5 Scripture Verses for Those Who Strive

Is it just me, or have we made striving a virtue? We admire those who overachieve, who rise above expectations because of sweat and diligence. It seems like the harder a person pushes toward perfectionism, the more she’s admired. We call it a good work ethic.

Wrong.

We’ve taken a good thing–hard work–and warped it into over-work. Not only is this exhausting, but it’s futile. We’re placing our trust in the idea that perfection is possible if we try hard enough. This isn’t true in careers, and it certainly isn’t true in our spiritual lives. We will never reach heaven by working a bit harder than we did last year, a little harder than our neighbor, a little more efficiently than our coworkers.

perfection is not possible

In my upcoming novel One Plus One Equals Trouble, debuting early November, my heroine is a striver, an over-worker. She feels like what she does is never enough.

Are you there, in that place of striving and exhaustion?

Be encouraged by these five verses. They erupt from passages of chaos and human endeavor and dust us with a layer of grace.

  1. Exodus 14:13-14

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Context: Israel trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. What did instinct tell them to do? Fight. But God said to stand firm and let him fight for them. In other words, “Don’t think you’re getting out of this mess by any clever means or sweat of your own.”

2. Psalm 46:10

“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

Context: A Psalm of assurance that amidst earthquakes, warfare, or the threatening of homes, God’s power is greater. In other words, “Enough!” God says. “Settle down and know I am who I say I am.”

3. Isaiah 30:15-16

This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’ Therefore you will flee! You said, ‘We will ride off on swift horses.’ Therefore your pursuers will be swift!

Context: Israel has panicked and gone down to Egypt to seek an alliance.  They’ve sought refuge in a nation, rather than in Yahweh. In other words, “Come back to me, your strength, and find refuge by ceasing your panicked striving.”

4. Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Context: Jesus is teaching his disciples that the way to learn and follow him is not by taking on lists of rules. Rabbi Jesus offers a yoke different than the yokes forced on disciples by other rabbis. In other words, “Only in me will you find true rest. You won’t find rest in the rules offered by other religions. You won’t find rest by doing good deeds.”

5. John 15:4-5

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

Context: Jesus is about to die. It’s his last Passover meal with the disciples, and he wants to reiterate the oneness of himself with the Father, and subsequently, the oneness his disciples can have with him because of his death and coming resurrection. In other words, “I’m not just your teacher. I’m your life. Apart from me, you will be lifeless, fruitless. Not even your best efforts will produce fruit. Remain in me and see the life I will cause to flourish in you.”

What are your favorite verses on resting in grace?

You might also like Five Scriptures About Finding Worth in Christ.

Questioning Through Mark: 8:22-26

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t go into the village.

Who were these people who brought a blind man to Jesus and begged Jesus to heal him? Why didn’t the blind man come on his own? Did these people seize the man by the arm and drag him to Jesus in order to see a miracle? To be entertained by this strange, holy healer?

We are those people wanting to be amused, seeking the fascinating, but not willing to seek the Fascinator.

Perhaps Jesus saw the hearts of these people who wanted only to test his power or be amused. Perhaps he saw the crowd forming. Thus, he took the blind man by the hand–a gentle way to lead a person–and led him outside the village, away from those who wanted to use the man for sport.

And there, Jesus healed the man. In two awkward steps. Spit and a touch. Why couldn’t Jesus skip the spit and simply touch away the blindness? Because Jesus wanted to give the man an opportunity to enter in to the healing process. To come on his own, in a sense, by answering Jesus’s question, “Do you see anything?”

The man could have replied, “Thanks anyway. It didn’t quite work.” But instead, he answers with honest faith, “I see men like trees, walking around.” In these words, I hear an invitation for Jesus to touch his eyes again. I hear the anticipation that sight is coming and is almost there.

Am I inviting Jesus by the words that I speak, by my responses to his questions?

Then Jesus touches the man’s eyes once more, and sight is restored. The man is sent home, not into the village. In other words, Jesus doesn’t want the man to subject himself to questioners, naysayers, or people who may steal his joy and cause him to sin.

Don’t (as Psalm 1 says) “walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.”

But go home. Go home physically, and go home in your heart . . . to belief in Jesus.

Jesus’s works aren’t for our entertainment. They are faith-fuel for our hearts. They point us to him so that we can give our lives to him.

