The Blind Man’s Been Bluffed

Someone led him to his usual spot on the side of the road in Jerusalem. He made himself comfortable on this Sabbath morning and prepared to do the same thing he’d done every day for years. The same thing he expected to do every day for the next thirty years, maybe longer. It was his penance. For what, he did not know. He groped at his side for his bowl and cleared his throat. “Some alms for the blind? Can anyone spare a half-cent or a quadran?”

Sometimes people were generous, especially on holy days, when more people passed and more of them gave alms. Sometimes a wealthy man would put his hand in the bowl and rattle it but the weight of the bowl didn’t change. Strange that the poorer people never did that sort of thing. Rarely, someone would stop to talk to him; those were the best days. Continue reading

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Nothing Much Happens in Nain

In the good-sized city of Capernaum, where Jesus was well-known, he healed a respected Roman military man’s servant without even entering the man’s home. Jesus marveled at this Gentile’s faith. Then for some unknown reason, Jesus led a huge group of people more than twenty miles away to a little town called Nain.

Nain was a small,
backwater sort of place.

It was south-east of Nazareth, not on the way to anywhere, not mentioned elsewhere in our Bible—a small, backwater sort of place. Nothing much usually happened in Nain. I imagine Jesus’ crowd doubled the population of the town. I imagine the merchants there rubbed their hands together when they saw so many people approaching while the mamas of the town let out a sigh of resignation. Continue reading

Jesus’ One and Only Party Trick

It was a beautiful day for a wedding, and Jesus enjoyed hanging out with his disciples and other friends. Jesus introduced them to his family, they had a nice meal, there was music…

John 2:1-11.

But where was that waiter? His disciples’ glasses were almost empty. Then Jesus felt a tap on His shoulder: His mother. “Jesus! They have no more wine,” she stage-whispered, urgency pushing the volume higher than she expected. I think Mary’s family must have been throwing this party because she is so invested in its success. Maybe one of Jesus’ cousins or brothers was getting married.

Jesus turns aside to speak with His mother privately. Maybe he took her by the arm and lowered His voice as they stepped away from the group. “Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.” (That means it wasn’t the right time for Jesus to “go public.”)

But Mary is undeterred. This wedding must go well. Ignoring Jesus’ protestations, she turns to the servants following her and confidently instructs them to do whatever Jesus tells them. I imagine Jesus let out a little huff of exasperation after His mother walked away. With the servants staring at him expectantly, He looks around. Six big water jars stand nearby. These are not jugs from which one might pour a glass of water but more like vats at which the Jews performed their ceremonial ablutions. Think twenty-gallon buckets or bigger. Jesus tells the servants to fill them with water. It takes a few minutes to transfer a total of at least 120 gallons to those stone jars.

The party continues just a few feet
away while Jesus steps out of
anonymity—His first miracle…

Everything is ready. The jars are ready, overflowing with water. The servants are ready, standing eagerly near the jars. The disciples are ready, watching with interest as the scene unfolds. The bride and groom, however, are oblivious, along with the dignitaries and other wedding guests. The party continues just a few feet away while Jesus steps out of anonymity—His first miracle—by…*pause for dramatic effect* doing nothing.

Don’t you want Him to do something impressive here?

  • To interrupt the Master of Ceremonies and have everyone pray
  • To wave his hand over the jars of water and mumble something mysterious
  • Even to simply dip His finger systematically into each jar.

But He doesn’t do any of that. This is such a non-event that, frankly, I’m a little disappointed.

Jesus gestures toward one of the servants, telling him to take some of the water to the MC. When the servant dips his ladle into the brimming jar, a purple liquid sloshes onto the ground beside it. As the servant makes his way to the front, Jesus returns to his seat with the disciples. They are dumbstruck, but He just resumes the conversation where He had left off.

The MC pulls the bridegroom aside and congratulates him for saving the best for last. The bridegroom, not knowing any better, just nods his head and smiles.

