Who’s with Jesus? The Dishonest Manager: Luke 16.1-13

This week we come to one of Jesus’ most difficult parables, The Dishonest Manager, Luke 16.1-13. Since the world of the story strikes us as both arcane and culturally distant, here’s a modern parody on the parable. I call it “Mr. Thump and the CBO”.

There was once a man named Mr. Thump. Now, with a name like Thump you can’t run for public office. But, you can be a businessman …

Mr. Thump was a big businessman. He ran an international imports-exports business that imported and exported every conceivable product anywhere on the globe. 

But, Mr. Thump wasn’t only a businessman. He was philanthropist. With every profit he gave over-and-abundantly toward a myriad charitable causes that people really cared about: needy children, to be sure, but also endangered snails, rainforests, baby cheetahs, little bugs that people cared about … Mr. Thump knew that both his business and his charitable causes depended on his reputation. 

Now, Mr. Thump had a CBO. CBO stands for Chief Brand Officer. The CBO was responsible for the public image of the business and Mr. Thump. 

This CBO was dishonest, but also very shrewd. Over time, he figured out a way to build hidden fees into the import-export business, which he then harvested for his own purposes. 

Mr. Thump wasn’t fooled. He called his CBO into the board room and said, “Today is the day of reckoning! I’ve hired an independent auditor to examine your work, and you have until the auditor finishes his work to set your accounts in order. 

The CBO knew his professional reputation would be ruined. But, he had a plan. He instructed his accountant to pull up the names of every donor to Mr. Thump’s charity and make an additional donation to that donor’s favorite cause—all in the name of Mr. Thump.

The next day every headline on social media touted the generosity of Mr. Thump. Stock in the company went through the roof as global investors poured in. Mr. Thump’s business and reputation was bigger than ever … 

Later that day Mr. Thump sent out a tweet on his personal Twitter account. “My CBO is a scoundrel,” Mr. Thump said. “But, he’s my kind of scoundrel. He recognizes a crisis when he sees one, and he does something about it. But, more than that, he understands that I am generous, and he enhances my reputation. 

“You’re fired! Mr. CBO. But, you’re shrewd, and you have a future.”

 

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager (:1-8a). Back in Luke 16, the subtlety of the teaching comes from Jesus’ presentation of the central character who is both commendable and unsavory. On the surface, it appears Jesus is talking about money and possessions. But, to think only about Jesus’ own application of His teaching to money and possessions is to miss His more central point—about the character of God, my condition, and the crisis brought about by the gospel.

Read carefully through Luke 16.1-8. Note the pattern of the story in seven points. Verse 1 is about the improper use of resources. That opening verse is paired, logically and structurally, with verse 8a, about the proper use of resources, where the master commends the manager for his schrewdness. Then note that verse 2, about the justice of the master, is paired with verses 6-7, about the (apparent, in the parable) mercy and generosity of the master. Note also that verse 3, about the manager’s recognition of his crisis, is paired with verse 5, about the manager’s response to the crisis. We have a pattern, don’t we? Finally, notice that the one verse left over, verse 4, about the manager’s present resources being used for his future benefit, is left in the center of the pattern, and without a matching verse.

This structure is called a chiasm, because it forms half of an “x” that looks like the Greek letter “chi”. Such structures are frequent in Semitic literature, and they tip us off to what the speaker or writer want to tell us. The meaning of a writing laid out as a chaism is often found right in the center—in this case, verse 4, about the proper use of resources in light of eternity.

Pointing to this main idea, you have the character of the Master, the rich man. He’s both just and merciful. And, while he stands in for God in the parable, he doesn’t represent God in every respect. Still, he does require a reckoning for injustice (like God will). And, his mercy (squeezed out by trickery in the parable) is true to who God is.

Likewise, the manager is commended, because he knows a crisis when he sees one and doesn’t just sit there but responds to the crisis. And, he does so using possessions at his disposal in the present to prepare for the future.

The Point of the Dishonest Manager (:8b). The main idea, hinted at in verse 4,  is stated clearly in verse 8b: The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 

What Jesus is saying is that even godless scoundrels know a crisis when they see one. Even people who are only interested in advancing their own interests know the time to act.

Do you know what time it is? Jesus is subtly asking His followers. Do you know that the crisis is upon you? Do you know what to do in crisis? Jesus is asking us.

The crisis Jesus is speaking of is the crisis of His own coming and the arrival of the Kingdom of God. I am bringing both God’s justice and mercy, Jesus is saying. Turn from your old ways of doing things. Respond to me and be changed! Jesus implores …

Those who “get” Jesus are those who recognize the crisis and fall on the mercy of God in Jesus. 

That’s the point of this interesting and subtle parable—just as true for us at the brink of Jesus’ second coming as it was for those at the verge of His first.

Practical applications by Jesus from The Dishonest Manager (:9-13). Now, we who live after Jesus’ work on the cross respond to Jesus by responding in faith to the gospel—the good news of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. Responding to the gospel reorients every part of our lives. And those who respond to Jesus also, like the screwd manager in the parable, use their earthly possessions to prepare for a future with Jesus.

So, while the parable is really about our response to Jesus, it has implications for our use of money and possessions. This is Jesus’ point in verses 9-13. “Unrighteous wealth” is “unrighteous,” not because money in itself is evil, but because it will fail.

