Whatever you ask in prayer ...

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

This may be one of the oddest passages in the gospels. For the life of me I have no idea why Jesus cursed that fig tree. Honestly, if not for these verses I would not have imagined that the Lord would do such a thing. Even his explanation to the disciples doesn't make sense. It speaks to me of how God's ways are sometimes indiscernible to my mind.

That said, I have to say that I love the way that Jesus answered his disciples. In a few sentences he paints a broad and magnificent image of what it means to have faith in God as we pray. It is obvious from the text that he is now speaking of spiritual trees and mountains. For truly, no obstacle can obstruct us, or hinder our way, when we pray in his name.

Help me today Lord that I might not doubt in my heart when I pray.

The Lord has need of it ...

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it.

Isn't it interesting how this detail of acquiring a colt is included in Mark's gospel? I can only imagine that it was included because of the amazing nature of it. It reminds me of how detailed God can be when He gives us directions. It speaks to the omniscience of the Lord and of His all-knowing nature. Can you imagine how amazed the disciples were when they came upon the unridden colt in the place and manner that Jesus spoke of?

The phrase "The Lord has need of it" reminds me that, although God himself needs nothing, often the Lord desires to use people and things to achieve his purposes. Such was the case with the colt and such is the case with you and me. We were born for a reason and connecting with that purpose is the essence of what life is all about. It speaks to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the ways that he has gifted us to live.

Here am I Lord. Send me. Use me. I offer myself to your purposes in your service.

Your faith has made you well.

As he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

Do you sense the desperation in the voice and the words of this hurting blind man? Do you also sense the callousness in the words and voices of those who told him to shut up? And do you begin to cheer for this blind soul as he continues to cry out? Aren't you glad that he would not be silenced? Does it not motivate you to pray all the more? It does me!

I find the Lord's question to Bartimaeus to be a bit puzzling as it seems so obvious that his cries for mercy are all about his blindness. It reminds me of that Sunday in August of 1975 when my wife Ellen (who had been blind for three plus years) raised her hand in church to ask Jesus into her heart. Like Bartimaeus her faith had made her well. It is so amazing.

Help me to not lose heart Lord. Help me to continue to cry out for healing.

Whoever would be great among you ...

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

What is it in us that wants to have the place of honor? Every day we see, on TV and in our lives, people who struggle to be "number one". In political seasons we often see outlandish displays by candidates wanting to sit in that place of honor. And there is no sadder display of this than in the church when men and women argue over fleshly titles and positions.

In contrast to this quest for positions and titles Jesus speaks of himself as one who came "not to be served but to serve". He is a lasting example to us of true spiritual authority. In Christ we see an example worthy of emulation. He who was born to rule did not aspire to an earthly throne but a servant's cross. His message is clear to all who desire to be great.

Help me to conquer my desire to be first Lord. Help me to be a servant.

You do not know what you are asking.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

I wonder what the relationship looked like between Jesus and his disciples? I love the way that they come to him here in a demanding fashion. It speaks to the close friendship that they must have had. Often we forget that these friends traveled the countryside spending all day and all night with each other. Like Moses these spoke face to face with God as a friend. It reminds me of how God invites us to come boldly to him asking anything in His name.

Even so there are some prayers that He will not answer because, like James and John, we do not really know what we are asking for. Although the disciples did not understand him, Jesus speaks to his dear friends of being baptized with a baptism of persecution and torturous death. He then says that, even though they endure that baptism, He cannot assure them preference in Heaven. It instructs me to the nature of God's sovereignty.

Teach me today Lord to come to you as an undeserving servant when I pray.

Many who are first will be last ...

Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

In a sense Jesus seems to be speaking in double talk when he mentions that his disciples will receive hundredfold blessings with persecutions. Such is the nature of hyperbole. In reality, following God has no assurances because faith involves risk. When we leave all to follow God there is a trust involved that says that our discipleship is not based on the outcome. We follow Him in good times and in bad regardless of visible blessings.