Let’s do a little math. It takes approximately five standard wine bottles to make a gallon. That means Jesus produced at least 600 bottles of wine, or 50 cases. Fifty cases of the best wine around! It would have been no less of a miracle if He’d changed one bottle, but. Just. Wow.

When you finish being refreshingly amazed by the miracle, take a look at these two observations.

Only what was necessary was miraculous.

Jesus’ miracle met them at
the limits of their ability.

Jesus could have refilled every glass in every hand or caused the jugs never to run dry (similar to what happened with the widow of Zarephath). He could have produced closed jugs of wine where none had existed. Something like, “Go look in the storeroom again. You’ll find a couple of cases there now.” He could have filled the dry water jugs directly with wine, making it appear suddenly. But He didn’t do any of that. He took what was already there and what the servants worked to provide, then finished the task. The miracle met them at the limits of their ability.

He will do this over and over for the next three years. Remember when He raised Lazarus from the dead? He had a few guys move the stone away from the grave entrance first.

Jesus didn’t draw attention to Himself.

He wasn’t interested in being a spectacle or an oddity. He didn’t want any special attention. In fact, He doesn’t even try to take credit for the fantastic wine. As usual, His miracle was for the ones it blessed, not for Him. His mother was stressed out, and He wanted to ease her burden. His disciples had only just begun to follow Him, and they needed a little glimpse of His glory (John 2:11). And the servants? Well, those innocent bystanders got a special treat that day.

Jesus’ miracle was for the ones
He blessed, not for Himself.

Sometimes with the Pharisees, He does miracles to provoke them, but usually, Jesus doesn’t want any acclaim. He told two formerly blind men, “See that no one knows about this” (Matthew 9:30). After the Transfiguration, He told the disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen (Mark 9).

In turning the water to wine, Jesus established much about the way He would do miracles in the future, but He also set a pattern for us. I can’t delineate it, but there are elements of our work mixed with His wonder in meeting our needs—the mundane parts of life and the miraculous. He expects us to do what we are able to do, then He does the rest.

Then when He does meet our needs in miraculous ways, the point is God’s glory, never our gain or special status with Him.

Water into wine: an introduction to Jesus’ miracle methods, not just a cool party trick. (click to tweet)

When you place yourself in this story, what do you see? What can we learn about Jesus from what happens here? I’d love to hear your responses in the comments below!

100th-Post Celebration and Giveaway!

Celebration

I didn’t know it until WordPress told me, but last week’s post was my 100th on this blog! What is more, since mid-September 2015, I’ve blogged every single week. Seems like it’s time to celebrate, doesn’t it? Today, I’m highlighting some of my earlier posts: stories and studies that you may have missed because you weren’t following me yet. I’ve revamped them to match my current format, adding pictures, subtitles, better tags, etc.

Giveaway

Take a look at a few posts that interest you (from the list below or from the archives) and leave a comment here. Tell me which posts you read (or re-read) this week and which post, out of all 100!, has been significant to you. Everyone who comments will be entered in a drawing to win one free digital copy of Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper. Even if you’re not a big Piper fan, this easy-to-read book includes his personal testimony and some fantastic encouragement. In fact, it was part of my impetus to start writing. Read more about the book by scrolling down on the I Just Read… page.

Want more ways to enter the drawing? You can…

  1. Follow this blog (sidebar on the right).
  2. Follow me on Twitter.
  3. Follow me on Instagram.
  4. Like my Facebook page.

I’ll include your name again for each action. The drawing will take place on Friday, July 29, 2016, so you only have one week!

Here are the updated posts.

Miracles

A - bird at pool
(c) Carole Sparks

God’s Priority: His Kingdom – When Jesus chose to heal the crippled man beside the pool of Bethesda, He had a particular purpose in mind.

 

 

 

stream bed
(c) Carole Sparks

Whaddaya Want? – What is the purpose of prayer? Here’s one answer, found in a miracle of Jesus.

