How could he do that?

How could someone see what Judas saw and do what he did?

What went wrong?

Mark offers no explanation, only this brief statement:

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him (Mark 14:10-11).

Some have suggested he was motivated by greed, that he simply wanted the money.

Others have written—more convincingly, I think—that he became disillusioned with the Lord’s mission. When he realized Jesus wasn’t the kind of king he thought he’d be, he gave up on the cause.

Regardless, it’s heart-breaking.

How could someone given so much mess it up so badly?

It’s hard to learn from Judas’ story. We’ll never be in his situation, so we won’t betray Jesus as Judas did, not in the same way.

But perhaps what he did should make us ask this question: how are we using the opportunities God has given us?

Many of us grew up in environments where we learned about Jesus as children.

Others didn’t hear the gospel until you were older.

But God has given us all the privilege of knowing Jesus—who he is, what he did, what he wants.

Billions of people in the world have never had that opportunity.

Sometimes I’m tempted to look at someone who’s squandered tremendous gifts and feel a little self-righteous.

I’d never grumble like the Israelites . . . I’d never deny like Peter . . . I’d never betray like Judas.

But the great failures of the Bible ought to make us introspective, not self-righteous.

We should be grateful, not critical.

Truth is, there’s a little Judas in all of us, I suppose. Times when we take our eyes off Jesus and glance at the silver in the bag.

John tells us that the devil put betrayal into the heart of Judas (13:2).

Aren’t you thankful God has kept Satan from grabbing your heart like that?

A story told around the world

We have no idea what this sweet lady’s name was, but millions know her story.

They’ve read about her, heard sermons about her, been encouraged by her.

I wonder how many people have been led to give or serve because she decided nothing was too valuable to give to the Lord?

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:3-9).

It was a bold act on her part, because women were traditionally excluded from dinners like this one. She overcame stares and whispers just to make it to Jesus.

It was also incredibly sacrificial—the ointment was worth about a year’s wages.

Had she thought about what she might do with the money she could’ve gotten for this oil?

The things she could’ve bought?

The fun, the clothes, the stuff for her house? For her kids?

When people fall in love, they don’t think about things like that.

The bewitched young man who’d sell everything he’s got to buy a ring for his girl.

The parents who mortgage their lives to buy medicine for their sick child.

Love blinds you to the value of everything except the object of your love.

And that’s why this woman’s story is known throughout the world—she’s an example of somebody who genuinely loves Jesus.

And he’s worth it, isn’t he?

Whatever we sacrifice, whatever we give, whatever we lose.

The short-term cost may be great, but a time will come when we’ll thank God for the opportunities he gave us to give.

We don’t know this woman’s name, but right now she’s sitting with Jesus adoring him with all her heart.

You think she regrets what she did for him?

The end of the world?

Will the world end this year?

Maybe. Probably.

It depends on your source.

According to some New Age practitioners, the Earth might collide with a black hole or passing asteroid, or with a planet called Nibiru.

The Mayans supposedly predicted that we’ll face some kind of cataclysmic or transformative event on December 21. Hollywood even made a movie about it, which means we should definitely take it seriously.

Over the years, religious folks have often jumped on the end-of-the-world bandwagon, suggesting that world events point to Jesus’ imminent return. Conflict in the Middle East, the increase in natural disasters, a world dictator . . . Jesus is coming soon.

Taken together, perhaps we should print off our bucket lists and start making plans.

We’ve only got seven months or so to fit it all in.

On the other hand, we could just listen to what Jesus said about the end of the world:

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake” (Mark 13:32-37).

Jesus will come back, the world will end, and a great cataclysm will occur.

It could be this year.

But nobody knows except God, and he didn’t tell us.

Whenever we hear about the impending end of the world as we know it, we ought to remember Jesus’ advice.

Stay awake.

Live today as if the Master might return.

We shouldn’t get caught up in date predictions, but neither should we act as if the world will never end.

The Bible is consistent: live your life so that whenever Jesus returns, you’ll welcome him with a smile, not a frown.

He’s worthy of our respect

The good ole days probably weren’t as idyllic as we sometimes try to make them, but they did have many good qualities.

Like respect.

Remember the days when a man would always give up his seat for a lady?

When he would open the door for her?

Remember when young people were taught to honor older folks?

When those in positions of authority—presidents, police officers, judges—were spoken of and to respectfully?

It was a “Yes sir, No sir” kind of world, at least in some places. Speech patterns vary according to where we live, of course, but the attitude of respect that undergirds them ought to be more consistent.

In the last couple of decades we’ve developed a more flippant, casual society, which isn’t all bad, of course.

But when a lot of young people in the world are growing up without being taught the old-fashioned notion of respect, things go awry.

Especially when people don’t respect God.

Have you heard anyone call him the “Big Man Upstairs”? (I hope that makes you cringe).

