Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Just What I Needed Today

This morning, in my inbox, I found the following devotional thought from Michael Card. Maybe it will speak to you, too.

Struggling in Prayer

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
Mark 1:35

There are different kinds of weariness. Sometimes the cure is to rest and sleep. Often we see Jesus doing just that. He knew when His body needed the refreshment of sleep. But there is another kind of weariness; a weariness of the soul that only prayer can heal. That is the kind of weariness Jesus was fighting on that particular morning.

The Bible tells that He went to a “solitary place”. But the text, literally, speaks of an eremos topos, a wilderness or desert place. Using this word gives us the sense not simply of His being alone, of finding solitude – but of being surrounded by the desolation and danger of the wilderness. Mark’s Gospel tells us that during His temptation in the wilderness Jesus was “with the wild beasts” (1:13 NKJV). The place to which Jesus retreats for prayer is menacing and unsafe. It is a picture of the real world, unveiled. Jesus leaves the warmth of His bed and the companionship of His friends and wanders into the wilderness, seeking in the midst of it the familiarity of His Father. There are two points, it seems that we can make of all this.

First, we should consider the nature of the One who rises so early to spend the morning in prayer. He is the Son of God, who bears the fullness of the image of the Father. He is the One who is always obedient, who always hears and does just what His Father tells Him to do. And yet, many times He found it necessary to spend the entire night in prayer. His relationship with the Father was everything to Jesus. And prayer seems to be the foundation of that relationship. If it was so important for Jesus to spend large blocks of time in prayer, how much more should we be spending that kind of time speaking and, more importantly, listening to the Father. Second, the fact that the wilderness was the place Jesus sought for prayer should tell those of us who seek only comfort and safety that God is best found and heard in the midst of terror and turmoil. We want to flee, to retreat to the sanctuary for prayer. And there is nothing wrong with that. But Jesus shows us there is more to prayer than comfort and security. There is also the wrestling in the wilderness with what sickens us and scares us to death. There is a struggle with God and His will for us that might indeed leave us limping like Jacob after the battle is over. But it is precisely the limp, the woundedness, that we may most need to experience and that the world most needs to see in us.

This morning God is calling us to come to Him in the desert, to meet with Him in the most arid place of our souls. He is asking us to follow and to find His Son there in the middle of the danger and turmoil that we know exists outside our door. He is inviting us to join, with Jesus, in the battle that is prayer. He invites us to take off the gloves, to lean into the fight with all we are. Only then can we stand alongside His Son as He sends us out to speak His Word and do His will.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Our Fickleness; His Faithfulness

I'm afraid of whom I'd have been. I can't honestly imagine I'd have believed he was really the Christ, especially from a distance. I don't know that I'd have been shouting for his crucifixion, but I don't know that I'd have been waving the palm branches earlier in the week, either.

Which makes me kinda pathetic. "Pick a side, quit riding the fence," my mind screams. Yet, as far as any average Joe or Jane of the day knew, the death of Jesus of Nazareth wouldn't affect them personally. Sure, those who'd walked with him and called him "friend" would grieve over his loss, and those who admired his good works and teachings would experience sadness or disappointment. But what about the guy in the crowd who'd been fed by the loaves and fishes? What about the woman whose child Jesus laid his hands on, blessed and prayed over? They'd been affected by something he did, but was it enough to coerce them toward crying out for Jesus' preservation?

We are a fickle creation. Case in point:

Judas. Following Jesus for three years didn't develop a loyalty strong enough to overcome pride, vanity or greed. Yet at the moment of his betrayal, Jesus calls him, "Friend" (Matthew 26:50). Jesus - ever faithful. Was there even a twinge of guilt in Judas' heart at that moment?

Peter. Jesus warned him of three denials. Peter (and the other disciples) insisted they would not deny him. In a matter of hours the other disciples were scattered in fear and Peter, a virtual ambulance chaser, follows the horror from scene to scene, promptly refusing to acknowledge any association with Jesus. We know they all later sensed remorse over their abandonment. Yet, when Jesus is questioned by the high priest about his disciples, Jesus doesn't call names, or drag them into the mix with him (like I probably would have).

I think the assemblers of the Bible did an admirable job, but I don't like the break they placed between the last verse of John 13 and the first verse of John 14. Jesus is still speaking, and the connection between the chapters is too amazing to miss: While his last words to Peter in chapter 13 are "you will deny me three times," his first words in chapter 14 are "do not let your heart be troubled." How phenomenal. Paraphrased, Jesus is saying, "I know you're going to pretend you don't even know me, but don't let this bother you (because it doesn't bother me)." Forever faithful, Jesus doesn't even condemn human fickleness. Instead, he welcomes us, even prepares a place for us.

And that's what Easter did. Prepared the way for our resurrection, our hope, our life with Him for eternity. In spite of our wishy-washy devotion. In spite of our foolish pride and fear. He still calls us "Friend," and trusts us with the greatest responsibility of all history: to let others know how faithful he will be to them.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Thursday Night

Thursday night. The Garden of Gethsemane. You've probably heard the story. Jesus grieves over the pain of the cross, gripes at his disciples for not praying for him and gets arrested. Pretty familiar stuff. But, as I've read again the accounts of Jesus in that Garden, I'm moved, touched, affected by the agony of his struggle.

