.
“So, what’s left for me to pay?
“You can’t pay a penny of that debt. In fact, there is no way you could – you don’t have any of the right currency. What you do is to accept it. However, it obviously comes with a responsibility. If salvation were a meaningless incidental, the responsibility would be minor, but the responsibility is commensurate with the enormity of the cost for God. You receive it “free,” but now in response to receiving something you didn’t earn or couldn’t buy, you are to commit yourself – body, soul and spirit – to a totally new kind of life, a life that denies constant attention to personal wants and desires and devotes itself without reserve of any kind to the mission of service to others, especially letting the entire world know that Christ died for their sins, and that there’s a heaven to gain and a hell to shun.
But, as the text says, the rocky ground believers, while enthusiastic for a short time, turned against the entire thing when they learned that persecution of every sort was part of the bargain. They thought that since Christ paid the price that would put them on easy street where they could get all the goodies without stopping by the bank. No way.
I ask you, “Know any believers like that?” Tell you a secret, they aren’t believers they’re opportunists. They “accepted” the gospel but when they began to catch on and saw the necessary responsibility they did a quick turn away from what they thought they might believe in, and are now probably worse off than if they had never pretended to believe. Time and persecution will separate those who believe and those who pretend.
One day while Jesus was speaking he was told that his mother and brothers had come to take him home, but couldn’t get to him through the crowd. They were concerned that his work was so heavy that he had “lost his mind.” They were going to take him home whether he wanted to go or not! Jesus responded with a rhetorical question: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then, pointing to his disciples, he said, “There’s my mother, and my brothers. I tell you that whoever does the will of God . . . is my brother, my sister, my mother” (Matt. 12:46-50 and parallels).
I do not think there are many family therapists in our day who would conclude from this passage that, with the birth of Christianity, the family no longer plays an important role in society. But, in this encounter, didn’t Jesus say that natural siblings have been replaced with spiritual counterparts? Let me put it this way: Didn’t he say in reference to his disciples, “If you are doing the will of God, you are my mom!” So let’s think together about this. Perhaps the church has overlooked this simple truth for some 2,000 years.
First, I would say that in this encounter, as elsewhere, Jesus showed no disrespect for his family. Most scholars believe that Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, was significantly older than Mary (he is not mentioned after the early scenes) and that Jesus as the oldest son had stayed in charge of the family far longer than one would have expected (until he was about 30) before setting out on his mission to teach and heal. And recall how tenderly from the cross he turned over the care of his mother to his close friend John. His brothers were not yet persuaded that he was who he said he was (John 7:3-5), but there was no indication of disrespect or animosity.
Then how are we to understand this rather extraordinary moment when, pointing to his disciples, he declared, “Look, these are my mother and my brothers?” I believe he is stressing the important point that the spiritual relationship between Jesus and the believer is closer than that established by natural birth. Jesus is not saying that family relationships are not close and vitally important, but that the sense of oneness that exists between the believer and his Lord is on a deeper level. In my experience I know of no one who has bonded with Christ by faith who would question this important truth. It doesn’t diminish the unique nature of blood kinship, but adds a deeper connection.
In somewhat the same way that the believer is spiritually related to God, so also are fellow believers bonded with one another. The key to this unique relationship is the presence of God himself in the connection. One might call it a spiritual triumvirate. Since both of us are inseparably related to Christ, he is always there with us and this establishes a profoundly deep connection between you and me as believers. As we grow older we find ourselves treasuring more than ever the deepening nature of personal friendship. It occurs to me that God is simply preparing us for heaven.
All three synoptic Gospels write of the blasphemy against the Spirit, but it is Matthew who extends the discussion by way of personal application. Here is what, Jesus says to those guilty of such blasphemy.
“You brood of snakes! How can you say anything good since you are evil? What you say reveals what you have treasured in your heart. The good man lives a productive life, drawing upon the good that is stored in his heart, but the evil man expresses by his evil acts the wickedness stored within. I tell you, on the Day of Judgment, each of you will have to answer for every thoughtless word you have spoken. You will be declared innocent or guilty on the basis of the words you have spoken” (Matt. 12:34-35, Jesus, in His Own Words, p. 89).