Go home in your heart

When Jesus asks us if we see anything, what will we say? Will we see an invitation to follow him or will we see a miracle for our amusement?

Questioning Through Mark: 8:1-21

During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”
His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?” “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied.
He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them.
The people ate and were satisfied.
Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand men were present.
And having sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.” Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.” He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
  1. The abundance of Jesus is complete, meaning he can’t give us more than he’s already given. The loaves and fish only mirror the greater, spiritual gifts he gives. In scripture, twelve and seven and numbers of completeness. Perfection. Twelve tribes equal the fullness of God’s people. Seven days in a week equals the fullness of God’s work and salvation. Have we accused him of holding back?
  2. Jesus satisfied the basic physical need of the crowd. He met them in their humanity, validating that how God the Father had created them–with physical needs–was good. The need to eat is not a result of the Fall. Not having enough food is. But with Jesus there is more than enough. Have we sought satisfaction from sources other than Jesus?
  3. Sometimes we feel like the bread and fish collected and stored away in baskets. We’ve missed out on the ministry. We’ve been passed over. But hear this: the left over is not useless. It is testimony. It is witness to God’s abundance. And more so, the fish and loaves were not discarded. Jesus doesn’t waste. They were set aside for later. For the journey home. Not being used in the moment is not the same as not being used at all. Are we so focused playing a specific role in God’s kingdom that we have mistaken being left over for being left behind?
  4. In the scriptures, Jesus sets himself in front of us. He reveals himself and asks, “Do you still not understand?” We will give account someday for who we say he is. Let us not follow in the steps of the religious leaders who fancied religion over relationship. They had no need for a Messiah. Let us instead have ears to hear and eyes to see that we not only have need of a Messiah, but in Jesus, we have been given (abundantly, satisfingly) that Messiah. Do we get it?

The Work of Jesus: Making Oaks of Righteousness

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.  Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.”

Isaiah 61:1-6

We read the first half of this passage with the image of Jesus in the temple, opening the scroll of Isaiah and proclaiming his purpose to bind and heal, release, bring favor, and bestow beauty. Jesus, the Messiah, adopted this passage as his mission statement for his three years of earthly ministry.

Then we reach that pivotal verse, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.” The conduit of God’s Kingdom work has shifted from Jesus, to the people he has healed, restored, made into oaks of righteousness.

Isaiah 61.4

Now it is “they” who rebuild ancient ruins and restore devastated places. “They” who renew. Who is this “they” but the very ones Christ binds and heals.

The work of Christ is to take the poor, brokenhearted captives who wear ashes and to transform them into a display for Yahweh’s splendor.

Simplified, the Messiah redeems sinners for the Father’s glory.

The beauty of this passage is not just the wondrous works Jesus brings to undeserving sinners, but that Jesus then sends those healed people off to be “ministers of our God.” We are more than cleaned-up has-beens. We are commissioned-will-bes.

Jesus Makes Everything New

everything new

For those days when life feels like a tattered old dishrag,

Jesus says, “I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).

For the moments when words escape your mouth and you want them back,

“I am making everything new.”

For the dark hours when old wounds raise ugly heads, and for the early dawn hours when thoughts steal sleep,

“I am making everything new.”

For that twenty-fourth time of trying to get it right,

“I am making everything new.”

For that success that doesn’t bring joy anymore,

“I am making everything new.”

For the emptiness that grows a bit each day, and for the losses of dear loved ones,

“I am making everything new.”

For this, that, and the other,

“I am making everything new.”

Look to the future, Christian. Your hope is secure in Jesus Christ, and your eternal glory awaits.

Questioning Through Mark: 6:30-44

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.  31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” 
32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.  33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.  34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. 
35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late.  36 Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”  37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take eight months of a man’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”  38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five– and two fish.” 
39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.  40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.  41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.  42 They all ate and were satisfied,  43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.  44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.

1. What is the rhythm of your life? Jesus had an in-and-out rhythm to his ministry that he sought to instill in his disciples. After they returned from their mission, Jesus took them to a quiet place for rest. For the introverts, this is a welcome reminder that it’s okay to retreat, that ministry is marked by seasons. For the extroverts, retreat might seem unnecessary, even like the rejection of responsibility. But notice that even though Jesus knew the great amount of work to be done, he still took his disciples away for rest. Ministry happens even in the seemingly dormant seasons of our lives.

