God still moves mountains

I’m one of almost 7 billion people on earth right now, and it seems almost presumptuous for me to believe that God hears me when I pray.

The all-powerful universe-creating God bends his ear toward me when I direct my thoughts toward him.

It’s hard to believe.

In fact, it’s so hard to believe that I sometimes wonder how much we truly believe it.

We don’t struggle to believe he’ll grant our more mundane requests, like food, clothing, and shelter, or safety and protection.

We don’t struggle to believe he’ll respond to our abstract spiritual requests—for forgiveness, mercy, and hope.

But what about the spectacular stuff?

What about the extraordinary?

Does God still move mountains in response to our prayers?

Jesus’ answer is quite emphatic:

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” (Mark 11:22-24).

It’s clear that Jesus exaggerates to make his point.

But this is another one of those passages where we sometimes talk too much about what it doesn’t mean and not enough on what it does mean.

It doesn’t mean that all we need to do is believe in order to receive.

It doesn’t mean God will grant every request, no matter how ill-conceived.

But it means something. In fact, it probably means onlyone thing.

We need to believe that God will do what we’re asking.

We need to pray trusting prayers, optimistic prayers, God-will-answer-me prayers.

Got an insurmountable problem at work?

A seemingly unfixable relationship?

A we’ve-done-all-we-can-do-for-you health problem?

Then pray.

Pray hard.

Pray often.

Pray . . . trusting that God will remove the obstacle, fix your relationship, or cure your illness.

What are you stressed about right now?

What’s grieving your heart?

Ask God to throw that mountain into the sea.

He can still move mountains, and often does, but his response may hinge on how confident you are that he’ll answer you.

Was Jesus effeminate?

The mental image I have of Jesus is one I got years ago from a children’s Bible storybook, I think.

You’ve probably seen it before, and pretty much everything about it is wrong.

He’s fair-skinned, which he wasn’t.

He’s long-haired, which he probably wasn’t.

He’s effeminate, which he most certainly wasn’t.

Why do artists so often make Jesus look soft?

Even Jim Caviezel as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ looks weak.

I’m pretty sure Jesus had more backbone than most artistic renderings display.

Take this story, for example.

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city (Mark 11:15-19).

This bothered Jesus, probably because of two issues:

These men were using the temple as a place to make money, distorting its primary purpose.

And they had effectively stolen the only place in the temple where non-Jews could worship by turning the court of the Gentiles into a kind of bazaar. No one could worship in all that chaos.

Whatever the exact reason, Jesus ran them out.

By the way, this is not the Jesus of the murals.

The effeminate, picture-Bible Jesus wouldn’t ever do something like this, and if he tried, no one would take him seriously.

But these guys did.

Before they knew what was happening, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth had put them out on the street.

The man they saw that day didn’t have soft features and tender hands.

He had a scowl on his face and determination in his eyes.

I love how the Jesus of the Bible responded appropriately to each unique situation, sometimes with kindness, sometimes with firmness.

His hands were soft enough to cradle the babies and calloused enough to convince these men he meant business.

His spirit was gentle enough to extend compassion to an adulterous woman but firm enough to show little patience for people who willingly distorted God’s house of worship.

It’s important for us to have a well-rounded image of Jesus as well.

He was tender and compassionate with the weak and sinful.

But he was firm and unyielding to those who obstinately persisted in sin.

And I think those two pictures of Jesus will be present when he returns at the end of time.

He will extend grace and mercy to those who’ve walked with him in humility.

But those in rebellion will see the same Jesus these money-changers saw.

I’d just as soon never face that Jesus.

The only time Jesus cursed

Did you hear about the preacher who walked around naked to get his point across?

It actually happened—Isaiah stripped and walked barefoot to symbolize the “stripping” of Egypt (Isa 20:1-6).

Not your typical three-point sermon, but I’d guess his audience never forgot it. Jeremiah acted out a sermon as well, retrieving a spoiled loincloth to symbolize the humiliation of Judah (Jer 13:1-11). Later he wore a yoke around his neck to represent enslavement to the king of Babylon (27:1-15; 28:10-17).

Sometimes God’s people tell stories.

And sometimes, when they really need to make a point, they act them out.

Near the end of his time on earth, Jesus decided to give his disciples a visual lesson, what some people call a “dramatized parable.”

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” (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21).

That’s a weird story, isn’t it?

It’s the only time Jesus ever cursed anything, but why?

Because he lost his temper?

And why did he curse a fig tree for not producing figs when they were out of season?

It’s a tough passage, but the simple explanation is probably the best one: Israel—God’s people—hadn’t produced fruit and would therefore be rejected.

God had lavished blessings on them, but they had continually disobeyed him, culminating in their rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. God would now turn his face away from them as his chosen people.

The fig tree still speaks to us today, of course, though in a slightly different way.

