COME LIKE A CHILD

mute swansHe said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14-16 (NLT)]

When reading Jesus’s words about children and the Kingdom of God, a common misconception is that becoming Christian means committing something like intellectual suicide. Since we also are told to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, I doubt that we’re being told not to use our God-given intellect. So, what does it mean to become like a child? For a start, those children didn’t come to Jesus for healing, relief from Roman occupation, food, hidden treasure, or even salvation. They came out of love and love is what should bring us to Him, as well.

Faith in God is the foundation of His Kingdom and that faith is expressed through submission to His will. Dependent on their parents, children have faith in their provision and decisions; they understand the necessity of submitting to their parents’ will (at least the children in Jesus’s day did). Adults, however, tend to skepticism rather than faith and self-will rather than God’s will. Unlike adults, children are eager to learn and humble enough to admit that there is much they don’t know or understand. Pure and innocent, they are free of cynicism, arrogance, prejudice, preconceived notions and inflexible minds.

It’s a mistake to consider children unthinking; they just think a different way than do adults. For example, take Richard Scarry’s Lowly Worm character about whom I wrote yesterday. Kids have no problem understanding how a worm with one foot and no arms can dress himself, open a door, tie shoelaces, or eat with a fork. Adults, however, tend to overthink things. They wonder how Lowly, having only one foot, can possibly walk or kick a ball. In the same way, adults want a scientific explanation for how (in the days before in vitro) a virgin could give birth or why Lazarus wasn’t bloated, stinky, and covered with maggots after being dead four days.

Scarry’s imaginary worm makes sense to children, not because they’re mindless but because children accept things in their simplicity. Unlike adults, they’re not looking for hidden meanings or ulterior motives. They’re not fools; they know real worms don’t wear clothes, go to school, or live with a cat family but they also understand that Lowly isn’t like other worms. Jesus was clothed in a man’s body but He was no more like other men than Lowly is like other worms. Jesus was God with skin and, for the One who spoke the universe into existence, the tasks of raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, changing water into wine, or stilling storms were a breeze. The fixed minds of adults, however, often are unwilling to accept that God (the author of the universe) and Richard Scarry (the author of children’s books) work by a totally different set of rules in the worlds they’ve created: rules that often defy explanation.

God isn’t asking us to commit intellectual suicide or leave our brains at the church door. He’s asking us to love, believe, trust, accept, and submit to Him the way a child would. Although Jesus told us to come as a child, please remember that He never said He wanted us to stay that way!

Their [the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers] responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. [Ephesians 4:12-15 (NLT)]

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HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT

Then Jesus said to them [Cleophas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus], “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. [Luke 24:25-27 (NLT)]

giant swallowtailWhile cleaning out the bookshelves recently, I came across one of my children’s favorite books: Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? A small drawing of Lowly Worm, an earthworm wearing a Tyrolean hat, red bow tie, and one shoe on the end of his tail, is hidden somewhere on every page of the book and I immediately started searching for him. I hope you don’t think it sacrilegious, but thinking of Lowly Worm, a character who silently makes his presence known throughout Scarry’s books, made me think of Jesus and how He’s quietly present in all of Scripture.

Unlike Lowly Worm, Jesus isn’t an imaginary character hiding on the pages of a children’s book; He’s the living breathing Messiah and we find evidence of Him throughout the Old Testament. Although most people’s lives are chronicled after they’re born, Jesus’s story began long before the night He appeared in Bethlehem. As part of our Triune God, He was there at the beginning of time. When Jesus told the religious scholars, “Before Abraham was, I am,” [John 8:58] He echoed God’s words to Moses, “I am who I am.” [Exodus 3:4]

While it’s not difficult to spot Lowly Worm on the pages of Scarry’s books, it’s harder to spot Jesus in the Old Testament, especially if we haven’t met Him in the New. Psalm 77, for example, tells of a God who makes the water afraid and who can make a path through the waters while Job mentions a God who can trample the seas. Both references sound a lot like Jesus walking on water and stilling the Sea of Galilee. Micah says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem and Isaiah states that a virgin would conceive Him. If we didn’t know about Jesus, however, we wouldn’t recognize Him in those words. Genesis and Numbers say He will be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah and the star mentioned in the Numbers’ prophecy is probably what brought the Magi to Judah in search of Jesus. Jeremiah tells us that the Messiah will be from the lineage of David, Malachi that He will be preceded by a forerunner, Zechariah that the Messiah will appear riding a donkey and be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, and Psalms that lots will be cast for His clothing, His hands and feet will be pierced, and His bones would not be broken. Once we know what we’re looking for, we can find Jesus throughout the Old Testament in the descriptions of God and in the more than 300 prophecies He fulfilled.