The saying "first will be last, and the last first" is spoken by Jesus several times in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke to speak to us of the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God. I believe that the Lord is speaking to us saying that things in the age to come will be different than this age we live in. In that day everything will be turned on end. Rulers will serve and servants will rule. Love, mercy and humility will rule the day.

Thank you Lord for the honor of following you and for the promise of the age to come.

All things are possible with God ...

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

When I think of the "all things are possible with God" my mind wanders to miracles and glorious happenings. Yet Jesus does not use it in that way but points to the salvation of a person who trusts in their own abilities, wealth and possessions rather than in God. My thinking is the Lord is not saying that he will save such a one but that he will do whatever is necessary to bring them to a place where they are able to see God for who He is.

The imagery of a camel going through a needle's eye reminds me of how Jesus often spoke in hyperbole saying that mountains can be moved when God is involved. Regardless of how you read this passage it is obvious that Jesus is teaching us that things that seem impossible to us are possible with God. It is a hopeful message for those of us who pray for our family members and friends to come to the Lord and experience the abundant life.

We bring our family members and friends to you Lord asking for your help.

You lack one thing ...

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”

And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

I love the way that Jesus gets past the externals and goes directly to the heart of a matter. When he tells the man to "sell all that you have" he gets past obeying the Ten Commandments and addresses the deep seated issues of the heart. Many espouse that the man could not obey the Lord's command because of greed but I am not so sure that greed or materialism was the issue. Perhaps this man of great wealth simply did not trust the Lord?

Are you moved when you read the words "Jesus, looking at him, loved him"? What would it have been like to have looked into the eyes of pure love? I think that this is such a great example of the demeanor that we must express when we tell someone a truth that they do not want to hear. In reality we should never attempt to tell someone an uncomfortable truth if we are not confident that we are operating from a motive of love and care for them.

Help me Lord to really hear the hard things that you and others want to tell me.

To such belongs the kingdom of God ...

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

The term "childlike faith" comes from this passage. When I consider it my mind flashes back to the way that my children trusted me when they were very young. Before they were influenced by their friends, their teachers and TV shows they had a simple faith in the things that I taught them. Such is the way that our heavenly Father wants us to come to him.

Unfortunately for many God's kingdom has become less about trusting him like a child and more about understanding him as an adult. To such an end we develop all sorts of intellectual theologies and heady ways to explain things that aren't meant to be explainable. It is like we have rejected the wonder of childlike faith for something less miraculous.

Help me Lord to never to forget that you are my heavenly Father and that I am your child.

No longer two but one flesh.

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

I did not really understand what the phrase "the two shall become one flesh" meant until my first wife Ellen passed away in May of 1994. Here is a meditation that I penned, with many tears, in the months following her passing:

The Two Become One - Reversed

At every thought of her my heart breaks. It is like half of me is no longer alive. We were so much a part of each other that it is hard to go on without her.

My soul aches within me and there is no comfort except the knowing that she no longer suffers. Knowing that she is in the presence of God helps.

My flesh wants to move on with my life but my heart wants to remain in the past. Our life was so full together. It is hard to imagine happiness without my Ellen.

There is so much more than a uniting of flesh in holy matrimony. When the Lord joins a man and a woman there is a joining of souls. The idea of a soul mate has become a bit cliched these days but I believe it is such an accurate term because of the intimacy of spirit that a married couple can experience when they journey together with the Lord.

Help us Lord not to settle for less that your best in our marriages.

Because of your hardness of heart ...

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.

The phrase "Because of your hardness of heart" speaks volumes of why there are so many laws in the Old Testament and why God said of New Testament believers, twice in the epistle to the Hebrews, "I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds". It reminds me of how the bible does not speak against every sin that a person can commit. In truth, laws cannot not keep you from sinning because they only address the externals.