That kind of flippant attitude toward God would’ve made people in the Bible dive for the nearest rock.

People were always overwhelmed with God’s holiness when they came in contact with him.

Take the story of his descending to Mt. Sinai, for example. Notice how sacred the occasion was.

The LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” . . . On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (Exodus 19:10-13, 16-20).

It wasn’t exactly casual Friday, was it?

God wanted the people to know that he was God, the great I AM, Yahweh.

He wanted them to respect him and be in awe of him so that they might learn to obey him.

I think some of that is missing today.

It’s true, of course, that we can directly approach God today because of what Jesus did at the cross. There’s an intimacy in our relationship to God that people in the Old Testament couldn’t experience.

But intimacy doesn’t eliminate respect.

God’s nature hasn’t changed. He’s still worthy of our utmost respect, awe, and admiration.

We show it in our worship—how committed we are to honoring him.

We reflect it in our language—how we talk about him.

And we show it in our lives—the degree to which we obey him.

God condescended to us in Jesus, giving us the wonderful honor of seeing who he is, what he’s like.

But God is still God, and he’s not like us.

He’s holy, high and lifted up, exalted, sinless, and infinite.

He still deserves our respect.

Have a great Friday!

She gave it all

This widow does something so radical that it’s really hard to grasp.

She gave everything she had.

Everything.

If I’m reading this text right, she didn’t have something squirrelled away in a snuff box under her bed for really tough times.

Her savings account and safety deposit box down at Jerusalem’s Bank & Trust were empty.

She had two almost worthless copper coins to her name, and she gave them both.

In a world without a government or social fall-back plan, she gave it all.

Amazing story . . . you’ve probably read it before, but read it again, slowly, reflectively:

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:41-44).

Some scholars even argue that this story couldn’t have happened, because Jesus never would’ve commended someone for such reckless giving.

But we know it happened.

We just don’t know exactly what to do with it.

One thing we do is what we do with the story of the rich young ruler who was told to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor.

We talk about what it doesn’t mean.

Surely, we say, Jesus didn’t intend for believers in every place in every age to give every last cent to God.

And of course we’d be right. Jesus doesn’t teach that here or anywhere.

But here’s what he does—he commends this poverty-stricken widow for having enough faith to give everything she had, knowing God would care for her needs.

Practically speaking, I’m not sure what that means to you and me.

I don’t think Jesus means that we should empty our checking and savings accounts every Sunday when the collection plate goes down our aisle.

But here’s one thing I’m pretty sure he means: if we’re only giving out of our surplus, then we’re not where he wants us to be.

If times get tough and we cut our contribution before we cut our satellite TV package, we might have a priority problem.

Here, as elsewhere, Jesus isn’t particularly concerned about amounts. What this woman gave amounted to 1/32 of a denarius, and a denarius was how much a day laborer earned in one day. In other words, she gave about what a blue collar guy could earn in about 15 minutes.

It was nothing.

But it was everything.

This story hits close to home.

As the Lord has done so often in his ministry, he asks us to look into our hearts and ask ourselves about commitment.

This story isn’t about money, and it’s not about how much you’ll put in the plate Sunday.

It’s about faith and how much we’ve all truly bought into walking with Christ.

He wants our 401(k)s, our annuities, our mutual funds, but that’s not really what he wants.

He wants our Sundays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays, but again—that’s not really it.

He wants us.

He wants us to love and trust him enough to know that if we truly surrender ourselves to him, he’ll take care of us.

That’s what this widow had in her heart and what we need in ours.

Total trust. Complete commitment. Absolute sacrifice.

Swagger doesn’t impress Jesus

Motives matter, according to Jesus.

All of you have done good things for people, like baking a cake for a widow or listening to someone who needs to talk.

But here’s a difficult question: why did you do it?

The spiritual answer is, Well, I did it because she was lonely or because I felt sorry for him or because of some other reason that’s equally spiritual-sounding.

And I’m sure that’s the main reason you did it.

But be honest: have you ever had the fleeting thought that went something like this?

I hope she tells someone I brought her this cake . . .

I hope someone notices me taking all this time for this man . . .

No?

Then I think the Lord has done something special in you (seriously).

Some of the rest of us have occasionally and guiltily wanted a little recognition for what we’ve done, though we’d never admit it out loud.

Read what Jesus says about it:

And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40).

He’s talking about Jewish traditions, of course, but we Christians have some that are just as obvious.

Jesus’ words apply to the preacher who’s more concerned about wowing the crowd than he is about preaching the word. Or who loves the extra acclaim he gets as the “Doctor” or the “Reverend” or the “Father.”

He’s also talking to the worship leader who loves to impress the crowds with his ability to manipulate the sound and tempo of the hymn.

