HARD HEARTS

But when they saw him walking on the water, they cried out in terror, thinking he was a ghost. They were all terrified when they saw him. But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage! I am here!” Then he climbed into the boat, and the wind stopped. They were totally amazed, for they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in. [Mark 6:49-52 (NLT)]

water liliesAfter feeding a multitude with little more than a handful of food, Jesus sent the disciples across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida. He stayed behind to send the people home and then, exhausted, went into the mountains to pray. During the fourth watch (somewhere between 3:00 and 6:00 AM), Jesus looked out at the water and saw that the disciples were struggling against the wind and waves to keep the boat on course. Seeing their trouble, he walked on the water toward them. Instead of being pleased to see Him, the disciples were alarmed and frightened!

By this point in the ministry of Jesus, He had restored a deformed hand; exorcised numerous demons; healed a paralyzed man, a bleeding woman, lepers and even Peter’s mother-in-law among others; raised a girl from the dead; calmed a storm with a few words; and fed a multitude with just a few loaves and fish. What part of these miracles didn’t they get? They shouldn’t have been surprised by Jesus’s appearance; they should have expected it! If someone can still storms and create food, He certainly can walk on water; those are things only God can do!

Sometimes, I wonder if we’re any different than the disciples. Do we have trouble believing what is so obvious? Knowing the end of the story, of course, it’s easier for us; the disciples came in at the beginning and didn’t know how it would end. Nevertheless, that Jesus was more than a wise, kind and gifted healer but actually God in a man’s body is an overwhelming concept for many and remains a barrier to their belief.

Jesus certainly didn’t fit the disciples’ expectations and, sometimes, He doesn’t fit ours. They pictured the Messiah as a conquering warrior and judge but Jesus was the opposite; He spoke of mercy, love, and forgiveness rather than vengeance. While we don’t expect Jesus to slay our enemies, we often think of Him as a sort of cosmic vending machine where we put in a prayer (or make an offering) and out comes whatever it is we want. Like those who expected a military leader, we find ourselves disappointed.

I wonder if the disciples simply were afraid to believe. Just imagine their discussion in the boat that evening as they tried to understand how Jesus managed to feed thousands. They must have wondered what it would mean for them if Jesus really was the Messiah. Would His mission end up as did the failed Messianic movement led by Judas of Galilee: the leader dead and his followers scattered? They weren’t soldiers; they were common working men and Simon was the only Zealot among them. Would they end up headless as did John the Baptist? Did they wonder what Jesus would expect of them? Do we hesitate to accept Jesus because we’re afraid of what He will ask of us? Mark tells us that the hearts of the disciples “were too hard to take it in.” Even knowing all that Jesus had done, they didn’t yet believe.

Almighty God, through the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to your holy truth.

Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” [Mark 4:40 (NLT)]

Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:16 (NLT)]

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FLOWERS AND BIRDS

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith? [Matthew 6:26-30 (NLT)]

cardinal - narrow-leaved sunflower - Corkscrew SwampI’ve never seen a field of lilies in blossom but they couldn’t be any more beautiful than the field of narrow-leaved sunflowers that surrounded me at the bird sanctuary recently. Standing in wonder as their yellow faces smiled down on me, I was reminded of Jesus’s words about the lilies of the field. When I came upon a cardinal pecking away at a large ripe berry, I remembered His words regarding the birds. While watching the bird enjoy his breakfast, the story of Elijah and the ravens that fed him came to mind and I thought about God’s promise to provide.

Having more than enough clothes in my closet and a pantry full of food, I’m not worried about food or clothing. I do, however, tend to worry about God’s provision of words for these devotions. Trust in Him doesn’t come automatically—it is a learned response. Nevertheless, even though God has provided me with fodder for over 1,600 devotions, I’m a slow learner and I still have trouble trusting Him to continue with His provision.