It is why James puts it this way: "whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin". A person with a hard heart will always seek an excuse and a rationalization for their bad behavior - divorce courts are filled with such people. Yet there is a remnant who hear God's voice in their heart and reject the temptation to act in an immoral manner. These are those who walk in kingdom freedom as they trust the Lord with all of their heart.

Help me Lord to trust you, and walk in freedom, with all of my heart today.

Everyone will be salted with fire.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your 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. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

I love the hyperbolic nature of this passage. Overstating and stretching a bit Jesus speaks in such a way that draws us in and helps us to understand the serious nature of our actions. He speaks in such extremes not to espouse theology but to point to the destructive results of sin. Interesting how the context of his words is causing believers to sin. Perhaps the things that bring sin into our lives affect others more than we want to admit that they do.

The Lord's references to "salt" are so compelling. Interesting how he speaks of being "salted with fire". Makes me think about the way that the Apostle Peter speaks of how the the genuineness of our precious faith is tested by fire. Perhaps faith is not really genuine if it is not brought to a place where we lay everything on a fiery altar. Our hands, our feet and our entire lives offered to an all consuming God as a salted and living sacrifice.

Here I am Lord. Send me. Use me.

The one who is not against us is for us.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.

The contrast in this passage is a stark one. On one hand there are people who are casting out demons - these saw evil as their enemy. On the other hand the disciples were complaining about people who were not a part of their group - these saw people as their enemy. It is a sad fact that Christian churches compete against each other seeking fame and recognition. I cannot imagine what God must think about this sort of contentiousness.

On the flip-side Jesus speaks of a reward for those who help others in a very small way. It is like he is speaking of a unity that crosses all sorts of theological and ideological boundaries. I cannot help but think of how the focus seems to be about working together with people of all sorts of faith to fight evil in the world. Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if Protestants, Catholics and others joined hands and fought things like poverty in the name of Christ?

Help me to keep my mind, heart and hands open to both give and receive from others.

If anyone would be first, he must be last ...

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Reading how Jesus answers the disciples concerns about greatness reminds me that genuine spiritual life is all about humility. The definition of humility that I most resonate with says that the heart of it is to care about others more than yourself. I believe that this is what Jesus is teaching us when he says the first must be last.. the greatest must be the humblest.

In our world of fleshly pride and ego this is a message that falls on deaf ears. Even in the church we see many who seek to be great ministering to adults from whom they can receive praise rather than ministering to children who are often ungrateful. Makes me wonder if, apart from parental needs for child care, there would be any children's ministry at all.

I desire to be first Lord. Help me to deny that desire and pick up my cross today.

After three days he will rise.

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

I wonder if Judas was in the group of disciples that Jesus was speaking to? I imagine that he was there when the Lord spoke of being delivered into the hands of men. It is a sobering reminder to us that not everyone that hears with their ears understands with their heart. For if Judas had really heard what the Lord was saying he might not have betrayed him.

But it says that none of them understood the prophetic words of Christ concerning his death and resurrection. And for some reason they did not have the courage to ask him about it. Reminds me that life is often about the questions that we are afraid to ask and encourages me to ask them even if I do not get the answer that I am looking for.

Help me Lord to press in and seek you for answers to the questions that puzzle me.

This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.

And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

Ever since "The Exorcist first appeared in movie theaters there has been an interest in these sorts of stories. Yet there can be a somewhat stereotypical understanding about the workings of demons and how people should respond to their presence. In my Pentecostal years I was around people who would regularly cast demons out of people who were sick and hurting. It was as if we were oblivious to the spiritual dynamics present in each situation.

Interesting how Jesus commanded the demon to leave by naming it. Perhaps some demons only leave when they are called by name? Either way I think that the Lord calls us to be spiritually aware when he says that prayer is needed to drive out this kind of evil. As we pray God speaks to us gives us wisdom and discernment concerning such spiritual matters. It reminds me that prayer is so much more than petitioning God for our needs.

