Matthew 21:6-11 – The lamb…

Matthew 21:6-11 – The lamb…

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’” – Matthew 21:6-11ESV

Imagine a lamb: the soft, pristine, snowy wool; the dewy, gentle eyes; the seemingly innocent smile; the pink of new skin showing through the wool on the soft nose and inside the ears; the total vulnerability… On the Sunday before Passover, a male lamb like this was brought into the homes of the Israelites. The lamb would be cared for carefully. The children of the household would play with this lamb, showering it with love and affection. The adults would monitor it for illness or lameness or any indication it was less than perfect. It would sleep in the household with the family. And then, on the Friday of Passover…that cherished lamb was butchered for the sins of the family.

Shocked? Unless you grew up on a livestock farm, this probably is shocking to imagine. Even if you grew up raising animals for meat, you’re probably familiar with the practice of avoiding getting attached to meat animals. You know they’re going to die, so you keep them emotionally at a distance to make it easier for you and your family. You don’t even give meat animals names.

Yet God institutes the practice of the sacrificial lamb, back in Exodus on the night the angel of death came to take the firstborn and secure the freedom of the Israelites from Egypt, and He creates a situation where the family necessarily becomes close to the lamb who will be slain. I imagine the children would inevitably give the lamb a name. The adults, who have spent four solid days protecting this young animal from all harm, suddenly must give it over to death. It could not have been easy to take this animal who had come to trust you and give it over to strangers to be sacrificed without mercy. Why did God do this?

Because He wanted us to know exactly what Jesus came to endure and why.

Like the passover lamb, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover. A young man in his early thirties, above criticism and sinless before men.

Like the passover lamb, Jesus spent four days in the midst of the people, letting them know Him and proving Himself a worthy sacrifice. He criticized the evil practices of the Jewish leadership, He drove out the money changers putting a financial barrier between people and forgiveness from God, He taught about who God is and the importance of a right relationship with Him. At the end of it, even His pagan judge, Pontius Pilate, stated boldly, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4).

And like the passover lamb, Jesus was abandoned into the hands of strangers to be murdered…dying at precisely 3PM, the same hour at which the passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple for the sins of Israel.

You see…Jesus came to be known by us. To be cherished and loved and looked to as an example. We can’t keep Him at arms length, a distant God to be worshiped, but not loved. He comes into our lives, into our very homes. He made it so His sacrifice brings every person to account.

And He died, bearing our failures with Him into the darkness of death.

But unlike the lambs, who every year were sacrificed but could not truly free us from sin… Jesus’ death forever carried away our failings. When His body was born into the darkness of the earth, and He descended into the pits of Hell…He took every failure with Him, forever breaking us free from the torment of our own imperfections.

But that wasn’t all… because Easter was coming… The sun would rise Sunday morning on a world that would never be the same.

Because the Son would rise.

  1. There is only one challenge this week: keep your eyes on the Son of God. Don’t let this week just be another week in your calendar. This week changed everything. This week was the week toward which all Jesus’ earthly life was focused. He walked into Jerusalem to die. He intentionally drove the Pharisees (Jewish leadership) to turn against Him, fearlessly holding back none of Himself… For you… For all of us. This week… don’t forget the footsteps of the Savior… headed straight for the cross.
1 John 3:1 – What a Father

1 John 3:1 – What a Father

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” – 1 John 3:1NIV

Father…

What images, thoughts, or feelings instantly come to mind when you read that single, powerful name?

For some of you, it may be a trustworthy, super-hero like figure whose strong hands held you when you cried and taught you to play football.

For some of you, it may be a mysterious, empty title…a looming, dark figure with no face whose presence was made loud by its absence from birthdays, holidays, and the victories of life.

For some of you, this is a dangerous name…a name filled with booming, angry voices, pain, and fear.

For some, this is a bitter title, symbolic of empty promises and unfulfilled longing. A figure, while present, who made you feel like nothing more than an uninteresting footnote in his life.

Depending on which father you had, the concept of being the “child of God”, a son or daughter of our Heavenly Father…may be difficult to understand. Even if you had the best of fathers, he wasn’t perfect, and for many of you, the idea of a father hasn’t been much of a positive experience in your life.

Yet John writes “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1A ESV [emphasis mine]).

To understand what he means, I think we need to head over to Jesus’ “Parable of the Prodigal Son” in Luke 15. Jesus is trying to help people understand just how incredible the love of God is for His people. So He tells the story of a man with two sons. One son is faithful and good and continues to help his wealthy father work the land. The other son essentially tells his father “you are dead to me” by taking his inheritance money from his father and running off to live the high life on the money. Naturally, the money runs out, and he finds himself starving to death, feeding pigs in the countryside just to survive. And suddenly he comes to a realization in Luke 15:17-19ESV, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'”

Already we’re getting a taste of what kind of man the father is. You see, there are a few problems first century hearers would have expected this young man to face on returning home. One is he was merely a second son. You only need one son to inherit the family estate, so there is no pressure on the father to accept the boy back, despite what he had done. Second, the son had insulted his father’s honor by demanding the inheritance before his father’s death, leaving the family work, and running off to spend the money on “frivolous” things (we can safely infer gambling, prostitution, and the like). It would have been expected the father would, at the very least, disown the son, and there would have been no surprise if the father had the son killed on sight to preserve his honor.

