Time Away – January 22, 2019

Genesis 44.1-45.28
Matthew 14.13-36
Psalm 18.37-50
Proverbs 4.11-13

All throughout the gospels, we see the writers demonstrate a pattern in the life of Jesus that regularly includes getting away from the crowds and the busyness to stop and spend time in prayer.

Our reading today is an example of this. In Matthew 14.23, Jesus has sent his disciples on ahead of him and “he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone.”

Question: Why did Jesus need to get away and spend time alone in prayer?

You would think that someone who was the Son of God would be so inherently connected to God that he would have a “built in” sense of knowing what to do and thus eliminate the need for prayer. (Such thinking may tell us more about our own view of prayer than Jesus’ nature, by the way.) Perhaps this is true, but I think there is more to it than that.

One might also make the argument that Jesus was providing an example for us to live by. Someone once said that the greatest single argument to pray is that Jesus prayed and this would certainly be an example of that. This also may be true, but it places prayer within a category of checklist items to be accomplished, which misses the point altogether.

No, I think the reason Jesus spent time alone in prayer, especially in Matthew 14, was that he needed to refocus or re-center his life so as not to be distracted by the distractions bombarding him at every turn.

Look at what all happened to Jesus within today’s reading:

  • He had just found out John had been killed
  • Crowds followed him to remote areas, even when he was trying to get away and be alone
  • He was faced with the challenge of feeding over 5,000 people
  • The crowds would continue to seek him out so that wherever he went, people were present seeking to be healed

It doesn’t take us long to figure out that Jesus’ schedule was overwhelming. He HAD to get away in order to maintain a focus on what was most important, otherwise the crowds would take over his time and efforts.

Stop for a moment to look at your calendar. How much “white space” is left on today? This week? How easy is it for you to refocus on what is really most important in your life?

Jesus gives you an example on how to accomplish that, by the way.

Questions:

Why do you think Joseph tells his brothers to “not quarrel about this along the way?” What did he know that perhaps we or his brothers did not?

How do you show compassion for people around you?

What can you praise and exalt God for today?

If someone asked you for the one key to life, how would you answer them? How does your answer compare to that of the Proverb writer, that his instructions are the key to life?

God Did This – January 21, 2019

Genesis 42.18-43.34
Matthew 13.47-14.12
Psalm 18.16-36
Proverbs 4.7-10

In today’s story of Joseph and his brothers, we see three different responses to a payment of money being “left” in a sack of grain.

First, Joseph’s brothers, returning from buying grain from Joseph (although they did not at the time know it was Joseph), discover the money that was to be a payment for the grain in their sacks of purchased grain. Their response: “What has God done to us?” (42.28)

Second, as they prepare to return to Egypt to purchase more grain, the brothers’ father, Jacob, reminds them to include money for a new payment, but also the old payment for: “it probably was someone’s mistake.” (43.12)

Finally, worried they were going to be imprisoned for stealing the money, the brothers immediately tell Joseph’s household manager of their plight upon their return to Joseph’s house. “Relax,” the steward replies: “Your God, the God of your father, must have put this treasure into your sacks.”

So, here’s my question: Which one of these reactions would you consider most accurate? Is God punishing the brothers? Was it all just an honest mistake, soon to be corrected by the return of the money? Is God blessing the brothers, even as they view it as a disastrous curse? Is it “D,” all of the above?

Does it surprise us that a steward of Joseph’s house understands the blessing of God? One can take a clue from the life of Joseph and his willingness to continue to have faith in God, even in the midst of his circumstances. Joseph is held out as a faithful hero in the midst of this story, so his life would certainly be an influence on others, such as those who worked in his house.

I think there is also a sense in which throughout the entire Joseph story, not only is God at work, but the twists and turns of irony surprise us. Who else BUT a servant of Joseph to remind not only the brothers, but also the readers: God is faithful and provides blessings for his people … even when they least expect it or have done anything to deserve it?

As you go through today and something happens to you or around you, ask yourself not just “Why did this happen,” but also: Where is God at work in this situation? Is his hand in this and am I just overlooking his blessing?

Questions:

How would you have liked to have been Joseph, watching the scene with his brothers unfold, seeing their reaction, and knowing everything they were saying? How do you think you would have handled this situation if you were in Joseph’s place?