So, what are we to do with money? Jesus says, in so many words …

  1. Be Generous … while you prepare for a future with me (:9)And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth … So, for example, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a boat, or a big house, or investing for the future. But, all this will fail. You can’t hang on to them. So, be generous with them. Share. Send the benefits on ahead, where you will meet those with whom you’ve shared—as well as Jesus Himself.
  2. Be Trustworthy … while you prepare for a future with me (:10-12)One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much … The “little things” here are those things that will fail. My handling of these things says much about my response to Jesus. I should be able to look through my bank account register and see where my heart is. Do I care only about stuff that will melt away? Or, am I living for Jesus and His people and things that transcend this life?
  3. Finally, be Single-Minded …. while you prepare for a future with me. This passage, among Jesus’ most practical teachings on money, isn’t really about money. It’s about whether or not we take Jesus seriously and respond to God’s mercy in the gospel. As it turns out, our hearts don’t actually multi-task. We can only serve one master. And Jesus calls us to Himself.

There IS a crisis. And, we CAN fall on the mercy of God who has provided us with Christ. And if we really “get” Jesus we won’t just pray a prayer and remain unchanged. We’ll live for Him. And all of our resources will be handled in the light of eternity.

 

Here’s a few questions to consider with others:

  1. What about this parable still seems mirky, obscure, or hard to understand?
  2. Why don’t people you know respond to Jesus? Do you think people really believe there is a crisis?
  3. What should be our response to the crisis Jesus brings?
  4. In thinking about Jesus’ own application of this parable (about money and possessions), which of the three points hits you the hardest?
  5. Which of Jesus’ three applications is the most difficult for you?
  6. What do you believe the Spirit of God would have you do about this?

 

 

Counting the Cost: Luke 14.25-35

There’s a few things I really don’t want to spend money on. My cats, for one. My phone, for another.

The cats are a story for another time. It’s my phone plan that has me cringing this week. My basic, slider-phone still works, sort of. And, it’s not the up-front cost of replacing that old bomber in my pocket that bothers me. It’s the back-costs, the monthly bump in hard-saved bucks that has me pausing at the trigger.

According to today’s passage, I’m wise to count the cost. Jesus says so. But long before phones, Jesus talked about the cost of following Him, the cost of being a true subscriber to Him, His lifestyle, and His ways.

In Luke 14.25-35, Jesus has just finished a disastrous meal with the Pharisees. He’ll never eat with them again. They’ll never pretend to like Him again. Now, he’s journeying toward Jerusalem. Fickle crowds surround Him, and in the midst of it all, Jesus turns to His disciples. The Pharisees won’t follow Jesus; the crowds will melt away too. What are YOU going to do? Jesus asks His followers, in so many words.

What follows is a short, cryptic passage made up of one point, three examples, and three illustrations. First, the examples …

Counting the cost means a new relationship, Jesus says (:26)If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sister, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 

This is strange to us. In so many other places Jesus has commanded love for others, even enemies. And, He’s demonstrated that love Himself. What’s going on here? Well, Jesus is operating from the discipleship model of the time. In that day, young methetaes (“disciples,” or learners) would pledge allegiance to a teacher, adopt that teacher’s lifestyle, and count on the teacher to provide what they needed. This was the model of a young Jew following a rabbi to learn Torah, or a young Greek learning the ways of Stoicism, Epicurianism, or another school of Greek thought. To do this, of course, the student would have to forsake his former way of life, including his family.

That’s the point Jesus is making. We can’t choose Him, but still belong to someone else. This leads to the second example.

Counting the cost means enduring suffering (:27). The disciples’ new allegiance to Jesus will mean that she will suffer the same rejection Jesus did. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 

Important to recognize is that Jesus is emphasizing the process of following Him, not the act of entering. We aren’t saved by taking up our crosses. Jesus saved us by taking up His. But, in coming to Him, we ought to expect the same reception He received. If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you (Jn 15.18).

Finally, counting the cost means releasing hold of possessions (:33)So therefore, if any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. The word “renounce” here means “take leave of” (read, “say bye-bye”). It’s a travel word. Paul is seen in Acts saying “bye-bye” to companions (i.e. Acts 18.18). And, we’re to say “bye-bye” to possessions we once considered our own.

Note the logic of the passage so far. Counting the cost means pledging allegiance to Jesus, suffering in the manner He did, and giving up your possessions with the confidence that what He gives you will be enough.

Woven into passage are three illustrations. The tower (:28-30) teaches us recognition. The king teaches self-awareness (:31-32). And, salt teaches perseverance (:34-35). Of the three, salt rounds out Jesus’ meaning most fully. Salt had numbers of purposes in the ancient world. Making food taste good, of course. Retarding and managing the decomposition of manure in producing compost, for another. And, most importantly, preserving food. But, when salt became corrupted by getting wet or being mixed with impurities, it had to be discarded. So it will be with those who don’t properly reckon what allegiance to Jesus actually means. They take off, leaving Jesus, and become useless.

This is a hard teaching from Jesus. He’s saying that, unlike the fickle crowds, His followers need to recognize what it will cost to enter into relationship with Him. Then, they need to persist in following Him.

Count the cost … Keep on with Jesus.

Read in isolation, there’s not a lot of comic relief or comfort in this passage. In fact, my unstudied reaction is to withdraw, so I don’t mess up. But, that’s not to be how we apply this Scripture to our lives. Here’s a couple of critical thoughts to help us:

  1. In this passage, Jesus hasn’t been to the cross yet! That’s critically important for us on this side of the cross, because it means that we’re further along in God’s plan of redemption than those disciples who walked with Jesus in His earthly ministry. At that time, Jesus’ hadn’t yet paid the penalty for our sin. And, in a very real sense, the gospel hadn’t happened yet. We know now that since Jesus has been to the cross He has secured redemption for all who depend on Him by faith. His Spirit has activated the saving power of the preached gospel, so that those called to faith understand and believe (i.e. Acts 16.14). Just as wondrous, God guards those  who have believed, so that we will come into our inheritance at the return of Christ. (See 1 Pet 1.3-9). Taken in light of the overall plan of redemption, there’s certainty here!
  2. In calling us to Himself, Jesus invites us on a journey with Him through the Spirit. Importantly, none of Jesus’ early followers counted the cost. They all fled. But, when the risen Jesus appeared to them and then sent His Spirit, they flourished. And, Jesus sustained them.

