Jesus Had a “Martha Moment”

Jesus spent most of his days preaching, teaching, and healing. In the moment we see here, He had sent His disciples off for a little two-by-two trial run, so He was managing the crowds by Himself. Just as the disciples returned, Jesus also heard that John the Baptist—His cousin and precursor—had been beheaded. It’s easy to see why Jesus wanted some time away from the crowds.

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Matthew 14:13a

Because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, [Jesus] said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.  –Mark 6:31-32

Jesus wanted to get away…to spend some time with the Father. As a leader, He needed to debrief his team. As a bereaved cousin, He needed to grieve for John. Jesus wanted some time at the feet of God, like the time His friend, Mary, would spend at His feet a little later (Luke 10:38-42).

He didn’t get that quiet time. Continue reading

All You Need is Love…and More Love*

It’s the week before Jesus will be crucified. A couple of days earlier, he came into Jerusalem like a triumphant king (Mark 11:1-11). You can bet the religious leaders (of every stripe) heard about that! Jesus spends these days in Jerusalem, often in the temple courts. The religious leaders come at him like waves of the ocean.

  1. Mark 11:27-33 (if you want to look it up): The chief priests, teachers, and elders ask him about his authority, and he entangles them in their own reasoning.
  2. Mark 12:13-17: The Pharisees and Herodians (a group of influential Jews who supported Rome) question him about taxes, and Jesus comes back with that oft-quoted line, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17 ESV).
  3. Mark 12:18-27: The Sadducees, having seen him shut down two groups already, think they have a better question. They pose a scenario about marriage and resurrection. Odd because Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection (Mark 12:18). Jesus used Scripture to refute their whole premise.

Three waves, three groups of scholars, and none of them could entangle or confuse Jesus. 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 Continue reading

Jesus Peeled Off Labels

The Calling of Levi (part I)

Bonnie and Clyde, peas and carrots, Smith and Wesson. Some things just go together. The phrases come out more like one word than three: peas-and-carrots. I do it to my kids, running their names together into one long, slurred, barely distinguishable word. But when they hear it, they know I’m talking to them!

Tax collectors and sinners. It’s probably not a common pairing for you, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, the two were synonymous. They belonged together, and the phrase was best said with a slight sneer (something of the Snape variety, for any Harry Potter fans). If you chose to become a tax collector, you were kicked out of the synagogue, ostracized in your community, and equated with pagans. You were a traitor, and that was the worst kind of sinner.

Of Levi (a.k.a. Matthew), the tax collector-cum-apostle, we have no back story. What made him choose Rome over Jerusalem? I want the story to be a like a Dickens novel where there was some family crisis and he had no choice. But maybe he wasn’t all that religious anyway, or he was from another part of the country, so no big deal to lose his ties to the community. Maybe he was just greedy. Tax collectors could make a lot of money, especially the unscrupulous ones.

Jesus was already
looking into Levi’s heart.

While we’re asking questions to which we don’t have answers… Did Levi remember the first time Jesus walked by, tossing his coins into the basket? I imagine Jesus was alone that first time. Then the next time, a few people were with him, then more and more followers until the group got so big it clogged up the traffic flow and people in the rear started complaining. I imagine Jesus looked Levi in the eye every single time he passed. I imagine he began to smile at Levi—something no proper Jew would ever do.

Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32.

One day, Levi was working in his tax booth outside Capernaum, as usual. He didn’t witness the healing of a crippled man after some friends lowered him through the roof. He didn’t know about the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees who witnessed that healing (Matthew 9:1-8). He was just minding his own business, trying to make a little money.

The crowd around Jesus was unmistakable as it approached his booth. He straightened up a little, checked his change drawer, and started plotting a way to carry all those coins home safely. As it happens, he wouldn’t carry even one coin home that day!

Jesus walked up to Levi, looked him in the eye, and said two simple words: “Follow me” (Mark 2:14). Oh, to hear the monologue in Levi’s mind at that moment! Surely, he hesitated for a second, surprised, just taking in the situation…or maybe weighing the cost of obedience.

Have you been there? Have you understood Jesus’ call and made that split-second decision that changed your life? Have you traded being an outcast for being part of His inner circle?

And then, to hear the thoughts in the mind of Peter or John, guys who never missed a Saturday at the synagogue, who grudgingly paid the tolls, and who tried to avoid anything even vaguely resembling “tax collectors and sinners.” They were among the first Jesus called, and they would have never guessed He would invite someone like Levi! That’s just not the way things were done. Were they shocked? Maybe a little embarrassed?

Jesus didn’t see the label.
Jesus saw the person.

But Jesus didn’t see the label, glued on by cultural pressure and religious obligation. Jesus saw the person. Jesus cut through all the red tape, all the layers of Pharisaical self-righteousness, all the ties to Rome. He saw a man who longed to follow Him, to be accepted, to be included. He saw a man who didn’t need someone to remind him of his failings or to supply him with a list of wrongs. He saw a man who was ready to believe.

