Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 9

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Mercy.

Jesus is the man with authority to speak a command and it happens. Unnumbered galaxies are flung into space, untold intricacies are embedded into genetic matter, and unseen power exorcises leprous sores and evil demons from hapless victims—at a word from Jesus.

We saw examples of this authority described in Matthew chapter eight—our Day 8 of ‘Twenty-eight Days With Jesus’. There is a sense of awe when thinking about the power and authority Jesus commands that inspires our respect. This is the fear of God we rightly have thinking about the ‘transcendence’ of His being—His existence transcends or goes beyond anything and everything we can imagine. He is completely other than us.

Day 9, by contrast, focuses on an attribute that complements Christ’s transcendence beautifully. We call it ‘immanence’. It means closeness, nearness, and accessibility. Reading Matthew chapter nine gives us a sense that Jesus really loves being with people, getting to the heart of their needs, and giving them more than they ever imagined was available. He is accessible to all.

For instance, right at the beginning of the chapter we see a group of men bringing with them a friend of theirs who is paralyzed and lying helplessly on a mat. I imagine the fellow has been jostled and jiggled relentlessly as his well-meaning friends have toted him across town in search of Jesus. The man is paralyzed, so he probably can’t keep his body balanced while his friends, grasping the corners of his mat, fail to notice him sliding one way or another in their quest to find the Healer.

It’s the town of Capernaum—a small seaside town—and when the men find Jesus they are relieved to catch His attention. I’m sure Jesus looks into each of their faces. He sees their hands supporting the mat on which their friend lies. He reads the hope in their eyes and looks even deeper, seeing the faith in their hearts that brings them to Him. Then he focuses on the invalid in the stretcher.

“Take heart, son,” Jesus tells the paralytic, “your sins are forgiven.”

Imagine the silence that follows. Stories of prophets healing people are recorded in the ancient Scriptures and news has spread that Jesus is a modern-day prophet who has been healing every sort of illness. But did He just say, “your sins are forgiven”? Forgiving sins is different. That’s God’s territory.

The Jewish elders recognize this religious faux pas immediately and begin to murmur, “blasphemy!” pegging Jesus an infidel and religious upstart. They don’t care at all about the paralyzed man, forgiven of sins or not, healed or not. They simply want to protect the status quo of their religion.

Jesus responds by saying two things to the uncaring spiritual gatekeepers. Firstly, He says, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home” (Matt.9:4-6). The man is healed and the elders are left speechless.

But Jesus is not finished with the religious naysayers yet. He goes on to direct them “…go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.” There is a world of meaning in what Jesus reveals to these teachers who had become heartless in dealing with everyday people. God had intended their role to be leaders of people toward Himself but they had wrapped themselves up in the world of ceremonial acts: sacrifices and rituals emptied of relational significance. Jesus is quoting the prophet Hosea who saw the same error in the Jewish priests eight hundred years earlier.

What God had clarified back then was that He doesn’t want ritual sacrifice for the sake of ritual. He wants people who love Him for who He is, and He wants people to love others precisely because they are made in God’s image. Jesus reminds the teachers of the law of these verses. He brings these ancient words to their attention because these ‘law-keepers’ had forgotten about the law of love and they had no idea about mercy.

Mercy means recognizing every person’s inherent value and not holding social position or personal situation to account. It means empathizing with people—especially the needy—and showing compassion even when it appears like people don’t deserve it. It means looking reality in the face and doing everything possible to bring healing into others’ lives.

Mercy epitomizes Jesus. Nothing is hidden from Him—not sins needing forgiveness, not heart-wounds needing healing, not superficiality needing to be replaced with authenticity. And mercy, explains Jesus, needs to epitomize each of us. Period. No excuses. No rituals will replace it. Just go, learn it, and do it.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

(Photo Credit: 100203-N-6214F-049 CAP HAITIEN, Haiti (Feb. 3, 2010) A Hatian boy takes his first steps on his crutches with the support of a nurse after having a leg amputated at the Milot Hospital. Several U.S. and international military and non-governmental agencies are conducting humanitarian and disaster relief operations as part of Operation Unified Response after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake caused severe damage in and around Port-au-Prince, Haiti Jan. 12. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Robert J. Fluegel/Released))

 

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Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 8

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Authority.

Jesus had finished His thought-provoking Sermon on the Mount. At the end of Matthew chapter seven we’re told that the crowds of people who had come to hear Him “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority”—in distinct contrast to the weak and waffling speeches they were used to hearing from their religious leaders. They sensed the challenging message of Jesus was more than the charisma of a gifted orator. There was something deeper. His words pierced their hearts, speaking truth and demanding a response from His listeners. They sensed that Jesus not only spoke authoritatively—He embodied authority. Authority like this could get a person into trouble with the ruling establishment, though—the Jewish leaders were not known for being tolerant of any competition, and Rome itself was not about to share its power. This alone was enough to attract more than a few onlookers to follow Jesus. Perhaps this amazing man would use His authority to gain political power. Who would want to miss that?

