Because of your little faith

Probably one of my favorite things to do when I was a boy was fishing trips with my dad. He would plan a trip to one of our favorite lakes around Colville, and then we would commence the preparations. There was gear to gather and assemble. There was bait to collect. (Our favorite way to collect bait was by watering the lawn for a couple hours in the evening and then scouring the lawn with flashlights to find the largest and juiciest worms!) Then of course it was early to bed so that we could get up before dawn and be on the lake by sunrise. I could always depend on my dad to wake me up and shuffle me into the car. By the time we arrived at our fishing hole I was wide-awake and ready to land that “whopper.”

I don’t think there was ever a time when I was uncertain about whether or not we would go out. I trusted my dad that when he said we would go on a fishing trip, we would. I had faith in him. His dependability led me to expect that if I needed something he would be there to help. If I asked for something good I knew he could and would give it.

In Matthew 17, we read how Jesus healed a boy who was being oppressed by a demon. The situation was this: Jesus had been away on a retreat with three of his disciples (vs. 1-8). When they joined up with the rest of his crew, a man came out of the crowd and begged Jesus to heal his son. He did, and it was quite a miracle!

Yet it got his disciples thinking.

“Why could we not cast it out?” (Matthew 17:19)

Jesus’s answer is revealing.

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

Please take a moment to reflect on exactly what Jesus said. His words are powerful and the implications are somewhat staggering. “Faith like a grain of mustard seed.” “Nothing will be impossible for you.” Wow. This has to be one of Jesus’s most powerful statements about faith.

How should we take his words? What does Jesus want us to understand about faith and how to apply it?

First, it is helpful to see how the gospel of Mark tells this story. In Mark 9, the disciples ask the same question, yet Jesus’s response is a little different.

And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:29)

The differences between the two highlight the unique perspectives of both Matthew and Mark. Together, they help us to see that for Jesus, faith was inseparable from prayer. Prayer is the way we exercise our faith. You cannot have faith in God without praying to him. Faith is meaningless, even powerless, unless you are willing to put it into practice by asking God. This is reinforced by Jesus’s teaching in the sermon on the mount.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)

Jesus was not saying that we will automatically get whatever we ask for from God. He is still a good Father who gives good gifts, not evil. He has good plans for us. His purposes are best. He will not give us anything that is not best for us.

Jesus was saying that God wants us to ask. Jesus was making the point that if we don’t ask, seek, or knock, we cannot expect to receive, find, or have opened. Jesus wants us to know that God can be trusted. He wants us to have faith in Him. He wants us to trust Him enough to come and ask.

“Because of your little faith.”

It could very well be that there are things God is wanting to do in our lives, or in the lives of people around us. In fact, I’m sure of it. He wants to see lives transformed by the good news of Jesus, going from darkness to light. He wants to see churches growing in love and unity and purpose. He wants to see his followers listening to his voice and obeying his Spirit. We may say or think that all those things are possible, but when we cease to ask God for them we really betray our lack of faith. If we do not pray, we are in essence saying that we do not believe God can do the impossible.

The crux of faith is this. We pray not because we believe in the impossible. We pray because we believe in the God of the impossible. Faith always has an object, and the object of our faith is God. That is the difference. God is a good Father. He loves us and cares for us and wants what is best for us. He is trustworthy and faithful so we can pray to him. Let us build our faith by praying boldly to a God who can do far more than we can ask or think. Whether he answers in the way we want or not, let us come before him in childlike faith, trusting him completely.

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The harvest is plentiful

When we moved into our current home in Moxee, Washington, Cheryl and I decided it would be fun to plant a couple of cherry trees. We did a little research and figured out how to get them planted and how to care for them. Then we began to think about other things we could plant and grow. Soon there were raspberry and blueberry bushes growing. Another season passed and we were growing peppers, tomatoes, and strawberries. It was a beautiful thing to watch our trees and plants bear fruit after the first season or so. The berries grew like gangbusters, but the cherries took a little longer to develop.

Last season our cherries came in pretty well and we were looking forward to the time when they would be ripe enough to pick. Unfortunately that time never came. One day I looked out of my patio door and exclaimed, “Where did all the cherries go?” I ran out into the backyard and looked closely. Not a single cherry remained on either tree. They had all been plucked. The neighborhood birds had done their work.

Jesus used a lot of planting and growing metaphors as he taught the crowds who came to see him. One time he looked at the people with compassion and said to his disciples,

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)

Jesus saw the people. He saw their need. He saw their hurt, their aimlessness, their helplessness. He had compassion on them.

They were a field. They were ready for harvest. He needed workers to go into the field. He had a plan to bring in the harvest. Otherwise, the fruit would whither on the tree. Otherwise, the fields would ripen and rot away. Otherwise, the fruit would be plucked by scavengers. Otherwise, people would languish and die without hope and without eternal security.

His exhortation to his disciples revealed that it would be laborers, his people, who would bring the good news to the crowds. It would be the disciples themselves who would carry on this mission, both during Jesus’s earthly ministry and after. It would be the disciples who would offer salvation to the lost and dying in each city, town and village, each community that they encountered.