Stories/Analogies

“Story remains a basic human path toward the discovery and ordering of meaning and beauty.” –Jane Hirshfield

07-27 roller coaster (6)
Six Flags Over Georgia (c) Carole Sparks

Faith is in the Gap* – Remember the last time you rode a roller coaster? I make a comparison here between the experience of climbing onto the roller coaster and faith in our lives. It’s a creative, fun piece.

 

 

castle
castle near Kaub, Germany (c) Carole Sparks

The Ball Gown – A Parable – Sometimes people are hesitant to put their spiritual gifts on display, thinking they will detract from God. This flash fiction piece (though I didn’t know that term when I wrote it) dispels that idea.

 

 

Poetry

“The process of revising a poem is no arbitrary tinkering, but a continued honing of the self at the deepest level.” –Jane Hirshfield

08-27 Greece (121)
Parthenon Museum, Athens (c) Carole Sparks

Who Am I? – a poem about identity that, ironically, is Not About Me.

 

 

 

 

12-16 Kizimkazi sunset (2)
(c) Carole Sparks

Flat Earth Society – This is probably my favorite poem on the blog. Let me know what you think about it.

 

 

 

07-03 2014 Bristol Caverns (14)
Bristol Caverns (c) Carole Sparks

Illumination – I was thinking about spiritual blindness and how we come to truly see.

Don’t Get Too Close to Jesus or You May Lose Your Lunch

Jesus and his disciples climbed up the side of a steep hill. A little out of breath, they sat down on some rocks. A huge crowd of people had followed them to this remote place; some of the people were looking for healing, some for entertainment, and a few just wanted to see what Jesus would say next.

John 6:1-13 in which Jesus feeds 5,000 people, but there’s so much more…

Can you see it? Can you put yourself there among the disciples? I like to think that Jesus scans the crowd, gets a sneaky grin on His face, then maybe He catches John’s eye and winks. Turning to Phillip, he says, “Hey, Phillip! You’re from around here, where can we get food for all these people?” Phillip looks out over the crowd and sighs. He furrows his brow; his words are clipped, impatient: “It would take six months’ pay to give all these people even one bite each!” While Phillip looks around for Judas, the money keeper, for confirmation, Jesus glances back at John with an I-told-you-so glint in His eye.

These are about to become the
most famous leftovers in history!

But that whole exchange had one purpose: to set up what comes next. Andrew has also taken Jesus’ question seriously and thinks he’s found something. There’s a boy, probably ten or eleven years old, whose mama packed him some lunch. It’s just some leftovers, something to tide him over until dinnertime, but they are about to become the most famous leftovers in history!

Let’s give this boy some backstory. (I’m making this up.) No school that day. The morning chores are done. Some prophet named Jesus is in town. If he hangs out near Jesus, maybe he’ll see a miracle or an arrest or something else interesting to talk about at school tomorrow. Mom says he can go; she even throws some food in a bag in case he gets hungry. He slings a “Thanks!” over his shoulder before the door slams behind him.

Being shorter than most of the adults in the crowd near Jesus, he inches his way to the front and finds a spot off to the side, where he has a good view of the hill and the crowd. While he’s waiting for something to happen—anything, really—one of Jesus’ permanent followers spots him and steps back down the hill. I like to think that Andrew was kind to the boy and that he invited him up onto the hill instead of forcing him. Andrew isn’t sure such a meager offering will help, but at least it’s something. (Or maybe Andrew knows Jesus can make something out of virtually nothing. After all, he still remembers the fantastic wine at that wedding the year before.)

Jesus takes away this child’s food.
It seems wrong.

