Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Extravagant Love

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Matthew 26:6-13

No one writes romance novels about doing the laundry or washing the dishes for your spouse. Not only are these small acts of love not very interesting but they also don't appeal to our emotions as strongly as grand acts of love do. There is little doubt that without these daily acts of love the grand displays of affection would be empty, but it's also true that any truly great love story needs at least one extravagant gesture of love. 

This may give us something to think about in our relationship with our spouse, but today's passage pulls our gaze towards our relationship with Jesus. When was the last time you got carried away in your love for Christ? Have you ever gone beyond merely doing what you should do for Him and did something extravagant for Him because you wanted to? How sad it will be for those Christians who, when they are called home, realize that their love for Jesus was never strong enough to cause them to do anything risky, costly, or extravagant.

The woman in today's passage may have heard Jesus teaching the disciples that He would soon be killed and was moved by a sense of urgency to show an incredible display of love. She took what was almost certainly one of her most valuable possessions and sacrificed it to bless Him. Jesus was so moved by her beautiful act that He said it would be remembered and preached throughout the world. If you feel the tug to love Jesus extravagantly today then there are three things you'll need to consider from her story.

  1. There will always be people ready to criticize you for giving sacrificially to Jesus. Sadly these critical people will often come from within the church. In the story it was the disciples who immediately question the woman's decision. Some may criticize you by suggesting a more effective charitable outlet for your funds or they argue that some financial need within your family should have taken priority. Others may suggest that you are being emotional or seeking attention. But like the woman in the story, don't respond to them. You weren't trying to please them anyway. Your focus should stay on the object of your love. He will answer them in due time.
  2. We have limited time to show our love to Jesus. Jesus was only a matter of days away from His crucifixion when this happened. Had she waited too long, she would have lost her opportunity. Her time was limited by Jesus' impending departure; ours is limited by His impending return. We don't know how long we have to use our time, talents and money in this world to display our love for Jesus. But once He returns, that opportunity will have been lost.
  3. We can't pour out our love on Jesus the same way she did, but we can still give to Jesus. In the previous chapter, He tells us how. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus says, "Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me." We show Jesus our love by loving other believers extravagantly.
What was the last risky, costly, or extravagant thing your love for Jesus led you to do? What do you sense His Spirit and His Word leading you to do for Him now? Now, be bold and extravagant!

For further reading...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bite the Wax Tadpole (W.o.W. Rewind)

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Matthew 13:31-33 

We live in a global age. Nowadays most large companies have adjusted to this fact and are sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences that may arise in their global marketing campaigns. This wasn't always the case though. Many companies made big mistakes when they first went abroad because they didn't pay attention to the little things. As the old adage goes, "The little things can make a big difference." Here's one example. When Coca-Cola first entered the Chinese market it chose a series of characters which rendered a sound similar to Coca-Cola. Literally it sounded like Ke-ke-ken-la. It wasn't until after they had already printed thousands of signs that the executives at Coke discovered that the literal rendering of the characters meant "bite the wax tadpole" in one Chinese dialect. Needless to say this probably didn't help sales. Coke later changed it's Chinese brand name to Ko-kou-ko-le which means "happiness in the mouth."

Little things really do make a big difference! This pretty well sums up what Jesus meant by his parable of the mustard seed. It's easy for us to think about Christianity (or as Jesus liked to call it "the kingdom of God") from a 21st century perspective and forget that it was ever small. It's easy for us to forget that the kingdom must have seemed insignificant back then. It consisted of mainly a carpenter turned preacher and his ragtag group of uneducated disciples. We look back over the centuries and see the millions of believers, all the great thinkers and theologians, the famous sermons, and the great revivals. But Jesus spoke these words sometime around 30AD. Christ is going around and teaching people that the kingdom of God is at hand. It could arrive anytime now. Be ready! Watch! But people expected a glorious king to arrive in pomp and splendor and by comparison Jesus may have seemed a little disappointing. He couldn't even keep all of His followers (John 6:60-71).

Christ reminds his contemporaries about the properties of the mustard seed. Though it was the smallest of their seeds, when planted and given time it grew into a tree which was large enough for birds to nest in its branches. So too is the kingdom. God chose to start small but over time it has gown larger than anyone could have imagined. This is a helpful reminder for me because there are days when what I have to offer God doesn't seem much bigger than a mustard seed. There are days when the work I am doing for the kingdom seems insignificant. On those days, it is helpful to be reminded that we serve a God who uses the small things.  A God who oftentimes starts with what little we have to offer and then multiplies it by the power of His Spirit to do great things. (John 6:1-15).

