ANY BRIDGES TO BURN? (Elisha – 1)

Chicago RiverThen Peter said, “We’ve left everything to follow you.” Jesus said to them, “I can guarantee this truth: Anyone who gave up his home, wife, brothers, parents, or children because of the kingdom of God will certainly receive many times as much in this life and will receive eternal life in the world to come.” [Luke 18:28-29 (GW)]

“Don’t burn your bridges!” we’re often told, but Elisha certainly did. When it became time for the prophet Elijah to find a successor, the Lord directed him to Elisha. Finding Elisha plowing his field, Elijah placed his cloak over the farmer’s shoulders, an indication that Elisha was to become the prophet’s apprentice and eventual replacement. Recognizing the enormity of this calling, the young man didn’t say, “Wait until I’m done plowing and can get my affairs in order. I’ll catch up to you when it’s convenient.” He didn’t question Elijah about the pay, fringe benefits or risks of being a prophet. The farmer stopped working and told the prophet that he needed to say good-bye to his family before leaving.

Elisha then prepared a celebratory departure feast by slaughtering his oxen and cooking them over a fire fueled by his plow. Is this a good career plan? Most of us would have asked a neighbor to feed the oxen and, rather than burning the plow, would have stored it in case the prophet gig didn’t work out. Elisha, however, was fully committed to answering God’s call.

This makes me ponder what plans God has for me and, more important, what things might be keeping me from saying “Yes” to Him. Most of us don’t have oxen and plows to burn, but we probably have other things we’re not willing to relinquish in order to follow Jesus. How attached are we to our life styles, possessions and status? Do we have habits, unhealthy relationships, dependencies or negative thoughts like fear, guilt, bitterness, or intolerance we’re unwilling to surrender? What might be holding us back from answering God’s call?

God did remarkable things with Elisha once he followed Elijah. In fact, Elisha performed twice as many miracles as the elder prophet. Like the U.S. Army, God wants us to be all that we can be and invites us to do great things with our lives. We are hindered, however, until, like Elisha, we set fire to our oxen and plows. What bridges do we need to burn?

I demolish my bridges behind me – then there is no choice but forward. [Fridtjof Nansen (Norwegian explorer, scientist, humanitarian and winner of Nobel Peace Prize)]

After that, Jesus left. He saw a tax collector named Levi [Matthew] sitting in a tax office. Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him. [Luke 5:27-28 (GW)]

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DINGS AND DENTS

That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! [John 20:19-20 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtail - butterflyWe’re selling our northern home and, as I packed up assorted family heirlooms, I came across the little sterling silver salt and pepper shakers we used for so many years. I held one in my hand a bit longer than the others; it had distinct teeth marks on it. For reasons that are unknown, my eldest child tried to bite through it. In spite of its obvious imperfection (or, perhaps because of it), the shaker is still beautiful. I’d wondered which child should get these silver pieces but, after remembering their history, I lovingly wrapped them up and placed them in my son’s box. I only hope his family will find the impressions of his baby teeth as beautiful as do I.

As I sorted through other family silver, I came to the sterling candle holders that were a wedding gift to my parents some 82 years ago. Like the salt and pepper set, they show their age with a few dents and scratches. My parent’s marriage, like the candle holders, wasn’t perfect but it endured through every circumstance. I decided to keep the candle sticks with our things as a reminder both to forgive and appreciate the beauty in imperfection.

I thought of Jesus’s scars as I packed up the dented silver. Our resurrected Lord carried the scars from his wounds. Yet, since He could pass through a locked door, He easily could have removed those wounds in his hands and side. Jesus’s scars let the disciples know who He was and our scars are an essential part of our identity, as well.

Like Jesus, we all bear scars, both inside and out. Like my silver, we have dings and dents and are a little (or a whole lot) tarnished. Just as the imperfections on my old silver tell a story, so do our scars. The scar from a C-section tells of blessings received while the scar from a hysterectomy tells of the loss of possibilities. The scars from a burn tell the story of injury and pain while the scars from open heart surgery tell of getting a new lease on life. Some scars, like those left from a divorce, a loved one’s death, or addiction, are invisible but tell their own tale, as well. Scars, dings and dents are simply evidence of things that didn’t defeat us; they are our beautiful trophies of survival and healing. Death did not conquer Jesus and, though God’s grace, life’s challenges cannot conquer us.