Lord, please open the eyes of my heart that I might discern things unseen.

All things are possible for one who believes.

And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

There is a tension evident in the boy's father that many of us can relate to. This man has watched unspeakable horrors happening to his son and he feared for his precious boy's life. I can resonate with those fears. This summer I watched, sometimes fearful, as my wife struggled for her life for a week laying in a hospital bed hooked up to a ventilator. The joy in my heart was overwhelming that Sunday that they removed the tube from her.

Many run with the phrase "all things are possible" and postulate bad theology because they do not understand the hyperbolic nature of such a statement. Jesus is not saying that we will get anything we want if we pray. He is speaking in a general sense and the focus is not what we believe for but who we believe in. Frankly, the man's faith would be for naught if it was not placed in God himself. We believe in God for who he is and not for what he gives.

I struggle Lord. Help me to believe the best. Help me to trust you.

How long am I to bear with you?

“Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”

And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”

This is certainly one of the oddest reactions that Jesus has in the gospels. In other passages the Lord seemed amazed how the disciples reacted with fear at tumultuous storms and their lack of faith concerning the feeding of thousands. In this and those times the Lord seems annoyed that his disciples are still unable to respond in the way that he did.

My thinking is that the Lord is upset not because the disciples were trying to do something that could not do but because they could not do something that he had empowered them to do. This hits to the heart of life for us today. God does not expect us to do things, spiritual or otherwise, that we are not gifted to do but things we are called to do.

Help me Lord to know those things that I am called and gifted to do.. and to do them well.

Elijah has come ...

And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

To this day some Jews remember Elijah at circumcisions and Passover meals believing that he will return in our age. The Jews in our passage were anticipating it then. Consider what God promises, through the prophet Malachi, in the last passage of the Old Testament:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Jesus understood this promise and said that it was fulfilled in John the Baptist saying that John's purpose in coming was restoration - of family relationships (as Malachi prophesied) and of a relationship with God. John's message of repentance speaks deeply to the heart of that restoration.. as our hearts turn they behold the open arms of our heavenly Father.

The Lord goes on to speak of the way that unrepentant people treated John and how they would soon treat him. In a sense Jesus still embodies the message of Elijah today as he, through the work of the Holy Spirit, restores broken and hurting people to Himself. The message is still restoring the hearts of children to their heavenly Father.

Come Holy Spirit and restore the hearts of my hurting friends to their heavenly Father.

The kingdom of God ... come with power.

And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

This verse makes absolutely no sense if one reads it and thinks it means some future coming of the kingdom of God. Yet it makes perfect sense when we look at that day so many years ago when the Holy Spirit came with powerful tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost after the risen Lord Jesus returned to Heaven. After that day the people of God have lived lives of powerful transformation by the power of God. The book of Acts testifies to this.

I think that this focus of the kingdom of God coming with power changed when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 and institutionalized Christianity. Since then it seems that the faith has been more about church power than the kingdom coming with power. Yet many still pray for God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven because the gospel is not about earthly sacraments but about heavenly power coming and filling earthly vessels.

Yours Lord is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Forever.

What can a man give in return for his soul?

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

There was a popular saying in the 1980s that affirmed: "He who dies with the most toys wins." It is the opposite of what Jesus is saying in these verses. It reminds me of something else that our Lord said about the importance of living a life focused on heavenly matters:
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal."
The preoccupation with possessions is a dangerous one because of the way that things take hold of us. Many have sacrificed themselves on the altar of hedonism. In reality things can make you happy for a season but in the end things break, wear down or are lost.

Interesting how Jesus correlates this idea with being ashamed of him and his teachings. It is a sobering thought to consider that when we embrace and exalt wealth and possessions we are ashamedly rejecting Christ's teaching about truth wealth and eternal life.

Help me to proclaim you and your teachings today Lord in the way that I live.

Whoever would save his life will lose it ...

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.

