One Thing You Lack

Advent 2017

December 23, 2017

Read Mark 10: 1-31

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go and sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’” (v. 21).

The entire world was sleeping at the first Advent when the Lord Jesus was born in a stable, in ancient Bethlehem and laid in manger so many years ago. Will the world be just as asleep at the second Advent as it was at the first? Equally oblivious, as it was before, to the coming of the Lord of Glory?

Jesus told the rich young man that there was only one thing that separated him from eternal life, “One thing you lack”. One thing stood between him and heaven, one thing was lacking, seriously lacking in the life of a young man who was obedient to the Law. The rich young man was so close to the kingdom of heaven, and yet so far away from it. “Close” and “Almost” will not suffice in God’s economy. You either have it or you don’t. One thing was “needful” and he lacked it. Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha found the “one thing needful” for the Lord Jesus said of her, “Martha, Martha, you are troubled about many things, but only one thing is needful. And Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

We read in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew of the man who found a treasure in a field and then sold all that he had to purchase the field and of a merchant who, finding a pearl of the greatest value, sold all that he had to purchase it. Two similar stories of men, who having found the greatest treasures, their “one thing needful”, gave up all that they had to acquire it. While, the rich young man was unwilling to part with his worldly possessions to acquire an eternal treasure.

In the parable of the Ten Virgins (Ref: Matt. 25:1-13), we read of the five wise virgins who had sufficient oil for their lamps and where ready when the bride groom appeared. The five foolish virgins were unprepared and were not ready when the bride groom finally arrived at the late and unexpected hour. They needed oil for their lamps and went off to buy from the merchants. But when they returned the wedding banquet had already begun and the doors were shut to those on the outside. Those five foolish virgins lacked “the one thing needful” and when the bride groom finally arrived and the door was shut, it was too late to acquire what they lacked to gain entrance.

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Entering into Life

Advent 2017

December 22

Mark 9:33-end

“And if you hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”  Mark 9:43-44

Hyperbole, over-exaggeration, was a typical style of Jewish communication, and Jesus used it here not to advocate self-mutilation, but to call His followers to the ruthless removal of sin.  Paul was getting at the same thing when he writes to the Corinthians and tells them, “No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:27).

This brings us back to the consideration of the relationship between the body and the heart when it comes to avoiding sin.

Paul addresses just that in his letter to the Romans.  Paul teaches us that sin, the impulse to live apart from and against God, is like a systemic disease that infects every human being.  Even though Jesus has set us free from the grip of sin through His death and resurrection, sin still dwells in us, and it will until we die.  When we put our faith in Jesus, though, we begin the lifelong process of sanctification wherein the Holy Spirit cleanses us from sin.

So what are we to do?  “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom. 6:19).  The more we “cut off” the sinful desires of the flesh and offer our whole selves to the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit, the more we will become like Jesus.

I would suggest that we actually consider imaginatively offering each part of our body to God’s service.  Imagine cutting off that part’s participation in things that do not please God.  Imagine offering that part’s active service to God.  For example, imagine the tongue being physically held from hurtful words and gossip and instead speaking life and blessing to those in our lives.

I would also suggest we pay attention to Jesus’ mention of our motivation.  There is certainly a negative motivation mentioned here, namely avoiding the punishment of separation from God.  But I think Jesus’ emphasis really is meant to fall on the positive motivation, the greatness of what we stand to gain: entering into life! When we consider all we stand to gain, we are more willing to sacrifice the momentary fulfillment of bodily desires.

One of the struggles I think we often have in this regard, though, is that we don’t really cultivate our vision of what we stand to gain.  We don’t want to sacrifice the fulfillment of our appetites in part because our hearts are set on them and not on our eternal home.  That doesn’t mean that engage in some kind of spiritual-delayed-gratification scheme – pain now for gain later.  What it means is that if we love Jesus now, then we should long to be with Him face to face in our heavenly home, and that longing should be powerful motivation to cut off and starve our bodily appetites.

We need to cultivate our vision of heaven and all that stands in store for us.  Read the glorious scenes of worship around the throne in Revelation (5, 7, 21, 22).  Meditate on images of the Kingdom from Isaiah (9, 11, 65).  But above all else, cultivate your vision of Jesus, and grow in your appreciation of His infinite and unstoppable love for you.  As you do, you will cultivate your longing for Him and your motivation to offer your whole self to Him.

Listen to Him

Advent 2017

December 21

Mark 9:2-32

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.  Mark 9:2–8

Have you ever had a mountain-top experience with the Lord?  An experience that left you full of joy and hope and brimming with excitement and a zeal to serve him?

Peter, James, and John had been following Jesus for some time now. They had heard Jesus teach the people, heal the sick, feed the five-thousand, and even walk on water.  All they had experienced to this point, could not have prepared them for what they were about to witness.