My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present. [Steve Goodier]

From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. For I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus. [Galatians 6:17 (NLT)]

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THE PRODIGAL FATHER (Part 2 – Luke 15:11-32)

Suppose a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they discipline him. In such a case, the father and mother must take the son to the elders as they hold court at the town gate. The parents must say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and refuses to obey. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town must stone him to death. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you, and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid. [Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (NLT)]

When the boy we know as “the prodigal son” comes to his senses and returns home, Jesus never says he was repentant; He says the boy was hungry! Moreover, while he knows he’s not worthy to be treated as a son, the boy doesn’t ask to be taken on as a slave; he boldly plans on asking to be hired as a paid servant. Those hearing the story probably were sure the boy was about to be properly punished but Jesus defied convention again. When the father sees his returning son, he runs to him with abandon. Again, cultural norms were flouted. Because running required a man to lift his garment and expose his bare legs, it was considered improper and undignified for a grown man to run. Perhaps Jesus’s listeners excused the man’s unseemly behavior because they thought he was in a rush to rebuke his boy. Expecting him to perform a kezazah ceremony (a shunning ritual in which he’d break a pot and yell that his son was cut off from his people forever), the father breaks all of society’s rules and embraces his boy.

The father doesn’t even allow his son to offer himself as a servant; instead, he restores him into his family and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for the boy. We might overlook the significance of these gifts but Jesus’s audience wouldn’t. By calling for shoes, it’s clear the boy is reinstated into the family; masters and their sons wore shoes but servants and slaves didn’t! By covering his son’s swine filth with his best robe, he’s honoring the boy and, since the ring probably had the family crest on it, he’s returning his son to a position of authority. To further establish the boy’s restoration into the family, his father calls for the butchering of the fatted calf. This wasn’t to be a quiet family dinner; a “fatted calf” was saved for a major celebration like a wedding. Treating his son like a dignitary, there was to be a feast for the entire village. Today, this would be like welcoming back a renegade son with open arms, and giving him your Rolex, your power of attorney, a seat on the company’s board of directors, hosting a huge bash at the Country Club, and posting the pictures on social media. The father’s behavior was inexplicable and Jesus’s audience had to have been astonished. Where was the expected condemnation and punishment?

Then we get to the older brother. Again, because we’ve become accustomed to poor manners and insolence in our society, we don’t realize how unacceptable his behavior is. By defiantly refusing to attend the festivities, he snubs his father and family in much the same way his younger brother had. He further disrespects his father by telling a servant to fetch him and making his father come to him. A host leaving a feast was an insult to his guests and a father going to his son rather than requiring his son to come to him was another shocking break with propriety. Then, rather than address his father respectfully, the boy insolently launches into his tirade and further distances himself from the family by referring to his sibling not as “my brother” but as “this son of yours.” Rather than harshly castigate the boy as would be expected, his father lovingly addresses him as teknon (meaning “dearly beloved son”) rather than the more commonly used huios which is used for “son” throughout the rest of the story. Reassuring his belligerent child that he’s not lost his place and that everything he has belongs to the boy, the father lovingly tells him the more important thing is to celebrate his brother’s return.

From the beginning to the end of this parable, Jesus’s listeners would have gasped in unbelief and dismay at the appalling behavior displayed by both father and sons. Like the older brother, they couldn’t understand reconciliation without punishment!

When we put this parable in the context of the times, a far better title than “The Prodigal Son” is the “The Prodigal Father.” While “prodigal” can mean wasteful and reckless, it also means generous, giving on a lavish scale, kindhearted and magnanimous—making it the perfect adjective for the father. By seeing the father’s deep wide love for his children through the eyes of a first century Jew, we truly appreciate the depth of God’s love for us. Indeed, He is our prodigal Father—generous beyond belief in mercy, love and forgiveness. Are we as prodigal with our love and forgiveness as God is with His?