We are told that Jesus did only a few miracles in his hometown of Nazareth because of the unbelief of the people. Why do you think their unbelief caused him to do so little here?

Rewrite Psalm 18 in your own words, expressing the things God has done for you as well as the life you have lived before God.

Who do you listen to for advice on how to live a good life? How helpful do you find their advice? Are there others who might be a better source of advice in your life? How can you listen to them more?

One Degree – January 20, 2019

Genesis 41.17-42.17
Matthew 13.24-46
Psalm 18.1-15
Proverbs 4.1-6

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread.”

You have most likely heard the saying “A little bit goes a long way.” Yet all too often, we live by the rule of: “If a little bit is good, a lot must be better.” Why have a regular size burger, fries, and drink, when you can value size it?

Certainly, there are times when more really is better, but the challenge is that we begin to think in an all or none mentality. Suppose you want to lose weight, let’s say 25 pounds. That process is not going to happen overnight. Simply skipping your value sizing today will not result in substantial weight loss tomorrow.

Or let’s say you have decided to run a marathon. Unless you have had a large amount of training up to this point or you are some freak of nature, your ability to complete a training regimen for running 26.2 miles will have to include many small, slow steps that build up to a large conclusion.

James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, discusses the importance of small steps in accomplishing a big goal. The analogy he uses to stress the importance of small changes is to discuss how just one degree of adjustment will make a large impact on a cross-country flight. If you were to move the nose of a commercial aircraft just one degree, the movement would be measured in a handful of inches, perhaps a couple of feet. But if you stayed on that setting throughout an entire cross-country flight, the difference would be miles, as in, you would end up miles away from your intended destination.

I think Jesus was alluding to this sort of idea when he says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast used in the baking of bread. You do not have to be a baker to know that the amount of yeast used in a loaf of bread is a very small portion compared to the amount of dough you have. Yet, that small amount of yeast transforms the entire loaf.

Many of us long to follow God better, yet too often we want it to be an all or none proposition. We want to decide today and act blameless with no struggles tomorrow. Perhaps our focus needs to be on the one degree of change that we can undertake today.

Remember, it may not seem like much, but even a very tiny amount can make a huge impact.

Questions:

Are we surprised that Joseph is described as one who is filled with the spirit of God? How does the Spirit help us face adverse situations like Joseph did in a way that gives glory to God?

Jesus tells a parable that the kingdom will be full of weeds, but those weeds will be dealt with when the harvest comes. How does this story impact your understanding of the world we live in and the challenges we face?

Does knowing God hears you affect the ways you cry out to him? What can you do this week to better understand the fact he hears you?

What specific steps can you do this week to gain spiritual wisdom?

I Can’t … But God Can – January 19, 2019

Genesis 39.1-41.16
Matthew 12.46-13.23
Psalm 17.1-15
Proverbs 3.33-35

Being good at something can be a challenge. Not just the work it takes to become good at something, but the fact that once you are good at something, you begin to lose the memory of the effort it took to get you there in the first place. What you either accomplished through lots of work or just the luck of being naturally talented, others find amazing, primarily because of their lack of ability to accomplish that task.

This can lead to a sense of false security, an attitude of pride for all youhave accomplished.

Take Joseph in today’s story. He seemed to have the Midas touch. Everything he attempted or was asked to do was successful. Even before he was brought before Pharaoh to interpret the leader’s dream, Joseph had proven his ability to do so. Given the circumstances—called before the leader of the greatest country in the world at that time—it would have been easy for Joseph to attempt to oversell his accomplishments.

“Why yes, Pharaoh, I CAN interpret dreams. You remember the baker and the cup-bearer, don’t you? Nailed those dreams, I did!”

Instead notice where Joseph gives credit, or better stated, to whom Joseph gives credit.

“It is beyond my power to do this … but God can tell you what it means.”

Here’s the question: Whatever success you have, to whom do you give the credit?

It can be too easy to assume that saying, “Yes, I can do this,” is shorthand for “God has given me the powers to do X, Y, or Z.” (We may even be thinking this as we let it go unsaid.) Even if your life has been filled with hard work and an extended time of learning (I’m thinking of all you doctors and lawyers and individuals with advanced degrees), isn’t it God who gives you the ability to do so? And if this is true, then shouldn’t our response to be to point to the one who gives us the power to accomplish anything.