It is fascinating that Jesus chose ordinary people to enlist in his work. There was nothing particularly special about the disciples, just as there is nothing particularly special about most Christians today. Sure, some have unique talents and gifts, or unique callings that place them in the spotlight. But Jesus loves to use ordinary people who pray for the harvest, pray for laborers, and answer the call to go and tell.

You may not think much of your abilities, talents, or gifts. Your weaknesses are nothing compared to the strength God provides. If Jesus has saved you, he has called you. And because of that you have been empowered by Him to fulfill that calling. Jesus wants to use you to reach people who are dying without him. There is a great harvest all around you and I that is ready for laborers.

Consider the people who live around you. Consider your actual neighbors, your close friends, your co-workers and family members. See them through Jesus’s eyes. See them with compassion. Pray for them, and seek opportunities to declare to them the hope you have in Jesus. Join your church in seeking after those who are far from God in your communities and cities. Join Jesus in laboring in his harvest.

If you do well

My brother and I fought like most brothers do. I suppose it’s only natural that brothers should disagree and argue and fight — usually about nothing important. It was usually petty jealousies and slights and perceived unfairness that riled us up. When Jeremy and I would start a war my mom had an interesting way of escalating the conflict. There we were, ramping up another battlefield offensive, when suddenly she would swoop in and offer her war counsel: “Are you angry, Michael? Hit him! Go ahead! You’re mad and you’re not going to take any more! Do it!” You would have needed to be there to see the way she would lean in, eyes open, voice inflected to a fevered pitch. The sudden shock of the reality of our insignificant dispute would come crashing down on me. “But I don’t want to. He’s my brother!”

What usually came to my mind in those moments was a story I had heard many times growing up. It was the story of Cain and Abel, from the fourth chapter of Genesis. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain worked the ground and Abel kept sheep. They both gave offerings to God. God approved of Abel’s offering, “firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions,” i.e. the best he had. But God did not approve of Cain’s offering. Brotherly rivalry commenced.

You can well imagine Cain being unhappy, which didn’t go unnoticed by God. He said,

“Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

The phrase “do well” means to do what is good or pleasing. God did not approve of Cain’s offering because it was not good or pleasing to him. God did not accept Cain because he brought an offering from a heart that was ultimately selfish. Every word of Cain, every description of his attitude shows that there was only one lord in his life, only one life that he truly cared about. Cain is the ultimate archetype of the looking-out-for-number-one person. When God had no regard for his offering that sent Cain into a spiral of jealousy, bitterness, and anger. “That’s not fair! I deserve approval! I want what I deserve!”

God lovingly confronted him. That’s what God does when we rebel against him. We think him very unfair to point out our error and show up during our bitter revelry. But in reality he is showing us grace unmeasured. “If you do well, will you not be accepted.” He shows us that living according to his ways results in acceptance. Even more, “if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.” He shows us that living according to his ways is a way to subdue sin in our lives, to have mastery over it. God in his grace designed us to do well, to do what is good and pleasing to him, as a way to rule over sinful desires. That is a pretty amazing gift.

Receiving that gift requires something rather uncomfortable. It means admitting that our motivations are flawed. It means admitting that there is rebellion in our hearts, the kind of rebellion that breeds jealousy, bitterness, and anger. This rebellion feeds on self-centered thinking and entitlement. These are the things we need to let go of in order to receive the gift of good. In other words, before we can expect to do what is good and pleasing to God we need to practice repentance.

Repentance and belief. Belief in a Savior who always did what was good and right and perfect. Belief in a Savior who lived a perfect life for you and did what you could not do for yourself. A Savior of whom God said,

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

When we were at our lowest, when we had failed to please God by doing well, God came in the flesh. Jesus the Son did well for us. He pleased God perfectly and now that pleasing is credited to us through repentance and belief.

Take the challenge of repentance seriously, friends. Consider the rebellion that still lurks in your heart. And give it up to our God and Savior who offers grace and acceptance in exchange, who enables us to do well, to live lives good and pleasing to Him. In Christ and only in him will God say of us, “I am well pleased.”

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Last week I was driving my family back to my mother-in-law’s house from a trip to the Southcenter Mall. It was our annual Christmas adventure at the IMAX movie theater. (The Johnson family recommends The Last Jedi, by the way.) We were heading towards Highway 167, taking a familiar route past the Ikea. The sign ahead said to go left to get on 167 South, but unfortunately the clarity of the message was not strong and before we knew it we had passed our turn and were on the other side of the highway! No one likes to miss their turn, least of all me. I wanted to blame the signage, but then I remembered that I had done the exact thing the last time I tried to get on the highway in that spot. The truth was that I was wrong and I needed to turn and get back on the right road.

That’s what it means to repent.

In my reading today in Matthew 3, John the Baptist comes on the scene and announces,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2)

“Turn around! You are going the wrong way! Get on the right road! Because the king is coming!”