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. [Ephesians 3:18 (NLT)]

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. [Romans 5:8-9 (NLT)]

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THE PRODIGAL SON (Part 1 – Luke 15:11-32)

To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, lest you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let any one take your place. … At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance. [Sirach 33:19-20,23 (RSVCE)]

If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father’s control. [Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra viii.7)]

great blue heronThrough His parables, Jesus related profound spiritual truths in stories that were easily understood and relevant to his listeners. Although Jesus’s original audience often didn’t like His message, they clearly knew what He was saying. Because of the vast cultural differences between our world and 1st century Palestine, I’m not sure we fully appreciate the impact His parables had on the people who first heard them.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across indulgent fathers and pleasure-seeking, selfish, and rude children but, when Jesus told the parable known as “The Prodigal Son,” honor and respect for one’s parents were of paramount importance as were the dignity and absolute authority of the patriarch of the family. Jesus’s listeners must have gasped in horror and unbelief when they heard Him describe behavior by both father and sons that defied acceptable conduct and cultural norms.

Although some fathers at that time might distribute their estates prior to death, they would continue to receive the income while their sons managed it. What is extraordinary in Jesus’s parable is that, by brashly demanding his inheritance, the younger son really is telling his father, “I wish you were dead so I could get on with my life!” Although the expected response would be to slap the boy and immediately disinherit him, the father does as his boy asks. When we read that the son “gathered together” his things, we think of it as packing up his belongings. The Greek word used, however, was sunago which, in this context means the son turned his inheritance into cash. Although preserving family property was of utmost importance to the Jews, the boy blatantly defies the Talmud by selling his share of the estate (thus depriving his father of its income). Since he leaves home within a few days, the implication is that he didn’t even try to get top dollar for the land.

By then squandering his entire inheritance, the son shows contempt for all that his father accomplished over the years. As if the story weren’t shocking enough, he compounds his sin and further dishonors his father by moving to a distant country (meaning Gentile land) and eating with pigs. Picture a son demanding part of his father’s business, selling it at a loss to a competitor, quickly squandering his money in wild living, and then going off to join the Taliban and you get a vague idea of how astonished Jesus’s audience might have been by this story. While the behavior of the father was baffling, the behavior of his son was absolutely unforgivable!

Both the Torah and Talmud were quite clear about one’s behavior toward parents and you can be sure Jesus’s listeners knew how this story was supposed to end. Jesus, however, had a way of turning people’s expectations upside down. This was the rabbi who spoke of the first being the last, praying for one’s enemies, walking by faith rather than sight, turning the other cheek, being weak to become strong, leading by serving, giving to receive, and losing your life to save it. If His audience was shocked at how the parable began, they were probably scandalized at how it finished.

“Cursed is anyone who dishonors father or mother.” And all the people will reply, “Amen.” [Deuteronomy 27:16 (NLT)]

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IN ALL THINGS

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

Swamp lily - Corkscrew swampAfter the Apostle Paul established the church in Thessalonica, he encountered persecution from both the Jews and city officials so he abruptly fled with Silas. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul sends words of comfort, edification, and encouragement to the new church. Along with some practical advice on Christian living, he reassures the new converts in their persecution and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 are some of my favorite verses.

A common theme in Paul’s letters is that our joy, prayers and thanks shouldn’t depend upon our circumstances. In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s short sentences have a forceful tone and, rather than merely suggesting, the Apostle is almost ordering them to rejoice, pray and give thanks! While we should rejoice in what Matthew Henry calls our “creature comforts,” rather than an emotion, this joy is an attitude of delight in the Lord rather than in our condition. Instead of “always,” the King James translation says “evermore” and, for the believer, rejoicing forevermore is possible. We can rejoice in anticipation of our future when our joy truly will be never-ending.

One of the ways to always rejoice is to pray without ceasing! Prayer is conversing with God and, if we’re talking with Him, we can’t help but be joyful. Yet, looking at Paul’s example of working as a tentmaker during his ministry, I don’t think Paul means we should be on our knees and praying incessantly 24/7. Nevertheless, we should be continually aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. Rather than do nothing but pray, we should allow nothing to hinder our perseverance and faithfulness in prayer. With attentiveness to God’s will for us, our lives should be a continual prayer and all of our actions should honor, worship and praise the Almighty!