As Jesus descended the mountain, the crowd following Him began to see what divine authority in action looks like. Not only did Jesus teach unlike anyone else, He displayed power unlike anything they had ever seen. Matthew chapter eight records eight interactions Jesus had as He moved through the lakeside town of Capernaum, crossed the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee by boat, and visited the remote region known as the Gadarenes.

First, Jesus met a social outcast; a man with nerve-numbing, limb-killing leprosy fell at Jesus’ feet asking to be made ‘clean’, a term referring to the complete absence of the disease. “Be clean!” Jesus commanded the outcast’s body—and it obeyed; the man’s nerves, blood vessels, soft tissue, lymphatic system and skin were completely healed and regenerated. Jesus sent the man joyfully on his way to present himself to the religious establishment to have his social banishment revoked.

Then, as Jesus entered the streets of Capernaum a Roman military figure moved purposefully toward Him—a commander of a division of one hundred soldiers. Perhaps the crowd following Jesus wondered if Jesus’ authority would find its match here. But the centurion, like the leper, had come for help. His attendant lay at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering. The centurion asked Jesus to use His authority to “just say the word” that would heal the suffering man without having even seen him. Jesus, delighted at the centurion’s faith, replied, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would,” and the servant was healed at that very hour.

Each interaction is the same. Jesus, confronted by diverse challenges, displays His authority over every aspect of the physical world. The sick and suffering find release from their captivity. Storms are stilled. Madmen find themselves back in their right minds. Nothing confounds or perplexes Jesus.

Why is this? The only plausible answer is that Jesus, through His display of authority over any obstacle or predicament, is earth’s Creator and Redeemer. Placing Himself in situations where God the Father leads Him, He, God the Son, reveals Himself by what He says and what He does. Nothing confounds or defeats the One who has all authority. And when the time was right, Jesus would submit Himself to being hung on an instrument of Roman torture, dying and returning to life, to display an aspect of His authority that has perplexed many: He has authority to take upon Himself the moral debt of every person on this planet; He has authority over death and over life; and those who accept His authority finds themselves recipients of an amazing gift of forgiveness and relationship with God.

What is the take-home message for us living here today? Check out the evidence. Read the record of Jesus’ life and ministry in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Bible. See if the authority of Jesus doesn’t strike you true. Then do what any sane person ought to do: bow before the author of life, accept His gift of salvation and hope, and draw close to the lover of our souls. As we submit to Jesus daily, we find that Jesus uses His authority to lead us and to bless us, and will continue to do so through eternity.

(Photo Credit: “כפר נחום תצלום אויר” by AVRAM GRAICER – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D7%9B%D7%A4%D7%A8_%D7%A0%D7%97%D7%95%D7%9D_%D7%AA%D7%A6%D7%9C%D7%95%D7%9D_%D7%90%D7%95%D7%99%D7%A8.jpg#/media/File:%D7%9B%D7%A4%D7%A8_%D7%A0%D7%97%D7%95%D7%9D_%D7%AA%D7%A6%D7%9C%D7%95%D7%9D_%D7%90%D7%95%D7%99%D7%A8.jpg)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 7

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Instructions for House-building.

Jesus is bringing His famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ to its conclusion. Endings of sermons, speeches and stories are epic; they are key to understanding everything the speaker intends. They summarize the main point—they reiterate the heart of the issue. If our attention wanders or our focus wanes anywhere, it is best that it not happen during the conclusion. We don’t want to miss the wrap-up.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is like that. It rises and falls in cycles of proposals and warnings. His conclusion brings his ideas to the apex. “Free at last!” he sings out, casting his vision for a unified country, a people no longer in bondage to racial injustice.

The conclusion of Jesus’ sermon is even more powerful. Its impact strikes the responsive listener with hurricane-like force. His words cut to the foundations of each of our lives.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Jesus sketches for us an image of two lives. He compares and contrasts these two people, describes their common experience and their differing responses. Those who live their lives by the often-challenging ethical demands of Jesus’ teachings are building under difficult conditions. The craggy foundation is high and there is much effort in climbing its heights each day to lift another post and lay another beam on its footing. The footprint from which they must rise has a definite shape and they must conform to it. Building a house on a rock takes everything they have and more.

Meanwhile, those who live their lives as they please, choosing to believe their own inner voice is rather to be followed than the words of God, are building on something that is attractive at the time. Sand is malleable and will take whatever shape the house-builder chooses. There are no hard edges that require the builder to adjust plans. There are no high and unyielding standards to which they must conform. What could be better than a beachfront villa with an ocean view—metaphorically speaking, of course?

Then comes the storm. Tornado-like winds drive pellets of rain against all sides of the two houses and torrents of floodwaters rise from below, thrashing both buildings mercilessly. When the storm subsides the results become visible. The house on the rock stands unscathed, while the house on the sand is nothing more than a splintered wreckage of debris.