Throughout Scripture, God promises over and over again to provide and, over and over again, people don’t trust Him. Consider the Israelites; after being told there would be manna enough every day, they tried to save it. Even though stored manna turned rotten and maggoty, I would venture a guess that some people continued trying to save it. If I’d been there, I probably would have tried different types of containers, hoping that I’d eventually find the right way to preserve manna (just in case God missed a day)! Later, when God promised to provide the power and strength to take Canaan, the Israelites didn’t believe that God’s provision would be enough and refused to enter. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have trusted God’s promise any more than did the rest of them.

You’re probably not worried about words and maybe not even food or clothing. Even so, we’re all worried about whether God will provide enough of something we need, be it money, health, time, comfort, friends, faith, strength, wisdom, peace or patience. Remember, God promises to provide for the birds and flowers and they’re not even made in His image! Jesus didn’t die on the cross for them and the Holy Spirit doesn’t dwell within them, yet God provides for them! God loves us—we’re created in His image, redeemed by His son, and given eternal life by Him. As His beloved children, we ought to trust Him enough to provide our necessities! When God brings us someplace, as He did with the Israelites and Elijah, He’ll provide us with a way to meet our needs, be it manna on the ground, ravens bringing us food, or wildflowers swaying in the breeze.

God looks at the anxious and says, I tore my Son to shreds for you, and you’re afraid I will not give you what you need? [Timothy Keller]

So don’t worry about these things, saying, “What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. [Matthew 6:31-34 (NLT)]

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THE STRANGLER FIG

The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it. [Mark 4:18-19 (MSG)]

strangler fig - corkscrew swampAs a rule, trees start as seeds in the soil, form a cylindrical trunk and observe proper forest protocol by not killing one another. The strangler fig, however, is the exception to that rule. Strangler figs tend to grow in dense forests where the competition for light is intense. When forest critters eat their fruit, fig seeds are left in their droppings. Although unable to survive in the darkness of the forest floor, these seeds thrive when deposited higher in the crevice of a tree. Starting out as what’s called an epiphyte or air plant, the seed gets its nutrients from sun, rain and organic material on the host. As the seedling matures, it sends out long roots that grow downward toward the soil. Once rooted, the fig grows rapidly, sending more roots down and new branches upwards. In time, its lush foliage and complex root system compete with the host for light, rain and ground water. Walking through the southwest Florida forest, you can’t help but notice the figs’ bizarre lattice work of roots and branches wrapped around the trunks of their hosts and it’s often hard to know where one tree ends and the other starts. Eventually, the fig assassinates its host by cutting off its nourishment; like a boa constrictor, it strangles its prey to death.

Just as a tiny fig seed can eventually destroy a giant cypress; if allowed to take root, worry can do the same to us. Like fig seeds, worries are opportunistic—when they find a niche, they move right in and start growing. They seem harmless enough at first but, once they take root, they dig into us and branch out into even more worries. Rather than wrapping around our trunk, worry wraps around our spirit and, like the fig, steals the light from our lives. The fig embeds itself into its host and worry entrenches itself in our hearts. A silent assassin like the fig, worry attacks our roots with doubt and tries to rob us of the living water of Jesus. At least the figs produce fruit to feed the residents of the forest; worry, however, keeps us from bearing any fruit and starves our spirit. The fig’s many nooks and crannies offer homes to critters like frogs, bats, and lizards but worries only offer hospitality to things like anxiety, fear, doubt, and tension. The strangler fig sentences it host to certain death and, like it, worry is a killer. It kills our joy, vitality, strength, spirit, and faith but it can also strangle the life right out of us with high blood pressure, heart disease, and other stress related diseases.

The oaks, cypress and palms have no choice in the matter when a fig takes root. Fortunately, we have a divine Gardener who can rid us of worry but only if we trust Him to do His work. Without allowing worry to take root, we must prayerfully hand God our concerns as soon as they drop into our lives. It’s only by trusting God with tomorrow that we can bear fruit today.

