What If Today?

I saw three unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.

“Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.”

And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon.

Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there were noises and thunderings and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth. Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath. Then every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. And great hail from heaven fell upon men, each hailstone about the weight of a talent. Men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, since that plague was exceedingly great. (Revelation 16:13-21)

What if you knew Jesus was coming back today? Martin Luther was hoeing weeds in his garden when a member of his church asked him that very question. Martin Luther responded quickly, “I’d be hoeing weeds.”

In the middle of John’s visions about the future, Jesus announced that he was going to come back like a thief. He said that those who were watching for his arrival wouldn’t be like some person rousted from bed naked in the middle of the night to confront the problem. In that part of the world it was warm and humid most of the year, so people regularly slept unclothed. In California, earthquakes are a regular feature of life. Most cause no damage. But I have a friend whose greatest fear is that after an earthquake, she’ll wind up on national television being rescued naked from the rubble of her home. So she makes a point of wearing a lot of clothing when she goes to bed.

Jesus’ point was that he wanted his people to always be doing his will, whatever that might be, whether it’s hoeing weeds or preaching the gospel.

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After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

While He was together with them, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “This,” He said, “is what you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, at this time are You restoring the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

While He was going, they were gazing into heaven, and suddenly two men in white clothes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven.” (Acts 1:3-11)

It’s a wonder anyone ever understands anything anyone else says. Jesus had died and been resurrected. He’d spent years telling his disciples about the kingdom of God. But just before he ascended back to his Father, the disciples, with their one question, demonstrate that they were nearly as confused about the kingdom as they had been the first day Jesus called them to join him along the shores of Galilee.

The disciples were still looking for a physical kingdom. Did Jesus remind them of any of his previous lessons to them? No. He just told them to be his witnesses throughout the world. If we want to see the kingdom of God, then we need to get to work spreading the good news. That’s how the kingdom will come: one heart at a time.

After Jesus left, angels appeared and asked them why they were still standing there, staring at the sky. Wasn’t staring at the sky where Jesus had gone a normal reaction? Certainly. But the Holy Spirit was coming and the disciples had work to do. What matters is not staring at the sky, waiting for Jesus to come back. What matters is for us to do what Jesus asked his disciples to do: spread the good news of the kingdom.

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Don’t Worry

Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Luke 12:22-31)

Life has all sorts of problems. Jesus never said it didn’t. But during a sermon by the Sea of Galilee Jesus told us not to worry. His prohibition on worry was very practical. Do birds worry? Do flowers? How come? Because the world is full of what they need and God takes care of them. Were birds particularly valuable? Not at all. In the sacrificial system, the sort of animal to be sacrificed depended upon a person’s wealth. Birds were what the poorest people offered up for their sin offerings. Birds were common. Like flowers, they were everywhere. So Jesus point was simple: if God takes care of birds and flowers, what do we ever have to worry about? Do we think we matter less to God than birds and flowers? God knows what we need and he’ll take care of it. So we should find something else for our brains to do. We have no reason focus on the mundane things of day to day life. Food and clothing are givens, like a sunrise or the wind in Chicago. We need to find something else to think about: like the kingdom of God. If we focus our energies on God, we’ll be happier, and it’s a lot more productive. Worrying never did anyone a bit of good or ever changed anything.

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Can’t Wait

When it came close to the time for his Ascension, he gathered up his courage and steeled himself for the journey to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead. They came to a Samaritan village to make arrangements for his hospitality. But when the Samaritans learned that his destination was Jerusalem, they refused hospitality. When the disciples James and John learned of it, they said, “Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightning down out of the sky and incinerate them?”

Jesus turned on them: “Of course not!” And they traveled on to another village.

On the road someone asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

Jesus said to another, “Follow me.”

He said, “Certainly, but first excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have to make arrangements for my father’s funeral.”

Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!”

Then another said, “I’m ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home.”

Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.” (Luke 9:51-62)

When the Samaritans learned Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, they become inhospitable. Why? Because one of the big arguments between Jews and Samaritans was over the question of where to worship God. Jews insisted that Jerusalem was the only right place, while the Samaritans believed that only Mt. Gerazim would do.

James and John suggested Jesus simply wipe the Samaritans from the earth. They didn’t like Samaritans anyway. They believed they were headed to Jerusalem so Jesus could lead armies against the enemies of God. So why not start early and get rid of these troublesome, rude Samaritans?

