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.

Advertisements

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.

“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.”

Week 5 Bible Readings

New Testament

29 January:  Matthew 26:47-27:10

30 January:  Matthew 27:11-56

31 January:  Matthew 27:57-28:20

1 February:  Mark 1:1-28

2 February:  Mark 1:29-45

3 February:  Mark 2:1-22

4 February:  Mark 2:23-3:12

Old Testament

29 January:  Psalms 74-76

30 January:  Psalms 77, 78

31 January:  Psalms 79, 80

1 February:  Psalms 81-83

2 February:  Psalms 84-86

3 February:  Psalms 87, 88

4 February:  Psalms 89, 90

Week 4 Bible Readings

New Testament

22 January:  Matthew 21:33-22:22

23 January:  Matthew 22:23-23:12

24 January:  Matthew 23:13-39

25 January:  Matthew 24:1-41

26 January:  Matthew 24:42-25:30

27 January:  Matthew 25:31-26:13

28 January:  Matthew 26:14-46

Old Testament

22 January:  Psalms 57-59

23 January:  Psalms 60-62

24 January:  Psalms 63-65

25 January:  Psalms 66, 67

26 January:  Psalms 68, 69

27 January:  Psalms 70, 71

28 January:  Psalms 72, 73

Week 3 Bible Readings

New Testament

15 January:  Matthew 15:1-28

16 January:  Matthew 15:29-16:28

17 January:  Matthew 17

18 January:  Matthew 18

19 January:  Matthew 19

20 January:  Matthew 20

21 January:  Matthew 21:1-32

Old Testament

15 January:  Psalms 37-39

16 January:  Psalms 40-42

17 January:  Psalms 43-45

18 January:  Psalms 46-48

19 January:  Psalms 49, 50

20 January:  Psalms 51-53

21 January:  Psalms 54-56

Week 2 Bible Readings

New Testament

8 January:  Matthew 9

9 January:  Matthew 10

10 January:  Matthew 11

11 January:  Matthew 12:1-29

12 January:  Matthew 12:30-13:17

13 January:  Matthew 13:18-58

14 January:  Matthew 14

Old Testament

8 January:  Psalm 20-22

9 January:  Psalm 23-25

10 January:  Psalm 26-28

11 January:  Psalm 29, 30

12 January:  Psalm 31, 32

13 January:  Psalm 33, 34

14 January:  Psalm 35, 36

Week 1 Bible Readings

New Testament

1 January:  Matthew 1:1-2:12

2 January:  Matthew 2:13-3:17

3 January:  Matthew 4:1-5:12

4 January:  Matthew 5:13-48

5 January:  Matthew 6

6 January:  Matthew 7:1-23

7 January:  Matthew 7:24-8:34

Old Testament

1 January:  Psalm 1-3

2 January:  Psalm 4-6

3 January:  Psalm 7-9

4 January:  Psalm 10-12

5 January:  Psalm 13-15

6 January:  Psalm 16, 17

7 January:  Psalm 18, 19

What’s Up with Johnny B?

Last time we saw how a little religious and socioeconomic background affected our understanding of Matthew 2. We can also take the same approach with the third chapter of Matthew and see how it can help us understand the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist.

Matthew 3 opens with John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea. If John were a church planter it would be an odd place to start—in the middle of nowhere. Yet this is exactly where John’s ministry began, and for two good reasons. The first reason is self-evident from the passage before us. Matthew writes, “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”’” (3:3). In other words, John’s ministry in the wilderness was a direct fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, which spoke of a new deliverance by God for his people.

The second reason John’s ministry began in the wilderness was because that was most likely the place he grew up. Luke tells us that John was born to very old parents, who probably didn’t live long enough to raise him. He may have then moved in with relatives in the wilderness east of Jerusalem. Some scholars even speculate that John was brought up by people connected to the Essenes, a Jewish sect which had separated from the rest of Jewish culture at that time. This may partially explain why John’s dress and diet were so unusual. “John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (3:4). Of course, John’s appearance also had a connection with one of Israel’s greatest prophets, Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1:8), but it also fit the rugged and humble dress of those living on the outskirts of society. His food, also, would have connected him with the very poor, as well as with those very pious in their dietary laws.

The result of this information about John’s ministry, appearance and diet is that he would have fit the part of an outsider, one sent to rouse Israel and prepare them for the coming of the Messiah. Not only did he fit the part physically and socially, but Matthew reminds his readers that he was the fulfillment of that Old Testament expectation.

Another unique part of John’s ministry was that he baptized those who came to him. This may not seem all that unusual to most modern people. Baptism in one form or another has been a part of the Christian tradition for centuries. It was also something that first century Jews would have been familiar with, also. But the uniqueness of John’s baptism was in those who were being baptized. At that time, baptism was conferred on those who were becoming converts to Judaism. That is, outsiders were baptized as a sign that they were joining the Jewish religion. But John was offering baptism to Jewish people. It is no wonder then, that the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to witness this baptism (3:7). John baptized “with water for repentance” (3:11), preparing the people for the coming kingdom. His message was to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). John’s message (3:7-12) was one of judgment against the sins of the people. They needed to get ready for the coming of the Promised One, and baptism was the sign that they were prepared.

In the midst of John’s message to the Pharisees and Sadducees he referred to the coming of one “mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (3:11). This seems an odd reference for modern readers. But what John was saying essentially was that he was not even worthy to be the Messiah’s slave. It was the slave who often had the responsibility of carrying his master’s sandals when he traveled. Compared to the greatness of the Messiah, John was not even worthy to carry out this humble task.

Finally, reading on in the passage we see that Jesus himself came to be baptized by John in the Jordan river. Immediately following his baptism Matthew writes that, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (3:16). Additionally, a voice spoke from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). Many Christians see in this a picture of the trinity, the fact that God the Father, speaking from heaven; God the Spirit, coming down in the form of a dove; and God the Son, in the person of Jesus, were all present in one place, yet in three distinct persons. While this scene certainly does reinforce this particular doctrine, it was probably not the immediate reference in the mind of Matthew’s first readers. Instead, they would have likely recalled the many occurrences of God’s Spirit coming on individuals in the Old Testament Scripture. The Spirit of God came on a person to confirm his calling for a particular task or ministry. The voice from heaven, too, would have reminded readers of the authoritative voice of God which spoke the world into existence and spoke His word to the people of Israel.

In conclusion, the background of this passage helps us to get a grasp on the nature of the John’s ministry and how he would have been perceived by his audience. Something radical was happening in the land. God’s Messiah was coming, and John was just the right person to prepare His way. The people themselves needed to not only hear the message but to respond to it by confessing their sins and preparing their hearts for the Messiah’s coming. And when He did come, Jesus earthly ministry was confirmed by God through the voice, the Spirit, and the prophetic ministry of John.

How would you have responded to the announcement of the kingdom?