When God blesses people, he wants them to bear fruit. He expects us to use his gifts to his glory.

How long’s it been since you counted all the ways God’s been good to you?

Some of us were raised in Christian homes and taught about Jesus from the time we entered the world.

Others came to know Christ later in life.

But regardless, we’ve been blessed to know Jesus. Millions in the world can’t even get their hands on a Bible.

Our country has some real problems, but God has put us in a land with freedoms that many people can’t even fathom.

He’s given us food to eat, clothes to wear, and warm beds to sleep in.

Family, friends, faith.

Why us?

Why did God choose to bless us so much?

I really don’t know why.

But we do know this.

God likes for fig trees to produce figs, and he likes for us to use his gifts for good.

How will you produce a few figs this week?

God on a donkey?

If I ever get to ride into a city as a conquering hero, I know how I don’t want to do it.

A beautiful majestic white stallion would be nice.

An armed escort, a marching band, important dignitaries, adoring crowds.

How would you do it?

In neither your dream nor mine is there a donkey.

Donkeys are undignified. Awkward. Ugly.

When General Patton returned to Boston after World War II, a million people lined the streets. Patton glittered with 24 stars: four on each shoulder, four on each collar, four on his helmet, and four on the holster that cradled his pearl-handled revolver. He sat up straight and absorbed the adoration of the crowds.

How did Jesus enter Jerusalem on Sunday of his crucifixion week?

On a donkey.

Can you imagine General Patton riding into Boston on a donkey?

Jesus’ entry was one more emphatic point that he wasn’t the kind of king the people expected.

But we really need to know what kind of king he is.

Here’s Mark’s version of the story:

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. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:1-10).

Sure, there were crowds, and they adored him, at least for now.

But a donkey?

God is riding a donkey?

If the disciples had any lingering notions that Jesus planned to lead a rebellion against Rome, this should’ve done it for them.

No general they’d ever heard of rode a donkey.

And of course that’s why he did it.

The people needed to understand that Jesus didn’t come as an earthly king or a conquering hero.

He didn’t come with Churchill-esque speeches to stir the masses to battle.

He didn’t come with a new insurgent strategy to chase the Roman legions back to Italy.

He had been telling the crowds for months now that his kingdom was different from what they expected.

He came to teach them about servanthood, not power. Humility, not arrogance.

So now he teaches them through a striking visual image.

An omnipotent, everlasting, Creator God climbed onto the back of a young, awkward donkey and slowly made his way into the city.

I think that image ought to stick with us.

The next time we think people at work or church or school ought to throw us a ticker-tape parade because of something we’ve done, remember the donkey.

The next time we think we’re all that, we should remember that our Savior wasn’t.

He was humble. He was submissive.

He’s the example of what we ought to be.

The great eye doctor

It’s hard to stop someone who really wants something.

Try standing between a mother and her hurting child, for example.

You’d be better off trying to stop a truck.

A group of folks once tried to keep a blind man from crying out to the only one who could help him.

They were wasting their breath.

And they came to Jericho. And 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 (Mark 10:46-52).

This blind beggar lived in a miserable world that offered few accommodations for his disability, and he had an opportunity to meet the world’s only cure for blindness.

So when Jesus passed within shouting distance he did what all of us would’ve done.

He screamed his head off.

The people around him told him to be quiet. Maybe he was bothering them, or perhaps they thought he needed to hush so he wouldn’t irritate Jesus.

Regardless, I can almost guarantee you what he said to those folks.

“You’re kidding, right? Do you really expect me to let this opportunity pass by?”

And he yelled even louder.

At that moment there was nothing in the world Bartimaeus wanted more than his sight, so Jesus rewarded his persistence and healed him.

We need to know that Jesus is still practicing ophthalmology today.

We live in a dark world, one in which many people seem to care little about right and wrong, about goodness and truth.

But we have a choice.

We can live in darkness and learn to grope blindly around. We might even become comfortable in it.

Or we can choose sight over blindness, light over darkness.

We can choose truth over lies, giving over getting, others over self.

In other words, we can choose to follow Jesus.

Like Bartimaeus, we can decide that nothing will cause us to become satisfied with the dark world we live in.

No criticism, mockery, or persecution. Nothing is worth it.

Jesus has been bringing light into people’s lives for about two thousand years now.

How’s your vision?

The best seat in the house

I suppose most of us like sitting in the good seats.

In his back yard a little boy pretends that he just threw the winning touchdown while the “crowd goes wild.”

A little girl dreams of thousands of adoring fans screaming her name.

The dreams change over time, of course, but they never disappear.

The young executive longs for the promotion that will bring him the recognition he deserves.

The artist hopes desperately that her work will draw praise from peers and critics.

Who doesn’t want to sit in the VIP suite?

Who doesn’t want a seat at the table where important people make big decisions?

Who doesn’t want the world to think he’s important, that she matters, that his contributions are unique?

