Friday, August 18, 2017

Blessing, Breaking, and Finding Rest in Christ

Mark 6:30-44
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat." But he answered them, "You give them something to eat." And they said to him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?" And he said to them, "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." And when they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish." Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
(see also Matthew 14-13-21 & Luke 9:10-17)

    The disciples had just returned from their mission. Jesus had sent them out two-by-two into some pretty intense spiritual warfare with nothing but His authority, their faith, and each other. They saw amazing things happen but now it was time to rest and recharge. Jesus saw the need for them to pull away from the crowds, from the demands of life, from the distractions of the culture and just be with Him. Also, it was around this time that John the Baptist, their beloved former mentor, was executed by Herod. That had to come as a grievous blow to an already exhausted bunch of disciples.

     But the crowds got wind of it and literally outran their boat. They were waiting for them on the other side when Jesus and His disciples arrived for their retreat. Scripture says that Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew records a similar reaction of Jesus to the crowds: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36) He then followed it up by telling His disciples that the harvest of harassed and helpless souls in need of Him was far greater than the number of laborers available and willing to bring them the hope of the gospel. “There’s more shepherdless sheep than there are shepherds, boys! Too much wheat to harvest for the few laborers we have.” And it moved Him to “compassion.”

     The original Greek word translated “compassion” is a very visceral word. It literally means His bowels churned at the intense emotion He experienced at their plight. It effected Jesus deeply with gut-wrenching pity and an overwhelming desire to rescue and redeem these wandering, helpless, shepherdless sheep.

     Scripture says Jesus began to teach them, and to heal the sick among them. Luke specifically says He “spoke to them of the Kingdom of God,” where there is no more sickness, pain, or death, and all things are made new in Him. Apparently, this lasted late into the afternoon. And as it began to be late, the disciples saw the problem and came to Jesus with their suggestion for a solution: “Send them away so they can get something to eat.” Jesus responded with a suggestion of His own: “You give them something to eat.”

     Jesus was training His disciples in what would one day be their calling: You are my answer to their great need. The church was to be the primary vehicle for bringing the hope of the coming Kingdom to the harassed and helpless sheep of the world, wandering in the wilderness without a shepherd to guide, feed, or protect them. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but someone once told me, “Never pray a prayer that you are not willing to be the answer to.”

     Note the almost sarcastic response of the disciples: “You expect us to buy enough food to feed all these people? That would cost thousands of dollars, which we do not have. And even if we could afford it, where would we be able to buy that much food?” In other words, the disciples were saying, “Jesus, you are crazy! What you are asking of us is impossible!” I can imagine Him smiling at them, as if to say, “That’s the idea, fellas.”

     According to the synoptic gospel accounts, Jesus then gave them a set of instructions:
  • “Go and see.” (Mark 6:38) Stop fretting about what you don’t have and take inventory of what you do have. What resources are available to you right now?
  • “Bring them to me.” (Matthew 14:18) Take what you do have and offer it to Jesus. Let Him take it from your hands -- out of your control, beyond your limited power – and make of it what He will. Don’t limit God’s activity to what you think is possible, rather trust Him to do what only He can do.
  • “Have them sit down in groups…” (Luke 9:14) Jesus gave the commands (authority) and enabled them to be carried out (power), but He entrusted the actual ministry to the disciples. (Both Matthew and Mark say that Jesus commanded the people to sit down, but Luke says He told the disciples to have the people sit down in groups. Most likely, He issued the command and the disciples carries it out. “Jesus says to sit down in groups…”) Jesus gave the Word, but the disciples delivered it to the people. They didn’t brainstorm or form a committee or call a meeting of a focus group to decide what was the best way to handle the situation. They walked with Jesus daily, trusted Him implicitly, listened to Him intently, and obeyed His instructions fully.

