Choosing Correctly

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)

Growing up, I remember my parents using maps to plan out trips to new destinations. They would spend time determining the best routes. Today, we no longer rely on paper maps and atlases but use GPS and the maps on our phones. If you use Google maps, it will give you a few alternative courses to choose from. The shortest or quickest route is the main one which Google recommends. Choosing the correct route can be important as we maneuver through our journeys.

The passage from Matthew is part of a series of teachings given by Jesus which has become known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks to the people about making a right choice. Jesus tells the people to pick carefully which gate and path they choose. One choice will lead to destruction, the other to life.

In our lives we face choices in regards to a variety of aspects of life. Some of these choices are more difficult because they may require more from us. It is a great temptation to pick what appears to be easier and less demanding. Yet Jesus’s words should cause us to pause as we make choices. The wide gate and broad road is definitely the easiest route but the outcome will be less favorable.

Kingdom Plants

26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29 (NIV)

A characteristic of a great story teller is being able to connect with people using imagery with which the receiver can relate. If a reader or listener is unable to connect elements of the story to their own life or experiences they are familiar with, they will become bored and disinterested in the story being told. A much repeated piece of advice to speakers, writers, and communicators is “know your audience.” By following this advice, the one sharing a message can personalize the message which leads to a more effective deliverance.

Jesus was a tremendous story teller. The Gospels contain evidence of this fact in the many recounts of stories which Jesus used to communicate all types of concepts and life lessons. Today we read one of Jesus’s stories. His audience was very familiar with the growth cycle and processes of plants. Jesus is providing images to explain the essence of the kingdom of God. The image of seed being scattered on the ground and becoming a mature plant creates the sense of mystery regarding growth within the kingdom. Jesus also tells the listener that a time will come when the plants will be harvested because they have reached full maturity. The listener understands that there will be a growth of the individuals in the kingdom and a time will come when a gathering will take place.

This story which Jesus uses to explain God’s kingdom provides imagery which allows us to see ourselves in the kingdom. We are the plants which begin as seeds. Our growth in the kingdom is not of our own doing but solely reliant upon God. There is mystery in how God causes this to happen. We grow up and mature within the kingdom. Then we await our gathering up by the Lord once we have fully matured.

Remove the Blinders

31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”

34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” 43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.

Luke 18:31-43 (NIV)

Have you ever seen a horse who has blinders on its head? The purpose of these blinders are to prevent the horse from seeing behind it and on the sides of it at times. This keeps the horse focused forward and prevents it from being easily spooked. The blinders also improve the horse’s ability to remain focused on whatever tasks are being expected. Another benefit the blinders provide for the horse is a reduction in stress. With all the activity around most horses, their natural instincts to avoid anything perceived as a threat or predator can lead the horse to become overly stressed. For horses, blinders have many benefits which promote their safety and the safety of humans with whom they interact.

In today’s reading, we hear about Jesus’s interaction with a blind man along the road. Jesus predicts his death and the events leading up to his death which will occur upon arrival in Jerusalem. As he and his disciples are walking to Jerusalem, they encounter a blind man sitting by the road. The blind man cried out to Jesus seeking his mercy. People tried to silence the blind man but he only shouted more. Jesus stopped to ask the blind man what he wanted Jesus to do. The blind man requested to see. Jesus restored his sight indicating the man’s faith had healed him. The man then followed Jesus, praising God.

We, like horses, can sometimes have blinders on us metaphorically. Unlike the horses, most of our blinders are a detriment and not a benefit. When our blinders prevent us from seeing where the Lord is leading, they have a negative impact. If these blinders prevent us from seeing Christ in others, they are a problem. Blinders which do not allow us to experience the fullness of God limit us. We are then like the blind man who was sitting by the road.