So if you are feeling like what you have to offer God is a little insignificant today, remember that we serve the guy who bragged on a widow for offering a mite! (Mark 12:41-44) So stop worrying about the fact that you aren't the next Billy Graham. Simply do what God has called and gifted you to do and trust Him to use it for His glory. If you work the security team at your church do it to His glory. If you keep babies in the nursery, do it for His glory. If you serve on the Finance Committee do it for His glory and trust Him to take your small offering and make a big impact. But don't use this as an excuse. You may feel like you are insignificant in the kingdom because you legitimately aren't doing anything. You aren't serving the Lord in any way. You aren't speaking to your neighbors or your friends about salvation. You aren't serving your church or even going to church at all. If so, then remember that the small things make a big difference in your life too. Start doing the little things you know should. Go to church. Pray. Read your Bible. Tell someone else about Jesus; plant a seed in their life. Start small and surrender yourself to God to do the rest over time. Remember the kingdom starts small and small things can make a big difference. 

For further reading...
John 6 (especially 6:1-15 & 6:60-71) - Can you see the kingdom?
Mark 12:41-44 - The widow's mite.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bringing Increase by Decreasing (W.o.W. Rewind)

An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” 

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
John 3:25-30

You can almost hear the panic in the voices of John's disciples. They're concerned that John (the prophet and teacher to whom they have dedicated their lives) is losing his influence. By reading between the lines a little, you even sense a small amount of disdain toward Jesus and His ministry. "The one you testified about," they say. You were so gracious to Him. You honored and exalted Him and now He is encroaching on your turf! He is baptizing and people are going to Him instead of you. This, of course, presents a real problem for John the Baptist. He is kind of pigeon-holed into a certain type of ministry now. He is called John the Baptist after all.

John's response to his disciple's is truly remarkable. Like Job he acknowledges that all he has in life comes from God and ultimately will return to God. John points out that the same is true for Jesus. "If Jesus is receiving influence as mine is waning, then it is because God has chosen to take it away from me and give it to Him," John says. He continues with a wedding metaphor. "Jesus is the groom," he says. "I'm the best man." Does it make sense for the best man to be angry and jealous that the groom is getting married? No! The best man should rejoice and be happy for his friend. So too, John says, "That joy is mine, and it is now complete."

John knows that this isn't his story. He isn't the main character, but he can find joy in playing his part well. He dares not try to steal the lead role from Jesus. "He must become greater; I must become less," John says. In other words, "It's not about me!" What John wanted more than anything was for God's kingdom to advance in this world. Everything else in life was secondary to that goal, even his own personal fulfillment and social standing. His disciples had momentarily lost sight of that.

We sometimes do as well. We work so hard to get ahead at work, to build a life for our family, to build a program or Bible study at church that before we know it we get caught in the trap of thinking that life is about us or our ministries. We make the mistake of thinking that these things are the end goal themselves. They are not. They are merely a means to the end of bringing glory to God and advancing the gospel. Sometimes the gospel advances when you are transferred to a lower paying position or when your hopes for your family are thwarted or even when your church doesn't keep pace with the growth of the church down the street. In those moments how will you respond? Are you willing to decrease so that Jesus might increase? Will you continue to serve Him faithfully even when things aren't going your way? Do you serve God to advance the cause of Christ simply because God deserves your faithful service or are you just trying to make a name for yourself?

Drawing nearer to God almost always requires some form of self-denial. It requires taking up our cross and dying to our selfish desires so that He might use us more effectively for His glory. Are you willing to decrease so that Jesus might increase in your family, office, or church?

For further reading...
  • Job 1:1-2:10- Job understood his place in relation to God.
  • Mark 12:28-30- The greatest commandment requires that God hold first importance in our lives.
*A version of this post was originally published on this blog under the title "What is Your Life About?" on 12/14/11.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cares of this World

Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.
Luke 21:34

My grandfather had a great rule of thumb. He always said that if something wasn't going to make a difference in his life one, five or ten years from now; then it wasn't worth worrying about. The truth is that we spend an exorbitant amount of time worrying about things that we won't even remember five years from now. Jesus reminds us that worry can cost us much more than wasted time, though. If we aren't careful the cares of this life can distract us from the ultimate importance of eternal matters. 