With all this, the son is still willing to go home and ask his father for work. That implies something the son knows about his father’s character: he is kind, he is merciful, he is loving, he is forgiving… The sons knows what his actions deserve, yet he still does not doubt his father will allow him back safely. Yet even then, the son underestimates his father. Not only does the father not demand the punishment due for his son’s behavior, instead “his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him… the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:20, 22-24ESV).

Not only does the father not demand the life of the son for the evil he has done…the father welcomes him with open arms, running to him to end the separation that much sooner. The father celebrates the son’s return, not even bringing up what happened in the past but living only in the joy of reunion. Despite everything, the son is cared for, loved, cherished, and welcomed…without restraint.

And that is the kind of Father our Heavenly Father is. When John writes we have been “showered” with love by God calling Himself our Father and we His children, that is the kind of loving relationship we can expect with God.

Not a distant, faceless, empty absence in the joys and sorrows of our lives.

Not an angry, judgmental, hurtful shadow looming from the darkness to “get us” when we mess up.

Not a disinterested, blessing-dispenser who’ll snatch us up when we die but otherwise has washed his hands of the intimate details of our lives.

This God…this Father cares about every detail because He cares about you. This God wants you back, despite how bad a mess you’ve made of your life. This God is walking with you into the challenges, celebrating the joys and victories, and looking forward to when you can look Him straight in the eyes as He says, “Well done.”

What great love, indeed.

  • How do you feel and think about your experience with earthly fatherhood?
  • Do you see yourself sometimes viewing God through the lens of how you have experienced fatherhood? How?
  • How would it change the way you view your life to see God as a “good Father”, not matter your personal experience with fatherhood?
  • Challenge for the Week: Spend some time reading passages where God calls Himself “Father” or us “Children”. Make a list of all the good things it means to be a “child of God”. Put the list where you can see it as you prepare for your day.
Isaiah 46:1-9 – “Modern” Idols

Isaiah 46:1-9 – “Modern” Idols

“Bel and Nebo, the gods of Babylon, bow as they are lowered to the ground. They are being hauled away on ox carts. The poor beasts stagger under the weight. Both the idols and their owners are bowed down. The gods cannot protect the people, and the people cannot protect the gods. They go off into captivity together. Listen to me, descendants of Jacob, all you who remain in Israel. I have cared for you since you were born. Yes, I carried you before you were born. I will be your God throughout your lifetime— until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you. To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal? Some people pour out their silver and gold and hire a craftsman to make a god from it. Then they bow down and worship it! They carry it around on their shoulders, and when they set it down, it stays there. It can’t even move! And when someone prays to it, there is no answer. It can’t rescue anyone from trouble. Do not forget this! Keep it in mind! Remember this, you guilty ones. Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me.” – Isaiah 46:1-9NLT

When I’ve taught about idolatry (the worship of things other than God) to people of all ages, a lot of times I get back blank looks. To be honest, I get it. When people think of worshipping idols, they think of human sacrifice to animal-headed statues supposedly representing some sort of god. They think of smoky-rituals and body-paint and strange songs in strange languages to appease angry, looming gods of ancient pantheons modern science has set aside as nothing more than mythology. In other words, people generally aren’t too worried about the command not to worship idols or false gods, as they don’t really think it’s something you can struggle with.

But what if it’s something every one of us struggles with every single day. What if you are struggling with it right now? What if your idol-worship is the reason you’re fighting with your wife? What if it’s the reason every success you have in your career leaves you feeling empty? What if it’s the reason you can’t get along with your parents or your friends or the people you love most? What if idolatry is what stands between you and all the things in your life you’ve always really wanted to do?

Because you see…idol worship doesn’t necessarily look like our movie-rendered mental images. Our idols can land much closer to home and look a lot more familiar than we realize:

  • Your spouse
  • Your kids
  • Your girlfriend or boyfriend
  • Money
  • Time
  • Success
  • Approval
  • Fun
  • Happiness
  • Pleasure

The list doesn’t end there. Now don’t get me wrong, these things are good things…blessings, even…but they can also own our devotion above and beyond God.

When God is talking to the Israelites in Isaiah 46 about how the gods of Babylon are not worthy of worship, He says about Himself in verses 3-4NLT, “Listen to me, descendants of Jacob, all you who remain in Israel. I have cared for you since you were born. Yes, I carried you before you were born. I will be your God throughout your lifetime—until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.” In other words, God reminds His people that despite their lack of loyalty to Him, He is the One who can be relied upon to provide hope, meaning, safety, and security to us. He is the only one who can carry us when we are broken. He is the only one who can guarantee the safety of our lives for eternity, even as our bodies fail. He is the only one who knows us inside-and-out, able to use our gifts for the greatest and most meaningful causes. He is the only one guaranteed to love us and stick with us in every circumstance.