There are so many points worth serious discussion in this response by our Lord, but what I want to discuss is what Jesus has to say about our words revealing who we really are. He identifies two kinds of people, the evil and the good. The words of the evil man express the wickedness he has stored within; by way of contrast, the good man draws upon the good that he has treasured in his heart. In short, what we say reveals who we are. Wasn’t it Plato who said, “Speak, that I may know thee?”
The point that strikes me is that we inevitably reveal by what we say that which we have been storing away in our heart. Let’s say you have a bad opinion about someone and as time passes you keep picking up on the negative and each new occasion the existing bad opinion becomes worse and worse. This process is not something you plan on and take special enjoyment about, it just happens because by nature (the old nature) that is how it works. Sooner or later you will say something, probably when you will least expect it, that will not only shock them, but will give even you a second thought. What has happened is that you have expressed the evil that is in your heart. I believe that is exactly what Jesus said, “What you say reveals what you have treasured in your heart” (the use of 2nd person is not to shame anyone – I have no right nor basis for that – but simply to correspond with how Jesus puts it in scripture).
The question, then, is how to control what comes out of the mouth. Note that both men – “each of you” – will have to answer for “every thoughtless word you have spoken.” I believe the problem has nothing to do with the mouth itself. That is merely the instrument used by the heart. It does what ever it is told to do. As always, it is the heart – who we really are down deep where it really counts. On the brighter side, if the heart is involved in an ongoing process of change, words will reveal it. That’s called sanctification, the process whereby we become in practice the person we already are in Christ. And is that ever important because where there is no change over time, there never was one to begin with. “By their fruits you will know them” (Matt. 7:16).
Isn‘t God good that he is more interested in our growth in Christlikeness than in some unreasonable demand that we become as sinless as our mentor Christ – and that, right now. Our thoughtless words bring him no pleasure, but he keeps watching for change, not a changed mouth, but a changing heart. Sign me up, Lord; that’s what I want.
It is interesting how smoothly scripture interweaves theology and life. And of course it should be that way. Theology provides the “why” for life, and ethical instruction the “how” for theology. It is a “because of this do this” relationship. God has made known his will to you, the child-like, your role is to follow through. And of course you will get tired, so when you find yourself that way from carrying through on what God has assigned, listen to Jesus as he says, “Come to me . . . and I will give you the rest that refreshes” (v. 28). God’s plan for us is not “Give it all you got ‘til you ain’t got no more,” but a balance between the excitement of “working” for him, mingled with times of stepping aside for the refreshment that only He can give.
Jesus pictures the balanced life as a combination of work and rest. Productive work requires a yoke and that means responsibility. The Christian life is not a 70-year stretch of relaxing in the sunshine of redemption, but a serious combination of commitment to the task and periods of refreshment so we can do the next thing even better.
But let’s talk about the yoke, one that is like his. My summers in the 30’s were spent on farms in North Dakota. Mechanized machinery was beginning to come in, but horses wore yokes and when we yoked up six horses to pull a combine it made a big difference how well the yokes fit and how the six horses were arranged to pull the load. In Christ we “pull a load” (just as he did) but he invites us to “take on a yoke that is like his” (v. 29). And what would that be? I assume it is a yoke that will fit my gifts, temperament, and time. He doesn’t expect us to do everything but only that for which he has prepared us for. Wear your own yoke, don’t take one that was designed for somebody else. Bad yokes bruise. Get the right one, one that fits you and is easy to wear.
God want to show us how to work effectively, how to “meet life” (v. 29). Jesus said that his yoke fits so well that the load you will carry using a yoke like his will seem light” (v. 30). And why is that? I believe the reason is that he is “gentle and humble in spirit.” Incidentally these are the only two qualities that Jesus ever uses of himself. It’s the “gentle” man who uncomplainingly accepts his responsibility and moves ahead with composure because God never assigns us a task for which he has not prepared us. That is why the load will seems “light.” Earlier we noted that the balanced life has its rest periods, and that is true, but at the same time if we approach our responsibilities with a “gentle and humble spirit” our load will “seem light.”