Following Jesus has never been about ideology or theology but about sacrifice. When I consider the cross that the Lord commands me to take up I am reminded of the cross that he carried on the way to his crucifixion. Like his cross ours is often heavy and painful but we press on and deny ourselves anyway. His path, like ours, is a humble one that leads to the glorious culmination of a life lived trusting God.

Consider how the Apostle Paul told the Romans to present ourselves as living sacrifices and, as we do, to not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewal of our minds. This speaks deeply to me about how one takes up their cross. It is an issue of being a living sacrifice where our entire beings are transformed by the power of God as we deny and sacrifice our fleshly desires on God's altar as we follow him.

I offer myself to you today dear Lord. Use me and transform me as you do.

Get behind me, Satan!

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

What a scene! I am trying to imagine being with the disciples.. hearing Peter identify Jesus as the Messiah.. and then hearing the Lord describe what it means to be the Messiah. Perhaps up to that point the disciples embraced the vision of a Messiah who would defeat Rome and liberate Israel? News of a Messiah who would be seemingly defeated by religious leaders is the opposite of what they had imagined. No one wanted such a Messiah.

But this is the Messiah we all need. Consider this prophetic vision of the Messiah that the prophet Isaiah saw some four hundred years before Christ appeared to man:
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows,
and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Such is the Messiah that Peter ignorantly rebuked. Such is the Messiah that rebuked Peter telling him that he did not have a clue who the Christ really was. Such is the Messiah that death could not hold. Such is the Messiah who rose from the grave and ever lives and rules in Heaven. And such is the Messiah that we confess and love to this very day.

Help me Lord to set my mind on the things of God and not on the things of man.

But who do you say that I am?

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.

Can you imagine walking through the villages of the Holy Land with Jesus as your tour guide? What an amazing journey it would be to walk with him and ask him questions. In contrast in this passage Jesus is the one asking questions. Many times in my life the Holy Spirit has worked this way. A question will captivate your imagination and get your attention like nothing else. Such is the way that the Lord draws his disciples in here.

Many believe that Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah hits to the heart of the gospel. You can almost get a sense that he blurted the answer out as others were batting around the other names. Interesting how others considered Jesus to be a prophetic figure in the genre of Elijah. These were looking for the return of that great prophet. But the Messiah is much more than a great prophet. He is the Savior of the world. He is God in flesh.

With Peter and the saints of all ages I confess that Jesus is the Christ.

Do not even enter the village.

And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

I am amazed when I read of miracles like this. Not so much that the miracle happened but the way that it happened. The story is so compelling. I wonder why the Lord led the blind man by the hand out of the village? And why did he use spittle in the healing process? And why was it a two step healing process? And isn't it strange that he ordered the man not to enter the village? What was it about that village that was so troubling to the Lord?

In these latter years of my life I have come to love the wonder and mystery of faith. Certainly there are some things in life that the bible has answers for but there is so much mystery in these gospel stories. Even so, like the healed man in this story, I think that there are places that God has led me out of and does not want me to return to. Escaping from those places has put me in a place where I can experience healing and it is wise that I do not return.

Help me Lord to not return to the dark places.

Are your hearts hardened?

Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

Understanding the gospel has never been an issue of intellect. When Jesus speaks of having eyes and ears that do not see and hear he is speaking of inner vision and hearing. This is a difficult concept for so many people because they are uncomfortable trusting that deep part of them and prefer to rely on their own understanding instead. Generally our own understanding works for us but in matters spiritual it is a hindrance and not a help.

The message that Jesus is trying to teach them is encapsulated in Proverbs when Solomon tells his readers to trust the Lord with all of their hearts and not lean on their own understanding. The leaven of the religious leaders is always about leaning on their teaching (i.e. understanding) of Mosaic Law. It is wrong because the kingdom of God is not about external rules but about laws written on a person's heart.. these laws we can trust.

Help me Lord to not rely on my own understanding but to trust you with all that is in me.