When we come to Jesus we enter relationship by faith as an event. Then, we go on with Jesus in the process of sanctification. This passage is about what we learn along the way. We don’t renounce our families, cars, bank accounts and houses at the moment of salvation. But, we continually ask God to show us what it means that all these things belong to Him.

And, as we travel with Jesus, He sustains us and gives us what we truly need in Him.

Count the cost … Keep on with Jesus

Here’s a few questions to consider with others along the way:

  1. What about this passage is most cryptic or hard to understand?
  2. How does the picture of the teacher providing everything the student needs help you make sense of what Jesus is telling us to do in this passage?
  3. What things are most difficult for you to “renounce”?
  4. What does it look like for you when Jesus “calls in” something that you know already belongs to Him?
  5. How does the overall plan of redemption we read about in other places in the New Testament, like 1 Peter 1.3-8, provide you with security and make you thankful?

 

Celebrating with Jesus: Luke 14.15-24

Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God, the invited guest shouted.

This interjection must have seemed strange and misplaced, uttered suddenly by the man lying at table with Jesus, His Pharisee host, and the others who had shouldered their way to places of importance.

But Jesus thought the interjection important, so important He told a parable, recorded for us in Luke 14.15-24.

A certain man prepared a really lavish feast. Ahead of time, he sent servants to invite guests of his choosing. All were impressed. But, months later, when all was ready, these same invited guests didn’t want to come. The same servants went. But, the invited guests begged off. One had purchased land, another some oxen, a third had just married. Basically, they had other things to do. 

The master of the house grew angry. Refusing to postpone or cancel his feast, he sent those same servants to collect others who couldn’t even pretend to match him in wealth and grandeur—the crippled, blind, and lame. 

When the new guests had arrived, there was a new problem. There was still room in the host’s house! His glory exceeded the number of guests! So, he told his servants, “Go get some more.” So, these same servants left the city and went to the highways leading away from the city and to the hedges where foreigners lounged. 

At first, this final group of guests couldn’t believe they were invited! But, the host had instructed his servants to “compel” (:23) them to come. And so, finally, the banquet hall was filled, but not by those who had been originally invited. 

Jesus ends his instruction with the telling words, For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet (:24).

Jesus’ purpose in speaking this parable in the midst of His enemies isn’t hard to recognize. The Nation of Israel, represented by its teachers, was in the act of rejecting Him as Messiah. Though they’d been called to God for ages, they would find other things to do, rather than trust Messiah. Meanwhile, others (Gentiles, pictured by the guests who came to fill the hall) would accept Jesus, and enter into Kingdom celebration with their Lord.

Taken in the midst of Jesus’ teaching in this section of Luke, this passage isn’t hard to figure out. But, there’s more than we realize here. One of the fascinating things about parables is that, unlike teaching in the epistles, for example, they can teach multiple points. Like a diamond that reflects light through multiple facets, parables reflect truth through their different characters. So, consider the following:

  1. The Master of the Feast. This figure clearly stands in for God, the Father (or, perhaps, Jesus Himself). Important is that He doesn’t NEED any of the guests. He doesn’t need His first invitees, who blew Him off; and, He clearly doesn’t have to have the crippled, blind and lame who come to fill His hall. But, He WANTS to include them. He WANTS to display His glory and grandeur and generosity. In fact, it’s fitting and proper that He do so.
  2. The Original Guests. These guys miss out, because they THINK they have the right to blow off the host, and because they WON’T make the host a priority. So, they just miss out. The host doesn’t postpone for them. He goes on without them. Fully invited, they exclude themselves.
  3. The Servants. These figures, representing the prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles (and us!) after the cross of Jesus, have the responsibility of bringing the message. (It’s Interesting that their work spans the whole program of redemption.) And, in the second and third invitations, they go to those who have to be FOUND. Did you get that? Those foreigners lounging under hedges and alongside the road leading away from the city probably couldn’t even imagine that they would ever be invited to share in the glory of the master host. How like our work today, in telling others about Jesus? How like our task in “compelling” and convincing those who don’t know Jesus that our great, glorious God wishes to include them in His banquet.
  4. Finally, there’s the New Guests. These are those who, doubtless, felt unworthy to share in the glory of the master. They didn’t know how to dress, how to act, or what they were supposed to do in the master’s presence. But, He wanted them, so that He could fill His house. Why? Because that’s the kind of kind, generous, glorious master that He is!

It’s hard to put a main idea to this parable, at least without going on at length. It teaches us so much about God, about ourselves, and about our task in following and serving Jesus. Here’s my attempt at this teaching’s main idea:

Those who come to celebrate with Jesus are those who put Jesus first and accept His invitation.

Or, better yet:

Drop everything … Come to JESUS!

What do you think? Do you agree?

What facet of God’s plan of redemption do you see in this teaching that you’ve never seen before?

And have a great week, in the LORD.