So here’s to the productive life for which God has prepared us. May it have that certain lightness that comes from “working” as Jesus did and taking a bit of rest time for the deep refreshment that only God can give.
“Inspired with joy by the Holy Spirit, I prayed” (Jesus, as recorded in Luke 10:21). This has to be one of the shorter but more insightful theological statements in the Gospels. We could arrange it for a sermon somewhat like this:
The Holy Spirit is the
(1) The One who inspires,
(2) The One who is the source of all joy, and
(3) The One who encourages prayer.
There is so much theology tied up in so few words.
It is interesting that the Spirit is usually thought of as holding a less central role in the trinity. God as Father is obviously in charge; Jesus as Son carries out the Father’s will; but the Spirit seems not quite the same — he is often thought of as the spirit of the other two, rather than as an equal. One writer refers to the Spirit as “the shy member of the trinity,” but that is hardly correct because he is anything but shy. At Pentecost he came with fire; in last century revivals he would often bring congregations to their knees, weeping; and in personal contact he seems always to be the One who is right here with us right now.
“Inspired with joy by the Spirit,” Jesus praised the Father (it’s a corporate venture, isn’t it!) that while he had “hidden truths from the wise and discerning” he had “made them known to the childlike.” You can be sure that “wise and discerning” was a self-description created by the religious aspirants themselves. It was clear to them that they were the professionals and that once they had expressed an opinion, it somehow had morphed into fact. God, however, had decided that it would be “to the childlike” that he would make known those truths that he had “hidden from the “wise” (Matt. 11:25). I don’t think God got any personal pleasure in hiding truth, but when you and I look at it, it’s hard to suppress a sort of gottacha-on-that-one response. It’s crystal clear that self-appointed intellectuals sometimes look like they were caught in a revolving door because they can’t decide whether they are coming or going.
On the other-hand, truth can be revealed to the child-like because no resistance has been created against it. Learning is a lifetime affair and a block of unsustainable error early along the way can cancel out genuine learning for good. E.g., Even a tentative position that God does not exist can develop so that a person disables himself from ever accepting that divine truth. When it comes to world-views, and we all have one, the rerouting is more difficult than arriving at an unknown destination with a broken GPS. How very good of God to take care of the childlike (and that term expresses genuine maturity in Christ) and reveal precious truth such as He loves us, He died for us, He wants us back in Eden. Unfortunately, if you know “that isn’t so” he can never reveal to you that it is.
Yesterday we were encouraged to “bloom where we’re planted and rejoice in the “glad news that God reigns supreme.” Today we will be looking at some of the more trying aspects of living for Him in a sinful world. We will consider what we can expect as we join him in his mission. Here are five statements from one chapter in Luke that some might feel to be deterrents to accepting Christ.
(1) The disciples are chosen and then, when sent out, discover that they are like “sheep surrounded by a pack of wolves” (10:1-16).
(2) They will be taken into custody and put on trial because “hostility will become so extreme that even family loyalties will disappear” (10:17-25).
(3) “Anyone who denies in public that they belong to me will be denied by me in the presence of God’s angels” (10:26-33).
(4) Christ did not come “to bring peace to the world,” but to “bring conflict” (10:34-36).
(5) Jesus says that you can’t be his if you ”care more for father or mother than for me” (10:37-39).
From these verses one would assume that the Christian life is certainly difficult. Once again: believers are like sheep surrounded by a pack of wolves, they will be put in jail, the door to heaven may be blocked, conflict is an essential ingredient in their life, and family is no longer primary. Yes, that is what Jesus said, and is true. But each statement needs to be looked at in the larger context of all that may be involved.
That Christians sent into the world are like “sheep surrounded by a pack of wolves” is true in that the lifestyle taught in the gospel is significantly different than its alternatives. To decide for Christ is to decide against everything that stands contrary to who he is and what he teaches. A genuine commitment does not allow a “believer” to be an atheist every Friday evening when “the boys get together.” In other words, opposition is a necessary part of believing, because by definition “A” is meaningless if there is no “non-A”.