We do not have to continue to wear the blinders. As the blind man did, we can cry out to our Lord. Our cry and request for the removal of our blinders has already been heard. The Lord invites us to grow our faith. As our faith grows and expands, our blindness reduces. Our eyes can open to new possibilities, new understandings, and new visions of God’s active work in our world. We can obtain this faith growth by studying God’s Word alone and with others. Expanding of our faith will occur as we engage in serving others and sharing in fellowship. Time in conversation with the Lord will increase our faith. Then, just as the blind man experienced, we can hear Jesus say that our faith has healed us.

Radical Love

In a world where there are so many expectations and requirements to be accepted and loved, it is good to be reminded that we fully receive love and acceptance from our Lord. The love which we are given comes in a radical way with no strings.

1. How do you experience God’s love?

2. What prevents you from receiving God’s love?

3. How does this truth impact your life?

Creation of Humanity

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Genesis 1:26-30 (NIV)

One of the most famous ceilings in the world can be found in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the vaulted ceiling of the chapel. One of the panels depicts the creation of Adam and has that exact name today. Below is a picture of that panel as it appeared in National Geographic.

1. What do you see first in this image? Why do you think this stands out to you?

2. How do you interpret the relationship between God and humanity as depicted here?

3. Why might Michelangelo have chosen to place a space between God’s finger and Adam’s finger? Do you agree with that choice? Why or why not?

4. Was there anything missing in the painting which would be important based on your reading of today’s passage?

Turning Things Upside Down

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Matthew 5:38-47 (NIV)

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book which has a complete plot switch towards the end? The story line may appear to be taking you in a certain direction but before the book ends, the plot winds up resulting in a completely opposite outcome. This can be shocking, frustrating or even disarming but for some reason there also exists some excitement when this occurs. The unexpected can create a thrill for the viewer or reader.

Jesus creates a plot twist in his teaching as recorded by the writer of Matthew. The people of his time, and we who are later readers, understand the social norms of how to react when we have been treated unfairly or have an enemy. But Jesus turns all of our understandings and social norms upside down. Jesus teaches that instead of an eye for an eye, we are to not retaliate when someone treats us wrong. Instead, we are to offer more than they demand from us. Jesus continues in teaching opposite reactions when he speaks of loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. He calls us to be different from others who follow the norms of our society.

This is absolutely mind blowing. Surely Jesus really did not expect us to follow these teachings. Perhaps we should just skip over this passage. Perhaps it was an editorial addition which some scribe added during translation. If Jesus really did say these words, then we have to redirect our instinctual responses. We cannot seek revenge but instead we must offer more. We cannot seeth about and lash out toward our enemies and persecutors but extend love and pray for them. It is just like Jesus to shake up our view of what seems right. He even went further by demonstrating this as he was persecuted and hung on the cross.  Guess that he meant it.

Choosing One

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 (NIV)

Choosing a leader can be a challenging task at times. The first step is to determine the qualifications and traits which will be sought in a candidate. Then a pool of potential candidates must be collected. This is followed by examining each candidate’s qualifications and traits against the list of sought ones established at the start. When a potential leader aligns closest to the desires, then the declaring of the new leader can occur.

The passage which has been read for today presents the story of choosing a new king for Israel. God had become displeased with Saul for Saul’s unfaithfulness to God. God sends Samuel to anoint Saul’s replacement as king. Samuel is to go to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse. Jesse brings his sons before Samuel when Samuel arrives. As each son presents himself before Samuel, God indicates that each is not the right one even though they appear to be by human standards. When it seems all have come before Samuel but not any are accepted by God, Samuel makes sure that there are none remaining.  Jesse indicates there is the youngest one who is tending the sheep. Samuel sends for him and when he arrives God tells Samuel to anoint him as king.

We learn from this passage that God looks beyond the obvious human traits in choosing the right person for the job. The human qualifications of appearance and stature are not what God uses to determine the qualified one. Instead God looks for the spirit, attitude, and personality of the correct candidate.

As humans, we too often get dazzled by a person’s appearance. Physical traits and charisma play too large of a role in our choosing of a leader. We also disqualify ourselves or others because we are unable to see the traits of a true leader. This story of Samuel, David, and God cautions us to look beyond what is visible and seek to understand the spirit, attitude and personality of a potential leader.