     What did Jesus do in response to their obedience? (Mark 6:41)
  • He blessed it. “…he looked up to heaven and said a blessing…” Jesus took what the disciples brought to Him and consecrated it to heaven for the glory of the Father. In blessing the bread, He set it apart as holy. It was no longer “just bread.” 
  • He broke it. “…and broke the loaves…” Jesus began to tear the loaves apart. While they remained whole, they could not be used to feed the crowds. Bread must be broken to fulfill the purpose for which it was made. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus thought of His own body to be broken on the cross to rescue and redeem the harassed and helpless sheep of the world.
  • He gave it to the disciples to distribute. “… and gave them to the disciples to set before the people.” Even though it was His power that made it possible, He entrusted the administration of the bread to His followers. In this way, He enabled the to fulfill the seemingly impossible command He had given them earlier.

     Go back to Mark 6:13. What was Jesus’ original command to His disciples? "You give them something to eat."

     What was their initial response? “We can’t. It’s impossible!” And they were absolutely correct! But Jesus never told them to meet the need from their own resources or abilities. They had to first acknowledge their utter powerlessness to do what Christ had commanded them.

What was the end result?  “And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.” (Mark 6:42-44) The disciples did exactly what Christ has commanded of them: They gave the people something to eat! Not only did all eat and not only were all satisfied, but each disciple had a basket full for himself. Jesus not only provided for the crowd though the, but provided more than enough for them as they carried out His commands!

Don’t miss this! Remember, they had originally come to this desolate place because they needed rest from a season of intense ministry and spiritual warfare. They were quite possibly grieving the loss of their former mentor, John the Baptist, who had been killed around that same time. Christ gave them the rest they needed in the faithful obedient ministry of compassion. Their rest was not found in self-contemplative meditation (though there is a place for that); they found their rest in joining Jesus in the ministry of His compassion in His power and provision!

What’s the take away for us?
  • Christ calls us to follow Him into impossible situations and commands us to do things we could never do in our own strength.
  • Everything we need to obey Him is already there. It may seem like nothing. It may seem insufficient to the need. But in Christ’s hands it is more than enough! 
  • Instead of taking inventory of what we don’t have, take what we do have and bring it to Jesus. Surrender what we have to God in faith. Trust Him with it. Let go of it. For our little to become more than enough, it has to pass from our hands, out of our control, and into His hands. As long as we insist on holding on to it, it will remain insufficient. 
  • Let us yield our own best thinking, your human wisdom. Let us not set limits on what God can do based on our ability to figure things out. Instead, let’s acknowledge our desperate dependence on Him and trust that He will enable us to do what He called us to do.
  • We need both Christ’s blessing and His breaking. Brokenness is what makes ministry possible. If we insist on remaining unbroken, we are useless to the Kingdom. The blessing is Christ’s favor: He chooses us for His purposes, sets us apart for His ministry, He makes us His own. He consecrates us to heaven as vessels of the Father’s glory. Then He breaks us – breaks us of selfish pride, selfish motives, selfish ambitions and agendas. We must die; nothing of the self can remain. We must allow the breaking process to make us fit laborers for the harvest.
  • Christ supplies the power but He entrusts the actual ministry to us. We are the hands and feet of Jesus in ministering the Bread of Life to the harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd. We are the response of Christ’s gut-wrenching compassion for the world!
  • If we yield in obedience, we will see the impossible command that Christ gives us become a fulfilled reality through us to the glory of God. We get the privilege of participating in God’s redemptive mission in the world.
  • The fruit of our faithful obedience is total transformation (not enough becoming more than enough), total satisfaction in Christ, and Jesus glorified.
  • Jesus supplies more than enough to sustain us as we supply His bread in ministry. He will meet our every need as His obedient followers in the process of service to Him.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

As far as it depends on me...

The following is an excerpt from my personal journal dated October 30, 2015.