This leads naturally to the second verse quoted. If your life as a Christian happens to be in a hostile setting, jail could be something like the first step in a procedure that could end in death. That is what happened to Jesus, and, incidentally, to thousands of his faithful followers throughout history. So, while it is not a pleasant prospect, it could be part of the Christian experience. It certainly has been for countless numbers of faithful martyrs since the birth of Christianity.
To “deny in public’’ that you “belong to Christ” would be an outward confession of loyalty to a different culture and world-view. Would any serious group of believers allow that? I think not. Since every point of view is opposed by those who hold the opposite, if the latter have the authority, they may well “silence” their opponents by placing them under arrest. It is just part of life.
The statement that Christ did not come to bring peace, but conflict, to the world, is obviously one that calls for context. The “peace” of which Jesus speaks would be a settled, well- functioning society built on non-Christian principles. The “conflict” he spoke of would not be war in general but all the social unrest that results from someone accepting a faith that has a higher code of ethics and for that reason disturbs those who want to stay right at the low level they now enjoy.
And “caring for God more than father or mother” is a concise way to say that in the long run, if a decision has to be made, I would have no option but to choose God. It is not a denial of the vital importance of good relationships within one’s personal family.
So what we have in these five statements is a candid recognition that while the Christian faith is our greatest hope and blessing, it does not come without a certain “price.” Whatever one accepts involves giving up its opposite. If something is worth having it is worth paying the required price. Ultimately, the “price” of giving up what the world treasures most, is so absolutely infinitesimal in comparison to life in Christ and the privilege of living forever in his presence, that even to consider it seriously would call for a quick trip to the local therapist.
Nowhere in the Synoptics is the early ministry of Jesus summarized more distinctly than in Matt. 9:35-38.
His route: “the towns and villages of Galilee”
His message: “the glad news that God reigns supreme”
His supporting ministry: “healing diseases of every kind”
His modus operandi: “his heart was filled with compassion for the people crowding around him.”
I wonder to what extent we might apply this approach to our own ministry (and every believer is called to serve in some way)? Let’s think it through.
Jesus ministered where he was. He was a Galilean and the towns and villages of that mountainous region in northern Israel is where he began his work as an itinerant prophet/teacher. He didn’t head off to some exotic place like, say, Crete, where he could preach free of any opinions that long term relationships would have shaped in the minds of those who would hear him. And I believe that is relevant for us in our role as the body of Christ carrying out what he would like to do through us. Right here is where he planted us, right here is where we are to bloom!
How does his message strike you, “the glad news that God reigns supreme?” But what about sin, judgment, repentance, and other themes like that? Well, Matthew was right there and tells us that Jesus went about “proclaiming the glad news that God reigns supreme.” It’s true, you and I are sinners and there is judgment and repentancet, but the gospel is “glad news,” that’s what the word means; it comes from the Greek euangelion, “good news.” God was establishing his reign on earth (that had been marred by sin, but restored by Christ’s sacrifice) and the future is bright. It will all come to a glorious conclusion in God’s eternal sanctuary we call heaven (scripture’s title for God’s presence and God will be everywhere.) Sound like “glad news” to you?
It seems to me that Jesus healed wherever he went because he himself was a fountain of goodness. Ever notice that your friend with a jubilant and upbeat spirit always seems to leave every group feeling a lot better than when he arrived. Good will just rubs off. Not that Jesus did his healing that way, but since he was so free from the harshness of sin that, like that friend of yours, the sick came and were healed, the blind went away seeing and the air was filled with shouts of praise. Jesus is not pictured as under some sort of strain as he heals one person after another. I believe with each person restored there went up from Jesus’ heart praise and thanksgiving for what was happening through him.
And his “heart was filled with compassion for the people who crowded around him.” For the Son of God whose Father is ultimately love itself, how could his ministry have been anything else but the outpouring of divine compassion on those who turned instinctively to him for restoration of every kind.
Robert H Mounce