I can’t … but God can.

Questions:

Joseph’s concern about sinning with Potiphar’s wife was that it would be a sin against God. How can we focus more on our doing wrong being a sin against God, rather than something for which we might get caught or seen in a poor light by others?

How do we define our being a part of the family of God?

How certain are we that God will answer when we call out to him? What other “go-to” responses do we have because they seem to provide a more immediate or certain response than one God might provide us?

How do you attempt to ensure your life is one of humility versus one that mocks others?

Faith – January 14, 2019

Genesis 28.1-29.35
Matthew 9.18-38
Psalm 11.1-7
Proverbs 3.11-12

Our next section in the gospel of Matthew gives us three stories about someone(s) being healed from either a disease or a person being brought back to life.

The first story is of a daughter of a synagogue leader who has a daughter who has “just died.” The man approaches Jesus with the proclamation that if Jesus would simply lay his hand on this daughter, she would be brought back to life. We know very little about this specific Jewish leader. However, most of the synagogue leaders would not have thought Jesus an acceptable teacher of the law (he was uneducated in the law and grew up the son of a carpenter) nor an individual one would go to in order to try to receive healing for a family member. Most Jewish leaders opposed Jesus, yet here is this man making a simple statement of faith: You can bring her back to life.

The second story is placed within the middle of the first, the incident happening while Jesus’ was on his way to the Jewish leader’s house. A woman who had been bleeding for twelve years comes up behind Jesus and touches the fringe of his robe, just the outer edge of his garment. The response is twofold. The woman was healed, and Jesus turns to the woman to tell her: your faith has healed you. It was a bold move by this woman to reach out and touch Jesus. What if nothing happened? How awkward would it have been for Jesus to turn around and ask: Did you need something? Yet, as Jesus points out, this woman had faith that healing could come from him.

The last story is of two men, both blind, who literally follow Jesus into the home where he is staying. (Speaking of boldness, right?) Jesus asks the two: Do you believe that I can make you see? Yes, they reply, we do. And because of their faith, we are told, Jesus heals them.

It is fairly easy to see a common thread running through these stories: the faith of the individual seeking healing. Yet in spite of the clear example in each of the stories, putting that faith into action in our own lives can be much more difficult.

Our faith in God is always filtered through the lens of our own experiences and our (limited) understanding of what is and is not “humanly” possible. The harder challenge is to look through the eyes of God, allowing his boundaries to define what can be accomplished. As Ephesians 3.20-21 says, the one who is able to do more than we can imagine is faithful to us, he will do those amazing things.

Will we be faithful to him and trust that is true?

Questions:

God’s appearance in a dream to Jacob serves as an “introduction” of sorts of God to Jacob. How were you introduced to God? What sort of events precipitated your knowledge of him? How has he continued to demonstrate to you his working in your life?

Join with Jesus and Matthew’s readers this week in praying for workers who will work the harvest, that is, individuals who will share the stories of Jesus’ compassion on people who need to hear a word of good news.

Can we join with the psalmist is saying we trust in the Lord for protection? Do our efforts to always prepare for the worst demonstrate a lack of trust in God for protection? Why or why not?

Most of us despise discipline and correction. How can we view these things as benefits from God who loves us, rather than something negative to be avoided?

A Friend Indeed – January 12, 2019

Genesis 26.17-27.46
Matthew 9.1-17
Psalm 10.16-18
Proverbs 3.9-10

Those who have been in ministry for any length of time have at least one story about being completely humbled by a word of wisdom from someone from whom we least expect it. I have had more than fair share of moments like that, but the one that always stands out to me is one I remember anytime I read today’s story of the paralytic healed by Jesus.

I was teaching this story to a group of students and began to describe how boring the paralytic must have been as a friend. I mean, I exclaimed, there really wasn’t a whole lot he could do. (Remember: this was one of my humbling moments, not a moment of glorious brilliance!)

There was a young man in that particular group whom today we would probably define as an outlier. He wasn’t necessarily a menace or trouble-maker, but he was aware enough of where the edge of the envelope was to walk to that edge and begin to kick the line. I had been told prior to teaching that group that this young man might be an irritant to me as I taught. So, I went into the class almost ready to set him on the straight and narrow. (Have I mentioned this story is about my humbling?)