2. How do you view a crowd? Jesus was always moved by people’s brokenness. Compassion welled in him as people crowded around him because he sensed their lost-ness. The disciples wanted to send the crowds away, but Jesus welcomed them.

Mark 6 34

3. What is your level of desperation for Jesus? This crowd was so desperate that they followed him to a remote place without thought of food or shelter. Maybe that’s irresponsible, but I see it as the strong pull of Jesus. People were drawn to him. They wanted to hear him teach—they needed him in such a way that they forgot the essentials of life. Might we have that same hunger?

4. What is your first response to the request of Jesus? The disciple’s first response is a: reason (“that would take eight months” wages) and b: selfishness (“are we to go and spend that much?”) To be sure, reason is a gift from God and to be used, but reason must be subject to God, just like emotion. There is a time for reason and there is a time God calls us to reach beyond the rational to a greater, heavenly reality. That which is seen will pass away, wrote Paul, but that which is unseen is eternal.

5. “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” Jesus engages the disciples in the miracle by giving them a part. This is the moment they are called to obedience. Many of us seem more comfortable on the sidelines watching when Jesus is trying to push us into the game.

6. What is the significance of Jesus looking to heaven, giving thanks, and breaking the loaves? It’s a moment fraught with symbolism. The breaking of bread pounds us with the image of Christ, the Bread of Life. Looking to heaven reminds us of the Dove descending on Jesus after his baptism. The connection between Father, Son, and Spirit seems especially significant in this moment. How many times does Jesus tell his disciples that he only does what he sees his Father doing? And how many times were the Jewish leaders offended by the way Jesus connected himself to God, the Father? This public giving of thanks and looking to heaven is yet another instant where Jesus shows the intimacy between him and the Father. And what flows from such intimacy? A miracle.

Questioning Through Mark: 6:6b-13

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village.  7 Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits.  8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff– no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.  9 Wear sandals but not an extra tunic.  10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.  11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.”  12 They went out and preached that people should repent.  13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

Mark 6,8 9

1. Do you remember who sent you or have you lost sight of the One behind your calling?

2. Jesus “gave them authority.” In Jesus’ day, to follow or learn from someone was to be under his authority. When disciples of that day spoke the message of their rabbi, it was with that rabbi’s authority and blessing. This is what we see Jesus doing here. It’s what we see Jesus doing again in The Great Commission. Sending us out in his authority. Do we go about our daily lives with the knowledge of this authority? With the clarity of this simple mission?

3. “Take nothing.” This doesn’t sound like a well-planned mission. As a fifth grader, I attended an outdoor education camp where we learned to pack a survival kit in a film roll canister (remember those?). Our motto: always be prepared. So why were the disciples to take only a staff? Maybe for the freedom of traveling light. Or maybe because everything about following Jesus required trust, even this mission. They’d already left home and career for him, why not leave behind extra clothes and money?

But why a staff? A staff was used as a walking aid, an instrument of discipline, or a tool for herding animals. Kings had staffs. Shepherds had staffs. The nomad and the villager had staffs.

Moses had a staff. When it became a snake, it was a sign of God’s power and authority over other gods. When it parted the Red Sea, it was a sign of God’s miraculous provision. When Moses stood atop a hill and prayed for Joshua’s battle, it was a sign of God’s favor and victory.

4. Are you humble enough to shake the dust off? Leaving is hard to do, especially when we leave feeling like a failure. The disciples weren’t to argue, push harder, manipulate. I see this as God’s way of saying, “I’m in charge of who receives my message.” And I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Second Corinthians 4, “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” There is grace here. You are free to shake the dust off, free to leave. The salvation of others is not in your hands.

5. What is our message? The message of this world is love. Love everyone, everywhere, at all times, in all ways. And what is meant by that is, everything goes and don’t you dare tell me otherwise.

The love we preach is different. It’s a love embedded in repentance. What an unpopular and hated message. Repentance implies wrongdoing, requires humility and life change. Let’s face it, bearers of this message aren’t given a king’s welcome.

But there’s another facet to our message, and it’s seen in the action of the disciples: wholeness of body and soul. The disciples drove our demons, anointed the sick and healed them. They used deeds, not only words, in their outreach. So too, we must reach with our hands, not just with our voices. We must offer what is fundamentally and universally hungered for: healing of brokenness.