In today's passage Jesus warns us about three things that can weigh our hearts down and cause us to be caught off guard on the day of His return: drunkenness, carousing, and the anxieties of life.* It is easy to see how drunkenness could distract us as well as carousing. (According to Blue Letter Bible in the original language carousing meant "the giddiness and headache caused by drinking wine to excess.") What comes as a surprise to me is the addition of the cares or anxieties of this life. We don't tend to consider worry to be nearly as dangerous as a drinking problem. I can imagine all manner of Christian friends rushing in to confront a fellow believer over drunkenness, but it's hard to imagine them rushing in to confront a brother over being weighed down by the cares of this world.

But the truth is that all three of these things come from the same root. They all stem from a believer being too focused on this world and not nearly focused enough on the next. When a believer gives in to his desires and lust for things in this world it can cause him to run headstrong after these things (like in drunkenness) or it can cause him to be worry over these things. Either way the believer's problem is that his focus has been moved off of eternity and onto the things of this world. He is giving this world more weight than it deserves. The weightier this world seems to us, the more ethereal and abstract heaven is. Conversely, the more heavily heaven weighs in our thoughts the more the things of this world are exposed for the hollow shell that they are.    

Jesus shows that my grandfather's rule doesn't go quite far enough. We must be careful not to be weighed down by the worries of this life at all. In essence Jesus asks, "Will it matter in eternity?" If not, then don't spend time worrying about it. Sure all of us have to live in the reality of this world and sometimes that means dealing with things like paying the bills and washing the car. But we must keep these things in their proper place. We cannot let them begin to push eternity out of our hearts and minds. We must not let the mundane and the meaningless so overwhelm us that we lose sight of our great hope in Christ's return. We dare not become experts in managing the temporary and forget to prepare for the eternal.

For further reading...
  • Luke 8:1-15 (esp. vs 14)- The cares of this world can choke your growth in Christ.
  • 1 Peter 5:7- Interestingly, this verses uses the same word for anxiety and tells the believer what she should do with her anxiety: cast it on the Lord. 

*Luke 21:5-36, Matthew  24:1-51, & Mark 13:1-37 in varying degree report Jesus' words in what is commonly called the Olivet Discourse. This passage is rather difficult to interpret. Some think that Jesus is speaking only about the destruction of the Temple which would take place in A.D. 70. Of course the context makes very clear that He is. However, others point out that portions of these passages seem to go beyond the destruction of the temple and seem to fit better with the future return of Christ. These people (of which I am one) argue that Jesus' shifts His teaching at points in these passages to what would signal the day of His return.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It's Not My Problem. The Problem is with Everybody Else.

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
James 1:21-25

There is something inherently Christian about having your eyes opened to your own sin. The Bible tells us that sin is deceptive and blinding (I John 2:11 & Matt 15:14). It also says that the great deceiver, Satan, has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they will not see the truth of the gospel of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:4). So no man comes to God in faith seeking salvation unless God's Spirit first opens his eyes and reveals to him his need for salvation (John 6:44John 3:7-8). A good example here is the Pharisee Saul. He believed he was serving God faithfully. He was meticulous in preserving his righteousness and zealous about protecting his religious traditions from the new sect that was infiltrating it. Imagine his surprise when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and said to him "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). Even as his physical eyes were temporarily blinded by the light, the eyes of his heart were opened to see his own sin. All of us who have repented of our sin have experienced a similar (if less dramatic) moment in which our eyes were opened to our sin by the Spirit of God.

This makes it all the more sad to consider how many Christians walk through their daily lives completely blind to their ongoing sin. Too many of us are arrogant. Too many are hypocritical. Too many are easily angered. And far too many of us seem to think that the problem is with everyone else but ourselves. How can we combat this? How can we guard against it?

2 Tim 3:16 says, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." The Bible is useful for correcting not only others but also ourselves. James puts it this way: when we read Scripture it is like looking at ourselves in a mirror. Scripture is sharper than any double-edged sword and it judges the attitudes of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12). The Spirit of God dwelling in us uses Scripture to reveal sin that is still present in our lives. In these moments when the Word casts light on our sin we have a choice to make. We can find any reason to excuse ourselves for our failure; we can find any distraction at hand to take our minds off of it and cause us to forget what we have seen; or we can "humbly accept the word planted in us" and act on it. We can repent of the revealed sin and put into practice whatever God prescribes. 

So, what if we committed to run towards obedience in these moments? What if the next time Scripture reveals our sin we try hard not to make excuses, not to over think, but simply to look for what God would have us do, and then do it as quickly as possible. Don't be merely a hearer of the Word, put it into practice in your life. Don't work against the Spirit, work alongside Him as He strives to reveal and remove the sin that still entangles you.

For further reading...
  • Check out the linked verse above.