Striving for Jesus: Luke 13.22-30

Growing up in Dallas, Texas with the city skyline in my front window, there were things I didn’t know about blessing and bounty. There was the time when, as an older elementary-aged student, I got it into my heart to plant a garden. I plowed (by hand), sowed, and waited. Nothing happened. When, after a time, nothing had happened some more, my mother got involved.

“Bryan,” she said, “Maybe, October isn’t the right time to start a garden.” (I wonder still today what she—having been raised on a farm—had been thinking while standing in the kitchen window, watching me miss my window of opportunity all those golden-brown weeks of autumn.)

Luke 13.22-30 is about the narrow door of blessing and opportunity that Jesus instructed His followers to enter. Ah, but not just to enter—to strive for!

The setting of this often-overlooked little parable is in the midst of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. The major theme of this section of Luke’s gospel, between chapters 9 and 19, is the nature of discipleship, and that in light of both Jesus’ death and His approaching kingdom. In this passage, somebody raises a question: Lord, will those who are saved be few? (:23, ESV).

Now, somebody is finally thinking! The Rabbis of the day taught that at the coming of Messiah all Israel would be saved. It’s those rascally Gentiles who will be rejected! But, while enduring continual opposition from the religious leaders of the day, Jesus will transform the question. Instead, He will point to the narrow door of opportunity that His very presence offers and, in effect, ask: Are you among the saved?

One Present Imperative (:22-24).

In the key verse of this teaching unit, Jesus responds to the initial question: Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able (:24).

This verse contains one of my favorite Greek words: agonizomai. It means “to strive earnestly, fight, struggle, serve as a combatant in the public games.” Picture two Greco-Romans wrestlers, naked, covered in dust, grasping at body-parts, biting even. This is serious. But, that’s how serious Jesus says that we ought to be in seeking salvation. The narrow door pictures the way of salvation that is only open for a short time. Do everything necessary to get through that door! Jesus says.

Two Future Responses (:25-27)

Then, Jesus expands the parable. He pictures the time when His kingdom will have come in fulness. It’s the restoration of all things. The dead have been raised. All wrongs have been made right. Those fit for salvation have entered through the door of blessing and bounty. But, here come those who weren’t trusting in Jesus. And, you know what, the master (standing in for God the Father in the word picture) doesn’t even recognize them.

Lord, open up! They will shout. But, you know what, the Father won’t even recognize them (:25).

Then, in another attempt, those who weren’t fit for blessing will recall all those times they ate and drank with Jesus. But, they will be cast out (:26). They learn, too late, that the issue isn’t familiarity with Jesus, but their response to Him.

Those of us who await Jesus’ second coming—not His first, like those in the passage—should be likewise sobered at Jesus’ warning. How many of us put stock in our church involvement rather than our actual relationship to Jesus by faith. Children’s ministry, youth ministry, small groups, adult education—everything gets cranked up at Woodland here in the next couple of weeks. Outstanding stuff, and I’m all in! But, hanging around Jesus, associating with Jesus and His people, won’t, in the end, substitute for having trusted in Jesus and His work.

Three Surprising Outcomes (:28-30)

The final section of the passage gives three surprising outcomes—one negative, one positive, and one just plain ironic. Verse 28 is the very picture of blessing to every son of Israel in Jesus’ day—a sumptuous banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the founding fathers of the nation. But, the door will be closed for many who missed their invitation because they missed Jesus. Weeping and gnashing of teeth is stock imagery for extreme anguish (:28).

In contrast, there will be those from all nations—north, south, east and west—who will be invited. These are Gentiles, who have no business being there, except that they responded to Jesus and strived to get through that door of opportunity (:29).

And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last (:30). So ends the passage in irony. It isn’t that there won’t be many who join Jesus in the end, it’s that there will be many missing who thought they’d be included, but who strived for the wrong thing, missing Jesus.

That’s what the passage means. But, as I drive around on our country roads and dig up Northwoods potatoes this week (planted in season, back in the spring), I’ve been asking how this teaching ought to work in my life.

Here’s two questions I’m thinking about:

  1. Am I striving for Jesus? Make no mistake. We’re saved by Jesus and His work on the cross—that’s the gospel. We receive the benefit of the gospel by trusting Jesus. But, the evidence that I’m trusting in Jesus is NOT that I work to be saved, but that I strive to listen to Jesus through His word … I strive to respond to what He wants for my life … I strive to understand how the gospel works in every part of my life … and, I strive to care about Jesus and His things. This is what Paul referred to as “living by faith”. As Romans 1.16-17 goes, For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith”. 
  2. Am I focusing on the gospel, so other people will strive for Jesus? I don’t actually know anybody who’s driven by a desire to lunch with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But, I do know lots of people who think they’re being saved apart from Jesus and His work. Every worldview has its picture of blessing, bounty and salvation. Our wider, post-modern culture is no different. Opposing gun violence, combating climate change, increasing literacy—depending on your political persuasion, some or all of these causes are good. But, they won’t open the door of God’s blessing once Jesus returns. That door will close.

But, until it does close … it’s open. And that ought to motivate me to be laser-sharp clear about the gospel in my interaction with others. Jesus isn’t messing around in this parable. He’s urging, persuading, and offering blessing and bounty to those who enter God’s kingdom through Him.

Those who will enter God’s blessing soon strive to enter through Jesus today.

Enjoy the blessing and bounty outside. And have a great week, in the LORD.