We also can spot Jesus in the Old Testament’s words that are repeated by Him in the New. In Deuteronomy, for example, we find Jesus’s replies to Satan long before His temptation in the wilderness. We find the two greatest commandments in all four gospels but also in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. We catch glimpses of the Beatitudes’ words in books like Proverbs, with its promise that the lowly in spirit (humble) will obtain honor; Isaiah, with the promise to comfort those who mourn; and Psalms, with the promise that the one with clean hands and a pure heart will ascend the hill of the Lord. Jesus wasn’t just a great Torah scholar repeating someone else’s words. Those words were God-breathed and He was the original author!

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking of the Old and New Testaments as two different unrelated books: pre-Jesus and post-Jesus. Jesus is present throughout Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. But, like the pictures of Lowly Worm, sometimes we have to search for Him.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” [John 5:39-40,47 (ESV)]

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SERMON ILLUSTRATIONS

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. …  These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. [1 Corinthians 10:1a,6-7a (NLT)]

One of my pastors says that everyone has two kinds of experiences. They’re either good or learning and, if we actually learn from the learning experiences, they can move into the good category! Being a pastor, he admits to categorizing his experiences a slightly different way; they’re either good ones or sermon illustrations (and he readily admits to having many sermon illustrations from which to choose!)

When we learn from the learning experiences of others, we can avoid having to learn those painful things first-hand. When advising the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offered some “sermon illustrations” as words of warning. Making reference to several of Israel’s failings, he reminded the Corinthians that, as blessed as the Israelites were, because they displeased God, most of their bodies were scattered through the wilderness.

Although the church at Corinth had some Jews, the majority of its members were Gentile converts. I wonder how familiar they were with the stories in Exodus and Numbers to which Paul refers. Did they know that, after the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, 3,000 of them died at the hands of the Levites? Were they familiar with the story of the 24,000 men who were executed for worshipping Baal and defiling themselves with Moabite prostitutes? Did they know that poisonous snakes bit the Israelites after they blasphemed God and rejected Moses? Were they aware that the Israelites’ complaint and rebellion against God, Moses and Aaron led to 14,700 dying in a plague? Did they even know that, of all the adults who came out of Egypt, only two (Joshua and Caleb) ever entered the Promised Land?

Actually, Paul’s congregation in Corinth probably knew those stories better than many Christians today. They had access the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and, while new to the church, I imagine they faithfully studied it and knew the history of Jesus’s people. While many in today’s church occasionally refer to their Bibles, it seems that few of us actually read them. Some of us may read Scripture haphazardly but, by just reading a passage here or there, we never see how it all fits together into a unified whole. If we attend a liturgical church, we may hear snippets of the Old and New Testaments each week, but that’s just bits and pieces. Many Christians who didn’t grow up in the church don’t even know Sunday school stories like Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jacob and Esau, or Moses and the burning bush. How, I wonder, can we learn from Israel’s mistakes when we don’t even know what they were?

Paul hoped the outcome for the Corinthians would be different from that of the Israelites but knew that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t learn from their ancestors’ errors. The Bible is one beautiful sermon illustration and there is much we can learn from others’ faults and failings. As for me, I would rather have my experiences be good ones rather than lessons or sermon illustrations. One way to do that is to learn from other people’s painful learning experiences so to avoid their pitfalls. To learn from them, however, we have to know what they were.