You can see how this would be welcome, good news for those who are on the wrong path. It’s good to get the right directions, to know you are going the right way. But it is another thing to be told, “Your life is wrong. You’ve made wrong choices. You’re basing your life on the wrong things. You had better make a change. You need to make a change. You need to live, to believe and act, differently.” And that is essentially what John was saying to his hearers.

The message of repentance is essentially a message of, “You are wrong.” It is offensive in every way possible. And it should be. We need this message. We need to know that there is something deeply wrong with us, that inside of us we are broken and damaged by our own rebellion against a holy God. The message of repentance is necessary if we are to have peace with the king who is coming.

If this message of repentance sounds uncomfortable, you may be tempted to dismiss it as a pre-Jesus type of message. Maybe this was just for the people John was speaking to. It was just to prepare them for Jesus appearance on the scene. But then we see that Jesus proclaimed the same message, word-for-word, in Matthew 4:17. Still, maybe repentance was only preached before the cross, before Jesus made salvation possible by his death and resurrection.

Hold on!

The disciples didn’t think repentance was unimportant. Listen to their message:

“Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus.” (Acts 3:19-20)

Repentance is necessary for anyone who would come to the king. It is not a pre-cross, pre-Christian message. It is the message of Christianity. Without repentance, there is no salvation. Without repentance, there are no “times of refreshing.” Without repentance, he will not send “the Christ appointed for you, Jesus.” Does that sound difficult? Does that sound offensive? I suppose it is. But it is true. It is the way of following Christ. It is the way of salvation. Does it sound hard to believe? Hard truths are often the hardest to believe, but just as often they are the most important truths to accept.

Repentance certainly requires faith. It requires us to acknowledge that our way of living is wrong. More than that it requires us to acknowledge that our way of living is rebellion against God and his ways for us. That requires a level of trust that many find difficult. Yet, the truth is that he is the king and we have rebelled against his authority. Repentance means we believe the king and turn to his ways for us.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

God is a good king. He gives good gifts. Everything he gives is good and right and perfect, perfectly giving glory to him and perfectly giving us what we need. Repentance means we give up what we have and what we have made and we exchange it for Him.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

The king rewards those who seek him. So seek him. Whether you have little or no faith. Whether you are just exploring this Christian faith or have known him for years, seek him. Practice repentance. Let go of the things in your life that are keeping you from the king. Let go of sins, habits, relationships, attitudes, and beliefs that are contrary to his way. And if you are unsure about those things in your life, find a follower of Jesus and a community of believers who can help you repent and believe.

“… that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

In the beginning… God’s word

Another year, another journey in God’s word.

Today I cracked open my new ESV Journaling Bible, given to me for Christmas by my second daughter. My plan, consistent with the last several years, is to read through the Bible using the old M’Cheyne reading plan. So it was Genesis 1 (and Ezra 1, Matthew 1, and Acts 1) for me today. Here are some thoughts from my time in God’s word today.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

The first thing we read is that God created. Everything. The heavens and the earth. An all-encompassing statement about all that we can observe and the One who brought it into being.

And then we read of the means by which God created.

And God said, … (Genesis 1:3)

At least 10 more times that phrase is repeated in chapter 1. God speaks. His voice is heard, and the result is that the heavens and earth come into view. All that we can observe, all that there is, is brought into being by the word of God.

God’s word is powerful.

Think about it. We speak hundreds and thousands of words each day. But none of them have the ability to bring something out of nothing, to bring order out of chaos. At least not in the way we see God’s word work. His word has the ability to bring light into darkness, to bring life out of nothing, to bring purpose and meaning to what was formless and void.

God’s word is important.

The Bible’s creation account does not tell the tale of cosmic dust and impersonal matter. It does not tell the mythological tale of gods in conflict. All that is comes about by God’s word. The prominence and preeminence of “and God said” should ring out as something important, something of value, something that deserves our attention. He speaks, and we listen. We must listen.

God’s word is good.

At the end of the day, it really matters whether or not something is good. Does it have purpose? Does it have beauty? A thing is good if it functions properly and has appealing aesthetic qualities. A thing is good if it has form and function.

And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:10)

God’s word is good because it brought forth good. Light, sky, sea and land, sun and moon, birds and fish, animals and man, all are good. God’s creation is beautiful. It has purpose and meaning. It has harmony. And at the end of the creation account we read God’s own assessment of the works of his word.

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)

God’s word in my life, and yours

God’s word is powerful, important, and good (among other things). God’s word did not cease at the end of creation. God continued to speak. His words are recorded for us in Scripture. The Bible is the source of his revealed word, his intentions, his purposes and plans, his design for us.

All Scripture is breathed out by God … (2 Timothy 3:16)

One of my prayers for 2018 is that I would experience God’s word in a powerful way, that I would come to know in a deeper way the importance and good of God’s word. And I pray that this will be true for you as well.

And one more thing.

[The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:2-3)

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16)

May you be moved to devour God’s word in 2018. May you be filled with a desire, a hunger to know God more deeply and to see the beauty of His Son Jesus, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and purposes for creation. May you come to see the centrality in your life of the Word made flesh. Your and my only hope for 2018.