Questioning Through Mark: 5:21-43

When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”
Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?'” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
While Jesus was still speaking, some men came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher any more?” Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James.
When they came to the home of the synagogue ruler, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

1. Do I come to Jesus boldly, believing my circumstances are important to him? Jairus, a synagogue ruler–important in society–made public pronunciation of faith by falling at Jesus’ feet and pleading for him to heal his daughter. Am I desperate enough for Jesus that I will fall at his feet publicly?

2. Do you have faith to “tell the whole truth?” The bleeding woman is a strange mixture of faith and fear. In faith, she touches Jesus’ robes because she believes in his power. Yet she does it secretly, quietly, almost as if afraid to draw attention to herself, because unlike Jairus, she is not among the important people of society. She is an outcast, made unclean by her illness. What does she have to lose if she touches his robe and is not healed? But Jesus calls out the person who touched him and gives the woman opportunity to come forward. And she does. She falls at his feet trembling with fear and tells the whole truth. Interesting that both Jairus and the woman fall at his feet . . . one voluntarily and the other called out.

Mark 5, 27

3. How do I handle my disappointment with Jesus? If we are honest, we can all admit to being disappointed with Jesus at some time or another. He didn’t answer a prayer like we expected. He seems silent when we need direction. He takes something precious from us. We aren’t given what we expected.

For the bleeding woman, she’d suffered not only twelve years or illness, but twelve years of disappointment. Twelve years of questioning why. And then, in one moment, in one grab of his robe, she’s healed.

Do I have faith to take my disappointment to Jesus and try again? We get no sense of bitterness from this woman. Perhaps fear and weariness, but not bitterness. Bitterness poisons us from trying again. It locks the door of our heart and keeps hope out. Can I reach, like the woman, despite disappointment?

Mark 5, 41

4. Do I laugh at Jesus? This might seem a silly question, but consider Sarah in Genesis 18. She laughed when God promised Abraham a son. And her laughter wasn’t joy. It was disbelief. Those waiting to see what Jesus would do with Jairus’s daughter laughed. Not in expectancy or joy, but at what they considered a preposterous statement by Jesus. Faith, by nature, reaches beyond reality and clasps the words of Almighty God as truth. If we laugh, let it be with joy.

 

Questioning Through Mark: 5:1-20

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened.
When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man– and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

Mark 5,3

1. Do you feel like you (or your circumstances) are beyond help? Are the things you’re looking to for help only binding you more?

Jesus helps the unhelpable. The community had tried to help this man and had failed. They’d tried to bind him, restrain him, keep him from wildly wreaking havoc in their area. Do you catch the irony? They’d tried to chain him, but couldn’t. The demons had already chained him and had rule within him.

Jesus’ help is the help of freedom. True, life-giving help. Help that is beyond our means, our attaining by our own goodness or strength.

2. Am I amazed by Jesus’ power? The community was terrified to find that man in his right mind again, dressed and calm. Jesus astounds us with his power and compassion. And if you aren’t tuned in to his true identity, such power and compassion are causes for fear. Amazement and fear can be similar, can overlap. When we are in that place of surprise or shock–if that doesn’t springboard us to worship, we can fall prey to fear.

3. Am I recognizing Jesus for who He is? Do I know him? This passage is so perfectly placed after the passage of the disciples fearful on the lake in the storm. They failed to recognize Jesus’ lordship (remember, Jesus asked, “Do you still have no faith?”). The demons recognize Jesus’ lordship. They fear his authority over them. Before Jesus reaches this man, the man is running, recognizing the Savior, pleading with Jesus. And in minutes, this man goes from not knowing Jesus to knowing him.

Watching Jesus is not the same as knowing him. Being with him is not the same as knowing him. The disciples were afraid of Jesus in the previous passage and they’d been following him. The community is afraid of Jesus and they’d witnessed a miracle.

4. Am I telling my story?

You might think you don’t have a story to tell. But you do. We all do. Oftentimes we want to go places and do things that others are called to do–because it looks fun, seems more important. But God calls us to stay where we are and testify of his work in our lives. It’s that simple. Let what God has done for you and in you be your witness.

For your worship and celebration: Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)

chains gone

Questioning Through Mark: 4:35-41

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.
Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

1. When has God called you to go to the other side? Jesus led his disciples away from the crowd, away from needs and possibilities, away from people hungry to learn. Going to the other side sometimes means leaving a fruitful place. It might not make sense when Jesus leads us away from something. Until we get to the something else.