According to Matthew and Mark, three times he prayed to get out of the suffering he'd endure. He wasn't walking toward the cross naive about the excruciating pain and destitute loneliness he'd experience; he'd spent large portions of time with people with all sorts of maladies, injuries, rejections and sorrows. In one fell swoop he'd absorb not only the physical brunt of human hatred, but the spiritual blow of God's (His Daddy's) wrath. That's a desperate situation in which to voluntarily place yourself. No wonder he sought a way to get out of it. He was fully human, after all.

And yet, three times, he prayed to want the will of the Father. I wonder if it took three times for him to pray to want God’s will, because he needed convincing that was truly what he wanted. Mentally, he knew he wanted the Father’s will. Perhaps emotionally, he wrestled within. He said, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41); maybe he was talking about himself, too, not just the disciples' sleepiness. I've known that struggle. Trying to get my heart in line with my head. Jesus knew the right thing to do was endure the cross. Over and over he did things so "the scriptures might be fulfilled" (John 13:8; 17:12; Luke 4:21, etc.) He knew he had a job to do, a purpose to accomplish. He knew James would later write, "to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin" (4:17). He was sinless. He always chose rightly. He couldn't not do this and still be sinless. But the "want to" of his heart wasn't following the "got to" of his head. So he had to pray to want God's will. I'm glad, because sometimes, my heart truly wants what I want more than what God wants. It's ok to follow Jesus' example of asking God to change my "want to."

What's amazing to me is Luke tells us an angel appeared to "strengthen" him (22:43). It doesn't say the angel "comforted" or "ministered to" him, but "strengthened" him. In other words, the plan isn't changing; get ready. There are times, when doing God's will, that feeling good (secure, alleviated, encouraged) isn't even an option. Instead, with the appearance of the angel "he prayed more fervently," and even still "he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood" (22:44).

This isn't getting any better.

In the meantime, the disciples are conked out. According to John 18:1-2, Jesus often went to Gethsemane with them. That's probably why it wasn't urgent to them to stay awake. They'd likely fallen asleep here before, waiting for Jesus to finish praying. They didn't know this time was different than the others.

He needed their prayers for strength and obedient courage. I wonder if they'd stayed awake praying, if the angel's appearance would have even been necessary? It's incredible. In his moment of greatest angst, fear and dread of the future (he knew exactly what was coming; he knew precisely what trauma he would face), their selfish hearts and bodies succumbed to personal desires, and they slept peacefully. For about an hour, anyway. Then, God allowed Hell to break loose.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


The Wednesday before Easter has an unusual moniker in some Christian expressions of faith. The most traditional is "Holy Wednesday," which acknowledges the holiness of the fulfillment of Scriptures in the life of Christ (see Zechariah 11:12-13). But my favorite label for the day is "Spy Wednesday," indicative of the work of Judas on that day as he conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty silver coins.

It seems pretty clear from Matthew 26, Mark 14 and John 12 that what sent Judas over the edge was the anointing of Jesus' feet with costly perfume. Clearly he was standing pretty close to that edge already. Perfume? Feet? Get over it. I love how John tells it like it really is. While all three Gospel writers admit the disciples were miffed the perfume hadn't been sold to help the poor, John tells the REAL truth, Judas "said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and...he used to pilfer what was put into [the money box]" (vs. 7). What's amazing to me is it appears everybody already knew that about his character. There certainly wasn't time for him to have confessed his thievery at any point following the upcoming events. And even knowing the truth about Judas' behaviors, Jesus had still let him be in charge of the group's financial assets! Judas is a biblical Bernie Madoff! (Which shows Jesus isn't afraid of or threatened by any economy or financial investor, so we shouldn't be either. But that's a side note.)

I can just hear Judas' rationale for his theft, "I'm one of the poor. I don't have a steady job or income since I'm following Jesus around all the time. And don't I deserve this for all the times I've preached, healed and removed demons (Luke 9:1-6), distributed and picked up baskets of food (Matthew 14), endured his sermons on humility (Mark 9:35), helped arranged meals (Matthew 26:17-19), stayed with him when he didn't make sense (John 6:66-71), stood by him against the Pharisees (Mark 8:10-11)? Wow, I'm a pretty good guy for doing all this!"

Judas' selfish greed extended much deeper within his soul than just the desire for money. Greed is merely an expression, a symptom, if you will, of a greater and more cancerous illness: pride. And I think that's what sent him over the edge with Jesus. When he saw the love and forgiveness exuding from Jesus to the woman annointing him, Judas' pride couldn't take it. "How dare he show such mercy? How dare he offer such extravagant grace? I can't even stand to be in the presence of such a sinful woman--whose sin is so much greater than my own." If only he'd admitted his own sin at that moment and fallen at Jesus' feet with her, how different the story might have been for him.

Instead, his self-righteous pride grew deeper roots and suffocated any seeds of humility or repentance planted in his soul, so that when the opportunity presented itself, he found the Sanhedrin and offered them his support toward killing Jesus in exchange for money. And he began looking for the chance to betray Jesus. Spy Wednesday, indeed.