Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #12

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Prayer of Joy (Paraphrase of Psalm 126)

Lord, when I think of how You rescued me from my own foolishness, I feel like a freed captive. I was mindlessly intent on achieving my own goals and didn’t notice the hole into which I had dug myself. It became a prison with walls of selfishness, hurt, bitterness and pride before I began to recognize my yearning for home, my longing for the clean fresh air of release.

One call of Your Name brought You here. You broke down the walls, lifted me up, and brought me out of my dark place. I looked around and found You had set me among a family—brothers and sisters rescued just like I had been.

It fills my mouth with laughter and my tongue with songs of joy to think of it. Not only do I partake in Your blessing in the corporate sense with the body of believers, but Your blessing, the good You bring, is directed to me individually too. It really fills me with the deepest joy.

It’s like irrigation spreading across fields, making everything it touches green. It’s like harvest time in those fields—the land You love—the hard work is all worth it to You. Even my tears become songs of joy under the influence of Your blessing.

Not that all is rosy now. There are still the temptations—but now I know You are with me and offer me an escape.

There are still the hurts—but now Your love and comfort heal me in ways I never knew before.

And there are still the questions—but now I trust You will one day answer every one of them for me.

So no matter how hard, how heavy or how daunting the day’s events seem to be, I’m going to envision it all as seed to sow in a land You irrigate. The harvest is Yours, God. Its abundance is Yours and I’m filled with joy at the thought of it. You do all things well.

(Photo Credit: By Herry Lawford – originally posted to Flickr as Harvest, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11269097)

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Twenty-eight Days with Jesus, Day 4

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OBEDIENT.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit,” documents Matthew in his fourth chapter of the gospel named after him. We’ve encountered Jesus a chapter earlier explaining His life purpose to the sage, John, that He must “fulfill all righteousness.” There He was active and intentional. The integrity that would come to characterize everything we know about this amazing Man was first revealed there.

But now we see Jesus allowing Himself to be led. This is an important concept, and Matthew does not flinch from recording it. To be led is to follow the direction and orders of another. It is to deliberately put oneself at the mercy of another’s plans, to fulfill their purposes for you. This is what Jesus did.

Now, we ought to take note that His obedience was not a weak passivity that allowed Himself to be used by any and all. His obedience was focused wholly on the Father’s will as communicated to Him by the Holy Spirit. He was purposing to accomplish the task that He, as one of the three members of the triune God, had determined before time needed to be accomplished.

But His role of Immanuel, God with us in the flesh, meant that this determination to fulfill what He intended would come crashing head first against a barrier. He would need to personally experience the daunting interference of the devil—fallen angel, disobedient messenger and tempter of humans.

The ‘temptation of Jesus’, as recorded here in Matthew’s account is famous. We know the devil presents to Jesus three opportunities for a quick fix for Jesus’ situation as earthbound God-man: the tempter points out that stones could become warm bread at a word from the fasting Jesus—why should the Son of God (said with a sneer) be hungry? He then challenges Jesus to fling Himself off the peak of the temple of Jerusalem whereupon obedient angels would surely rescue Him—why should His minions not serve the Son of God? Satan’s grand finale is to offer Jesus the wealth and splendor of the world’s kingdoms if only Jesus would worship him for a moment—why should the creator of all not enjoy the wealth of His creation?

Yet Jesus is not daunted. He walks through barriers with an ease that belies the strength it takes to remain obedient to a true cause when every voice seems to point the other way. His answers to the tempter reflect His commitment to obey His Father, Truth itself. He points back to the Word of God, truths and commands recorded in Scriptures. And with that, the devil sullenly leaves Him.

C.S. Lewis offers us a useful thought on what this temptation would have meant for Jesus: “A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”

So as we observe Jesus in this record of the devil’s attempt to tempt Him, we may recognize the epiphany we’ve been given. It’s a two-fold revelation. It’s an epiphany in terms of it revealing a moment when ‘you suddenly feel you understand or become conscious of something that is very important to you’ (credit to Cambridge Dictionaries Online for this definition). We realize that even when we are weakened by the strongest reasons tempting us to disown Him, the strength to remain true to God is accessible to us through Jesus’ own strength living in us. There is no temptation that is beyond Christ’s ability to help us spurn. Because of His obedience, we can be obedient too.

