Let Your Shoulders Relax

The Woman at the Well (part 3)

There’s so much to learn from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well near Sychar. Let’s keep going! When we stopped last week, Jesus was changing His approach with the woman. He had been talking about living water, but now he shifts to the far more personal issue of this woman’s love life. That statement, however, is just a segue into what He really wants to discuss. Continue reading

Are YOU Talking to ME?

The Woman at the Well (part 2)

Not just anyone can cop an attitude with Jesus, but this woman did! Let’s sit down with Jesus and the woman He met at Jacob’s well outside Sychar, a small town in Samaria. (For more on the context and background, check last week’s post.)

John 4:1-42. You might want to pull out your Bible or click on the link. I’m not going to quote all the text here.

After He raised a ruckus in the temple at Jerusalem and then drew record crowds to big baptism services, things got a bit dicey for Jesus down in Judea, so he decided to make Himself scarce. (This is where we started last week.) Continue reading

Context and Consequences: The Woman at the Well

After He raised a ruckus in the temple at Jerusalem and then drew record crowds to big baptism services, things got a bit dicey for Jesus down in Judea, so he decided to make Himself scarce.

John 4:1-42.

Jesus headed back toward Galilee, probably back to Capernaum, where he usually made his home-base while in that region. There were two ways to go: the direct route, which would take them through Samaria, or the long way, which involved crossing the Jordan Continue reading

One Man’s Treasure

11-24 children's Bible (1)
my first “real” Bible  (c) Carole Sparks

Jesus had just spent an hour or so with some kids. He hugged them, patted their heads, and blessed them (Mark 10:16). How do you picture that scene? I think he probably stooped down to be on their level or pulled them up to sit on his lap. I think he chatted with each one, smiled at them, comforted them, and just generally enjoyed himself. I think he learned their names, their pets’ names, their favorite activities and anything else they wanted to share. I think he was patient when they stuttered and laughed at their silly jokes. After all, the Kingdom of God belongs to “such as these.” This is one of my favorite images of Jesus, and not just because it was on the front of my very first Bible as a child.

Mark 10:17-22.

As Jesus stood to go from that happy, relaxing time, a man ran up and fell onto his knees in front of Jesus. Did he push some children out of the way? Did he see that Jesus was Continue reading

It’s in the Transitions…

Mark 1.

As John pulled Jesus up out of the water at His baptism, the Spirit of God came down on Him and a voice—the voice of God!!—said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). God was happy with the adult Jesus, with Who He had become in the thirty years of His life on earth.

Here’s a picture-perfect moment: Jesus dripping wet and blinking a little to clear the water from His eyes, the clouds parting and the sun shining through (that’s what I think “heaven being torn open” must have been), Jesus almost glowing in the fresh light and John the Baptist stepping back in awe. Jesus turns His face toward the light, and The Voice booms out.

Just picture it in your head…

But what happens next? As the sky closes back and Jesus’ beard begins to dry, it seems like Jesus should march out into the crowds, healing people and preaching powerfully.

That’s not what happens.

Transition #1: Into the Wilderness

In God’s economy, His pleasure with us doesn’t mean we get off the hook for the hard stuff. This is not a favorite-son-doesn’t-have-to-scrub-toilets scenario. Jesus doesn’t get a reward for making God happy. Check out Mark’s wording here.

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.  -Mark 1:12-13 (emphasis added)

Immediately (ESV and NASB) or at once (NIV), the same Spirit that had just descended onto Jesus drove him (ESV) into the wilderness. This was going to be the most difficult part of his time on earth except for the crucifixion. I imagine He got a weird look on His face, then He just walked up out of the river, past all the onlookers, and into the countryside. No time to prepare. No time to enjoy His most-favored status. What’s more, there was some force to this. (The AMP actually says forced.) Not that Jesus didn’t want to obey but that the urging was so strong it felt irresistible. The Spirit almost drug Jesus into that desolate, dangerous, diabolical place.