2. Are you expecting a smooth ride? At this point in Jesus’ ministry, the disciples were fairly new followers. How sure were they of who this man really was? Not sure at all. He was wise. He was powerful. They understood that. He was about the Kingdom of God, and they were too. They’d made decisions to follow him, but they didn’t know what that meant. “A furious squall came up . . .” What were they expecting of Jesus? I’m not sure. Maybe they were upset that he was sleeping. But maybe the resentment went deeper, like “why is this happening when someone like him is in our boat?” We can ask that same question when trials come, as if a life with Jesus means smooth sailing. It doesn’t. No where in scripture are we guaranteed freedom from storms or suffering because we’re in the same boat with Jesus.

3. Have you ever asked the wrong question? “Don’t you care if we drown?” the disciples asked Jesus. How flippant. How focused on circumstances. How outrageous to ask the man you’ve committed to following if He cares.

But we ask. It is the question that haunts humanity. The Serpent got Adam and Eve wondering if God really cared, because if God cared, why would He hold back from Adam and Eve? Abraham wondered if God really cared about giving him an heir, because why would He be so slow? The grumpy, wandering Israelites wondered if God really cared about them out there in the desert.

If we’re focused on our circumstances, this is a fully legitimate question. Which is why we’re told not to fixate on our circumstances. We’re commanded to look up, beyond ourselves, and fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. The Son of Man, lifted up.

“Do you care?” is a way of saying “I don’t think you do, because if you did . . .” fill in your complaint.

So what question should we be asking?

4. “Who is this?” the disciples said to themselves after Jesus stood and commanded the storm to cease. And they were so right to ask. When you see your wise rabbi calm the waves with several simple words, you better ask if it’s time to expand your view on him. You better wonder if you’ve misunderstood who He really is.

The infinite God, who accomplishes deeds with his spoken word, invites us to continually ask, “Who is this?” And He answers, continually with “I Am.” Deeper and deeper this question goes and the Answer reveals more of Himself. When we cease to be amazed by God, we cease to explore him. And that should terrify us.

Mark 4,40

5. Jesus asks a question of his own: Why are you so afraid? Umm, really? “Because we are about to die,” I can hear the disciples defending themselves, and I want to defend them also. Isn’t Jesus being too harsh?

No. Because he’s not asking if the storm is fearful to them. He’s not asking what about their present circumstances do they find fearful? The focus of the question is not the fear but the why. His next questions proves this, “Do you still have no faith?” In other words, after hearing me teach, being in my presence, following me . . . do you still not get who I am?

They didn’t get it. He was “Teacher,” and so they feared. What they feared is inconsequential. That they feared because they didn’t get it, is the point.

So what does this mean for us? The dark is a scary thing for my five-year-old (and I admit, I’m not crazy about it either). Riding her bike without training wheels is scary for my seven-year-old. All of us have fears and those fears range across the spectrum from irrational to rational, small to large. I’m not the expert on ridding yourself of fear. But ask yourself long and hard, “Who is this?” and take a look at Jesus. When the answer to “Who is this?” takes your focus off “Do you care?” see if your fears lessen.

Examining who Jesus is will strengthen our faith, and that, in turn, will lessen our fears.

Questioning Through Mark: 4:10-20

mark 4, 11
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop– thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”

I’ve not been looking forward to these verses. The quote from Isaiah is one of the hardest pieces of scripture for me to understand, so truly, I’m questioning this morning, “Why, Jesus?” I’m okay if I don’t receive a clear answer because part of faith is clinging to the Person of Jesus and trusting that the Bible’s life-giving truth is not dependent upon my understanding (or lack of).

Why would Jesus want his words to be hard to understand, and thus salvation hidden from the common listener?

This parable is found in Matthew and Luke as well, and Matthew’s presentation of it offers insight. Here is Matthew’s relaying of Jesus’ explanation to the disciples (starting at 13:10):

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

Point one: The parable of the sower is about the kingdom of God. Jesus’ coming to earth was to bring God’s kingdom here–“as it is in heaven.” But the reality is that not all receive his kingdom, which is partly what this parable is saying.

Point two: We know from other passages of scripture that God doesn’t want anyone to perish. “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world,” (John 3:17). And consider Jesus’ words, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day,” (John 6:39-40). Ironically, Jesus spoke these words during a particularly hard teaching after which many stopped following him.