Andrew throws out a vague question, “How far will such a small amount of food go when so many need to eat?” (I’m paraphrasing.) Jesus doesn’t answer. Instead, he tells the disciples to instruct everyone in the crowd to sit down. The boy remains standing there beside Jesus. While the disciples are busy getting situated (and probably fielding questions such as, “Why?”), Jesus looks at the boy and does something strange. If we didn’t know the story, we might even think Him cruel. He takes away this child’s food.

I have a ten-year-old boy. He doesn’t share his food willingly. It makes me think that maybe this little guy hesitated as well. If he lets go of his bag, he will (based on previous experience) go hungry that day, and his mama may scold at him. He doesn’t want to go hungry, and he doesn’t want to get in trouble. But there’s something about Jesus that’s different from every other adult he’s ever met. For some reason, the boy knows he can trust Jesus, so he lets go. He lets Jesus take the whole bag. He doesn’t reach in, grab just one roll, and stuff it in his pocket just in case. Sure, it’s basically five crackers and two sardines—not much by anyone’s standards, but the boy gives it all. As he looks up at Jesus’ face in that moment, I think he sees the delight in Jesus’ eyes and the smile of anticipation playing at the corners of Jesus’ lips.

The little boy bounds back down the hill and finds a place to sit with some other kids his age. When they start passing around the fish and bread, he feasts until he can eat no more. The leftovers he carried that morning would have staved off hunger, but they never would have filled him like this!

What was barely sufficient for one
becomes sustenance for many. Even
my #leftovers are #NotAboutMe,
via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Do you see it? The boy had to let go of the meager portion he’d been given in order to receive the greater portion Jesus offered to all. What was barely sufficient for him became sustenance for many.

Oh friends! We try to hold onto the individual rations meted out to every person when He wants us to let go so He can convert them into plenty. But we have to give them to Jesus first. This is not logical; it’s uncommon sense. There has to be a moment when we have nothing, when we’re not only empty-handed but bare…maybe even desperate. For a few minutes there, the boy had no food at all. Then Jesus begins to bless what we’ve released, and we receive back far more than we surrendered—not only us, but everyone around us receives from what we thought was barely enough for us alone.

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.Matthew 16:25

Has God asked you for something very difficult to release, then returned it to you multiplied and blessing many? Have you questioned God’s economy? I’d love to know what’s on your mind after reading this. Leave me a note in the comments!

For further consideration: In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25), those who saw a return on their investment first had to let go of their money. It was out of their hands for some amount of time.

Read another Biblical story of a humble person who gave everything: Muffled but Magnified.

Treading Water or Treading On Water

Oh, the difference a preposition makes.

I learned to tread water in swim lessons when I was a little girl (pool water cold so early in the morning, parents watching from outside the chain-link fence). They said it was easy, but I never thought so. Treading water means constantly kicking your feet and constantly sweeping your arms back and forth in order to keep your head above the water. Floating, on the other hand…floating was the way to go. But you don’t get anywhere floating, at least not anywhere you want to go. Treading water isn’t very mobile either, but at least you can see what’s around you.

Of course I’ve never walked on water. Apart from the fact that it takes a miracle, seems like it would be easy: no rocks on which to stub your toe, no holes in which to turn your ankle. Yes, treading on water would be way easier than treading water. That’s the difference a preposition makes.

Peter found that out the hard way.

Matthew 14:25-33. It was windy, and the rolling waves made the boat rock roughly back and forth. No big deal for Peter, though. He was a fisherman, and he’d surely seen worse than this. The waves and wind weren’t what frightened Peter and the other disciples. It was the “ghost” coming toward them on top of the water. Still too far away to recognize, Jesus knew their fear, and his voice carried across the wind (or maybe it was a miracle), “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).

Walking on water was
Peter’s idea, not Jesus’.

Rather than “Rock” (for which Petros is the Greek), Jesus should have named Simon Peter whatever the Greek word is for “Impulsive!” Peter decided to go meet Jesus out there on the water. He was not afraid to jump out of the boat and into the water (see also John 21:7). But walking on water was Peter’s idea, not Jesus’.

