Luke 10:30–37—In reply Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:25–29—On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
John 8:57–59—”You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.
John 8:41–44—Jesus said, “You are doing the works of your own father.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God Himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
John 8:25–30—”Who are you?” they asked. “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” Jesus replied. “I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.” They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” Even as he spoke, many believed in him.
John 8:21–24—Once more Jesus said to them, “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.” This made the Jews ask, “Will he kill himself? Is that why he says, ‘Where I go, you cannot come’?” But he continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”
When we know something or someone very well, it is easy to skip over the nuances that reveal the beauty, wonder and mystery of that object. So it is with the prayer given to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We know it by memory, but do we really know what Jesus is actually telling us here? Along with my good friend, Pastor Chuck Davis, we’ve divided the study of the Lord’s Prayer into five devotions as a way of probing beneath the surface of Jesus’ words to the meaning he wants to convey to each one of us.
How to Pray
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:5–6
In a very different context, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8:33). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says much the same thing about our motives behind praying. If we pray to impress people with our religious prowess, we are subverting the very reason to pray. Jesus says that prayer is about connecting with God. It is an ongoing conversation, a dialog where we not only can speak, but we can be spoken to as well. When it comes to prayer, we need to step outside of the discourse and commerce of everyday life so that we can adjust the attitudes of our heart to hear and to be heard, to speak and to be spoken to, not in the normal way of such things, but in the intimate company of God Himself.
God Knows What You Need
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:7–8
Prayer is the essential link that connects us to God, who is not detached and foreign, but who desires to give each one of us the good things that he planned for us from the very beginning. After David fell into temptation and sin, he implored God to not take his Holy Spirit away because that would be worse than death (Psalm 51:11). God is not impersonal; he knows everything about us, and he wants us to know him. But if we fake it and babble like the pagans and puff ourselves up like the hypocritical religious leaders, we are engaging in mere pretense that in the end leaves us unhappy, alone, and dissatisfied. God is not far away (James 4:8). He is near, and it is through the power of prayer that we can draw ever closer to him. We should be confident that he hears us and longs for our eternal well-being.
The Lord’s Prayer
This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:9–10
The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar that it is easy to miss its depth and complexity. In the first sentence alone, Jesus includes four declarations. First, he addresses God as “Our Father,” not as some stern and unfeeling taskmaster, but as “Daddy,” just as a child would address his own loving and protective father. Then he says, “hallowed be your name,” which sets this Father apart as holy and perfect and above the sinful and imperfect condition of men and women on earth. Then Jesus prays that God’s kingdom will be restored here on earth, replacing the kingdoms that are at war with God and his people. Finally, he prays for the unity that can only exist when the original design takes root here on earth, echoing the harmony that existed at the very beginning when God created the world and all the creatures in it, and he saw that it was very good (Genesis 1:31).
Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11
In this plentiful and prosperous corner of the world, it is too easy to forget what would happen if all the foods we find in markets and restaurants suddenly vanished. It is difficult to imagine a world where this kind of deprivation could become a reality, but for many, getting access to food is the harsh reality of daily life. When times are good, it is easy to assume provision from the endless supplies afforded by science and enterprise. But is this a reasonable position? Jesus prays to God for daily provision because he knows that God is the only true provider. As he says elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). To paraphrase another prayer: “Lord, for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray . . .. Please keep me, guide me, love me, Lord, just for today.” Recognizing our daily dependence on God is the only way to live each and every day.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matthew 6:12
Whether we use the word “trespasses,” “debts,” or “sins” when praying the Lord’s Prayer, we are essentially asking God for forgiveness for the countless ways we have fallen away from him. In an earlier encounter, Jesus makes his mission on earth abundantly clear: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Paul says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), so when we are praying, “Forgive us,” there are no exceptions or exemptions. Everyone needs to ask for God’s forgiveness because our sin causes us to betray him time and again. When Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death,” he gives us the answer immediately: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Roman 7:24–25) This one line of the Lord’s Prayer is liberating because without forgiveness, we will never escape the destructive consequences growing out of our sin-prone nature. But it is not just about us: We need to forgive as God has forgiven us. Just as God’s forgiveness cost him dearly, to forgive others as God has forgiven us can be costly. But from an eternal point of view, the cost is worth it.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Matthew 6:13
Why would God lead us into temptation? Perhaps it is best to think of this dilemma as fundamental to our relationship with God. Jesus seems to be requesting that God not place him in a situation where he would be tempted to betray God. When Jesus was tempted by the devil three times in the wilderness, he resisted by remaining centered in the Holy Spirit. This prayer acknowledges the existence of an evil one, who wanders the earth looking for people not able to withstand the devil’s schemes. Here is the promise for those who believe: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Put yourself on the wind swept hill above Caperneum and the Sea of Galilee. You have been following Jesus from town to town as he has been performing miracles to the amazement of many but to the consternation of some. Now Jesus has asked everyone to sit so we hear his timeless teachings on our relationship to God and to one another. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers his followers a way of life that promises an eternity in Heaven. Please join me in exploring these teachings known as The Beatitudes.