Or the prayer leader who strings together verbs, adjectives, and adverbs with a rhetorical flourish that makes worshipers marvel at his eloquence.

And it doesn’t just apply to those who stand at the front of the church. The danger lurks on every pew and in every good deed.

The temptation extends to why we wear what we wear, why we drive what we drive, why we do everything we do.

Jesus seems to appreciate simplicity in religious service, doesn’t he?

He’s not impressed by what overwhelms the masses, but he loves the humble sinner who doesn’t have enough spiritual accomplishments to be proud of them.

He’s impressed by the Christian who just wants to do right and tries her best not to let anyone know about the good she’s doing.

The thing is, he wants us to get ourselves completely out of the picture.

Forget the accolades, drop the attention-grabbers, get rid of the bluster and swagger, and just follow Jesus.

To his first-century audience, Jesus said “Beware.”

And to us now he’s probably saying the same thing.

Not far from the kingdom

Years ago I became friends with a man who often attended our congregation.

He was intelligent, curious, and interesting.

We’d go to lunch and talk about different things, and he had a depth of knowledge about a wide range of topics, including the Bible.

He was good-hearted and generous and would help people financially with special needs. He would even contribute toward mission efforts.

But he was not a Christian.

He believed in Jesus, but something held him back from surrendering himself to Christ.

I could never figure out exactly what it was, though I believe he held a few intellectual objections that he couldn’t quite dismiss.

Not long after, his job moved him to another state, and we lost touch.

In some ways I think he was like the man to whom Jesus said: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

Jesus meant that as a compliment. He and this gentleman had just had a brief conversation about faith, and the Lord knew the man was close to becoming a disciple. It seems that Jesus was gently nudging the man toward saving faith.

That’s the last we read of him, but I’d like to think he overcame whatever reservation he had and that he submitted himself to Jesus. I think we’ll see him in heaven.

It’s encouraging to know people like that—good-hearted folks who would do anything to help anybody.

But it breaks your heart to see some of them refuse to obey the gospel and be saved.

I try not to become too preachy in these devotionals, and I shy away from pressuring people to obey Christ.

But as I read this passage in Mark I wondered if perhaps some of our readers are like the man in this story: near—but not in—the kingdom of God.

I know it’s true of a lot of folks in the world.

Sometimes the barrier is our own good works. We’ve lived mostly clean, moral lives characterized by many of the Christian graces: love, kindness, mercy, and patience. We don’t come anywhere close to the stereotypical image of the anti-Christian or the raving atheist.

But we need to remember that good works won’t save us. We’ve all rebelled against God, and the only work that can save us is what Jesus did on the cross.

Sometimes we’re hindered by pride. We like self-sufficiency, and we simply don’t like surrendering our allegiance.

Maybe that’s why God mentions pride as a most deadly danger—it gives us a false sense of control and blinds us to our helplessness. Intellectually, we know what we ought to do, but we’ve got a streak of stubbornness that keeps us from doing it.

Some folks just put it off. They think of it often, maybe every day, and they plan to do it.

Soon. Very soon.

Just as soon as life slows down a little . . .

It’s sad to see, but I’ve watched as the gospel’s effect on someone’s heart becomes less urgent over time.

Not far from the kingdom of God.

In a way, that’s a great place to be, because it means there’s very little that’s keeping you from enjoying life in the kingdom.

In another way, it’s terribly scary, because some people believe that proximity is the same as acceptance. They live their entire lives just outside the kingdom of Jesus.

As with everything Jesus said, we ought to turn it back toward ourselves.

Where are we—in the kingdom, or standing just outside?

Do you know Debbie?

Do you know Debbie Downer?

She’s the self-designated joy-killer, the wet blanket, the rain that falls on everybody’s parade.

Her name comes from the title character of a popular Saturday Night Live skit from a few years ago.

But unfortunately Debbie has a life off the stage, and most work and school environments have a Debbie or two spreading discouragement wherever they go.

We’re getting a new boss (I’ve heard she’s terrible).

Quarterly profits are up (it won’t last).

Beautiful weather out today (the pollen is horrible).

You know her, right?

Occasionally she even finds her way into some of our churches, but I’m glad to say that most Christians I know have less in common with Debbie and more in common with one of the greatest Christians you’ll ever read about.

You probably don’t even know him by the name his parents gave him—Joseph.

At some point along the way his buddies got together and decided Joseph just didn’t work. Too unimaginative for someone like their friend. Too nondescript. Boring. Bland.

So they scrapped Joseph and called him “Mr. Encourager.”

The name we know is Barnabas, a Jewish nickname that meant “one who encourages.”

He spread joy wherever he went.

He sold land to give the money to hungry Christians (Acts 4).

He welcomed a young Christian with a bad past into the church when everyone else was skeptical of his sincerity (Acts 9).