Why does this generation seek a sign?

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

Signs are such a very powerful phenomenon. Billboards have the ability to capture our attention and captivate our imagination. Images on television and cinema can appeal to our senses in such a way that persuades and influences us to but products and support candidates. These are used because they speak to our senses and our intellect. In contrast faith is does not pay attention to signs because it is based in the heart and not the head.

Jesus understood that the heart of spiritual life is the heart and not the senses. A person that can be persuaded in debate can also be persuaded in another direction if the predominant factor is the logic of an idea. But if that person is convinced of something in their heart then nothing, or no one, can sway them. Faith does not pay attention to external signs when there is a strong internal witness. Faith trusts in the Lord and not in signs.

Help me Lord to be captivated by inner vision and not by external signs.

I have compassion on the crowd ...

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground.

And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people.

Seems that there are two miraculous events like this shared in the gospel accounts - the other one fed over five thousand people. Each time bread and fish were on the menu. These are amazing events and pretty inexplicable except to say that the Lord miraculously multiplied the little food they had. It reminds me that a little is a lot when it is given to the Lord in prayer. I tend to underestimate this kind of divine multiplication factor.

I love the way that Jesus is constantly and persistently teaching his disciples about pragmatic compassion. Small wonder that his disciples regularly reported this in the accounts of healing and deliverance. I am convinced that I need to grow in this area as I interact daily with others. My tendency is to judge people as unprepared when they are homeless and hungry. My prayer is that, like Jesus, I would have compassion in those times.

I repent of callousness Lord. Cause compassion to increase in my heart.

Be opened.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

I think that it is very easy to read this account and not fully embrace the magnitude of what happened. You may be thinking "yes, yes, I know that Jesus did many such things when he walked the Holy Land but what has that got to do with me?" I believe that these eye witness reports are included in the scriptures to give us a picture of God and help us to, by faith, understand that he came to demonstrate his love and compassion for us when we hurt.

Imagine with me, if you will, what it must have like to have been a person who could not hear and had difficulty speaking. What was it like for him to live each day in silence? I wonder what he was thinking as friends brought him to Jesus begging him to simply lay his hand on him. Was hope or confusion building in his heart as he watched Jesus spit and touch his tongue? And how his heart must have soared when he first hear sounds and voices!

Help me Lord to embrace the wonder and majesty of this story today!

The demon has left your daughter.

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

Many discount such tales of exorcism thinking it is a chapter out of a Stephen King novel. Dealing with the devil, unclean spirits and their interaction with human beings is an uncomfortable topic for some. I have heard explanations of passages like this one marked off to mental illness and the existence of evil is marginalized at best. Interesting how many gospel accounts offer stories where Jesus is portrayed as one with authority over evil.

Yet the woman in this story is sure of two things: her child was being tormented by an unclean spirit; Jesus had the power to cast the demon out. She had faith but Jesus seemed unwilling to help her daughter until she argued with him. This interchange helps me to understand how God wants me to sometimes pray. When an answer to prayer seems distant he wants me to persevere in prayer and contend with him in intercession for the need.

Help me Lord to always pray and never give up in the fight against evil.

What comes out of a person is what defiles him.

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? 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?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “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 things come from within, and they defile a person.”

I think that the contrast painted here by the Lord is a very stark one. The religious leaders were all about the externals - about following spiritual rules and man made traditions. Jesus would have none of this and consistently confronted them on all fronts. He understood that following rules and principles would never lead a person to external life. Sadly I too well understand this because I was once a person who loved to follow those rules.

My desire to follow rules was very much a reflection of my internal brokenness. The desire to look good and perform for God is antithetical to kingdom values that compassionately embrace the wounded and the lost. It projects the idea that God wants a people who have their act together. Such a message is false and destructive. God loves us where we are and longs to be merciful to us and lead us in way that produce internal and eternal life.

Help me Lord to follow you in my heart and not lean on my own understanding.