And secondly, it’s an epiphany in the more literal sense: a manifestation of the divine nature of Christ there in the dust and dirt of life on troubled planet earth. It wasn’t the end of the story, though. The writer of another segment of Scripture tells us about the attitude of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

That is what obedience results in when rightly placed. This is Jesus. And this is what God wants for us.

(Photo Credit: “Jules Guérin. The Wilderness of Judea . 1910” by Jules Guérin (1866-1946)Book author: Robert Smythe Hichens – Robert Smythe Hichens, The Holy Land, 1910 p.175. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg#/media/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg)

KINGDOM OUTLOOK: Part 2

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Temptation One (Matthew 4:1-11)

Julian Altman’s deathbed confession was admirable: the Stradivarius violin with which he had entertained presidents and politicians for decades was not his; he had stolen it from Carnegie Hall in 1936 at intermission, after the performing virtuoso had replaced it with a Guarneri. The sense of guilt of Altman’s crime had hounded him for forty-nine years and his regret was finally stronger than his greed.

Caving in to temptations is like that, isn’t it? What seems enticing and alluring at first leaves us withered and ashamed eventually. The shining carrot held out before us turns to sawdust in our mouth, and worse: the path we veer onto leads us away from the path of God and away from real living.

When Matthew recounts for us the temptation of Jesus early on in his ministry, we are given a singular glimpse into the workings of temptation, the methodology of the tempter, and the response of the Man on whom the rescue of mankind depends. It is a window whose shutters are opened for our benefit. Through it we see how light overcomes darkness, and how we can walk in that light, because we know about temptation too, don’t we?

We find Jesus here having fasted forty days and nights and we’re told in classic understatement, “He was hungry.” Matthew might have said ‘ravenous’ or even ‘starving’, but we get the point. He is physically weak from the past six weeks’ spiritual retreat and Satan knows to make his move; the tempter’s goal is to remove from the world our one and only hope for the recovery of our race from his deadly grip, and he will try any trick of his trade.

“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,” challenges the liar. The temptation suggests that Jesus should act independently of the Father. It counsels Him to see Himself as the solution to His problems, to rely solely on Himself to turn His weakness into strength. Envision the bread in those stones, whispers the tempter; it’s in you to do it.

“No!” responds Jesus. True life comes “from the mouth of God”, not from bread, He answers through parched lips. Jesus is modeling for us His commitment to unity with the Father. He will not be drawn away from dependence upon that relationship. It is everything to Him. It is life itself.

We can learn much from that response. This world’s mantra cries ‘look to yourself! You are the source of your strength,’ it cajoles. New Age spirituality falls to that temptation; so does Wall Street sagacity. It can be made to sound reasonable, viable, and even enviable. Many of the bright minds and bodies of this world have espoused this creed and have eaten the bread they have created. The spotlight of fame and wealth that has accompanied their rise to the podiums of the world does not shine onto their souls, though. There we would see what the tempter hopes will stay hidden until he has duped many more into listening to his sweet temptations.

If we are to avoid the peril of self-sufficiency, our answer every time must be ‘No!” We must insist, especially in moments of our greatest weakness, that our strength, our hope and our life come only from God. We must resist the temptation to rely on ourselves, to take matters into our own hands, and to set aside the power of God to make room for the power of self.

“Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus quotes; He uses this truth, mouthed half a millennium earlier by Moses, to snap the twig that dangles the tempter’s first carrot. We do well to attend. Our first lesson draws us to reject self-dependence. Only by relying on God, His words and His ways can we avoid this all-too-common temptation.

One down. Two to go.

(Photo Credit: Koernerbroetchen, Wikimedia Commons)