The only ignorance worse than not knowing the book that made us who we are as a civilization is believing we can go on being civilized without that book. The marks of the Bible upon the West and its people are deep. … But they are not indelible. We were barbarians before the God of the Bible found us. And we can become barbarians again. [G. Shane Morris]

Who allowed Israel to be robbed and hurt? It was the Lord, against whom we sinned, for the people would not walk in his path, nor would they obey his law. Therefore, he poured out his fury on them and destroyed them in battle. They were enveloped in flames, but they still refused to understand. They were consumed by fire, but they did not learn their lesson. [Isaiah 42:24-25 (NLT)]

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THE LAMB OF GOD – ASH WEDNESDAY

New mexicoThe next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! [John 1:29 (NLT)]

Today is the first day of Lent, a season in which we remember the time Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights. Because Lent occurs in the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter, we tend to associate this period of Jesus’s life with the end of his ministry. It actually occurred early in His ministry, shortly after his baptism by John and his empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

During Jesus’s time in the wilderness, Satan visited and tempted Him. Jesus first was tempted to serve Himself—to alleviate his hunger by turning stones into bread. In the second temptation, Satan urged Jesus to jump off the Temple and reveal Himself in a spectacular display. This action would also test God’s love by coercing Him into saving Jesus. In the third test, Satan tempted Jesus to skip the cross altogether; all the kingdoms of the world would be His if only He’d worship the evil one.

Just because Jesus was divine doesn’t mean He couldn’t have fallen; He also was human and, like us all, susceptible to Satan’s wiles. He could have sinned as easily as Adam and Eve, but He didn’t! Resisting temptation was as essential to His mission as was suffering on the cross. Just as sin came into the world through one man, God would redeem the world through one man, but Jesus had to remain sinless for that to happen. If He hadn’t, there would have been no point to the cross; only a perfect sinless sacrifice could atone for mankind’s sins.

Because Jesus countered all of Satan’s temptations with Scripture, we tend to think of the temptation of Christ as sort of a “how to” manual on overpowering temptation. While it is that, it is so much more. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to teach us a lesson—He went into the wilderness to save us. He wasn’t just battling for His soul—He was fighting Satan for ours! He was defeating Satan by deliberating choosing to suffer for us as a man when He was God! He endured hunger when he could have spoken food into existence. He humbly chose to remain an obscure rabbi from Nazareth rather than use His power to win a following. Refusing to compromise with Satan, He chose obedience to God: to live, suffer and die as a man. Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, chose to endure the cross for sinful selfish mankind: the very people who would put Him there!

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. [2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)]

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:15-16 (NLT)]

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MINUTES PER DAY

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)]

sunset - vanderbilt beach - naplesFitbit recently notified me that I’ve logged 4,132 miles and awarded me a badge for having walked the length of the Nile River. And to think—I managed to do it all without ever leaving the country. With the aim of averaging 10,000 steps a day, I was curious to see how close to that goal I’ve gotten since getting the Fitbit. Some complicated math told me that, by now, I should have logged enough steps to be three-quarters of the way from the North to the South Pole. Granted, I haven’t always worn my pedometer and both foot and knee injuries temporarily benched me. Nevertheless, surprised to see how short I was of my goal, I realized how easy it is to think we’ve done far more than we actually have.

We don’t have prayometers to log our prayer time nor does God award badges for time spent talking with Him. If He did, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I should be. By my next birthday, I will have lived 26,280 days (not counting leap days) which is 37,843,200 minutes. If I spent even five minutes a day in prayer, that would be 131,400 minutes or 91 days of my life. While I would have received the Kim Kardashian badge for praying longer than her 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, I wouldn’t have prayed as long as the 98 days the Macarena was the number one hit song.  Even if I’d faithfully prayed ten minutes every day, I’d be short of the badge honoring James Garfield (who died 6 months and 15 days into his term). It would take twenty minutes of prayer every day to qualify me for the 365-day one year badge. One year out of 72 spent in prayer didn’t sound deficient until I realized that is a little less than 1.4% of my life. Although some of that time was spent in infancy when I was too young to pray, most of it wasn’t. Other than sleeping, what was I doing with the other 98.6% of my time? Then reality set in; days I spent twenty minutes in prayer were few and far between; on the average, five minutes is more like it.

Unfortunately, just as I over-estimated my steps, I’ve probably over-estimated even five minutes of daily prayer. We’re told to pray without ceasing but how? We don’t live in monasteries or convents, have servants to do our chores, or families we can ignore. Needing to eat, sleep, work, and serve family, church and community, how is it possible to pray continually? I suppose the answer is that our entire life should be a prayer—having our hearts open to the Lord’s leading, dedicating ourselves to being a blessing to others, and glorifying God in all we say and do. Nevertheless, in spite of saying grace or shooting out quick “please and thank you” prayers during the day, time needs to be set aside daily for daily chats with our Father in heaven.