 

 

Movements and the Master: Thoughts on Joshua Harris

This week Amanda and I joined many others in being sad over the divorce and spiritual defection of another Christian leader. I’m a bit too old to have been influenced much by Josh Harris’  I Kissed Dating Goodbye  (1997) or Harris’ account of his own courtship in Boy Meets Girl (2005). My (forever) young Amanda isn’t so old as to have missed out on the target demographic of the books, however. And, we’ve been aware ever since of Joshua Harris’ contributions as a former homeschooler, a senior pastor in his church, and a mover-shaker type in the Sovereign Grace network that forms a stripe of the, so-called, Young Restless Reformed movement—which in turn gave birth to the Gospel Coalition.

Not much is private anymore. When a leader goes down, there’s usually announcements on social media. Such was the case a few weeks back when Josh Harris announced on Instagram that his marriage had failed and shortly later announced that he was undergoing a “deconstruction” of his Christian faith. Since then, leaders like Al Mohler and Janie Cheaney have weighed in, together with friends of Harris like Kevin DeYoung and Collin Hansen.

Like everybody else, Amanda and I have tried, just between the two of us, to talk some sense out of the tragedy. How could this happen? How could Josh touch off such a movement, but then fall so short?

We expect other announcements to come and much public finessing of anything Josh writes about his spiritual adventure. But, the point that comes through for Amanda and I (and the one we ought to heed in our own Woodland Community Church) is that following movements isn’t the same as following the Master.

That’s important for us at Woodland at this juncture of our church’s history. It would be super-easy for us to get whipped-up over the growth of our dynamic, little church up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. We might even float some talk about the “Woodland brand,” whatever that would be. Amanda and I might share some thoughts from the Classical Christian homeschool movement, which fascinates the two of us. We might take a group to the next Gospel Coalition conference and all come back with matching TGC tee-shirts.

But, following these movements isn’t the same as following Jesus!

Popular Bible study curricula, RightNow media, blogs, ministries that help us study the Bible or rear our kids, popular or historic schools of theology. Much of this (if not all of it) is great. But, none of these movements will save us. And, none of these little eddies in our wider Christian culture will produce guaranteed results.

Jesus will and does produce guaranteed results! That’s what Paul said when, after visiting Athens, he wrote to the less-complicated than Athenian citizens of Corinth:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2.1-2).

So, we need to be careful at a lively, happy, growing church like Woodland. We need to be careful that we aren’t mixing up some secret sauce, some magic Kool-aid that will leave us far short of Jesus Himself.

Next time you see us, let us know what you think of this thought. Let us hear from you about how following Jesus, the Master, has taken you to better places than following any movement ever could.

 

Getting Ready for Jesus: Luke 12.1-12

Well, they did it! In a newsworthy comeback, even missed by the Medford Star newspaper, the U11 Blue Bolts have turned their season around, made their way through to the championship game this past Monday night, and won the big game 2-0 on the main field in Medford Wisconsin, population about 4,000!

My Henry’s team. Summer fun. Great stuff. Loved coaching this rabble. Time to sit back and think about life lessons, I suppose …

Why did things suddenly turn around for the Blue Bolts, just in time? Well, they started listening to their coach (happens to be me). And, they knew the day of reckoning was upon them in that big game!

In Luke 12, Jesus is preparing His disciples for His coming—His coming that we now understand consists in two stages: He was to go to Jerusalem (9.51), die for the sins of all those who would trust in Him, be raised, and then return to the Father, Stage 1. And then, He was to return, gloriously, Stage 2. You and live between Jesus’ two comings. And what He has to teach His disciples in Luke 12.1-12 is every bit as relevant for us as it was for them.

So, how do we get ready for Jesus’ coming? 

Not in appearance only, but with sincerity (:1-3).

Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees … Jesus teaches (:1). Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed (:2). The idea here is that there will be a day of reckoning. Nothing we’ve said or done in secret will be unexposed. Every “bubbler” (Wisconsin word for water cooler) conversation will come to light. Nothing will be hidden. And, those who merely appeared to follow Jesus but did not serve Him in their hearts will have to give account.

Sobering stuff. So, while we press forward to Christ’s return, we’re to let God prune our lives. We’re to search our hearts letting the light of God’s truth in His Word and the gospel expose those little creases of self-dependance. We’re to confess our sins.

What will happen to us in society? Well, we won’t be appreciated by those not looking forward to Jesus. We’re to get ready …

Not with fear of man, but with reverence for God (:4-7).

Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. Jesus doesn’t promise to deliver us from trouble. Jesus does remind us that men have limited ability to hurt us. So, you might have a gun put to your head. You might get bullied for your faith and excluded from the “tribe.” How are we to receive this?

We’ll we’re to reverence God. But I warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! And, as we reverence God who controls not only the events of our lives, but where we go and what we experience in eternity, we’re to remember that God sees all. He knows every sparrow. He knows each hair of our heads. He even knows how many gum balls are in the gum ball machine in the True Value hardware store in Rib Lake.

Finally, we’re to prepare for Jesus’ coming …

Not by denying Jesus, but by confessing Jesus in the Spirit (:8-12).

This includes our speech (:8-9). … everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 

Acknowledging here involves confession. We’re to say throughout our lives, “I’m with Jesus!” That takes place at baptism and the Lord’s Table, in a formal way. But, also in informal, more routine ways. The point is that there’s going to come a day of reckoning when we’ll be accountable for how we have responded to Jesus.

Such teaching arrests us, makes us feel uncertain even. But making us uncertain isn’t Jesus’ intent. That’s why Jesus will send His Spirit. Verse 10 needs to be seen in context then, And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 

How does verse 10 add to our certainty? Well, we need to know that such “blasphemy” against the Spirit isn’t an utterance, but a permanent rejection of the Spirit’s message about Jesus. It’s not “a denial of nerve, but a denial of the heart” (quoting Darrell Bock in his Luke commentary, vol. 2). It’s possible to curse Jesus in a moment, but then be convicted by the Spirit and call Him Lord. Think of Peter who got this right, eventually.