Jesus took them to a high mountain where he was transfigured.  What Peter, James, and John saw, terrified them.  Up to this moment, Jesus had lived as a man, veiling his divine nature.  Now, for the first time, they saw Jesus for who he really was.

Peter who is watching this earth-shattering event unfold, then notices Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus.  Why were Moses and Elijah present?  They were representative of the Law and the Prophets who foretold the coming of Messiah.  Unfortunately, Peter misses the point and suggests that three tents be constructed, one for Jesus, one for Elijah, and one for Moses.  Peter puts Moses and Elijah on the same level as Jesus.

Suddenly a cloud appears and God the Father speaks; “This is my beloved Son, listen to him?”  It’s as if God is saying, “You have lived your entire lives listening to Moses and the Prophets, and well you should have, but now listen to my Son.”

Before we react too harshly towards Peter, we have to take a hard look at ourselves.  How often have you and I put other things or people on the same level as Jesus.  How often do we allow our relationship with Jesus to suffer due to the distractions of life?  This is not a call for asceticism, but priorities.

This Advent, as we await the coming of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, God’s Son, I pray that each of us will ask these questions.

  1. Who is Jesus and have I given him first priority in my life?
  2. Have I made him the center of all I am and will ever be, making all things subject to his will?

I Will Give You Myself

Advent 2017

December 20

Mark 8:11–9:1

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mark 8:35

Poor Simon Peter. One moment he is basking in the glory of having identified the true identity of his master Jesus (“You are the Christ!”), and the next moment he is being rebuked for rejecting the Cross of the Messiah (“Get behind me, Satan!”). Nevertheless, we could possibly thank Peter. For what follows Peter’s rebuke is the most majestic and powerful teaching about the meaning of the Cross in the Christian life from the lips of Jesus himself.

Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The Christian life is no walk in the park. It’s not a pleasant stroll “in the Garden,” as the old hymn has it. One day, yes, we will walk again with the Lord in “the cool of the day,” unburdened with the sin that weighs us down, our vision unclouded by the dust of sin. But the path to the Garden leads us by way of Golgotha. Whoever would come up after Jesus to the Father’s house must first shed the old self that is enthralled to sin, in bondage to Self.

No half measures will do. An outward show may impress the world, but God sees the heart. He sees who we really are and concludes: death to self is the only way.

But isn’t this too hard? Isn’t Jesus’ yoke easy, his burden light?  C.S. Lewis explains in that masterpiece Mere Christianity:

The Christian way is different: harder, and easier [than that of the world]. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over  the whole natural self, all the desires which you think are innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

Ah yes, this is hard, but what we get in return for our own selves is God’s own self—his life, his power and his presence working within us. This, I think, is what Jesus meant when he said that his yoke is easy, his burden light.

What would you give to gain God? I think I’d give my very life. God promises I’ll get it back. But I’ve got a hunch that I won’t miss it much. I’ll be too busy enjoying the love of God without the dust of sin clouding my eyes.

Outside Looking In

Advent 2017

December 19

Mark 7:24 – 8:10

“’Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘but even the little dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’” Mark 7:28

Have you ever been “on the outside looking in”? A full witness to all that is taking place but not invited to participate, not invited to share in the festivities, the joy, the ‘blessings’? “Outside looking in” can be a very lonely place, a place occupied by the “unwanted”, the “unloved”, the “invisible”. It truly is a terrible place to be isn’t it?

At the Advent, the coming of the Lord Jesus, God incarnate, the invitation to “come and see” was given to those “on the outside looking in”. St. Luke recounts how an “an angel of the Lord” had brought to them “good news of great joy”. These shepherds, often the “lowest of the low” in Israelite society were “invited” to come to the Manger and see their “new born king”. And gentile foreigners, the Magi, were also invited to come and meet “he who is born King of the Jews.” What a marvelous mystery! Those who should have been present, had a “front row seat” to the greatest event in recorded history, yet were conspicuously absent while the outcasts and the foreigners were given a place of honor to witness such a wondrous event.

The Syrophoenician woman, an “outsider”, came ever so boldly to the “font of all mercy” and begged for deliverance for her young daughter. She asked but for the very crumbs that fall from the children’s table. She was willing and unashamed to complete with the household pets for them for those “crumbs” would have been a veritable “feast” for her. The ever-compassionate Lord instead bestowed upon her a “seat at the table” along with the “People of the Promise.”