It’s a difficult topic, because there’s nothing wrong with ambition. A healthy desire to achieve has led to world-changing accomplishments.

But there’s a fine line between ambition and self-promotion, which is what Jesus warns us about here.

And 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.” 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” (Mark 10:35-45).

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so critical of James and John, but their question is incredibly off-base.

They just don’t get it. At all.

They dreamed of an earthly kingdom with Jesus on his throne and themselves in the next two seats.

They could taste the power.

Little kids today dream of draining the winning shot or becoming rich and famous, while first-century Jewish children dreamed of chasing the despised Romans out of their homeland. In their back yards they saw themselves riding the white stallion at the front of the cavalry.

James and John had been thinking about this day for years.

And now it’s almost within their grasp.

If they can only convince Jesus that they’re worthy to sit in those seats of honor, they’ll get what they want.

Power. Recognition. Influence. Control.

What does the Lord think about their ambition?

He responds by returning to something he had said often: it’s not about getting glory and honor and power.

It’s about serving.

It’s about not needing, not wanting, the limelight and recognition.

Why hadn’t the disciples gotten this lesson by now?

Or better yet, why haven’t we?

Why do we fight and scratch and claw our way to the top of the pile, only to realize that true greatness is found in serving, not ruling?

It’s an incredibly tough lesson to learn, and the disciples didn’t really get it until they saw Jesus demonstrate the ultimate act of servanthood.

After the cross their attitudes changed remarkably, and they spent the rest of their lives teaching and modeling what it meant to serve.

That’s another reason why Jesus kept pointing to the cross, saying he would “give his life as a ransom for many.”

His giving up all his rights and privileges for our sake motivates us to do the same.

Feeling underappreciated? Unfulfilled?

Find someone to serve today.

True greatness wears an apron more than it wears a suit.

This is our story

We’ve all got a story, something that shapes everything we do.

It defines us, makes us who we are, gives us hope and security and meaning.

It’s our defining principle, and it informs every choice we make.

For some people it’s their career.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a teacher.” “I’m an engineer.” “I’m a homemaker.”

For others it’s their stuff.

“Who are you?”

“Look at what I’ve got. Impressive, huh?”

For others it’s their appearance or athleticism or spouse or kids.

It’s your purpose in life, what you came to do, what you exist to be.

For Jesus, it was his death.

That’s why he talked so much about it.

That’s why the gospel writers used so much space to write about it. In fact, someone observed that the gospels are really just descriptions of the Lord’s final week on earth, with extended introductions.

This is the third time in Mark that Jesus huddles up with his closest disciples and tells them what lies ahead.

Here he gives more details than he ever had before.

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise” (Mark 10:32-34).

That’s why Jesus was born.

He didn’t come to heal the sick or walk on water or raise the dead.

He did all that, of course, and much more.

But he came to die.

Even before Adam and Eve sank their teeth into the forbidden fruit, God was already looking at Calvary. He was already heading to Jerusalem.

Eons before God told his people about the Passover lamb, Jesus was planning to become the last Lamb, our perfect Lamb.

Long before Moses’ law legislated all the animal sacrifices, God had Golgotha on his mind.

It’s who Jesus is.

He’s a miracle-worker, an incredible teacher, a compassionate healer, but he’s especially The One Who Died. For us.

Who are you?

What’s your purpose?

God wants his story to become your story.

In fact, he died so his story–death and resurrection–might be reenacted in you. You die to the person you used to be, and he raises you up, gives you new life.

He wants you to live every day in the shadow of the cross.

Sure, you may be an attorney, an accountant, or a salesman.

You may be lower-, middle-, or upper-class.

You’ve got a gender, an ethnicity, and a personality that distinguish you from everyone else.

But who are you?

What one thing makes you you?

You’re a believer who was saved at Calvary.

Jesus lived and died among us so that his journey would become yours.

Will this investment pay off?

You’ve probably seen the retirement calculators before.

If you invest $200 per month beginning at age 20 and it grows 8% annually, you’ll be a millionaire at age 65.

Your financial planner may have already wowed you with the wonders of compound interest over time.

Here’s a better strategy:

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” (Mark 10:28-31).

It seems like recent events had made Peter nervous.

He’d just seen a rich man walk away from Jesus because he cared more about his investment portfolio than he did his soul.

And for some reason—insecurity, perhaps?—Peter needed assurance that the Lord had noticed the sacrifices the disciples had made for the cause.

He probably loved the Lord’s response.

Invest in me, Jesus said, and you’ll get a 100% return in this life and eternal bliss in the next.

That’s much better than the 8% your IRA might get you.

I suppose most of us have thought what Peter asked.

We wonder if the sacrifices we’ve made for the gospel are worth it.

All the time, all the effort, all the struggles.

Lord, are you noticing?

Are they worth it?