The Spirit almost drug
Jesus into that desolate,
dangerous, diabolical place.

Matthew says the angels only came at the end (4:11), so Jesus was alone. He had nothing to eat and nowhere to hide. That’s desolate. There were wild animals and the aforementioned lack of sustenance. That’s dangerous. And then, just when it couldn’t get any worse—when he was parched with thirst and literally starving, when He was at His very weakest—here comes Satan to tempt Him in three distinct and powerful ways. That’s diabolical.

I bet you’re like me, and you would love for God to be “well pleased” with you. You and I both look forward to that “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) we hope to hear when we get to Heaven. (Want to digress here? Read my post, The Cake and the Icing.)

God’s pleasure with us doesn’t
predict our comfort level.

I can bet you’re also like me, and you really don’t want the “wilderness experience.” (I don’t even want a camping experience, so…) We need to realize, however, that God’s pleasure with us doesn’t predict our comfort level. It is precisely those with whom He is well pleased who are pulled into difficult times of testing. There’s a great purpose in it (our strengthening and/or refinement and His increased glory), but that fact helps little when you’re in the middle of it. (Another possible digression: But Lord, This Stinketh. Yeah, I’ve written about these things before.)

In these days of easy-going Christianity, is it not well to remind ourselves that it really does cost to be a man or woman whom God can use? One cannot obtain a Christlike character for nothing; one cannot do a Christlike work save at great price.  –Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor

Too many people are
surprised when they obey
then difficulties arise.

We should, therefore, expect difficulties to arise precisely when and because we experience the favor of God. I’m not trying to be fatalistic or pessimistic, and I’m not trying to create problems where there are none. I just think far too many people are surprised when they obediently respond to the Holy Spirit’s pulling, then instead of getting rewarded, difficulties arise. If it happened to Jesus, we should expect it to happen to us.

Transition #2: Into Ministry

Sometime after the forty-first day, when Jesus had returned to civilization, when He had rehydrated and recuperated, He began proclaiming the good news of God (Mark 1:14). He loved to talk about the Kingdom of God, didn’t He?

Recall the sequence of events here:

  1. Jesus got baptized.
  2. God was pleased.
  3. Jesus was tempted.
  4. Jesus started preaching.

God was pleased with Jesus’ heart
prior to anything Jesus did.

Did God express His happiness after Jesus did a bunch of things for Him? No. It wasn’t the successful resistance to temptation or the powerful, spot-on preaching that pleased God. He was already pleased before any of that happened. In fact, besides getting baptized, Jesus didn’t do anything. God was pleased with His heart—with Who He was—prior to anything He might do.

This is nice, but what’s it mean for us?

  1. We don’t have to meet a standard of behavior or go through a series of “qualifying rounds” before God likes us. Remember David, the shepherd boy who was chosen to be king? As Samuel stood in front of David’s good-looking brothers, God told him, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
  2. His pleasure empowers us. This isn’t in the Gospels, but I think the presence of the Holy Spirit on/in Jesus gave Him the strength to withstand Satan’s temptations and the wisdom to proclaim the Kingdom so boldly. He was a man, tempted as we are, yet He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). He always knew exactly what to say to the people in front of Him—friend or foe (e.g. John 3 and 4). Now we have that same Spirit and that same accompanying power!

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.  -John 14:16-17a

That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead…  -Ephesians 1:19-20

When we read between the lines, or at least between the paragraphs, of the Gospels, we discover God’s pattern at work in humanity. We can expect trials, even when we feel closest to God, but He will empower us to overcome them.

What can we learn from the transitions in Mark 1? Probably more than you think. (click to tweet)

Have you experienced that intimacy of God’s pleasure only to feel like you were thrown to the wolves the next moment? Did it surprise you? What advice would you give others who face similar circumstances? Let’s share our stories for His glory! Check out the comments below.