What does it all mean? The storm is death. The houses are our lives. We each are given the freedom to ‘build’ our lives as we please. But each of us will eventually leave this world; each of us will experience death—there is no escaping it. What God gives us is the opportunity to prepare for the life hereafter in such a way that the experience of death will not harm us. That, says God in numerous ways throughout Scripture, is wisdom.

Here, at the end of Jesus’ famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ Jesus gets specific about how to build our lives wisely. He explains that the wise put His words into practice. Jesus will many times during His life and ministry explain that every word He speaks completely conforms to the Father’s words and will. He is God in the flesh. When people like you and me practice what He preached we express our faith in Him. At times that faith is painfully stretched because practicing Jesus’ commands is hard work. But that, Jesus is saying, is what building on ‘the rock’ involves.

Our life choices matter for eternity; they reflect either obedience to Jesus’ words or careless disobedience. There is no middle ground. Hearing a sermon or podcast, scanning a blog explaining Scriptural truths, even reading the Bible is not enough if we don’t put Jesus’ words into practice in our lives. On the other hand, the simplest life lived in obedience to His words is able to build an indestructible edifice for eternity.

That’s good news and it is accessible to all. Now the challenge is to take advantage of it. We need to go back and take another look at the words recorded in Jesus’ sermon (Matthew, chapters 5-7), find His commands, and start doing them. There is enough in there to keep us busy for a while. It’s hard work, but it will be worth it, because there’s a storm coming.

(Photo Credit: Jose, M.B. [[File:Wave santander 2014 001.jpg|thumb|Wave santander 2014 001]])

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus; Day 6

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Father-Focus

For once the hecklers were absent. The air was clear and those seated on the slope of the mountain could see the Jordan River winding through the valley below. Dusty tracks between villages were nothing more than threads on the draping fabric of the faraway land.

“Be careful,” began Jesus as He turned His attention to a topic that was of great importance to His listeners. Perhaps He paused there to draw their attention from the distant view back to His words—words of deep importance. Perhaps the disciples began to anticipate His next words: Be careful… of the precipitous drop-offs here on the mountainside? Be careful… of thieves hidden among the clefts of the paths in solitary places? Be careful… of the Roman soldiers who might demand you carry their gear on their journey to the next town?

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). So begins a chapter whose theme must have kept every eye and ear glued to the speaker. In teaching His followers how to live authentic, relevant lives that please God, Jesus uses a term for God that would have been unusual, maybe even unthinkable in those days. He calls God “your Father.”

We noticed he used this term in the previous chapter—He had said “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He had also taught His astonished followers to “Love your enemies…that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

Had they heard Him right? Did Jesus call God their heavenly Father? This kind of informal, unceremonious terminology was not commonly used of God. Yet the earth had not opened up and swallowed the man who used it. In fact, it somehow brought God closer, hearing Him referred to as heavenly Father. Some remembered the one hundred and third psalm saying, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.”

Now Jesus continues using the term Father and its pronouns twenty times in the next thirty-four verses (You really ought to read Matthew chapter six to get the full impact of it). He is warming to his subject and the ears and hearts of His listeners are burning. Jesus is teaching them that life is about pursuing a close relationship with the unseen Father; it’s not about external show. It’s not about the power that comes through prestige, wealth, or fashion. It’s about the interior life that God designed to be eternally expanding with the sort of rewards only an all-knowing compassionate heavenly Father can give. Jesus explains the family rules:

Stop trumpeting your charitable giving—the world needs public praise because they haven’t a heavenly Father to reward them like you do. The Father sees the good you do in secret. Trust Him to settle accounts in His time.

Stop trying to look holier-than-thou in front of others; a humble attitude of seeking forgiveness from others and from your Father will get you more in the long run.

Stop surrounding yourselves with the treasures of this world—property that will ultimately be taken from you. The Father is your greatest treasure—valuing Him above all else will keep your heart safe.

Stop fretting about your lot in life. Instead, set your vision on your Father’s plans for you to be people of good character. Your hope ought to be trained on the heavenly home the Father is making available for you.

Jesus’ focus on the Father is a message for each of us, every day—including today. He even sketches out a prayer for us to incorporate into our daily routines. It starts, “Our Father in heaven…” Remember it? The point is, we must think on the Father. Bringing Him into our thoughts will change our outlook on life.

Do we really want to take advantage of God’s fatherhood in our lives? We need to spend some time, as Jesus calls it “in secret” with the Father. Voice a prayer. Read a Psalm. Think about how He wants us to respond to life’s challenges. Ask Him to make Himself present in our lives. When we contemplate, ruminate and meditate on our heavenly Father, we are living in the present as God designed us to. Isn’t that right, Father?

 (Photo Credit: “Gorakh hill lonely tree” by Shahrukhphotoart – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gorakh_hill_lonely_tree.JPG#/media/File:Gorakh_hill_lonely_tree.JPG)