He brought different ethnicities together and gave second chances to people who messed up (Acts 11,15).

Everybody loved Barnabas.

And they still do.

Good churches have tons of folks who live like Barnabas.

He’s the guy you call when your girlfriend breaks up with you.

You want him with you when you’re getting the MRI results.

He’s the one who should lead your church greeters.

He’s the best guy to call to smooth things over with a group of grumblers.

In fact, Barnabas is the guy who needs to be in all of us.

In your non-church life, you’ll have to tolerate a lot of Debbies.

She’ll be the one criticizing the new boss or complaining about the new work policy. She’ll be griping about the weather or her workload or her sore toe.

But let’s do our best to keep her attitude out of our hearts.

Be a Barnabas today.

Smile. A lot.

Tell your kids you’re proud of them.

Pay your spouse a very specific compliment.

Pat somebody on the back for a job well-done.

Send a note to someone at church who needs encouragement.

Text someone an encouraging word.

Shoot an email to a co-worker about a project she did well.

Wherever you go, spread some joy.

You never know what’s going on in people’s lives. Chances are you’re going to interact with someone today who’s struggling with things you’ll never know about.

Bring a little sunshine, not rain.

You’ll make the world a better place.

Love God, love people

Suppose there’s a man with a bad reputation in the community.

He’s impatient, unkind, and uncompassionate, and he takes advantage of people in business deals. He treats people poorly, disdaining those he considers beneath him.

He’s also a church member who holds conservative, orthodox convictions on matters of faith. In fact, he holds his convictions quite rigidly and will not tolerate anyone who deviates even slightly.

There’s an obvious problem here, right?

He seems to believe that the most important part of faith is what we do toward God, what might be called the vertical aspect. If our worship and doctrinal convictions are right, then we’re okay.

Or maybe not.

Jesus opposed that particular perspective frequently and vocally. Look at the second part of his response to a question he was asked, and notice how closely he aligns love for neighbor with love for God:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31).

What does it mean to be God’s child?

Love God, love people, Jesus says. Yesterday we considered the first, but with Jesus the second matters just as much.

In fact, he links them so strongly as to make them inseparable. If you love God, you will love people.

It’s everywhere in Jesus’ teachings.

The hero of his most famous parable was a hated Samaritan—his theology wasn’t too good, but he was praised because he had a heart for helping hurting people.

The unnamed villain of another story was sent to hell for what? Bad theology?

Not so much.

He wasn’t even condemned for treating poor Lazarus terribly. He wasn’t mean or harsh. He didn’t throw the beggar off his property or spit on him as he walked by.

He just ignored him. He was indifferent, unconcerned. His great sin was doing nothing.

But through his teaching and living Jesus taught us that loving God means loving God’s people.

He was gentle with the adulterous woman brought to him in shame.

He forgave the “woman of the city” who let her hair down and cried on his feet.

He hung out with drunks, prostitutes, and tax collectors.

In fact, you can’t read a page of the gospels without seeing his kindness toward people.

And that’s what he tells us to do. It comes through so clearly that we come to realize that we don’t really love God if we don’t.

None of this means God doesn’t care about our theology.

But it does mean we can have some pretty good theology and still not know God.

He just wants you

It’s hard to sum up Christianity with just a sentence or two, but how would you do it if you had to?

We might be tempted to define it by what Christians don’t do, or at least what we shouldn’t do—we don’t cuss or sleep around or get drunk or hurt people—but that description is terribly inadequate.

Or we might lean toward describing it in terms of religiosity—outward signs like how frequently we attend church or how much we put into the collection plate. But it wouldn’t be too hard to find big givers and regular church attendees who don’t act much like Jesus at all.

As with everything, Jesus gets right to the heart of it all.

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions (Mark 12:28-34).

Jesus goes all the way back to the early days of Israel to find the wording for the most important command: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It’s short, concise, and simple.

And earth-shattering.

And all-consuming.

Jesus includes everything we might offer to God, and then some. He tells us that discipleship means giving God it all.

Everything we have. Everything we are or will ever be.

He’s not interested in getting you to sit in a pew for 2 or 3 hours on Sunday.

He doesn’t want your fifteen minutes of quiet time every day.

He doesn’t want your 10 or 15% in the collection plate.

He’s not even focused on your avoiding the Top Ten Worst Sins.

No, he wants it all.

He wants your worship and adoration.

He wants your time and money.

He wants your heart.

Especially your heart.

God wants you.

He knows he can get a big chunk of your time but not have your heart.

He can get your money and worship and keep you away from the bars and the brothels and still not have you.

But that’s what he wants.

Sometimes people ask, “What do I need to do to get to heaven?”

But I think that’s the wrong question.

When we really understand the gospel, when we really get it, when God really gets us, we ask, How in the world can I withhold anything from a God who loves me that much?