The Skeletons in Jesus’ Ancestral Closet

We all have those stories, some more painful than others: the embarrassing stories of our ancestors. In East Tennessee, almost everyone has a great uncle who either made or ran moonshine—sometimes one of each. Many of us know family stories of bank robbers, army deserters, cheaters, or gamblers. These are the stories we pull out for entertainment at reunions or with the teenager’s new boyfriend or girlfriend. One day, I’m going to write a book of stories about my grandmother and great-grandmother. You wouldn’t believe some of the things they did!

Other stories are buried further back in the closet, back where the bare light bulb at the top of the chain doesn’t shine. These are the stories we wish we didn’t know, the stories to which our parents only allude, and then only when no one outside the blood family can hear, and which they always accompany with a raised eye-brow that says, “Nothing further need be said.”

Still, those buried stories creep out to define us in our most vulnerable moments.

They tell us we can’t change our fundamental nature.

They tell us we will end up just like that relative.

They tell us we are weak.

They tell us we don’t really believe or we’re hypocritical.

They tell us we will fail before we even begin.

Jesus had skeletons in His closet, too.

Matthew 1:1-17.

Sure, there’s Abraham and King David, King Josiah (who discovered scrolls in the decrepit temple and called the people to repentance, 2 Kings 23) and Shealtiel (who led the returning Israelites to rebuild the temple after the exile, Ezra 2:2). But there are other men and women…

Tamar (Genesis 38). After her husband died, Tamar seduced her father-in-law so she could get pregnant.

Ahaz (2 Kings 16). This King of Judah sacrificed his own son to a Canaanite god. He took all the silver and gold from the temple and the royal treasury and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria (16:8), trying to buy protection for Judah. Later, he desecrated the temple in numerous ways, too.

Rahab (Joshua 2). She hid the Israelite spies who surveyed Jericho before its fall. She even lied for them, deceiving her own government. But don’t forget, Rahab was a prostitute.

King David (2 Samuel 11). Despite being “a man after God’s own heart,” David stayed home when he should have gone to war, spied on a bathing woman from his rooftop, then was so overcome with lust he brought her into his bed. She got pregnant, so then he had her husband killed to cover it up.

Jesus’ ancestral history
never made him stumble.

Yes, Jesus had some pretty scary skeletons in His closet, but these facts never stopped Him.

Tamar and Rahab’s promiscuity didn’t cause Jesus to hesitate when he told the woman caught in adultery, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).

Ahaz’s disrespect for the temple didn’t give Jesus pause when he created a ruckus in the temple and chased away all the money-changers (Matthew 21)

David’s lust didn’t make Jesus stutter when he said, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

Jesus fit into a long
line of faithful and
unfaithful…

Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, but never forget He was also the Son of David. He fit into a long line of faithful and unfaithful, honorable and horrible, successful and scandalous. He knew His ancestry couldn’t make Him or break Him. Jesus was Who He was supposed to be.

So are you and I. Don’t let the skeletons in your family closet divert you from God’s purposes in your life!

The skeletons in Jesus’ family closet couldn’t make Him or break Him. Nor do ours. (click to tweet)

Do you have embarrassing—even shameful—family stories? Have you ever thought of Jesus’ genealogy in this way? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below. I love hearing from my readers!

Math, Psalms, and Real Righteousness

real-righteousnessMost of you don’t know this, but I love math—especially geometry. I love the organization of it, the logic, the confidence in repeatable results. I think math is beautiful. I haven’t persuaded my eleven-year-old of this perspective yet, but I’m working on him.

In math, order usually matters. 5 -3 ≠ 3 – 5. There’s an order in which to write the equation and there’s an order to the procedures used in solving it.

Boring!! Okay, I’ve already lost some of you. Here’s the point:

In the Christ-life, order also matters. But we don’t like the specified order. Just like a couple of Algebra I kids who think they can get creative with solving quadratic equations, we think we know better, easier ways to live out our lives.

Psalm 15.

In this psalm, David begins by asking God who can get close to Him. He says it much more poetically: Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? (Psalm 15:1). This is a recurring theme with David. He asks essentially the same question in Psalm 24:3. This time, David must have been thinking about Moses, whose face glowed after time spent with God in the tent of meeting or on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35).

