Hebrews 12:3-13 – Interpret Your Circumstances Wisely

“The Kingdom Comes” by Bangladeshi artist Nikhil Halder, 1978

Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
    and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. (New International Version)

Missed expectations often result in discouragement, even depression.

If we expect God to continually bless us with unending positive circumstances, we will, sooner or later, be confused and/or frustrated when life goes sideways.

The ancient Jewish Christians, for whom today’s New Testament lesson was addressed, faced opposition. Not only did they encounter the hardship of being Jews living in a Gentile world, but they also had to experience the difficulty of being Christians in a Jewish community.

Its one thing to put up with adversity for a few days or weeks. It is quite another thing altogether to deal with hard circumstances day after day, week after week, month after month, even year after year.

Where is God in all this negativity? When are the earthly blessings going to come? What the heck is going on here? Why are my prayers bouncing off the church ceiling?

Over time, the believers began to lose their joy. They started getting discouraged. The Jewish Christians, after beginning well in their faith, gradually slid into misinterpreting their circumstances as God being mean to them. Things got so bad, they even entertained the notion of returning to Judaism and leaving Christianity behind.

Their faith was shrinking.

However, their plight was very much seen by God. In fact, God was the One orchestrating the situations, as difficult as they were.

It is not our lack of resources, the disrespect, or the difficult people around us who are the problem. The issue is our interpretation of those events and persons.

The author of Hebrews invited the struggling believers to take a different interpretation of their hardship: They were experiencing divine discipline.

We are all responsible for our own children. As parents, we discipline them (ideally) for their own good. We know it will hurt temporarily. Yet, in the long run, the discipline will work out.

In fact, we understand this with all kinds of things. Everyday, people submit themselves to getting cut open, poked, prodded, and tested by doctors, surgeons, and healthcare workers because we know there needs to be temporary pain for permanent healing to occur.

It is the rare child who grows up without any discipline and becomes a productive citizen of society. It is the exceptional person who knows nothing of medical interventions for health and healing. And so, it is extremely unlikely that a Christian will experience holiness, righteousness, and live wisely in the world apart from some gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, and mind-bending circumstances for which they neither saw coming, nor ever asked for.

So, when the divine baseball bat whacks us upside the head, how will we interpret it?

Discipline is education by correction. God is the Father, treating us as family, as children who need to learn the ways of grace. God is the Divine Coach, exhorting us to work, run the laps, put in the reps, and reach beyond what we think we can do – knowing all along what our true capabilities are.

Godliness comes through discipline, training, and plain old fashioned hard work. Unless there is the suffering which comes through trials to our faith, Christianity is only a theory.

Before I suffered, I took the wrong way,
    but now I do what you say.
You are good and you do good.
    Teach me your statutes!
The arrogant cover me with their lies,
    but I guard your precepts with all my heart.
Their hearts are unfeeling, like blubber,
    but I rejoice in your Instruction.
My suffering was good for me,
    because through it I learned your statutes. (Psalm 119:67-71, CEB)

The appropriate response to difficult and adverse circumstances is to view them as God’s gracious guidance and correction. Rightly interpreting our life events gives us renewed resolve for the Christian marathon.

Endurance and perseverance are needed. Keeping good running form, consistent spiritual exercise, and maintaining liturgical rhythms, all help us face the adversity with energy, focus, and strength.

Christianity isn’t a matter of doing more. It is a way of life – a continuous evaluation of beliefs and thinking, addressing the shadows of the heart, and listening to the compassion deep in our gut.

Don’t give up. Keep going.

Be safe. Be strong. Be smart. Be spiritual. We are all in this together.

Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us; for all the pain and insults you have borne for us. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly day by day. Amen.

Mark 6:45-52 – Facing Fear

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we are afraid – even terrified. And Christians aren’t immune to the feeling of fear and terror.

The truth of the Christian life is that it is a herky-jerky process of three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward, not always knowing with certainty everything we encounter.  

The expectation that we will have a consistent upward trajectory of spiritual development with no scary experiences is wrongheaded and misguided. Throw into the mix that our self-awareness is often skewed, and that we have difficulty assessing ourselves with any accuracy, and voila! we have a recipe for the true human condition.

Doubt, fear, failure, and stubbornness aren’t just endemic to other people – it also characterizes many Christians, as well. We will face severe storms in life. They will be harsh. We will wonder if we’ll even make it out alive, or not. And it may very well seem like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then, when he does show up, we don’t recognize him, and it scares the bejabbers out of us.

This was the experience of Christ’s disciples, who too often reflect our own stories of faith and fear all rolled up in one person. Today’s Gospel lesson is this: Our fears and foibles do not need to define us because Jesus is Lord over the water, the weather, the wondering, the waiting, the wildness, and our own whimsical natures of seeing miracles accomplished in others, then not believing it can happen in our own lives.