Levi didn’t protest. He simply stood up, and he followed Jesus down the road.

What happened to the toll booth? Was there a back-up collector there to take over? Did people just plow through without paying? Neither Levi nor Jesus seemed to care, so I guess we shouldn’t either.

Labels. I couldn’t see the potatoes inside because of the big label on the bag. When I opened the bag at home, half of them were rotten!

Labels. Is it ironic to write about a guy named Levi, when Levi-Strauss is one of the most prominent clothing labels in the country?

Labels obscure so much
of who we really are.

Labels. We all wear the social kind. It seems impossible to function in our society without them. And yet, like the label on the bag of potatoes, they obscure so much of who we really are. Hopefully, that hidden part isn’t rotten, but you get my point. Jesus didn’t let labels influence his estimation of a person. It takes some major intentionality, but we’re called to do the same.

We’ll keep going on this story next week.

Jesus is still peeling back the labels on people, revealing their hearts. (click to tweet)

What label do you enjoy? What label do you hate? What label on other people blinds you to their true nature? I hope this post has given you something to think about. If you would like to leave a comment, I would appreciate it!

The Spiral Slide of Temptation

Imagine Peter, James, and John sitting in Gethsemane, waiting for Jesus to come back from praying…

It had been a long and significance-laden day, starting when Jesus sent a couple of disciples into town to find some man carrying a water jar. Random. But that man had a room available for Jesus and the disciples to observe Passover. Who still has a room unoccupied on the morning of the biggest celebration of the year? But there he was, and there it was. Mark 14:12-16 Continue reading

“Confident Humility” is not an Oxymoron

I think I’m fairly humble. I’m not proud of this fact (because if I was, then it wouldn’t really be humility). It’s just that I have incredible confidence in what God can do through me. It’s not what I do, but “God who works in [me] to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). While I don’t do it perfectly, I try to focus my gifts, skills, and resources on His glory. That’s why I write and why I parent the way I do and…well, why I do just about everything I do. But sometimes, I sense that people find me overly confident, maybe even arrogant. I used to feel bad about this…until I took a closer look at John the Baptist.

Mark 1:1-8. Also Matthew 3:1-17 and Luke 3:1-20.

We know from the other gospels that John was Jesus’ relative and that he was set apart (a Nazarite) from before he was born. When he was roughly thirty or thirty-one years old, he appeared in the wilderness, preaching (1:4). Not in a synagogue, not credentialed through Bible college or seminary, not paying his dues as a youth minister and waiting for his chance to shine in a pulpit. He was out in the sticks. People had to come to him. And boy did they come! Sure, it’s hyperbole, but Mark says all the country folk and all the city people showed up. There was this…charisma about him that didn’t come from his family tree or education. He was a messenger, a herald (like one who goes before a king to announce his arrival), a preparer (Mark 1:2-3, based on Old Testament prophecies).

John the Baptist confidently “owned”
his calling as a prophet.

Despite his lack of education and experience (Had he been preaching before this? The way Mark says he appeared makes me think not.), John identified himself with the prophets of old. The camel’s hair clothes and leather belt were the uniform, so to speak, of the Old Testament prophets. (I learned that in my NIV notes.) He confidently “owned” his calling, even confronting the Pharisees and Sadducees. Remember what he called them? “You brood of vipers!” (Matthew 3:7). Ouch.

John unapologetically said what needed to be said—not just to the religious leaders but also to the common people. The gospel writers summarize his message, but it would go something like this: “You have sinned, and you need forgiveness. Make a public display (baptism) of the fact that you recognize your sins for what they are and you truly want to change.” No sacrifices, no giving of alms. Forgiveness was between the individual and God. John didn’t beat around the bush, try not to step on people’s toes, or start each sermon with a joke.

People wanted to make a bigger deal
out of John than he thought proper.

At the same time that he spoke so confidently, John insisted that he was not the focus, not the important one in his ministry. Always, always, always, he pointed to the Messiah—even before he knew Jesus, his cousin, was the one to whom he was pointing. Remember, John was the first prophet in Israel for over 400 years. Camel’s hair coats with leather belts hadn’t been “in vogue” for a long time. You get the impression that people wanted to make a bigger deal out of John than he thought proper. His words in Mark 1:7 sound like a protest. In today’s language, he might say, “Stop it! There’s another guy coming who is way more important than me. In fact, I don’t even deserve the privilege of loosening the straps on his Chacos!” The Message puts it like this: “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life.”

Just think for a minute about the vigorous confidence of John’s authentic humility. How does it compare to the world’s concept of humility?

After pondering this for quite a while (like, years!) and reading about faithful people in the Bible, I’ve come to this definition of humility: Humility is a constant awareness of my position in relation to God Most High.