Yet how often do we trust our safety, security, hope, self-assurance…identity… to the things of this world?

  • Does the balance of your bank account determine how secure you feel?
  • Does your job title tell you if what you do is valuable?
  • Does the affection of your spouse tell you if you are worthwhile?
  • Do your grades tell you if you are succeeding or not?
  • Does the time you have to complete your task list take priority over giving time to your relationship with Jesus or the people He puts in your life?

You see, we all have idols. We all struggle to love and trust God more than anything else in our lives. That’s why the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:23ESV, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But the passage doesn’t end there, for Paul continues in verses 24-25NLT, Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.”

We all have our idols…but we also have a God who decided to set aside His power and authority to come and be like us, taking on a human body in the form of Jesus, because He knew how limited our devotion would be. He paid the price for our wandering hearts in Jesus’ death, and He set aside our sin forever when Jesus rose from the grave. You will stumble, you will fail to let God rule first in your heart. But with each new day there is forgiveness in Jesus, God sweeping away the unfaithful moments and reminding us He still reigns, and we have a true anchor in the storm in Him. An anchor that cannot fail.

  1. Before reading this post, how did you view idol worship?
  2. When you look at our culture, what sort of “idols” do you see in our society?
  3. How do you feel when someone you love is disloyal to you? With that in mind, why is it so powerful God remains loyal to us when we put idols before him
  4. Challenge for the week: Every time a circumstance causes a strong emotional reaction in you, write it down in a journal. At the end of the week, look back at your list to try and pinpoint what some idols might be in your life. Spend some time lifting that idol to God in prayer, asking Him to set you free from your devotion to that idol.

 

John 15:12-13 – Real Love

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:12-13ESV

I remember when I was a student, living abroad in Japan and studying at a university in a suburb of Osaka. There were over 350 foreign exchange students at the campus from all over the world. I was hanging out with a group of them in the cafeteria after school, talking about who knows what. It was during this conversation we started comparing notes on dating woes. In a foreign exchange environment among college students, it wasn’t an uncommon conversation. Everyone was excited by the allure of being around so many people from all over the world. In the course of this conversation, someone offhandedly said to me, “Ruth…I think a lot more people would want do date you if you weren’t Christian. It’s kind of a turnoff. I mean, they know you’re not going to have sex.”

The conversation stuck with me for a long time. While I’d certainly grown up committed to only dating Christians, I’d never considered other people might not date me because of my faith. I’d just assumed if people didn’t have religious convictions, they wouldn’t care if I did. A naive assumption, according to the revelations that day.

But isn’t it interesting that a willingness to have sex was the heart of the issue? In fact, I would argue, the real issue is the constant cheapening of what we call “love” in our culture. Love in our culture seems to be:

  • What makes me feel good
  • What the other person does for me (emotionally OR physically)
  • How much fun I have with that person
  • How much that person affirms me

Now…that list doesn’t seem to be so bad, and honestly…it’s great to have those things in love. However…that list is only about what another person gives me. It is a selfish love, based on the utility of another human being; about what they can do for me.

In direct opposition to this, Jesus says in John 15:13ESV, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” What is love about here?

What you bring to the table for those you say you love.

Love is about serving others, prioritizing the well-being of others. Not just being willing to lay down your physical life for someone else, but also portions of your life. Being willing to sacrifice that promotion to be home more with your family. Setting aside some dreams so you can support your partner in pursuing theirs. Coming home right after school, instead of doing an extra baseball practice to get in good with the coach, because your mom is having friends over and could use the help getting the house ready.

In fact, when Jesus calls us to love, the standard He uses is the very love He demonstrated in His life and death. This love:

  • Held people accountable for sin (Matthew 18:15-17)
  • Modeled radical forgiveness of sin (Luke 15:11-32)
  • Was extended regardless of social censure (John 4:1-42)
  • Met the needs of others (Mark1:34)
  • Faced down the devil, himself (Matthew 4:1-11)
  • Died for a crime He did not commit (John 19:4)

As John puts it in his Gospel account, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25NIV).

The love we are called to is radical because it is socially unacceptable. Jesus did it first. He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7&8ESV). 

The love He demonstrated cost Him His life. But because of that love we can truly and deeply love others and truly and deeply be loved by others. We can forgive. We can give 100%, even when the one we love’s 100% looks more like 60%. We can call those we love to a higher standard than this world sets for us.

Jesus shows us what real love us. Not a cheap cultural construct, but an eternally deep well poured from the heart of the Creator of the World into our wounded hearts…and into all the world.

  1. How have you defined love in the past?
  2. When you have experienced “Christ-like” love?
  3. How does “Christ-like” love impact you, compared to cultural love?
  4. Challenge for the week: Pay attention to the dynamics of the “loving relationships” in your life. Instead of focusing on where the other person is failing to be loving toward you, pray for God to show you opportunities to bring Christ-like love to that person. When He shows you an opportunity, take it!