Yes, he is, and they are.

You won’t ever regret the sacrifices you make.

For some reason, my favorite church song as a child was “Heaven will surely be worth it all,” though I’m fairly certain I hadn’t made any huge sacrifices for the Lord by the age of 10 or 11.

For whatever reason, though, the song’s lyrics resonated with my early reflections on discipleship.

And it’s something we need to remind ourselves.

Heaven will indeed be worth it all.

But not just heaven . . . we get to live the good life here—it won’t always be struggle-free, but we’ll consistently have peace and love and hope. Our difficulties will be tempered by the Lord’s presence and our confidence about the future.

And after this life, the Lord takes us to be with him.

What could be better than that?

There’s nothing wrong with investing, of course, but it would be terribly sad to have an incredible 401(k) and to be spiritually bankrupt.

The rich man invested everything in this world and Peter gave up everything for the next.

Which one is in better shape now?

A message for us rich folks

As I type these thoughts, I’m sitting in a cushioned, high-back chair and using a relatively new computer.

The temperature outside is quite mild, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a very comfortable 70 degrees where I am. If it varies a few degrees one way or the other, that’s easy enough to fix.

I’m not sure what I’ll eat for my next meal, but I’m not the slightest bit worried about whether or not I’ll have something to eat.

Can you relate?

If so, that says all we need to know about where we both stand in the world.

We’re wealthy.

Over three billion people right now are somehow scraping by on less than $2 a day.

I spent four times that this morning on a book I think I might like to read.

That’s probably why many of us stumble through passages like this one.

After a rich man walked away from Jesus, the Lord turned to the disciples and said:

“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” (Mark 10:23-27).

The disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing, probably because they thought wealth meant God was pleased with you, a common assumption in their world.

If the ones God has blessed can’t be saved, no one has a chance, they were thinking.

Jesus quickly turned that assumption on its head, as he did so many others.

Instead of suggesting God’s approval, money makes it more difficult to go to heaven. Jesus paints a funny picture of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle, which is impossible, of course (don’t buy into any interpretation that suggests anything less than absolute impossibility).

Jesus is saying that rich people can’t go to heaven, not unless God steps in.

But why?

Because money makes us think we’re self-sufficient, that we don’t need anything.

It opens doors and buys respect.

It gets us what we want.

The thing we like about it the most, though, is that it brings independence, and we like independence.

We feel strong, powerful, in control.

Which are the very qualities that prevent true discipleship.

Entering the kingdom means submitting yourself totally to the lordship of Jesus. It means acknowledging that you depend completely on God for your future.

And we wealthy folks don’t like to do that, not at all. We take comfort in being self-sufficient.

But this passage ends on a positive note.

“All things are possible with God.”

It’s crucial to notice where Jesus points when he talks about salvation.

He’s always looking at God.

God will turn our eyes away from self and make us acknowledge our dependence on him.

We’ll see wealth as a gift from God that he’ll use to his glory, not as some sort of façade that gives us a false sense of self-sufficiency.

Through God’s power we’ll direct our trust toward Jesus alone.

Then he, and only he, will get the camel through that needle.

Sell what you’ve got

Some people describe this as the saddest passage in the New Testament.

It should probably scare us half to death.

A good man asks Jesus a sincere question about salvation, and then turns his back on the Lord and walks away.

Why?

How?

The answers hit a little too close to home.

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 (Mark 10:17-22).

You can’t help but like this guy.

He wanted to know what was right—he ran and knelt before Jesus.

He cared about matters of faith—he had kept the law.

But Jesus looks into his heart and knows something isn’t right.

It’s interesting how Jesus goes about this discussion. He refers to the last six of the Ten Commandments, often called “second table” commandments. These six tell us how to treat people, while the first four speak to our attitude toward God. The first four are vertical; these last six are horizontal.

In other words, Jesus asks, “Have you treated people right?”

“Yes, since I was a boy,” he says.

But Jesus knows that’s not true.

He knows the man has wealth that he could’ve used to help people, but didn’t.

He knows the man is in love with his money.

So Jesus tells him to give it away, to get serious about loving others.

He wants the young man to know that loving people is more than smiling at them.

It’s more than not hurting them.

Apparently the man had loved others as long as it didn’t hurt his wallet . . . as long as it didn’t involve true sacrifice.

And that’s not really following God at all.

When applying this story to us, I’m tempted to fall back on the easy response and say something like, “Well, it doesn’t mean that we all need to sell our stuff and give the money to the poor.”

Pretty much everybody would agree with that.

But saying that avoids the fact that Jesus is slapping most of us right in the face with these words.

Nothing is worth forfeiting heaven. Not money, not a job, not a relationship.

Nothing.

If there’s anything at all that matters more to us than God, we should do some serious soul-searching.

He’s given everything for us, and in a small token of gratitude, we commit everything back to him.