We also read in the Gospel of Matthew, that when those who were invited to attend the joyous wedding feast of the King’s son refused to attend, the call went out far and wide to stranger and foreigner alike to be a guest at the wedding feast. Those who had been invited and deemed worthy to attend proved to be unworthy of the great honor and those previously deemed unworthy were now made worthy by the sovereign will of the King. (Re: Matt. 22:1-14)

Again, we read in the Gospel of Matthew of the Roman Centurion that is commended for his great faith, a faith that had never before been witnessed in all Israel. And it is those of such faith, those outside of the ancient Covenant, that the Lord now addresses saying, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 8:11-12)

We are reminded throughout the Gospel accounts and Revelation concerning the great “marriage supper of the Lamb”. Your place has been prepared but will you be there? For as Scripture says, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:14)

Beyond Sin Management

Advent 2017

December 18

Mark 7:1-23

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?  What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil tings come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:18-19, 21-23

Jesus was addressing the issue of ritual defilement, being in the state of being unclean, as a result of eating unclean foods.  The Pharisees were scrupulous in avoiding foods that were unclean, and it was indicative of their whole approach to spirituality.  Theirs was a religion of maintaining outward appearances, of looking good on the outside.  They thought that by avoiding certain foods and behaviors, they would be acceptable to God, all the while harboring all sorts of evil and hatred in their hearts.

Jesus, though, tells us that if you want to behave properly, you not only need to watch what you do, you need to attend to your heart.

Many people engage in what some refer to as sin management.  It’s a lot like weight management – you don’t eat what you really want.  If you’ve ever tried that kind of weight management, you know that it rarely produces lasting change.  Why?  Because you still want to eat all the food that has caused the problem.  To enjoy lasting change, you have to change your desires, and that means attending to the loves of the heart.

There are three things that strike me here.

First, on this side of eternity, we will never fully cleanse our hearts.  It is only the Holy Spirit who is able to cleanse our false loves and cultivate within us a true love for God, and that process (called sanctification) takes a lifetime.  The heart is filled with beauty, but it is also a place of mysterious darkness, and we would do well to remember that this process of cleansing our hearts will take a lifetime of patience and hard work.

Second, we need to look beyond sin management to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in our hearts.  How do we do that?  At its simplest, we engage in spiritual disciplines that keep our hearts open and connected to Jesus: Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, mission, and ministry.  We engage in these activities not in a rote manner or trying to earn God’s approval, but as a means to foster our relationship with the Living Lord.  As we do, we open ourselves more fully to the Holy Spirit’s cleansing work in our hearts.

Third, we need to be mindful of what we are putting in our hearts.  True, Jesus did say that food doesn’t go into the heart, but into the stomach, but because of the way God made us, what we do with our bodies and minds does impact our hearts.  What we watch and look at on TV and the internet, what we listen to on the radio and in conversation, where we allow our mind to linger, the activities we involve our bodies in – these all impact our hearts.  There is a vital connection between the heart, the mind, and the body.

Sin management doesn’t get us very far as we seek to be ready for Jesus.  Cardiac care does.  How are you tending your heart?

Come Away and Rest

Advent 2017

December 16

Mark 6:30-end

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.  And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Mark 6:31

The season of Advent can be busy.  Decorating the house, buying and wrapping presents, preparing for the arrival of family, traveling to visit family, attending church services, the list goes on.  All of these things are good, but is this all there is to the season?  Think about it.  After it’s all done, you collapse onto your couch, close your eyes, and begin to think of how you are going have to do it all over again next year.  But is this really what the Advent season is all about?

In Mark 6:30-31, the apostles are returning from a preaching trip.  They are excited and can’t wait to tell Jesus what they had done and taught.  First, notice the word return.  This tells the reader that the apostles have been in the presence of Jesus before they went out to preach.  They sat at his feet, listened to his teachings, and applied what they had learned.

Upon their return, they were excited to share their experiences with Jesus.  Surely Jesus rejoiced with them, but his primary concern was for the apostles themselves.  We read his instructions to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.”  There are two parts to this command that I believe are important to us, not only during Advent, but during the entire church year.

  1. Come away by yourselves to a desolate place: Jesus understood the need for times of solitude.  There are times when we need to be alone so that we can re-connect with the Father.  Time to pray, read the scriptures, worship without distraction, reflect on what God is doing in our lives, and physically rest. So, what is a desolate place in our culture? In the past, I have taken trips to Anaheim to spend the day with Mickey Mouse.  While I am away, I am not in a desolate place.  A desolate place has the idea of being in a location with no distractions. Jesus’ command to go to a desolate place is one spoken out of example. Luke tells us, in Luke 5:16, “But he (Jesus) would withdraw to desolate places to pray.”
  2. Rest a while: Jesus wanted his apostles to get not only physical rest, but much needed spiritual rest.  Many Christians believe that in order to prove themselves to God, they have to stay perpetually busy.  Unfortunately, all this does is lead to burn-out and even resentment toward God. What we fail to understand is that God never asked us to be busy in the first place.  The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,” How did we receive Christ Jesus the Lord? Paul answers this question in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

This Advent season, I pray that we would become keenly aware of God’s grace in our lives, and that the result of this awareness would be to find where God is at work around us, join him, and then take time to rest and reflect on what God has done.