In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:21 (MSG)]

But blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers— Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

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KILLED WITH A SWORD

A little farther up the shore he saw two other brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, repairing their nets. And he called them to come, too. They immediately followed him, leaving the boat and their father behind. [Matthew 4:21-22 (NLT)]

James, along with his brother John and Simon Peter, was part of Jesus’s inner circle. The three of them knew Jesus the longest; they went with Him to Gethsemane, saw Him raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead and were witnesses at His transfiguration. This James is often referred to as the son of Zebedee or James the Greater to distinguish him from the other Apostle named James who was the son of Alphaeus (James the Lesser) and the Epistle writer James who is thought to be Jesus’s brother (James the Just). Perhaps because of their impetuous tempers and fiery zeal, Jesus gave James and John the nickname “sons of Boanerges” which meant “sons of thunder.” These brash brothers were the ones who wanted to bring disaster upon the inhospitable Samaritan village and asked Jesus for places of honor beside His throne.

Sunday’s reading, from Acts 12, included these words: “About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword.” [v.1-2] Although the rest of the reading was about Peter’s arrest and the power of prayer, I kept thinking about James. “Killed with a sword” isn’t much of an epitaph for one of the original twelve.

Herod Agrippa ruled Judea from 41 to 44 AD so James died some eleven to fourteen years after Jesus’s ascension. Scripture is silent as to what James did during this time and we can only speculate. According to legend, he went to Spain and evangelized there for several years before returning to Jerusalem. It took eight centuries before this legend took hold and there is no historical basis for it. In all likelihood, his preaching was limited to Judea and Samaria. Nevertheless, many Christians believe his remains were miraculously transported to Spain. Even though the authenticity of the relics is suspect, every July 24th, people make a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela where his remains are said to rest below the altar.

“Killed with a sword” is just a polite way of saying beheaded and, according to the Talmud, people were to die of the sword when found guilty of communal apostasy. James may have been accused of convincing the Jews to forsake Yahweh and the law for the false teachings of Christianity. Herod Agrippa, a supporter of conservative Jewish policies, repressed the Jewish Christians. Given what we know of James—outspoken, zealous, impulsive, and quick to anger—the Apostle easily could have offended both Pharisees and king.

We know little about this fisherman from Galilee: one of the first to be called and the first of the Apostles to die. When Jesus called the brothers to come to him, they responded immediately and faithfully followed Him for the next three years. Without hesitating, analyzing their options, or asking questions, they left their father and livelihood to follow an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. James and John answered God’s call and the fishermen became fishers of men. Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus asked the brothers if they could drink from the same bitter cup of suffering from which He would drink. Again, without hesitation or asking what that might entail, they said they could.

We don’t know how James spent those years after Pentecost. All we really need to know is that James was an ordinary person, like you and me, and that he always said, “Yes!” to Jesus. Can we say the same?

But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” [Mark 10:38-39 (NLT)]

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DAMAGED GOODS

But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?” When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” [Mark 2:16-18 (NLT)]

white peacockWhile looking through the day’s photos, I came to several of a white peacock butterfly. As I enlarged the photos, I realized this butterfly had seen better days; its once beautiful wings were ragged after a run-in with some predator. Damaged goods, I didn’t think the flawed creature’s photos worth editing and began to delete them (just as I have of similarly damaged butterflies).

Broken things and damaged goods—we tend to discard them without giving them another thought. What if God deleted us because of our imperfections and defects? What if He stopped caring for us when we no longer were flawless and beautiful? It’s not lizards or hungry birds that leave their marks on us but rather things like illness and injury, loss, dysfunctional families, abuse, broken relationships, addiction, financial crises, and sin. The resulting damage is less visible; instead of tattered wings, we are marred by pain, shame, regret, rejection, disappointment, anger, apathy, loneliness and fear. Let’s face it; we all are damaged goods. Our scars may not be as obvious as the butterfly’s; nevertheless, they are there.