Move On

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” So the Israelites did this.

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.

10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

15 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.

Exodus 14:1-15 (NIV)

Back in the day when almost every house had a phonograph of some form, it was common for records to skip or get stuck in an endless loop. The cause could be food or drink being spilled on the record, or a scratch forming due to the record player being bumped while playing, or possibly a particle being in the grooves of the record. When these times would arise, there were a few options available to the listener. You could gently nudge the phonograph or the arm holding the needle. You could remove the record and gently clean it. Or you could purchase a repair kit and attempt to fix the issue. A person had to do something because losing part of a song or being caught in an endless loop was not acceptable.

As the Israelites journeyed from Egypt to the new land which God had promised them, they quickly got caught in an endless loop of fear and complaining. The portion of their journey which we find in Exodus today presents one of those times of fear and complaining. After leaving Egypt, God instructs Moses where the people are to encamp. God says that Pharoah will pursue them. Pharoah and the officials change their minds about letting the Israelites go so they pursue them. The Israelites shout out in terror as they see Pharoah and his army approaching. They complain about  being led out of Egypt. Moses assures the people that God will protect them. God has Moses tell the people to stop crying out and move on.

There are times in our lives when God needs to deliver to us the message given to Moses to deliver to the Israelites. We can become like the Israelites, caught up in a loop of fear and complaining. We need to be told to just move on. Continually crying out for relief does not always lead to improving our situation. Instead, moving forward can alter our circumstances enough to provide new opportunity and new hope. Thank goodness we have a God who is eager to lead us out of our ruts. Thank goodness we have a God who will send someone to bump us out of an endless cycle of fear and complaining.

Give It All

36 Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?”

Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.”

37 Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

38 Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

John 13:36-38 (NIV)

This is the day of the year when we pause to remember those women and men who have died while serving their nation. Memorial Day has changed a lot since it first began. There have been various dates and times which nations have set aside to honor the deceased military. Our current holiday came out of some local practices within communities. The former confederate states set aside a day to honor those who had died during the Civil War. Northern states soon followed suit. In 1868, General John A Logan, leader of the Grand Army of the Republic which was a northern Civil War Veterans organization, issued a general order setting May 30 as Decoration Day which was “for the purpose of strewing flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” This became the starting seed of what was declared a national holiday in 1971. Today the holiday has been moved to the last Monday of May and has become a day when all who have died are remembered and graves decorated. However, the original purpose of setting aside such a date must be remembered. This day is meant to recall those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863) by giving their lives for their country.

Our passage from John comes in the midst of whatwereferto as the Last Supper. Jesus is sitting at a meal with his disciples. The ones who are closest to Jesus are beside him at the table. Judas has just left after Jesus identified him as soon becoming the betrayer. Jesus tells the disciples that he is to leave soon. Simon Peter asks Jesus where he is going and Jesus tells him that Peter cannot follow him now but will later. Peter wants to know why he cannot follow now and declares his willingness to lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus questions Peter’s true willingness since he knows Peter will soon deny knowing him.

It is easy for us to identify with Peter. Peter’s love for Jesus is strong, so strong that he declares his willingness to give his very life for Jesus. He is eager to give his all. However, Jesus knows the weakness in Peter. When the time came for Peter to risk his own life by acknowledging being a follower of Jesus, Peter was unable to follow through. Few of us have ever been put in such a situation so we are unable to say if we would choose as Peter did or not.

In the brave men and women who we honor on this day, we are given an example to follow and a challenge to accept. These military women and men loved their country and its ideals so much that they were not only willing but did give their lives in defense of them. This is an example for us to admire and emulate in our lives. The challenge set before it is to not only be willing to do this for our nation but also for our Lord. Are you willing to physically and/or metaphorically give your life because of your love for the Lord and the ideals which the Kingdom of God sets forth?