Then David answers himself, running down a list of honorable actions (Psalm 15:2-5). It’s not the Ten Commandments but more a list of things to which a basically good person should pay attention. Here’s what’s interesting (well, one of the things): None of these things are about proscribed rituals. They are all about relationships!

Not Ritual but Righteousness

Rituals do not
produce righteousness.

Here’s David, who once sacrificed a bull and a calf every six steps when they were moving the ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:13). This guy knew how to “do” sacrifices! Yet when he considered what it takes to be close to God, it wasn’t about rituals. It was about relationships—specifically, relationships with other people. Long before Amos chastised the “cows” who paraded into religious ceremonies even while thinking up new ways to cheat each other (e.g. Amos 4:4-5), David knew our actions toward each other revealed far more about the condition of our hearts than any number of religious rituals. Wouldn’t Jesus say the same thing to the Pharisees, who tithed their herbs and spices while turning a blind eye to justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23)?

Not Regulation but Relationship

We need to be careful here, though. It would be easy to take this list of actions, hang it on the wall, and think we could be close to God by, for example, never slandering, never doing wrong to a neighbor, and never casting slurs (all from verse 3), along with the rest of the list.

What’s wrong with that? Well…

  1. It’s straight-up legalism.
  2. It’s impossible to do for a day, much less a lifetime, and even trying would we exceedingly stressful!
  3. It misses the whole point.

The actions listed here by David and lived out in relationships, all reflect a certain condition of the heart. They demonstrate kindness, peace, patience, self-control, etc. Wait. That sounds a lot like the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), doesn’t it? Ah ha! The heart condition must come before the demonstrations.

When my relationship with God is good and right, my relationships with others reveal it. This is the definition of righteousness.

Obviously, we no longer offer animal sacrifices. And thank goodness! Think how hard it would be to clean the church every Sunday if we had animals and blood all over the place. But we do try to regulate our Christianity.

We want to make righteousness (remember, that just means a right relationship with God) about what we do and don’t do: church attendance, tithing, not watching R-rated movies, schooling choices for our children, boycotting company X, etc.

We want to make
righteousness about what
we do and don’t do.

Let’s stop for a second here. Why is this? Why do we lean toward the regulations? I think it’s because they are easier and less messy that David’s list in Psalm 15. Honestly, I’d rather skip R-rated movies than try to always speak the truth from my heart (15:2). Such truth-telling might offend someone or it might compel me to do something inconvenient or difficult. A personal, intimate rightness with God (that definition of real righteousness again) will require me to confront my own moral failings, and well, that’s just more than I can handle. Know what I mean?

God has always said it’s our relationships with others that reveal our rightness with Him.

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. -1 Samuel 15:22

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. -Micah 6:8

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. -Matthew 10:42

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. -James 1:27

As you can see, in all three sections of the Old Testament (histories, wisdom literature, and prophets) and in both parts of the New Testament (gospels and letters), it’s our actions in relationships that confirm our connection with God. Never our rituals or regulations. And here’s the good news: We have the Holy Spirit, with His Fruit to both confirm our relationship with God the Father and empower us to live according to His standards. So I don’t worry about the list. I just focus on keeping my relationship with God in good condition.

Later in James,

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. -James 2:24

Perhaps this verse is the best to set alongside Psalm 15. The actions David describes are the tangible result of a righteous life, not the prescription for it. This is where the Christ-Life is like math. Order is important. The right relationship with God yields healthy, God-centered relationships with other people, never the other way around.

right relationship with God ⇒ right actions toward others

When your righteousness is revealed through your relationships, you will never be shaken (Psalm 15:5b). Just like my geometry proofs.

Get your relationship with God right, and it’ll show in relationships with others. (click to tweet)

Whew! I hope this made some sense. I feel like I just blurted a bunch of stuff onto the page. Let me know what struck you as significant and/or where I missed it. I always appreciate your comments.