Then we get to Paul’s third command: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you…” Because most modern translations tend to group these three verses together in one paragraph, I took the last part of this sentence to mean that it is God’s will that we rejoice, pray and give thanks in all circumstances. Indeed, I’m sure it is but, reading his words in the light of the trials facing the Thessalonians gives them deeper meaning.

Considering that they were being persecuted and “all circumstances” for them included suffering, prosecution and intimidation, Paul’s words tell them to look beyond their hardship because all that was happening was within God’s will for them! Paul knew that God is at work on behalf of His people in any and all circumstances. It is because of that, we can be thankful in scarcity, hardship, loss, peril, and sickness and as well as in plenty, opportunity, gain, security, and health.

We can rejoice forever, make our lives a continual prayer, and give thanks in all circumstances because we know that our situation, no matter how dire, is within God’s plan for us and is for our good. Knowing that “this is the will of God for you who belong to Christ Jesus,” we can, indeed, joyfully give thanks!

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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FROM BAD TO WORSE

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

Once a pampered prince, forty years later, Moses was living as a Midianite shepherd. When speaking to him from the burning bush, God laid out His plan for freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and the pivotal role Moses would play in it. Protesting, Moses made excuse after excuse but God countered every excuse with a solution. Provided with a shepherd’s staff and Aaron as his mouthpiece, Moses reluctantly accepted God’s charge. Before approaching Pharaoh, however, he first met with Israel’s elders to convince them that he was on a mission from God.

Although the elders were convinced, Pharaoh wasn’t. When Moses asked that the Israelites be given just three days to journey into the wilderness and worship their God, Pharaoh didn’t just refuse. Accusing Moses of interfering with his people’s work, he cruelly increased their work load. Instead of having the straw needed for brick making provided, they had to find their own straw while still meeting their daily brick quota. When they failed to do so, the Israelite foremen were beaten. Faced with an impossible task, they approached Pharaoh. Pitilessly refusing to lighten their load, he accused the Israelites of laziness. Protesting to Moses, the foremen blamed him for the harshness of their Egyptian masters. Disheartened at his lack of success and Egypt’s increasing brutality, the Israelites lost all confidence in Moses and God’s promise of relief. Instead of going from bad to better, things had gone from bad to worse.

Sadly, even Moses lost faith. Forgetting that God told him Pharaoh would not let them go easily, the despondent Moses cried out to God. He questioned God’s purpose and even accused Him of doing nothing to help!

Things looked bad for David more than 420 years later. After Samuel anointed him king, David spent the next fifteen years on the run from King Saul who was trying to kill him. Like Moses, he was following God’s plan and yet things had gone from bad to worse for him, too. Like Moses, he cried out and asked God why he’d been forsaken.

Things looked dire for Elijah, as well. Like Moses and David, he wasn’t winning any popularity contests by obeying God. In his case, the prophet was giving unpleasant prophecies to some evil people. The enraged Jezebel was out to kill him and he’d just received her message that he’d be dead within 24-hours. The exhausted man sat under a broom bush and, sure that he was as good as dead, told God to kill him then.

Scripture teaches that, when we’re following God’s plan, we will face opposition in the world. It’s been suggested that if we don’t face the enemy’s opposition, we’re probably not doing God’s work. There will be times when our circumstances look bleak, God seems to be looking the other way, and the enemy seems to be winning.

When Jesus’s followers stood at the foot of the cross, watched Him suffer, and heard Him speak the words of Psalm 22 asking God why He’d been abandoned, it probably seemed that all hope was gone and the enemy had won. Three days later, however, it was clear that all hope had arrived! We can’t give up on the power, wisdom and goodness of God because his plan sometimes seems to have gone awry. Let us always remember that God’s promise to the Israelites is as true today as it was over 3,400 years ago: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.” [Deuteronomy 31:8 (NLT)]

The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time. [Psalm 34:17-19 (NLT)]

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33 (NLT)]

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