Example #2: Jesus

The Pharisees actually asked Jesus straight-up, “Who do you think you are?” (John 8:53). Check out His answer. It’s spot-on for confident humility:

If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. (John 8:54)

Jesus was confident in His relationship to the Father. That’s why James’ admonition to humble yourself before the Lord, and he will lift you up (James 4:10) finds its best example in Philippians 2:6-11, where Jesus made himself nothing and yet God exalted him to the highest place. If God wants to raise me, He will raise me. If He wants to lower me, He will do it. As believers, we don’t need to “scratch and claw” to get ahead. We don’t follow the American ideal of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” (a notion which Malcolm Gladwell disproved anyway in Outliers). Oh, I could write a whole post on this!

Analogy: Mirror

It’s our job to reflect Him.
It’s His job to put us in the
place where He is best reflected.

Think of yourself like a mirror in the sunlight. The mirror doesn’t—can’t—produce light. It creates that blinding glare by focusing diffuse sunlight. As believers, we simply reflect the Light while He repositions the mirror (rotating it, lifting it, lowering it) for greatest effect. In other words, it’s our job to reflect Him. It’s His job to put us in the place where He is best reflected.

mirror glare
(c) Carole Sparks

A mirror is only as beautiful as what it reflects. It would be ridiculous for a mirror to be vain, and it’s similarly ridiculous for us to be prideful.

For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. –Luke 14:11

Here’s my conclusion.

I don’t need people to tell me how great I am, and I don’t worry about how great I am. I know how great He is…and that’s enough.

 

Why am I sharing this now? Well, I read two separate articles on humility this week. Both of them say—more eloquently than I—much what I’ve stated here. Made you read mine first! I also included a couple of related links that I wrote.

Want to share this post?

“Confident Humility” is Not an Oxymoron: How real humility boldly asserts God’s glory. (click to tweet)

If you’d like to respond, leave me a note in the comments. I always respond.

Help! I don’t even know how to pray.

We’ve all been there: the pain so fresh, the desperation so palpable, the weakness so overwhelming that we don’t even know how to pray. You stumble into His presence and heave that burden off your shoulders. As it thuds on the floor, the impact reverberates through your feet and ankles so that you lose your balance. Sprawling at His feet, you seem to have lost the ability to speak. What then?

Mark 14:34-36.

Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt scars.

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” –Mark 14:34

Jesus experienced the same kind of desperate moment. In Gethsemane the night before He died, His preparation for the biggest moment in history involved falling on the ground and begging God to change His mind (14:35)! It’s not Jesus’ finest moment. But it is, in fact, His most human moment.

If Jesus can ask for relief, for a different outcome…

If Jesus can be weak, desperate, maybe even afraid…

Then we can, too.

First of all, know this: There is no sin in pain, in desperation, in weakness…even in longing for a different outcome. Let me say it again: Desperation is not a sin. Jesus was desperate (see also John 12:27-28, Psalm 55:4-5). Satan will try to make you hide your desperation or tend your pain yourself, but God already knows about it and already plans to take care of it.

The words of this
prayer aren’t for Him;
they are for you.

Secondly, you’ve already done enough. The fact that you brought your burden to God is enough. He can take it and act even if you say nothing. He doesn’t need your explanation. It’s you who needs to speak. The words of a prayer like this aren’t for Him; they are for you. That’s often the case with prayer, wouldn’t you say?

Let’s look at how Jesus prayed there in Gethsemane. Here we find a simple formula for our most desperate moments—one that reorients our minds toward God Himself.

“Abba, Father,” he said, “Everything is possible for you. Take this cup from Me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” –Mark 14:36

Address Him: To whom are you speaking?

“Abba, Father.”

Just by saying the name of God, we begin to put Satan in his place and turn our eyes toward the One we serve. Use any of the names of God that He places in your mind. Ultimately, this situation is about Him, not about you (or me).

Acknowledge Him: What do you know about Him?

“Everything is possible for you.”

God is omniscient, omnipotent, Creator, loving Father, Healer, Sovereign Ruler… He is whatever you truly need in your moment of desperation. He may not supply what you want (in your selfishness), but He is what you need.

Ask Him: What do you want Him to do in light of Who He is?

“Take this cup from me.”

Having recognized who God is and what He can do, you then apply that knowledge to your current situation. Ask Him for what you know He can give. In Jesus’ case, He wanted to avoid the pain and separation of crucifixion, and justifiably so!

Accept His Will: Will you give your burden to Him to do with as He wishes?

“Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

God may grant your petition or He may have a greater plan. Either way, you release the burden to Him and follow His leading from here on out. God could have thwarted the crucifixion of Jesus, but His glory (and our good!) was better served by allowing Jesus to continue in the path laid before Him. You know (Don’t you, friend?) that His will is greater and higher than any solution you devise on your own (Isaiah 55:8, Romans 11:33, Proverbs 3:5-6, Job 38:2, Romans 8:28…need I go on?). I’ve written about this in other places, if you want more.