As I am describing this paralyzed man who really was a drag on his friends (pun intended) and as I described that there was very little he could do, this “outlier” sitting seemingly disinterested on the very back row suddenly interrupted me and said: “That’s not true.”

Here’s the thing. I can distinctly remember thinking: OK, I’m going to let this young man dig a little deeper in this hole he has created before I show him the error of his ways.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, he apparently was a good friend to others.”

I wanted to just crawl under a chair or slowly back out of the room. He was right. Think about it. What kind of person gets carried around by friends? The gospel of Mark includes in this story that these friends of this paralytic actually carry him up on a roof and begin to tear through the roof, they were so intent on getting him to Jesus. And notice also that when Jesus saw theirfaith. The company you keep says something about you, doesn’t it?

Again, what kind of person gets that kind of response from his friends? As that young man pointed out: a man who was a good friend to others.

I hope today that you did not find yourself in a situation where you were humbled by a person from whom you least expected it.

I DO hope, however, that today you were the kind of person those around you would go to whatever length to repay the blessings you have showed them.

Questions:

As you think about the Jacob and Esau conflict, what sort of response do you have to each of these boys? Who is the hero? Why?

What have you seen today that caused you to praise God? You did remember to praise him, right?

How have you seen God bring justice to individuals who oppressed?

Do you honor God with your best? How can you honor God more with your best?

Now or Later – January 11, 2019

Genesis 24.52-26.16
Matthew 8.18-34
Psalm 10.1-15
Proverbs 3.7-8

The story of Esau selling his birthright is such an interesting story because of the shocking nature of the sale of something so valuable. The firstborn, based solely on the order of his birth, received an extra portion of his father’s inheritance when the father passed away. The son received recognition and perhaps a higher honor during his father’s life, but the real blessing would have been the tangible reward he would receive upon his father’s death.

Of course, this blessing was also a challenge. The eldest son had to wait for his father to pass away to ever receive the monetary blessing of this inheritance. And that wait could easily Seem. Like. Forever.

This is what is happening here in our story today. Esau had a problem. He was hungry. Esau also seemingly had a solution: his brother Jacob was a great cook and just happened to have some stew. Jacob, come to find out, was more than willing to share some of the stew he had prepared … for a price.

We might ask ourselves: How good was that stew? Worth our birthright? Worth giving up the extra portion of our inheritance? Man, that really WAS some good stew, if so.

To Esau, the equation was not one of net worth, it was one of current, immediate, physical need. His desire—his only desire—was to find something to fill his stomach and avoid, in his own words, starvation.

Was Esau really going to starve? I doubt it. It was somewhat akin to my children, after stubbing a toe or bumping into something saying: I’m dying. (My response? Yes, you are in the process of dying, but except in rare circumstances, that is not happening in the next couple of minutes!) When one feels like they are dying, or starving in Esau’s cause, their desire is to correct the problem as quickly as possible, regardless of the cost or net worth of the tradeoff.

Here is where the story gets really challenging: it is a description of what we do all of the time. We sacrifice the value of something important down the road for the immediacy of (reduced value) gratification right now. The problem with that mentality is the reward of the immediate never compares to the blessings of what takes time.

I am a big fan of BBQ. Can you imagine going to your favorite BBQ place and ordering a plate of sliced brisket, then watching the person behind the counter placing a slice of raw meat in a microwave? Do you really think that meat will taste as good as a slice of brisket smoked over a long period of time?

Your faith grows in a similar way. Following Jesus and becoming mature is the result of a long time of faithful obedience, not a momentary decision to trade what is valuable for what is immediate.

So, what’s your choice? Now or later?

Questions:

How do you think Rebekah dealt with the knowledge of the prophecy claiming her twin boys would be rivals and competing nations? In what way would such a blessing affect how you would raise your children?

In what ways do you see the excuses given by the people claiming they would follow Jesus as lame excuses? In what ways were they legitimate? How do we make similar excuses about following Jesus today?

List all of the descriptions of a wicked person from Psalm 10. Do you know this person? Are you this person?

Where do you see people who are impressed with their own wisdom? How do we prevent ourselves from being impressed with our own wisdom?