So, what are we really afraid of? Failure? Fear itself? Death? Irrelevance? Loss? Change? Perhaps, everything? Yes, all of life is a risky scary business. There are no guarantees, except one: Christ is present with us, whether we are aware of it, or not.

If the worst scenario you worry about in your head would actually come to pass, it will still never change the reality that God loves you and is with you.  And it will not stop Jesus from assuring us of his presence and climbing into the boat to be with us.

We don’t have any accounts of Jesus freaking out in fear, or when other people flip out in their own fear. Jesus was a person of prayer, completely grounded in his relationship with the Father.   

Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go out on the lake – all the while knowing what they were about to face with the weather. Even though the disciples were doing God’s will by going out on the lake, they were not spared from adversity. In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the storm because it is through the storm that we really learn faith and to face down our fears. 

There is no shame in being afraid. We all experience it. And there is no shame in admitting we’re scared. Where shame exists, our instinct is to run away like our ancestors Adam and Eve and hide, thus hiding ourselves from the grace that could be ours.

Being out on the middle of a lake during a storm did not prevent Jesus from being present with the disciples – he just walked on the water to be with them. Even though the disciples had just seen and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, they were not looking for another miracle – which is why they did not recognize Jesus and were afraid when they saw him.

Jesus never chided his disciples for their fear, or their hard hearts. He simply invited them, with the tone of grace and mercy, to not be afraid. And the Scripture is replete with continual encouragements to not be afraid because of God’s presence. Along with psalmist, we can say:

But when I am afraid,
    I will put my trust in you.
I praise God for what he has promised.
    I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?
    What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4, NLT)

I sleep and wake up refreshed
    because you, Lord,
    protect me.
Ten thousand enemies attack
from every side,
    but I am not afraid. (Psalm 3:5-6, CEV)

When I called, you answered me.
You made me bold by strengthening my soul. (Psalm 138:3, GW)

Ultimately, fear has to do with disconnection. It is to feel powerless, separated from any resources, unable to do anything about what is presently staring us in the face and scaring us.

Yet, when we have an awareness and a sense of connection with Jesus, there are unlimited resources of grace to accept, cope, and transcend any and every storm we find ourselves in the middle of.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts,
be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places.

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions, and from the fear of the known and unknown. 

And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

*Above painting of Jesus walking on water by Brian Whelan

**Above Orthodox icon of Christ walking on water

***Above painting: Christ walking on the sea, by French artist Amédée Varint (1818-1883)

Deuteronomy 11:1-17 – Knowing Our Boundaries

Love the Lord your God and follow his instruction, his regulations, his case laws, and his commandments always. And know right now what your children haven’t known or yet witnessed:

  • The Lord your God’s discipline, his power, his mighty hand and outstretched arm.
  • The signs and the acts that he performed in the heart of Egyptian territory, against Egypt’s King Pharaoh and all his land.
  • What God did to the Egyptian army, to its horses and chariots—how he made the water of the Reed Sea flow over their heads when they chased after you, but the Lord destroyed them, and that’s how things stand right now.
  • What the Lord did for you in the desert, until you arrived at this place.
  • And what he did to Dathan and Abiram, the descendants of Eliab the Reubenite, when the ground opened its mouth and swallowed them, their families, their tents, and every living thing they possessed in the presence of all Israel.

Your own eyes witnessed each of these powerful acts the Lord performed. So, keep every part of the commandment that I am giving you today so that you stay strong to enter and take possession of the land that you are crossing over to possess, and so that you might prolong your life on the fertile land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants—a land full of milk and honey.

The land you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt, where you came from, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it by hand like a vegetable garden. No, the land you are entering to possess is a land of hills and valleys, where your drinking water will be rain from heaven. It’s a land that the Lord cares for: The Lord’s eyes are on it constantly from the first of the year until the very end of the year.

Now, if you completely obey God’s commandments that I am giving you right now, by loving the Lord your God and by serving him with all your heart and all your being, then he will provide rain for your land at the right time—early rain and late rain—so you can stock up your grain, wine, and oil. He will also make your fields lush for your livestock, and you will eat and be satisfied. But watch yourselves! Otherwise, your heart might be led astray so you stray away, serving other gods and worshipping them. Then the Lord’s anger would burn against you. He will close the sky up tight. There won’t be any rain, and the ground won’t yield any of its crops. You will quickly disappear off the wonderful land the Lord is giving to you. (Common English Bible)

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out.”

Henry Cloud

God has boundaries. The Lord doesn’t just flit about doing whatever seems alright for the moment. No, God is firmly secure as the divine Being. God has a deliberate will and way. The Creator God is not okay with created humanity having no boundaries. Since we are people created in God’s image, we are to reflect that image in all things, including having the established boundary of taking charge of our own spiritual lives and obeying the Lord in all things.