But, more. We’re to acknowledge Jesus through the Spirit (:11-12). Instead of blaspheming the Spirit, we’re to speak through the Spirit. Jesus says, You’re going to give an account of me before men. Don’t panic … don’t worry … don’t even reason out a defense … acknowledge me.

This is contemporary material here. How many times in my work as a pastor do I get in too deep for my own little self? While I’m listening to peoples’ thoughts about their situations, I frequently ask the Lord, “What do I say here? How do I respond?” I’ve noted that in such instances the times I’m helpful always involve helping people understand how the gospel relates to their situations. And, any helpfulness includes wisdom from Scripture that comes from outside myself … Really!

We prepare for Jesus’ coming by living life focused on the day of reckoning.

This includes living in sincerity, non in appearance only; reverencing God, not fearing men; and, confessing Jesus in the Spirit.

Summer is a great time to kinda take our minds out of gear. All good, in its time. But, let’s not forget that the day of reckoning is coming. Let’s confess Jesus and live daily in the Spirit.

Have a great week, in the Lord!

BLUE BOLTS!

Much Boldness, More Generosity: Luke 11.1-13

Lord, teach us to pray, as John [the Baptist] taught his disciples (:1b, ESV).

This strikes me as a strange request from one of Jesus’ early followers. Think about it. The earliest disciples were actually with Jesus, and yet they wanted to learn a prayer that would establish them as a group, that would kinda make them legit … like John the Baptists’ followers.

Jesus’ response is wonderful. Yes, He does teach them a prayer. Known typically as The Lord’s Prayer, many people repeat what Jesus said to help them … well … feel legit, or religious. Pater noster, qui es in caelis … (“Our Father, who are in heaven …).

After spending the week in Luke 11. 1-13, I’m convinced that Jesus intended something entirely different. If we pay attention to what Jesus emphasizes in this prayer, and pay attention to the prayer’s themes, we don’t get a group prayer by rote, we get … well … God Himself. And, we learn to pray like Jesus.

The prayer itself has one address, two declarations, and then three requests. 

Father … God is not addressed here as one far off; nor is He approached as Creator or Ruler, though He is. Rather, there’s family intimacy. Hallowed by your name. This is a plea for God to make His uniqueness be ever more visible in creation. Your kingdom come … This looks forward to when Jesus returns and makes all wrongs right. It’s not a process; it’s a future event, the culmination of God’s rule revealed.

I’ve got to ask myself: do my prayers involved God’s revealed holiness filling the earth? Or, is my imagination too small?

The requests involve provision (give us each day our daily bread), forgiveness ( … and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us), and spiritual protection ( … and lead us not into temptation).

Much could be said here about the prayer itself, but in Luke’s account Jesus doesn’t stop. Instead, he follows up the prayer with a parable, confusing at first blush (:5-8). It’s humorous and involves a host who receives an unexpected guest at midnight. In that face-saving culture, the host would be expected to provide thee loaves of bread, but he has none. Faced with this quandary, the unprepared host needs to knock on the door of his neighbor’s house. When he does, his normally friendly neighbor, who has just bedded down with his animals and children, goes stingy: … I can’t get up and give you anything! (:7). Even so, the host gets what he needs, not because his neighbor is his friend, but because the man wants to get back to bed without a ruckus.

Jesus tells this parable as a lesson in contrasts. God is exactly the opposite of the stingy neighbor! Then, Jesus makes a clarifying promise (:9-13):

… ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 

God wants us to come to Him. So, ask and pray boldly. Seek, and don’t quite coming to God. Knock, and you won’t find a barred door. God is not a lofty ruler or a stingy neighbor. He’s a good father.

As delightful as this truth about our good, Heavenly Father is, there’s a bonus point at the end of the passage. Verse 13 reads, If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? 

If God is not stingy but generous, then how much more should we go to Him? If God will not only give us what we need but His own Spirit, then how much more bold should we be!

Much boldness in prayer is right, because God is outrageously generous and loves to share with those who ask. 

Wonderful truth that this is, I still need to know what to do with this in my prayers. I recognize that this is not a blank check. God’s purpose isn’t to make me comfortable so I forget Him. Rather, I want to use the themes of the prayer to inform my prayers. Here’s a few questions I’ve settled on asking as I talk to God:

  1. How do You want to expand Your glory in my situation? This is not the same as just asking God for things because I want to. It is about being alive to how God would expand His glory in my life. So, I won’t (just for example) ask for a new house just because I want one. But, I might consider adding on to my existing house, IF I sense that God desires to use my house to meet the needs of my family, or enhance service for Him.
  2. What is it that You want me to be content with? This is challenging and, again, involves me thinking through the reason I want some things and not others. So, for me, it involves asking myself if I should be content with my old, basic cellphone when I could get a smartphone. Maybe I should be content. Or, maybe, the newer, better phone would be used to help me pastor our church better.
  3. Where do I need to be led by Your Spirit? Without the Spirit of God, I want my own glory, not God’s. Without the Spirit, I don’t want to be content. Without Him, I won’t have power to imagine anything greater than myself, and I won’t live a forceful life for God.

So, the Lord’s Prayer is hardly a prayer for rote memory and repetition, is it? The disciples weren’t super clear on how they were to come to God, but Jesus in His kindness showed them. Likewise, He shows us, along with much more about our Heavenly Father.