Prayer Ratio

I noticed something interesting as I first wrote this in my quiet time journal awhile back. (Yes, my journal is sometimes alliterative; I can’t help it.) Three-quarters of this three-sentence prayer focuses on who God is and what He does. Only one-quarter focuses on what I want. As I pray, whether I fall before Him in desperation or dance before Him in joy, I’m trying to keep that ratio: ¾ Him, ¼ me.

“Prayer is not simply getting things from God—that is only the most elementary kind of prayer. Prayer is coming into perfect fellowship and oneness with God.” –Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, 9/16.

Because, even in my desperation, my orientation must be Godward.

A 4-step method of prayer for our most desperate situations, based on Mark 14:36 from @Carole_Sparks…because my #prayerlife is #NotAboutMe. (click to tweet)

How do you pray when you are most desperate, when the words don’t flow because the pain is so palpable? What do you think of this simple example? I would LOVE to hear from you in the comments below!

By the way, in my Bible Study, Dwell: Mary, Martha & Lazarus, we examine another of Jesus’ prayers—when he prayed just before calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

Fight, Flight, or Follow

fight or flight

Psychologists say we’re born with this fight-or-flight instinct. They say, when faced with a crisis, our adrenaline starts flowing, and we either stand up to fight or seek a way to flee. They say it’s just human nature.

They say it’s just human nature,
but we have Jesus’ nature in us.

But we’re not just human. We are Christ-followers.

Mark 14. Continue reading

Muffled but Magnified

(c) Carole Sparks
(c) Carole Sparks

She took her place at the back of the line. An imposing gentleman—yes, he was certainly a gentleman; she could tell by the fine cut of his robe and the straightness of his shoulders—blocked her view up the line. She was careful not to shuffle too far when the line shifted. She might accidentally touch that fine fabric. He would feel the nudge and most certainly glare at her. He shook his coin pouch, again gauging its heft and contents. Scanning the crowd, he snatched a few coins from the pouch and stuffed them into his pocket. Still there was quite a jangle in that sturdy bag.

The sonorous clank of many coins colliding with the pile already inside the offering box cut short her observations. No matter that the gentleman in front blocked her view. She kept count of her place in line by the rattling of coins. Most wealthy people—she knew this from long years of observation—gave in one of two ways. Either they slowly dropped each coin into the box separately, making a show of the length of time it took to give, or they dropped their coins into the box all at once, for maximum sound effect. Those of the second type sometimes even bumped the box with their hip at the same time to create a bigger sound.

She pulled her thoughts back and resumed the mental conversation she had started before rising that morning. Most would call it prayer, but it didn’t have any of the formality that ornamented temple prayers. God was her ever-present companion, a best friend, a confidant since before her husband died all those years ago. She recalled His comfort in the difficult days of the funeral…

As she neared the box, she pulled two coins from inside her belt. No need for a money bag with only these two, worn bits of copper. “Oh Father,” her silent prayer continued, “I love you more than my own life.” The corners of her mouth curled up. “That soup being sold on the corner smelled really good. Fresh squash mixed with cinnamon, wasn’t it? I would rather praise you than fill my stomach.

“I didn’t sleep well last night; the bed bugs are getting worse. These two coins might buy enough soap to clean my bed and clothes, but I choose to honor You rather than to have a restful night or to give off a pleasant smell.

“Because I couldn’t sleep, I finished the last candle before sunrise this morning. You already know that, don’t you? Without another, I won’t be able to read Torah tonight, but that’s okay. I’ll just recite that one part in Deuteronomy:

‘See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. … Now choose life…’*

Oh, yes, that’s one of my favorites!

“Yes, my Lord, I know you care about me and your Law protects me as a widow. You would never demand this, but I give you these coins—everything I have—because I prefer your glory to my gain. You are my Jehovah-Jireh. You know what I truly need, and you will provide it. I don’t do it to see what You will provide or for any sort of blessing but simply to remind myself that nothing compares to Your glory. I want this, because more than anything else, I want You.”

The gentleman in front of her dropped his coins into the box all at once, just as she had anticipated. He hurried off, already focused on his next bit of business. She stepped in front of the box, conscious of the long line behind her. Her hand hesitated just for a moment, then the two small coins fell in among the rest. The thickness of the box muffled any sound they might have made.

As she turned to go, a man sitting across the hall caught her eye. A different sort of man.

And she knew her gift was magnified before the Father.

Mark 12:41-44.

*Deuteronomy 30:15-19

She dropped in her coins. As she turned to go, a man across the hall caught her eye, and she knew her gift was magnified before God. Even my last #twocents are #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)