Which leads me to the questions . . .

1. Are we yielded to the voice of the Holy Spirit? Because without this Guide, we can’t understand God’s words, and furthermore, we can’t follow him. One of the concepts of this passage, as we see in Matthew’s version, is that when we yield to the Holy Spirit and truly hear the Gospel, we are set in motion to hearing and understanding: Whoever has will be given more . . .

But the flip side is, whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. From the world’s perspective, the Gospel is foolishness. It is not only confusing; it’s a turnoff. And the more people turn from the Gospel, the harder it is to come back. Truth rejected is a seed that takes root, making the heart soil hard and impenetrable. In other words, good soil leads to abundance, and but bad soil takes the heart down a path of increasing hardness. So I ask . . .

2. Have you grown hard-hearted? It’s easy to consider Jesus’ explanation of this parable as categories by which we can file people we know. But this is not so. Gospel-response is a continuum, not a set of categories, and all of us move along that continuum during different seasons or situations of life. For instance, I might have a heart of good soil when I consider God’s instruction for controlling my speech and treating those around me with patience and love. But when I come up against a hard teaching, and culture wants to pull me in a direction away from scripture, is my heart good for Gospel seed or does it turn to the rocky path? You see, the dynamic between hard and soft heartedness is tricky. On the one hand, we see God hardening hearts (Pharaoh) but we also hear the imperative from the author of Hebrews not to harden our hearts. Thus, there is a human component to hard-heartedness and I think Jesus hits on that here in Mark.

Conclusion: God desires all to be saved. But because he’s given us the choice to choose or reject him, all will not be saved. However, this parable promises that good soil produces a huge crop, “thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” So even though Jesus quotes Isaiah about many not understanding, his parable promises that many will be saved–through the witness of those who receive his seed in good, fertile soil. But lest we take credit for having good soil, we are reminded that ears to hear is something given to us (verse 11) and not of our own doing.

 

Questioning through Mark: 3:20-35

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
So Jesus called them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house. I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.” He said this because they were saying, “He has an evil spirit.”
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

out of his mind

Wow. Jesus is getting hit from all sides. Crushed by the crowd so that he cannot even eat. Convicted by strangers and law keepers of being powered by the demonic. And then his embarrassed family tries to shut him down.

We have a lot of questions to ask ourselves in this passage:

1. Are we crowding Jesus? And I mean this in the good way. Are we pushing in because we need him? Are we following him around, wanting more of his teaching, his miraculous, and his presence in our lives?

2. Are we seeing Jesus for who he truly is? Crowding him is not enough. We must know him and where he comes from: God, the Father. We must give him the glory he deserves.

The Pharisees only crowded him to find fault with him. What greater fault could they find than to say he was acting in Satan’s power? “He is out of his mind,” they said. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re the ones out of your minds.” He refrains from arguing and instead speaks in parables. He gives an example of why the Pharisees accusations make no sense: how can Satan cast out Satan? If you want to rob someone, you must tie him up first to do it.

What’s the take-away for us? Crowd him for the right reasons. Know him. And we only do that by believing what the Bible says is true. A good place for a foundation of Christology: Colossians 1. Christ is not only in his right mind, but we can only be in ours when we know who he really is.

3. Are we embarrassed by Jesus? It’s okay to admit that we are embarrassed sometimes. It’s not okay to try to subdue Jesus in our lives. If we are following him and know him, we must let him do his work in us and the world. There is no taming Jesus. Ironically, in this passage, it is not Jesus, the accused, who is acting in Satan’s power. It is his family, the pharisees, and the crowd–all who want to tone him down and make him safe, make him fit their understanding of a good teacher and powerful leader. Later, Peter cries out against Jesus’s work on the cross and Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan.”

Are we letting Jesus be Jesus?

Questioning through Mark: 2:13-17

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.
When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

1. What have you sacrificed to follow Jesus?

2. What has Jesus done that has surprised, upset, or frustrated you? The Pharisees didn’t like him eating with sinners. They thought they were good enough to be in Jesus’s club. Has any of this attitude snuck into your life? Do you feel you are more deserving than others of God’s grace and presence?

3. Do you recognize your need for him? Jesus spent time with those who welcomed him because they knew they needed him.

God Wastes Nothing

“When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ These are the words of Jesus, after feeding thousands from five loaves of bread and two fish.” John 6:12

These are the words of Jesus, “Let nothing be wasted.”