Have a great week, in the Lord!

Good Portion: Luke 10.38-42

Two Sisters … many distractions … one good portion.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ quick dialogue with His friend and follower Martha (with Martha’s sister Mary sitting silently at His feet) is among the most-preached gospel accounts. On the surface its meaning appears simple. But after a week of study and reflection, I (speaking for one Bible reader) am still growing into its application.

Two sisters (:38-39). You know the story in Luke 10.38-42. Jesus is visiting Martha and Mary. Martha just has to be the older sister. She’s entertaining, hosting, and appears to run the house. Looking at the other two accounts that include Martha and Mary (in John 11 and 12), we see a scrappy, assertive and even forward Martha. She’s a black-and-white thinker with good theology. After all, she’s the one who points out “I know he [Lazarus] will rise again at the resurrection.”

Her sister Mary is different. In the three gospel accounts where Mary appears she comes off as retiring, contemplative, and always close to tears. When, in John 11, she, like Martha, says to Jesus,  … if you’d been here my brother wouldn’t have died, Jesus doesn’t respond with a theology lesson; He says “Where have you laid him?” Jesus responds to Mary with Himself. And, in John 12, it’s this Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet to prepare Him for burial.

While the rest of the disciples struggle with Jesus’ message of Cross first, then glory, Mary gets it.

Many distractions (:40). The crisis comes in this passage when Martha is preparing a meal for Jesus, and Mary chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” 

Martha’s problem here isn’t her serving; it’s her heart. She clearly wants to serve Jesus in a manner appropriate to His person, but she expresses her distracted heart by lashing out at Mary for leaving her “alone”, and even at Jesus for not pointing out to Mary what she, Martha, believes to be obvious. Martha is running over people in her frantic effort to do the right thing.

The Good Portion (:41-42). Jesus says to Martha: Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. In other words, you’ve got a lot on your plate, Martha. There’s lots of good things to do, but you’re missing the one thing that will bring it all together.

And what would that be? Jesus continues: Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her. 

It’s helpful to note here that this account takes place in a kitchen. The word “portion” is often used of food. Martha is in the kitchen consumed with producing food that will be gone in a few moments. Mary has connected with something deeper.

What is it that Jesus said when tempted by the Devil in Luke 4.4? It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Left unsaid to the Devil in that earlier passage is the full citation from Deuteronomy 8: … man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 

Martha did the right thing, but Mary did the thing right. Mary understood that Jesus’ teaching (found for us in God’s Word) is the Good Portion that will nourish His followers always. 

Now, a shallow reading of this passage might lead us to the wrong response. We might think that the proper response to Jesus is the six-hour quiet time. “Let somebody else do the work,” we might say. “I’ll just reflect on Jesus.”

We know better, don’t we?

Martha’s problem isn’t that she’s working too hard serving; it’s that her service to Jesus has become one means among many to an end she can’t even find. In doing many things, she’s missed the one thing. She’s missed Jesus’ teaching. The “good portion”. And in missing Jesus’ instruction, she’s missed Jesus! And in being distracted she’s worn herself out.

In wrestling with what my response to this passage needs to look like—busy husband, father and pastor that I am—I’ve come up with four practical questions to ask myself. May I share them with you?

  1. Am I really desiring Jesus as the Good Portion? If I desire Jesus among other things, I’ll become distracted. Then I’ll probably blame other people for what I think they’re supposed to be doing. I might even blame Jesus for what I think He should being doing through other people. And it all started with a heart problem on my part. Nothing good happens when we fail to regard Jesus with focused devotion.
  2. Am I preoccupied with other people in my service? Where do my thoughts range? Am I consumed with Jesus’ word, and with His estimation of my life. Or am I so managing things that I can’t forget about what I think others should be doing? This question is a flash-point question. It ought to sound like buzzers and sirens in my head when I get this wrong.
  3. Am I serving so that others can enjoy the Good Portion? One sure-fire way to know we’re serving Jesus is when we don’t get any immediate benefit for ourselves. So, watching kids so that our Woodland women can sit at Jesus’ feet in study is a great way to serve, for example.
  4. And, finally, Am I content in Jesus at the end of the day so that I trust Him with what I couldn’t do? This is a hard one, a discipline even. But confessing my inner Martha has much to do with ceding control to God for my limitations, which become, if I do this properly, matters that will wait.

This is the kind of passage that we’re not done studying until we’re done living. Why don’t you meditate this week on these five short verses in Luke. Make up some practical questions of your own, why don’t you? Sit at Jesus’ feet, in your times of reflection, and in your times of joyful serve to Jesus. Don’t be distracted. Don’t be frantic. Choose the one thing. Choose the Good Portion, and be joyful in Jesus.

And have a blessed weekend, in the Lord!

 

 

Following and Failure: Luke 9.28-45

It’s summer in the Northwoods, and my boys and I are cutting against the grain, a bit. They’re playing, and I’m coaching … soccer. While baseball, the local pastime, is great, boys in my family need to run, like miles. So, here we go.

Coaching 10-11 year olds is a study in human behavior, really. Like I would expect, my Blue Bolts (Henry’s team) want to scrimmage, play games and score points. They want glory, now! And, like in last week’s game when we won 8-3, they get little glimpses of what they’re capable of. But then there’s weeks like this one. They didn’t pay attention to my drills that graduate from simple (dribbling and passing) to complex (shooting and positional play). And, because they didn’t listen in practice, they didn’t hear me shouting from the sideline in the game. And we lost a squeaker, 2-3.

In Luke 9, Jesus shows His disciples His glory, while also teaching them to listen to Him in the hard business of enduring hardship before His return.

