Going last – Matthew 19:29-30

30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This verse does wonders to correct our outlook on life.  First, it discourages the bigger, better, faster, more mentality that we so often engage in.  If only … and everything would be all right.  And so we strive with all our might for whatever “…” is, on the assumption that if we achieve it, we would be happy, or finally attain our rightful position in life.  Sometimes this is really about seeking to be first.  If so, we can be pretty sure God is not pleased with it.  The verse come right after a verse on self-sacrifice or self-denial.

29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

If self-sacrifice or self-denial involves putting ourselves last for the sake of Jesus, then we can do so happily, trusting that we lose nothing in the process.  It will likely even lead to long-term gain.

Second, we sometimes feel “last” unintentionally.  Despite our best efforts, things just have not gone our way.  This may be a blessing in disguise.  If we had our way, we might have succeeded and been able to put ourselves first, and then what?  In the Great Future Reversal of Status (a term I just made up), we would lose.  Honestly, we would rather be last now.  There is little advantage to the attainment of visible status at the present time.  So says Jesus.

Our goal must be to put Jesus first no matter what.  There may be an “opportunity” to give something or someone up for him, though it may be disappointing in the present moment.  Then, of course, we can often give priority to others.  Let their needs be met, even if we do without, for Jesus’ sake.  That’s often hard and doesn’t feel right or enjoyable most of the time.  The point is we should not live for the present, but for eternity.  Going last is the way to do it.

A Prayer Prompted by Christ’s Teaching in Matthew 18

Heavenly Father,

Teach us to exercise the faith of a child toward you. Help us to be innocent, trusting and not afraid to ask you for what we need.

Help us to take sin very seriously, so that we will carefully avoid temptation. Further please prevent us from tempting others through our words and actions.  On the contrary, let us join with you in going out to seek the one lost sheep of your flock who is going astray.

When we feel that someone has sinned against us, or has need of some form of correction, give us the power to not respond out of anger or frustration.  Help us rather to correct that person with the goal of restoration in mind. And remind us to follow your instructions as to the best way to make that restoration a reality.  And then, most of all, help us to be forgiving people, always aware of how much we have been forgiven by you.

You truly have released us from a debt we could never pay, by having Jesus Christ pay for our sins on the cross.  May our lives reflect your grace, your goodness and your compassion.

In Christ,

Amen

The severity of sin and its remedy – Matthew 18:7-9

Jesus was never light on sin.  While infinitely gracious, compassionate and kind toward flawed and fallen people like ourselves, he understood the depth of our affliction.  He absolutely refused to minimize it.  As he saw it, both the tempter and the tempted put themselves at the most serious risk of judgment.

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire (ESV).

No solution for sin and its effects is too radical for Jesus.  Cut off the guilty body part and throw it away.  But here the depth of the problem is revealed.  We might imagine ourselves amputating till there was almost nothing left and still struggling against sin.  The source of our guilt cannot be found in the hand or the eye, or anything else that is removable.  Sin thrives in the lowest recesses of the heart.

David grasped this when he prayed in Psalm 51:10,

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.

And this is what God promises in Ezekiel 36:26-27,

26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

This is what we need – a heart that desires to please God.  We don’t need one less limb or useful organ.  We need to become new people.  Receiving new life in Christ accomplishes this.  If we don’t have it, then that is what we need.  If we do have it, we need to learn to walk in it.  This is clearly summed up in the words of Paul.

17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  

Sin is severe – and probably more awful than we can understand, since our very perception of it is distorted by, well, sin!   Jesus took it so seriously he paid for it on the cross.  A new heart, a whole new self, is now available to us in Christ.

Matthew 17 Verse by Verse

Matt photoA few disciples have a mountain top experience with Jesus as witnesses of his Transfiguration.  Upon coming down, they find the rest of their group unsuccessfully trying to help a demonized boy.

Matthew 17.pdf

Matthew 17.mp3

Little faith – Matthew 17:14-20

Coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, this was the scene for Jesus and his disciples (from the ESV).

14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Let’s admit right from the start that rebuking a demon and getting immediate, happy results is no small thing, unless you are Jesus.  He did this kind of thing all the time.  Most of us, let’s also admit, probably fall into the category of the disciples.  They failed.

Sometimes failure just happens.  Maybe what we tried was a bad idea.  Maybe it wasn’t God’s will.  Maybe the failure was in our approach, so we need to go back and try again with a lesson learned.  Sometimes we fail due to lack of faith.  That was the case here.

Jesus doesn’t attribute all problems to demons nor all failure to too little faith, so neither should we.  Sometimes, however, the battle is purely spiritual.  The gates of hell are busy in their futile efforts to prevail against the church.  Their failure is assured in the long run.  Jesus will see to that.  In the short run, we have to take a little responsibility.

Let’s willingly engage in the work of spiritual warfare, remembering that we serve a big God who promises victory.  And let’s not be hindered by our all-too-usual lack of faith.  The strength of the church, the souls of the lost and the advancement of God’s will in the world are dependent, to some extent, on our faithful engagement.

A Prayer to Avoid Bad Teaching Prompted by Matthew 16:6-12

Heavenly Father,

Our Savior told his disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” by which he meant their bad teaching.  As Christ’s disciples in this present day, we are no less prone to error than those early disciples were.  Help us to avoid it.

Help us to rightly divide the Word of Truth.  Help all the teaching we give and that which we willingly receive to be free from legalism, loose practice, error in doctrine and wrong motivation.  Let us speak and believe what is true, rather than that which is convenient.  And let us simultaneously avoid excessive harshness by adding to your commands.

Let our beliefs be correct and our lives be honorable, full of grace and true to your word.

And we ask this in the name of Jesus,

Amen.

 

On taking up the cross – Matthew 16:24-28

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, one of the requirements of all citizens is to feel good.  When they don’t, which is often, they pop pills containing a hangover-free drug called soma, which makes them feel better immediately.  The worse they feel, the more soma they take, and all is well – at least until it isn’t.  But the readily available soma never seems to run out.  For extreme happiness, say on a weekend, larger doses of soma become pleasantly hallucinogenic. 

This is not the world we live in.  Ours is old and seemingly less brave, though we can argue that it takes a lot more courage to live in it.  Our Savior set the example by walking the path of crucifixion, the same path he calls us to in Matthew 16:24-27.

2Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

At the end of the day, or the age, really, what we want is to have followed Jesus.  Much of the time this doesn’t involve feeling pleasant, at least not in the way our flesh desires.  Crosses are not meant to be comfortable.  But there is a different type of satisfaction, a type that Huxley’s citizens were never allowed to achieve.  It’s a confidence inspired by following our Savior, of losing our lives in order to find them.  This path has a certainty to it, its satisfaction has a depth, that no amount of soma can give us.

Jim Elliot said it really well when he said, “I may no longer depend on pleasant impulses to bring me before the Lord. I must rather respond to principles I know to be right, whether I feel them to be enjoyable or not.”  

We must not forget, however, that self-denial while following Jesus is only temporary.  It’s the price we pay for discipleship, for walking near to our cross-bearing Lord.  On the other side of the resurrection, we look forward to a cross-free, existence for all eternity in a new heaven, a new earth and a New Jerusalem.