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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“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.”

What happens when the King returns?

Remember Jesus’ parable of the ten minas? The story is told in Luke 19:11-27. In it, Jesus tells the story of a man who leaves his country and returns to check on his servants. Most of us have read or heard this story as a challenge to be good stewards of our personal possessions and talents, because God expects us to use them for his glory. I think we should use all of our possessions and talents for the glory of God, but I’m not sure that is exactly the point that Luke, and Jesus, was trying to make.

Luke introduces the parable by writing, “He proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (19:11). Based on this information we know that the parable has something to do with Jesus going to Jerusalem. And it also has something to do with the kingdom of God and the people’s conception of it. Now, see how the story unfolds.

“A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us’” (vs. 12-14).

What was the purpose of the nobleman’s trip? He went to receive his rightful authority and power over the people he ruled. Some of his servants were given responsibility over his business. (Jesus doesn’t say why they were chosen.) But his own people “hated him.” They didn’t want to have anything to do with this nobleman and his rule over them. What then would the nobleman do when he returned?

“When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities’” (vs. 15-17).

When the nobleman came home he settled accounts with his servants. Two of the servants had earned more with what they had been given, and the nobleman rewarded them for it. But there was another servant who out of fear had failed to invest what the nobleman had given him. His master took away his mina and gave it to another, with the point being that “to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (v. 26). In other words, these servants were expected to be faithful to the commands of their master. Failure to do so meant forfeiting those things for which they were responsible.

But that’s not the end of the story. What about the citizens who opposed the nobleman’s reign? “‘But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me’” (v. 27). See, the nobleman returned not only for the sake of his servants, but to judge those who rejected his rule.

So what was Jesus point? Luke helps us understand it in his introduction (v. 11): it deals with Jerusalem and the kingdom of God. Jesus, the rightful king of the kingdom, was on his way to Jerusalem. Luke tells us a few verses later how he wept over the city because they were going to reject him and then face destruction (vs. 41-44). If only they had responded to their king when they had the chance! They were much like the rebellious citizens in the parable. And their destruction was just as sure. Yet, there were those who heard the message of the kingdom of God from Jesus, and much like the servants were faithful with what they had been entrusted. These, Jesus’ disciples, were given the mission and responsibility of working for the kingdom. They received the commendation of “well done, good servant!”

The truth of this parable extends into our own time. There are still many today who hear the good news of the kingdom and faithfully live to serve their king. Sadly, many who profess to receive the kingdom fail to honor their king with their service. The result for them is that “even what he has will be taken away.” Don’t be that guy! Be a faithful servant! Yet, even more tragically, there are still those who actively oppose Jesus. They have no interest in him or his rule over them, and their future looks very bleak. Pray with me that God will turn their hearts towards him before it’s too late.

When they hate you …

Want to know what to pray when you’re hated or treated with contempt?

The psalmist suggests the following prayer:

But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:5-6)

How might God change you through this prayer? What difference would it make for you to express this kind of confident trust in God for all he’s done for you?

Jesus uses people who refuse to believe

If you want to read about some crazy disbelief then check out today’s reading in Mark 16.

Mark wrote how the disciples responded to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. How would you expect these eleven men to respond–men who had walked with Jesus for three years, seeing him raise the dead, heal the sick, walk on water and feed the multitudes? Wouldn’t the news of his resurrection be welcomed with joy?

Mary Magdelene was the first to tell them about Jesus (16:10-11). They refused to believe.

Two other disciples then told them they saw Jesus (16:12-13). They still didn’t believe.

They wouldn’t disbelieve for long.

Afterward [Jesus] appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. (Mark 16:14)

Two things struck me about this passage:

1. Remember how Jesus responded to the faith of the bleeding woman in Mark 5. What a difference between that woman and the disciples! Jesus commended the woman for her faith in him, because she heard the reports about him and believed. But Jesus rebuked his own disciples for their “unbelief and hardness of heart,” because they heard the reports of the resurrection and did not believe.

It’s easy to see from these two accounts the kind of faith that Jesus commends and rewards. I wonder which kind of faith in Jesus we exhibit on a regular basis. How often are our hearts hard toward the things of God? How often do we succumb to our circumstances and allow our faith to erode?

But, lest we get discouraged let me share some good news.

2. See how Jesus dealt with his disciples after he rebuked them.

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15)

Jesus commissioned those with hard hearts and unbelief with the task of proclaiming the good news to the whole world. Why would he do that? They refused to believe the resurrection witness. Their hearts were hard toward the testimony of their own brothers and sisters. But Jesus restored them to ministry anyway.

That’s good news. That’s grace in action.

Jesus uses people who refuse to believe. He gets a hold of them and turns their world upside down. And then he puts them to work on the only lasting work–the joy of telling others the good news. That’s what he did with his first disciples and that’s what he still does with all who respond to him with faith.

You might think your faith is small. It probably is. That’s good. If it was any larger you might be tempted to believe you don’t need Jesus. But be encouraged by the fact that Jesus uses us for his glory and our joy despite our lack of faith.

And what should our response be to this grace? Praise with grateful hearts, and witness boldly. Because he’s given us great grace.

What’s the Object of your faith?

The other day my wife and I were sharing with a colleague some of our frustrations. We had just moved to a new community and were trying to find a home, frustrated that we weren’t finding one to meet our family’s needs and at the same time be useful in ministry to others. My colleague offered the following encouragement: “If you believe that you need a new home then just walk around like it’s yours.”

He was talking about faith, which caused me to think:

What is the relationship between faith and us and God and the thing we want to happen? What does it mean to have faith that something will happen? Do we only need more faith?

Part of the answer came from a Bible reading the same day of that conversation. The passage was Mark, chapter 5.

Mark told the story of a woman who touched Jesus’ clothes and was healed of her sickness. But what’s really cool is what Jesus said to her:

And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” (5:34)

On the surface, Jesus’ answer seems to imply that as long as one has faith, that is, believes something will happen, that it will be so.

But I don’t think that’s what Mark intended us to take away from this story. Why? First of all there was no mention of the amount of faith the woman had. Jesus simply stated that she had faith. Second, look at how Mark described the woman in verses 25-28. He first describes her suffering, the fact that this sickness of bleeding had lasted for twelve years, that no doctor was able to heal her, and that she had spent all she had, only to get worse, not better. But something changed for her.

She had heard the reports about Jesus. (5:27)

Let me paraphrase: she heard the Good News. Once she heard about Jesus she had real faith for the first time. In fact, she had such faith that it caused her to risk breaking social and religious taboos in order to be healed. See, in her mind Jesus would never willingly touch her, an unclean woman. If she could only sneak up in the crowd and touch his garment she could be healed. She knew that healing would only come through one man. Jesus.

Jesus was the object of her faith. She didn’t just have faith in healing. If faith in being healed had been enough she wouldn’t have remained infirmed for twelve years. No. She heard the reports about Jesus. And she believed in him. Of course, she believed that he was able to heal her. Absolutely! Our faith is in a God who acts, and rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6).

But our faith is in him, not merely in his blessings or benefits.

What is the object of your faith? Is it healing? employment? a home? a spouse? children? safety? or anything else?

Let me encourage you to make the Object of your faith Jesus. In fact, go back to what Jesus said and did on your behalf. It’s right there in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Allow that Good News to bolster your faith in him. If anything other than Jesus is the object of your faith than you truly don’t have faith at all.