But what do they mean? Jesus just fed five thousand people with five fish and two loaves of bread, and he’s concerned about leftovers and waste? It seems silly to me, really, that the Provider of All, wants to save some bread and fish for later, in case . . . . Maybe it’s just that I’m reading this at 6:30 in the morning and my mind hasn’t woken up yet.

The words chase me all day. “Let nothing be wasted.” So I understand that God doesn’t waste anything. He doesn’t waste time, energy, resources. That’s good. The environmentalists can rejoice. If Jesus lived on earth today, he’d be the guy who turns off the water while brushing his teeth or washing his hair in the shower.

But I know the words go deeper. God is more than resourceful. Scriptures and stories come to me. The “wasted” years Joseph spent in Egypt, in prison” weren’t a waste at all. David’s years hiding from Saul, running for his life. Not a waste. Paul’s words, “…in all things God works for the good…” No circumstances, sin, or pain are wasted by God.

Ponder the fact that after the miracle, there was more. After Jesus worked, he had more to give. The people’s needs did not surpass the Giver’s gifts. Paul’s words again come to mind, “…him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” Immeasurably more. Jesus not only satisfied the hunger of those five thousand men, he foreshadowed that he had more to give. More to offer than loaves and fish.

He offered his very self on the cross for our sins. He rose from the grave and is interceding for us in heaven. Do you think he’s saying those same words? “Let nothing be wasted.” Is he pleading that his sacrifice not be wasted or go unnoticed, unaccepted?

But how do these words affect my daily life? “Let nothing be wasted.” After God has poured into me all I need, what is leftover? Can I gather those leftover pieces and give them to others? This is the call to ministry. To gather, save, and give. Because really, the disciples couldn’t have hung on to those leftover loaves and fish for too long before rot set in. So these words are also a call to trust. To give freely of what we don’t need in the moment, knowing that tomorrow, the miracle happens again.

“Let nothing be wasted.” I have a feeling I’m going to be pondering these words for a while.

The Place of Contentment is at the Intersection of Touch and Word

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.” Luke 5:12-13.

Jesus offers the leper not just a command, but a touch. The significance of this touch is monumental. No one touched lepers; no one walked within fifty feet of them. No one looked at them, if it could be avoided. Jesus touched and spoke to a broken, cast away soul.

We need both his touch and his word. The place of contentment is where we feel his presence and hear his words, I am willing. His touch invites our communion, and his words invite our trust.

A word alone fails to renew a discontented heart. An admonition to “be joyful always” falls short of what a depressed heart needs. Without the touch, the word is lifeless.

The Holy Spirit is the touch of Jesus, his presence ministering to us. The Spirit is the supernatural connection between his hand reaching down and our hearts reaching up. The Spirit brings, I am willing, to life in our fearful, weak hearts.

May he meet you today with his touch and his word.

Ashes to Ashes

“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” goes the final line of Ring Around the Rosy, a popular nursery rhyme. How innocently we sung that while swinging around in a circle and falling down. But what does “ashes, ashes we all fall down” really mean? It’s about the Bubonic plague. The “ring around the rosy” being the plague’s first symptom on the skin, the “pocket full of posies” the flowers and herbs carried around superstitiously by doctors, and “ashes, ashes we all fall down” the certain deadly outcome.

We are all plagued by sin, and “ashes, ashes” we will certainly all die. Lent is the season for paying attention to those ashes and recognizing our frail sinful condition. It’s a time for repentance, turning away from those plaguing, nagging habits that lead to death and destruction. It’s a time for self-control, holding ourselves back from the usual pleasures we enjoy to focus on the seriousness of the human condition.

We all must go through Lent before we celebrate Easter. The resurrection holds no meaning without the sacrifice that comes before. If we wake up April 8, dress in our fanciest clothes, saunter to church early to sing a few hymns and watch the sunrise, we’ve missed the point. And to think that some people only go to church on Christmas and Easter. How can we celebrate life without first celebrating the death of sin?

Remember when Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven little loves little”? He said this after a sinful woman interrupted a dinner party and washed his feet with her tears and anointed him with oil. She understood his forgiveness and that fueled her love. The joy of Easter morning comes after the gruesome death. Our death, by substitution. Sin cost Jesus his life. Grace is not cheap.