The Poor in Spirit
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
Jesus begins the Beatitudes with a statement that throws into question the direction of our striving hearts. Many of us build our lives stone by stone, thinking that our economic well-being will relieve our thirst for something more than the riches and real estate we may acquire through a lifetime of effort. But wealth by itself cannot quench our thirst or satisfy our longing hearts. The poor are blessed because they are less prone to be blinded by the smokescreen of riches that obscures God’s authentic role in this world. The poor are not blessed because they are better. God calls all men and women into relationship with himself. It is just harder for the rich to put their trust in God because they may have decided to trust in the power and position that wealth can bring. “A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:20).
Those Who Mourn
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
When we experience the loss a friend or a family member, we cry out from the bottom of our hearts because we know something irreversible has taken place. We mourn, but Jesus tells us that God comes beside us to mourn with us and to comfort us. We are blessed at these moments because in the midst of our profound aloneness we experience the presence of God. And when we experience his presence, we realize that when we invite God into our lives, we are not alone and will never be alone. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
Again, Jesus takes a counterintuitive tack when stating who will inherit the earth. In his novel Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s anti-hero, Sherman McCoy, is the “Master of the Universe,” a “god” of Wall Street who exudes antipathy for the nameless swarm of humanity that surrounds him in the city of New York. Sherman is a type that can be found in all the major financial centers in the world. He is trapped in a limousine reality and would have no understanding of what Jesus is telling him and us. When Jesus points to meekness, he is emphasizing humbleness of character. The meek are meek not out of a reservoir of weakness, but through the experience of knowing God and knowing that he is God and we are not:
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
You are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
You know it completely, O Lord.
Those Who Hunger and Thirst
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)
If we hunger and thirst for something, we will not stop until we get it. What is your desert thirst? What do you hunger for above everything else? Jesus is using physical appetites common to all men and women to point to the one thing that will actually satisfy. Solomon asked God for the wisdom of “a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish right from wrong” (1 Kings 3:9). By asking for wisdom he was asking God to bless him with the righteousness that can only come from God. Jesus came down to earth to make that righteousness available to all: “Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20–21).
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
As God has shown mercy to us, so we should show the same measure of mercy to others. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus tells of a servant who cannot repay his master a large amount of money. The servant begs for mercy and it is granted. But soon enough, the servant demands repayment of monies owed him, and instead of showing the same kindness when the debtor cannot pay, he has the debtor thrown into prison. When the master is told of this, he asks the forgiven servant, “Shouldn’t you have had the same mercy on your fellow servant just as I had for you?” (Matthew 18:23–35) Think of the master in the parable as God, and think of the wicked servant as each one of us. We have received God’s mercy; in fact, we receive it everyday and we can never pay it back. But we can show it to others every time we have the opportunity. We can represent God in the world by forgiving just as we have been forgiven.
The Pure in Heart
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
If we have the means, we wash away the grit and grime that naturally accumulates during our daily engagement with the world. If we don’t go through the daily rituals of bathing, we begin to feel out of sorts. But outer cleanliness does not necessarily equate with inner cleanliness. Jesus compares the Pharisees to “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27–28). The unclean and diseased heart infects the whole person from the inside out, making it less and less possible to “see God.” Jesus is the ultimate heart surgeon who repairs and restores, beginning with the heart and working out from there.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
We hear people speak of peace all the time, but how can there be peace when, in the deeper recesses of the heart, we are often at war with God? It might be said that human history began with the rebellion in the Garden of Eden. One thoughtless act of defiance led directly to all the enmity, pain, suffering, murder, and mayhem that characterize so much of the historical narrative. Peacemaking, as opposed to peacekeeping, can only take root if we first make peace with God through Christ. Then genuine peacemaking can begin, one person at a time.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
From our earliest days, we expect to be rewarded for good behavior. When the opposite occurs, we feel the pain of injustice to our very core. This correlation of good behavior and reward is so pervasive that we often expect that our life will get better if we follow Jesus. But the weight of the narrative thus far suggests the opposite is just as true. Jesus’ life was threatened by Herod’s troops when he was a young child, he was persecuted and reviled by the religious elite for performing miracles on the Sabbath, and he was even rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus experienced persecution, his disciples experienced persecution, and the church has experienced persecution down through the ages and even to the present time.
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Storytelling is our way of bringing meaning to what might otherwise appear to be random events in everyday existence. Stories answer questions. John Eldredge, who I referenced in the Contours of Story, says the great philosophical question is really quite simple: “How did all of this get here?” or to put it in the words of Tolkien’s heroic hobbit: “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
Have you ever wondered what kind of tale you’ve fallen into? Many of us do not think of ourselves as being on a quest to save the world from the dark and evil forces concentrated in the shadow of Mordor. But could we be wrong? It could be that we are more like the characters in Lord of the Rings than we might image. And it could be that our world resembles Middle Earth more than we might think.