Rather than abandoning them, Jesus loved and forgave damaged goods: sinners and outcasts, the woman caught in adultery, the traitorous taxmen Matthew and Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, the demon-possessed, the repentant thief on the cross, the sinful woman who anointed His feet, the disciple tiger swallowtailwho denied Him, the one who doubted Him, and even the one who betrayed Him. Jesus didn’t come for the perfect; He came for the broken, damaged, and sinful. Although the butterfly’s wings will never heal, Jesus can heal the brokenness in our hearts and souls.

When I’d taken the photos, I hadn’t detected the creature’s ripped wings; it flitted about so quickly that I barely had time to focus before it flew off to another flower. It may have been damaged, but it certainly wasn’t defeated. I took another look and saw its battle scars as things of beauty. That ragged butterfly was as exquisite as any of its untouched brothers and sisters; perhaps more so, because it hadn’t allowed its tattered wings to deter it from making the most of the sunny day. Instead of hiding under a leaf feeling sorry for itself and complaining about the unfairness of life, it had been dancing in the flowers and sipping sweet nectar! If a butterfly can have purpose and fortitude, this one certainly had it! Rather than being deleted, it belonged in a butterfly hall of fame.

Now, when I come across a damaged butterfly, I’m reminded that God loves all of His beautiful children, imperfect and broken creatures that we are. No matter how flawed, He will never discard us or toss us in the trash heap! Moreover, wounded butterflies remind me never to surrender to life’s challenges. I can be battered by this world but, because God’s grace is more than sufficient, I won’t be broken. If tattered wings can carry a butterfly through the flowers, I know God can carry me through anything.

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

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BEWARE THE YEAST

purple prairie clover“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” [Matthew 16:6 (NLT)]

In Biblical days, rather than using a packet of Fleishman’s yeast for leavening, people kneaded a small amount of old fermented dough called a starter or seor into fresh dough. When a yeast starter gets contaminated by bacteria, however, it gets a moldy odor of decay and, if mixed into new dough, its foulness will spread; the resulting bread will be unpleasant and inedible.

We’re all familiar with Jesus’ warning to the disciples to beware the yeast of the Pharisees. They weren’t bakers so what was their yeast? I’d always thought of it as the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and false teachings. And, while both of those can spread and spoil like bad leavening, I think there’s more to his caution.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, disregarding all of Jesus’ previous miracles, had demanded an impressive miraculous display from Him. Jesus wasn’t an entertainer and His miracles were never for show. Knowing nothing would convince the religious leaders, He refused and left. Shortly after that, Jesus and the disciples departed to the other side of the lake. It was when the disciples realized they’d failed to bring provisions that Jesus first warned them about the yeast of the Pharisees. Thinking He was talking about bread, they then started arguing with one another about not having anything to eat. Imagine their conversation as they pointed accusing fingers at one another for having no food—each man trying to shift the blame for the oversight to someone else. Totally misunderstanding Jesus’ warning, they were bickering about bread and worrying about their next meal when Jesus had just fed thousands with only a few loaves and fish. Our Lord was probably rolling His eyes at their blind foolishness. Like the Pharisees, what part of His many miracles didn’t they understand? Twice they’d ended up with several baskets of leftovers after feeding a multitude; certainly lack of bread shouldn’t pose a problem for just twelve men. Reminding them of His previous miracles of provision, Jesus told them He wasn’t speaking of bread. When He again told them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, they finally understood He was speaking of their unbelief.

Although Jesus warned them of this very thing before they’d started to argue, like the Pharisees, they ignored what they knew of Him and His miracles. Instead of allowing their belief to grow into trust, they allowed doubt to taint their faith and their relationship with one another in the same way that bad yeast contaminates bread. A little bit of uncertainty and skepticism swelled into fear, anger, and criticism. They were squabbling about bread for supper when they had the bread of life right beside them.

We all must beware the yeast of the Pharisees: not just false teaching and hypocrisy but also lack of trust!

Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation. [D. Elton Trueblood]

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But you haven’t believed in me even though you have seen me. [John 6:35-36 (NLT)]

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