Take a minute to read Luke 9.28-45.

Notice, there’s Glory on the Mountaintop (:28-36). Jesus is praying again. This time He’s taken Peter, James and John with Him. While they sleep, Jesus is transformed. What Peter and the others will see will be Jesus’ answer to His promise from earlier: But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God (:27).

The disciples awake to find Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah. They are discussing Jesus’ “departure,” which will be accomplished in Jerusalem, and which we now call “the gospel”: the good news that Jesus will die, be buried, be raised, and will return to the Father, only to return for His people.

Afraid that he’s missed it all, Peter blurts out something sincere but uninformed about making shelters for Jesus and His two important guests. Apparently, Peter doesn’t yet really understand what being “the Christ” entails. Jesus is at the center of God’s plan, not Moses and Elijah. It’s at this moment that a cloud (reminiscent of the shekineh glory of God in which God met with Moses on Sinai) envelops everyone on the mountain. This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him! God says. Jesus is central to God’s plan. The disciples will need to listen to Jesus in order to follow Jesus, carry their crosses, and know God.

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience with God? Maybe, you went to a conference and you just didn’t want to leave. You can’t live in those special moments, can you? They encourage us and remind us about Whom we serve, but you can’t live on the mountain without listening to Jesus.

Then, there’s failure in the valley (:37-45). Next, Jesus leads His disciples down the mountain where they encounter a great crowd and the rest of the disciples trying to exorcise a particularly troubling demon. The boy’s father begs Jesus to help. Jesus, in words language evoking Old Testament prophets, laments the lack of faith by all those involved and promptly heals the boy.

What’s gone on here? The disciples, now growing accustomed to healing and casting our demons in Jesus’ name, had apparently been trying to heal under their own power. (See the parallel accounts in Matthew 17 and Mark 9.)

It’s at this point that Jesus clarifies His mission, again: Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men (:44). But, the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about. The truth “was concealed” from them.

Sometimes, we get mountaintop experiences with God, but the Christian’s life isn’t lived there, is it? We need to listen to Jesus in the valley. And it’s there in the valley that Jesus teaches us the hard business of carrying our crosses while we await His return.

This is my Son, My Chosen One; listen to him!

How does this work for us? How do we listen to Jesus today? This passage reminds us of the need to pay attention to the progress of redemption. Jesus is not with us like He was there with the disciples, but He has been to Jerusalem. And He has “accomplished” the deeds described in the gospel. And He has sent His Spirit. And He has left us the written account of the New Testament. And He does sustain us by reminding us of who He is and who we are and where we’re going. And He does empower us in the valley while we carry our crosses.

Consider Romans 8.14-17: For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cary, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 

JESUS sustains those who follow Him (even in our failure) by showing His glory and speaking to them, through His Word by His Spirit. 

Some of this is heady stuff! Here’s a couple practical pointers for how we can apply the lessons of the passage:

  1. This week why don’t you spend some extra time in Luke’s gospel? Maybe, just read forward a few chapters. And, as you do, ask yourself: Where in my reading do I see Jesus’ glory? How does this glimpse of who Jesus is encourage and sustain me? How does it remind me of where I’m going and who I am? 
  2. Then, let’s all ask ourselves: Where in the valleys of my life do I need to listen to Jesus through His Word and the Spirit? 

It’s really easy, like the disciples did, to start rearranging the circumstances of our lives around our own priorities and power.

Let’s depend on Jesus instead. Let’s carry our crosses with His power, being encouraged by glimpses on the mountaintop, and stopping to “listen to” Jesus in the valleys.

And have a great week in the Lord!

 

Making the Invisible Visible: 1 Peter 3.21-22

Quick quiz. Which of the following is visible?

Faith … repentance … the effectual calling of the Spirit of God … the new birth … the baptism of the Spirit that joins the new believer to Christ … water baptism?

I bet you said “water baptism,” and that answer is … CORRECT!

This Sunday at Woodland we’re celebrating baptisms. Our local church family will surround four of our own and recognize them as those who belong to Jesus. That’s one facet of water baptism, and there are others. There’s the believer’s recognition of sin and the proclamation of the Gospel through the ordinance. There’s the believer’s testimony that she has trusted Jesus by faith and turned from sin to follow Jesus. And, there’s the identification of the believer with the finished work of Jesus.

Water baptism makes all these invisible realities visible.

In 1 Peter 3.21-22, Peter charges his readers to make a picture of the saving work of Christ, even while they wait for Christ’s return and suffer hardship in a hostile world. One way we (along with his first readers) are to do this is through the ordinance of baptism that makes a picture by pointing to another picture.

Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ … 

The other picture water baptism points to is the baptism of the Spirit of God that is received by faith. (See Romans 6.3-4, too). Water baptism points to that “appeal” (ESV), that request that the believer makes to God for a good conscience. The picture here is of the believer going to God and saying, “I know I’m far from You, Lord. I believe that Jesus paid for my sins on the cross, and that You raised Him from the dead. Please save me and make me alive too, like Jesus!”

God responds to the believer’s faith by granting  a “good conscience,” the new birth. All of this is based on the work of Jesus, stamped by the resurrection and punctuated by Christ’s victory and present reign.

… Jesus Christ … who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. 

Did you know that water baptism points to so much? Have you ever thought of the dunking of a man or woman in a newly lacquered horse tank (that’s what we use here at Woodland!) is invested with so much significance?

Baptism has significance, because water baptism makes a visible picture of the work of Jesus that become ours by faith in Him.

And that’s what we’re celebrating Sunday!