What will fuel your love this Easter? Hopefully a season of meditating on your ashes.

Final Words: The Way

John 14:4-11

Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Can you see the disciples giving quizzical looks to each other? Peter would probably be pretending comprehension. It’s the thinker, Thomas, who finally asks the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” This is doubting Thomas, the one who later would require touching the wounds of Jesus in order to believe. Thomas is an intellectual one, slow to speak, quick to think. He’s the opposite of Peter.

It’s yet another worldview clash between Jesus and the disciples. Thomas and the disciples had a narrow definition of destination and route. It was a human definition. Jesus had a definition that redefined destination. He was going to the Father and He was the Way. The Way was a person and the place was God Almighty’s presence.

Jesus’s words don’t dance in circles. They are straight-lined words, clear and poignant, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” You can chart a direct course on those words, no stops to ask directions. Any ways to the Father that preclude the Son are false and deceptive. Saying no to the Son is saying no to the Father. They are one. You can’t reject the Son and enter the presence of the Father.

Philip says “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Philip was hoping that Jesus could just wave a hand and say, “Tada! Behold the Father.” But the disciples got another unexpected answer. They’ve been seeing the Father for many months now. Jesus is one with the Father. His whole life is “Tada! The Father.” Have the disciples been blind, deaf, and mute? Perhaps Jesus should have spent less time healing the masses and more time opening the eyes and ears of his closest friends.

Jesus’s response to Philip is passionate, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” I don’t think Philip was hurt by Jesus’s rebuke. The tone of Jesus here is one of deep longing. He is a friend, pleading for his friends to understand the work of the Father. (Can you hear him pleading with you to understand?)

Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.”

Jesus is asking his friends to believe that He and the Father are one. If his friends can’t understand the oneness of Father and Son (and in a few verses, the Spirit), then they won’t understand the sacrifice he is about to make. For Jesus to be Savior, He must be fully God and fully man. He identifies with us in our weakness, becoming like us, but without sin. Being sinless, he is the only acceptable sacrifice. As fully God, he fulfills Old Testament promises that the covenant-making Yahweh would bear the punishment for vassal man’s breaking of the covenant.

Belief will unfold over the next 72 hours in the lives of the disciples. At times, belief will be so buried within them that their doubts and fears will dominate external decisions. Only the power of the resurrection will be able to fertilize that seed of belief and enable it to grow.

Final Words: Expectation that Delivers

It begins, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me…”

It ends, “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

It’s the message of the upper room, Jesus’s last sermon. Food and foot washing flank conversation, conviction, and confusion. It is also Passover, and Jesus and the disciples share a meal worth more than fellowship. It’s a meal of remembrance; a remembrance with greater depth than the disciples are capable of understanding in that moment; a meal that will become a remembrance for a multitude of disciples for the rest of history.

When Jesus begins his final address to the disciples, it is already night, for John tells us that Judas went out into the night (13:30). Can you imagine what Jesus must feel? He knows he only has several hours left with his dear friends. The moment is ripe, but are the hearts of the disciples ready to receive words of hope in circumstances of horror?

John 14:1-3  “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.  2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.  3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

It’s sad and confusing news for the disciples. Jesus is jumping ship just when things get dicey, so it appears. Going to prepare a place? Isn’t Jesus needed in Jerusalem for the military takeover? But it’s not battle plans Jesus wants to discuss. He wants to build expectation and anticipation for His Kingdom. Soon enough the meaning of the night will become clear as the disciples watch him beaten and crucified. If the disciples are to have trouble-free hearts, Jesus must explain that this night will not be the end.

Do you have a memory of being a young child and waiting for something, giddy with excitement. Perhaps your father went to the airport to pick up your grandparents and you and your siblings ran around at home wild with expectation. When you tell something to a child who trusts you, that child fully expects that what you say will happen. There’s no doubting. No reasoning abilities to interfere with expectation. A child doesn’t rationalize, “What if Grandpa and Grandma missed their connection in the Houston airport?”

Jesus expects us to wait on him with the same certainty of hope. We wait for the little things with hope, and we wait on the final things with hope. He is going to prepare a place and he will come back to take us there. His plans will suffer no delays. No missed flights.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” In other words, this is not the end. It may seem like the end, but it is not. The end is a place with many rooms. When the blood begins to drip, Jesus wants his disciples to be confident of his return.