Treading on Water

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be like Jesus. I wish I were as kind and patient as Jesus. I wish I had the authority with which He spoke to crowds. I wish I could do a miracle or two, just to get people’s attention. All these, however, are external aspects of Jesus’ identity, and I think this is where Peter found his motivation. Peter wanted so much to be close to Jesus, to be like Jesus, that he longed to do what Jesus did. In this case, to tread on water. These external things, however, are not the essence of Jesus’ character. The central characteristic of Jesus was (and still is) His relationship with the Father. That relationship constitutes the source of everything tangible that Peter tried to emulate. Jesus’ actions were just the by-product of His essence.

Actions are the
by-product of essence.

Copying the actions without the essence is like putting on a mask. It doesn’t change who you are. Yes, “emulation is the highest form of flattery,” but Jesus wasn’t looking for flatterers. He wanted followers.  He wanted people who knew Him intimately and obeyed Him unceasingly.

So why didn’t Jesus tell Peter “No”? Instead, Jesus tells him, “Come” (14:29). Knowing he would falter, why did Jesus let him do it? I don’t really know, but perhaps…

  • Peter needed to learn the limits of his budding faith (14:31).
  • The other disciples needed a passive (i.e. safe) push to their own faith (14:33).
  • Jesus knew how important this story would be down through the centuries, and so He permitted Peter’s embarrassment for our benefit. (How many sermons, lessons, even songs have you heard from this passage? I loose count. Thanks, Peter!)

Treading Water

When Peter “came to his senses,” we might say, fear set in. He was like me, during that same set of swimming lessons, when I strolled onto the high dive like it wasn’t a big deal only to freeze in terror there at the end, with the diving board bouncing and the chill bumps spreading over my body. Maybe his legs locked up, or maybe Peter kept striding forward, thinking, “I can do this. I can do this.” Even as the water covered his ankles, his calves, his knees….

You see, because Peter’s desire was his own, not Jesus’, Peter operated in the strength of his own faith. That was no shabby faith. Doubtless, he walked further than most of us would walk today. But when Peter reached the limits of his faith, when he began to compare his strength to that of the waves and wind, he sank. Then he just hung there, treading water where he had been treading on water.

Faith and Power

Our faith is not the fuel for
obedience. His power is.

As Christ-followers, we cannot live according to what we think is a good idea or what we think Jesus wants. We cannot depend on our faith to fulfill His will. Don’t misunderstand me here. We need faith, and our faith increases as we grow in Him, but our faith is not the fuel for obedience. It’s His power that gives us everything we need for a godly life (2 Peter 1:3). It’s His power, which raised Jesus from the dead, that works in us (Ephesians 1:19). It’s His power that makes us witnesses (Acts 1:8). It’s His power that will finish what He has started in us (Philippians 1:6).

We can’t dig into Peter’s mind that windy evening when he so rashly jumped out of the boat. It’s safe to say, however, that “his mouth was writing checks his faith couldn’t cash.” It’s quite possible that he was operating in his own strength, depending on his own faith. (Compare Acts 3:12.) Be careful not to put too much faith in your faith. It’s limited and its power is derivative.

Do you know whose faith is limitless and whose power is unmatched? Jesus’.

Be careful not to put to much faith in your faith. Our faith is only effective when Jesus is its source and goal. My #faith is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Can you tread water easily? I’m still no good at it. I’m trying to get a little better at keeping my faith properly centered, though. What about you? How does Peter’s sinking scene influence your faith? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

 

Fame and Infamy: A Retelling of Luke 8:40-56 (part 2)

Two desperate people. One famous, one infamous. Both loved by Jesus. Both restored.

Intimate Impurity, Stolen Salvation

Twelve years. Twelve years of shame and judgment. Twelve years without the touch of another person. Twelve years of poking, prodding doctors who lined their purses with her desperation.

News travels fast in a small town. Continue reading