God allots us twenty-four hours in a day; taking eight off for sleep, that leaves us sixteen hours (960 minutes) for eating, working, reading, Facebook, bathroom, television, talking, exercise, prayer and so on. If we gave God our undivided attention in prayer for only ten minutes each day, that would be a mere 1% of our waking time. I would venture a guess that we probably spend more than that on social media and email. As we move into this Lenten season of reflection, it might be a good time for us to consider our prayer life. Jesus withdrew into the wilderness for forty days; it would seem that we should be able to withdraw from the world and commune with God for ten minutes a day.

It’s not enough to splash a little prayer on in the morning or to run through a sprinkler of God’s mercy now and then. It’s not enough to double our spirits in an hour of worship on Sunday or to dash into a drizzle of teaching every month or so. Our souls need to soak in God’s presence. It’s no luxury, this time we spend in the healing waters of God’s grace. It’s neither excess nor indulgence to immerse ourselves in communion with our creator. It’s a spiritual necessity if we want to become the people God has created us to be. [Penelope J. Stokes]

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. [Romans 12:12 (NIV)]

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STARS

who would you be for a day?Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known. [Jeremiah 33:3 (ESV)]

The bulletin board outside the auditorium posed this question: “If you could be someone famous for a day, who would you be?” People had written their answers on paper stars and pinned them to the board. Including both living and dead, the answers ranged from entertainment, royalty and sports to technology, government, and the arts. They included Thomas Edison, Beyoncé, Georgia O’Keefe, Chrissie Evert, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Maya Angelou, and Coco Chanel. Oprah received several stars as did Alexander Hamilton, Audrey Hepburn, and Michele Obama. Warren Buffet was the only entrepreneur listed but someone else was satisfied to be “any rich person;” one man wished to be Penélope Cruz’s husband.

I looked at the stars and pondered my answer. Although God had one star, He certainly wouldn’t be my choice. I have enough trouble running my life; running the universe, even for just a day, would be way too much responsibility for me. In the end, I had to agree with the one star that said “Me;” being me is all I can manage. This exercise, however, reminded me of a similar question asked in our small group: “If you could have a conversation with someone famous, who would it be?”

Even though I wouldn’t have much in common with sport stars like Joe DiMaggio or Bobby Orr and probably wouldn’t understand Giacomo Puccini or Leonardo DaVinci, I would enjoy being in the presence of nearly everyone whose star appeared on the board (with the exceptions of Christopher Hitchens, Hugh Hefner and whoever is Penelope Cruz’s husband). If I actually did have an opportunity to meet with one of those people, you can be sure I wouldn’t waste my time talking about me, my background, ambitions, needs and desires. A conversation with Bishop Desmond Tutu, Florence Nightingale, or even Lucille Ball would have no point if I never let them get a word in edgewise. I’d want to hear what they had to say: to ask about them, to know what was important to them, what made them tick, and what advice they’d pass on to me.

Alas, with one notable exception, most of us will never have the opportunity to converse with any of the people whose names were on that bulletin board. The exception, of course, is God, the greatest one of them all. Unlike all of those stars we’ll never meet, we can talk with God in prayer any time we want. Prayer gives us the opportunity not just to know about God but to actually know Him—to have a relationship with Him—and not just for a day, but forever!

I wonder why I’m so willing to jabber on when talking with God—the one who knows all things—when I’d quietly listen intently to a celebrity. The creator of the universe doesn’t require my guidance on world management any more than Ina Garten needs my cooking advice or Billie Jean King needs my tennis pointers. God doesn’t need me to tell Him what it is I need or want and He certainly doesn’t need me to list my concerns or register my complaints; He already knows all there is to know about me! In fact, He knows what I need before I know I even need it!

It is when we quiet our voices that we can hear the voice of God. Thomas Merton describes this listening or contemplative prayer as “not so much a way to find God as a way of resting in him whom we have found, who loves us, who is near to us, who comes to us to draw us to himself.” Let us bask in His presence; let us pray.

Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts. [Mother Teresa]

Be still, and know that I am God. [Psalm 46:10a (ESV)]

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him [Matthew 6:7-8 (ESV)]

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