God has opened the way of redemption for wayward people. It came first in the incredible event of the exodus from Egypt, then in the culmination of our freedom through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, God expects us to live into this opportunity without blaming divine action or inaction for our problems, as if fault lies outside of us. Just because God stands up to people and does not cave into their demands and their whining does not make the Lord mean or unjust – it simply means God doesn’t need the props or accolades of people. God is secure enough to not be dependent on humans.

Divine expectations are quite clear on where the boundary lines fall: Love. Yes, indeed, it comes down to love. Love the Lord your God and always hold tightly to the law with its statutes, rules, and commandments. There is no fudge factor to that statement, scratching our heads wondering what we ought to be doing. If we obey God, we will discover life as it ought to be lived – free from all the machinations of the world’s brokenness and insecurity – and yet securely confined within godly boundaries. 

God can exhort people to be strong and take the land. That’s because the Lord made it possible for them to do so by acting in history. Therefore, God expects us to respond in obedience to the boundary lines established so that we will flourish and grow as people in a new land.

There is a big divine pasture for us to enjoy and thrive within. Yes, there is a fence around it, marking the boundary of where we can go. It is there for our benefit and protection, and not to simply keep us in line. Longing for the green grass on the other side of the fence is to be unaware of the vast beauty and foliage all around us.

For we already have everything we need – if we possess the awareness and the gratitude to see it.

Great God Almighty, I choose today to obey you in all things out of the grace given to me because of Jesus Christ.  I want to please you in all I say and do, so that you will be seen as the glorious and exalted king of the universe.  Help me to live up to my standing in Christ in the power of the Spirit as I step into your world with the keys of the kingdom.  Amen.

Mark 16:1-8 – On Big Rocks and Even Bigger Questions

Deposition, Burial and Resurrection of Christ by Guy Roddon (1919-2006)

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomband they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was exceptionally large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. (NIV)

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” So asked the three women on Resurrection Sunday when they came to anoint the dead body of Jesus. Turns out they didn’t need to find the security officers, so to speak, to come and unlock the door. The tomb was already open. What is more, lo and behold, the women did not find a dead body. Jesus was not there – he is risen!

I sometimes find myself asking the same kind of question the women were asking each other: 

Who will move this huge object (or objection!) to what I want to do? 

How can I get to Jesus so that I can do something for him? 

Who will take care of the immovable obstacles that stand in my way? 

I must admit, these are questions born more of a small faith and a limited understanding than of knowing the power of God.

It also turns out the plan the women had for taking care of Christ’s lifeless body was completely irrelevant. Which causes me to ask even more questions of myself:

Are my questions completely off the mark?

Do I have my ladder up against the wrong wall?

Is my plan of caring for Jesus an adventure in missing the point?

Is it Jesus who plans on showing up and caring for me?

Perhaps it all comes down to our expectations. The women were most certainly not expecting a risen Lord! They had absolutely zero expectation of encountering an angel who would tell them Jesus is alive. They did not anticipate their question would end up being completely unnecessary. 

Maybe believers and lovers of Jesus are asking a set of misguided questions based in our puny creature perspective on life, church, and world. Perhaps we are not grasping what God’s power has already accomplished and/or what God already has up his sleeve. 

It could be that all we really need to realize is that God has gone before us, clearing all impediments so that people can see and experience the risen Christ. Methinks our expectations are far too low for a God who has the power and will to raise people from death…. 

Because the way has been opened to a new and vital relationship with the Lord Christ. That massive immovable boulder has already been moved. Whereas we thought it was some big issue to deal with, just by showing up at the tomb we clearly see that isn’t the issue, at all.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

So, here I go again with another set of questions:

How many times have we gotten things all discombobulated in our heads and misinterpreted what’s going on just because we didn’t show up and find Jesus is not dead but alive?

When have we severely underestimated the power of God by believing we must operate in our own power and do things for God because Christ is as good as dead to us?

Are we still expecting Jesus to care about buildings, budgets, and butts in the pew because those things (we think) are within our power and control?

Do we even bother to ask Jesus what he cares about, or do we simply superimpose our wishes upon him as if they are his?

Are you yet sick and tired of me asking questions and offering no answers?

That’s because the answer is already there. Jesus is not where you are expecting him. There is power at work for which you are unaware.

The truth is that we can now encounter and explore a fresh reality with Jesus as the Author and Pioneer of our faith. We need only listen, follow, and leave the moving of big rocks to God.

When our faith stands at the grave, grieving for a stone that’s rolled away, forgive us, Lord. When our faith is short of understanding though the truth is there to see, forgive us, Lord. When our faith, beset by doubt, sees no further than an empty tomb today, forgive us, Lord. Bring to our minds the cry of Mary, “I have seen the Lord!” and grant us faith to believe! Amen.