And if we are living within the framework of the battle between forces of good and evil, does that change the way we look at the purpose and meaning of our own lives?
When my son Arthur and I departed the Lodge at Cardigan, we thought we were embarking on an easy journey that would take us to an open mountaintop with inspiring views and then, after that, on to a nearby hikers’ cabin to spend a safe and warm winter night.
The Cardigan summit, though, turned into a battleground. We had walked into a turbulent and unpredictable world putting our safety on the line. We had to draw on instinct and experience to find our way down to the cabin. Without saying a word, we both understood the dangers of the world we crossed through and were grateful to arrive at the place that would provide warmth and rest.
I have thought about this experience long and hard since it happened. I could have dismissed it as just another winter mountain walk, but the contrast of the dangers of the storm and the safety of the cabin were so stark they demanded further reflection.
Many years ago, in another time of great personal challenge, I discovered the Bible. Even though I was in my middle years, my understanding of the world was not built on a strong biblical foundation. I had been brought up in a Christian culture, but that world was not a culture of the cross; instead, the church had been transmuted into a diluted remnant of an earlier, more vibrant expression of the faith. The institution of the church was accepted as long as it did not impose itself too severely on the wishes of the people and their communities. This was the world I knew as a boy and young man; you might call it the world of “Cabin Christians” where the safe and pleasant environment of the cabin is substituted for the difficulties of being a Christian in a more turbulent and unpredictable world.
This is what Jesus prayed for those who will follow him after his crucifixion and resurrection: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”(John 17:14-18)
And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”(Matthew 5:11-12)
On the summit I longed for the safety of the cabin, but I also knew that we would need to depart the cabin soon enough to go back to the world Jesus describes. Jesus was warning his disciples that they would encounter resistance in this world, but he also promised that he would be with them “always to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28:20)
The truth is this: If we accept the great commission of Jesus Christ to go out into the world to make disciples of all nations, we will experience dangers and discomfort. It may even seem like a hopeless battle at times, but do we have a choice? If we accept the call, then we must accept the conditions that might come with the call. Sam and Frodo did not choose the journey to Mordor for themselves; they knew their whole world was at risk. The seemingly safe Shire was not really safe at all. They did not know it, but these two improbable heroes were part of a much bigger story that transformed a mere journey into an epic mission. The odds at times may seem insurmountable, but the mission commissioned by Jesus Christ is all about overcoming the impossible.
“I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into.”
—Sam as he approaches Mordor with Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring
Since writing my last blog about the unanticipated dangers my son and I encountered on the summit of Cardigan Mountain, I have thought often since then about what happened and why I recall it so vividly.
When we passed the opened shelter at the base of Firescrew Mountain, we made our decision to forge on. We had no idea what that meant. We did know that daylight would soon fade to darkness and we knew we might be exposed to the full brunt of the winter wind as it gusted over the summits of the two mountains.
The snow, the dark and the wind together conspired to confuse us with false signals as to the way forward, making us turn back time and again until we could hunt down a better way. But with all the forces of nature seemingly against us, we pushed on determined to find the cabin somewhere below the summit. It helped having one another as we made our way.
When Arthur finally called out that he had found the fire tower, there was no elation because the summit offered only danger. We could hardly hear one another over the roar of the wind, but we did not pause. We began a search for the trail that would take us to safety.
The cabin itself was dark and cold inside, but it was a refuge in the night and as soon as Arthur built a fire, the room began to warm. Now that we were secure, it was sobering to recall the conditions on the exposed summit of Cardigan. While we were searching for a way down, we had no time for reflection, only action. But now in the warmth of the cabin, I realized Arthur and I had just lived through the drama of a survival story.
John Eldridge wrote a short book on the centrality of story to the process of understanding the meaning of the life we live. Madeleine L’Engle has written, “All of life is a story.” Eldridge elaborates: “It goes far deeper than entertainment. Stories nourish us. They provide a kind of food that the soul craves. ‘Stories are equipment for living,’ says Hollywood screenwriting teacher Robert McKee. He believes that we go to the movies because we hope to find in someone else’s story something that will help us understand our own. We go (to movies) ‘to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.’ Stories shed light on our lives.”
Philip Yancey tells us that behind the human condition is an epic story that has fragmented into countless mysteries. He describes what he means by giving us GK Chesterton’s picture of the human story as “a sort of cosmic shipwreck.” Chesterton believes “a person’s search for meaning resembles a sailor who awakens from a deep sleep and discovers treasure strewn about, relics from a civilization he can barely remember. One by one he picks up the relics-gold coins, a compass, fine clothing-and tries to discern their meaning. Fallen humanity is in such a state. Good things on earth-the natural world, beauty, love joy-still bear traces of their original purposes, but lost of memory mars the image of God in us.”
To Chesterton and to me the ultimate version of this story is contained in the pages of the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. The question for each one of us is to try to discern where we believe we fit into that larger biblical narrative as we discover patterns and context to the life we live here and now.