Romans 12:18
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

           Reading these words this morning, the first thing that jumps off the page to me is the word “if.” A tiny word with big implications. “If” is a conditional term. It implies that a cause-effect dynamic is at play. If this happens, then that will happen as a result. If  you do this, then  I will do that. We sometimes use the word “if” when laying out a possible course of action, should the worst befall us. “If all else should fail…” It cautions us to be prepared.
           The next word is “possible.” Possibilities are by their very nature not guaranteed. When combined with the word “if” it conveys a sense of contingency. “If possible” implies that it may very well not be possible. When it comes to peace in relationships, how do we know when it is still possible or it has become impossible?
           “So far as it depends on you.” When I have done all I can to keep peace and the other party continues to seek conflict, then I know it is impossible so far as it depends on me. But never should peace between persons break down because of me. I once read in a book that, while you cannot control how another person acts/reacts, you can control how you act/react. The author said it like this: “My response is my responsibility.” That has always stuck with me. Not that I have perfected the practice of that ideal yet, but the truth of it is undeniably resonant within me.
           How many times has a discussion about a decision or a situation between me and my wife turned into a “knock-down-drag-out” battle because my response was angry, self-defensive, or critical? (Too many. “Too many” is the answer to that question!) This is where the spiritual fruit of self-control is so crucial. Peace between people is only realistic if at least one party decides that, come what may, they will respond with kindness, graciousness, gentleness, calm, humility, and self-control. “So far as it depends on you” means that you cannot wait until you are in the heat of the moment to decide you want to try out this self-control thing. It must be something you are committed to from the outset. And it takes a daily crucifying of the flesh and presenting of the self to God on the altar as a “living sacrifice.”
           However, this does not always mean pacifism. Sometimes, having done all that can reasonably be done “so far as it depends on you,” peace is just not possible. For example, in the case of abortion, when a follower of Christ (or anyone else who holds life precious and sacred) has done everything to reason with and peaceably discuss the issue, and the other side remains staunchly insistent on the right to murder unborn children in the name of  “freedom” or “women’s rights,” then there is no reconciliation possible. The two positions are polar opposites, based on completely different and opposing worldviews that are in no way compatible. It doesn’t excuse violence, but it does mean there can be no peaceful resolution between the two ideals.
           Sometimes – many times, with increasing frequency and intensity – following Christ takes the option of peaceful relations off the table. I will not compromise what God has clearly commanded in scripture. I will not water down, back down, or in any way betray my allegiance to the Kingdom of God. If the prospect of peaceful relations requires I offend my Savior and dishonor His Name by living contrary to His revealed will, then the price for that peace is too high and I will not pay it. Not now. Not ever.
           This is why Paul adds the caveat “if possible, so far as it depends on you.” This is why Paul doesn’t merely tell the Roman church to “live peaceably with all.” Can you imagine the chaos that would cause, the confusion as they struggled with how to maintain integrity before Christ and be at peace with everyone? What happens when the government demands that you accept the sin for which Christ went to the cross as normal and even desirable? What happens when certain groups insist you adopt their beliefs and values and forsake Christ… or else? Sometimes peace is simply not possible, no matter how much we wish it were. Ask Israel. They know a thing or two about when peace is not possible.
Father, I walk out into this day clothed in the righteousness of Christ, in the power of Your Spirit, and covered by the blood of Jesus shed on the cross for me. Grant me the supernatural ability to control my tongue and my actions, as well as reactions, today. “So far as it depends on me,” help me to live peaceably with all. Especially those who hate You, or hate me because of You. Help me to know when peace is not possible. But even then, let my responses never be harsh, angry, or violent in any way. Let my response always be truth spoken in love. Grant me boldness to never back down or compromise my faith in You. And grant me the grace to express Your love gently, calmly, and peaceably to all.
           I am incapable in my own strength and will power. I cannot simply resolve to do this. I need Your power, Your Spirit working in me, God. Love others through me today, for Your Kingdom’s sake. In the name of Jesus, my Savior, my Lord, my King! Amen!