Jesus told them no. They didn’t understand Jesus’ purpose at all, any more than those along the way who indicated a willingness to join Jesus, but wanted to wait awhile. Those who were giving Jesus excuses were doing so because they wanted to wait to see how things turned out. Was he really the Messiah? Would he really bring in the kingdom. They did not understand Jesus’ real purpose any more than John and James.

The Christian message is called “good news” for a reason. Jesus didn’t come to raise armies, he came to bring the kingdom of God to us by sacrificing himself on the cross for us. He offers us far more than any earthly kingdom. He offers us eternity.

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Good News

He was traveling from one town and village to another, preaching and telling the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary, called Magdalene (seven demons had come out of her); Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward; Susanna; and many others who were supporting them from their possessions.

As a large crowd was gathering, and people were flocking to Him from every town, He said in a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. As he was sowing, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the sky ate it up. Other seed fell on the rock; when it sprang up, it withered, since it lacked moisture. Other seed fell among thorns; the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. Still other seed fell on good ground; when it sprang up, it produced a crop: 100 times what was sown.” As He said this, He called out, “Anyone who has ears to hear should listen!” (Luke 8:1-8)

When you think you’re doomed, it’s very good news to find out you’re not. When a farmer sowed grain, the overwhelming majority of that grain sprang up and grew. Very little seed was ever wasted. No farmer stood on a road when he scattered his seeds. He always stood in his plowed field. Only the smallest handful of grain ever missed the rich dirt, got snatched away by birds, or fell to thorns.

Therefore, the seed Jesus scattered—his words about the kingdom—were mostly effective. Jesus was telling those listening to him that the kingdom would grow and become abundant. Crop yields of a hundred times what was sown were stupendous. Agronomists consider a yield of three grains of wheat for each grain planted the minimum necessary to merely sustain human life. Therefore, to have a hundred fold increase—a hundred grains for each planted—meant no more worry about anything for the farmer: he had enough to sustain him and his family—and an abundance to sell on the open market.

Famine was always a fear in the ancient world. So Jesus’ story would have resonated strongly with those who heard him. Jesus wanted us to know that God’s kingdom would grow, and that it would grow spectacularly well. Evangelism—sharing our faith with those around us—yields mostly rich rewards.

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Poor and Happy

When they came down from the mountain, the disciples stood with Jesus on a large, level area, surrounded by many of his followers and by the crowds. There were people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from as far north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those troubled by evil spirits were healed. Everyone tried to touch him, because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone.

Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said,
“God blesses you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
God blesses you who are hungry now,
for you will be satisfied.
God blesses you who weep now,
for in due time you will laugh.

What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When that happens, be happy! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, their ancestors treated the ancient prophets that same way. (Luke 6:17-23)

Jesus often said things contrary to common sense. The last people in the world that anyone might think of as blessed were the very people Jesus addressed. The word translated as “blessed” simply means “happy.” Jesus said that the poor—those who were hungry and weeping—were happy. Certainly not the obvious conclusion.

Why did Jesus say such people were happy? Because they were the one’s closest to God, that he paid the most attention to, and so the kingdom of God belonged to them.

Jesus spoke to crowds everywhere he went. And he taught much the same thing to everyone. The words that we find in the Sermon on the Mount got reused in other times and other places. So, in Luke’s gospel, the words that were part of that Sermon on the Mount in the other gospels were repeated on a plain near the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

In a world that, like ours, defined happiness by how much wealth you had, how big your house was, and how much power you wielded, Jesus’ words were a startling breath of fresh air. The kingdom of God was something the poor in spirit possessed by virtue of their relationship with God. We can experience God’s kingdom now, thanks to God’s presence in our lives. No matter our circumstances, the blessing of God exists for us now, because God is with us now. When we have God, Jesus said, we really have everything we need.

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Don’t Believe It

“So when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not” (let the reader understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down into the house, nor enter to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter. For in those days there will be tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the creation which God created until this time, nor ever shall be. And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake, whom He chose, He shortened the days.

“Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, He is there!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. But take heed; see, I have told you all things beforehand. (Mark 13:14-23)

There is a time to believe, and a time to disbelieve. Belief is not a good thing if you are believing a lie. One of the things that Jesus warned his disciples against shortly before his crucifixion was, in fact, a problem that the disciples were already aware of: the appearance of false messiahs. In the decades before and after Jesus, many false messiahs appeared, all announcing the same message: the world is a mess, the time of God’s judgment has arrived, and we need to make war against the Romans. When the bad times come, there will always be those who claim that they, and they alone, can solve the problems. Jesus told his followers not to believe those bearers of false hope.

Moses had warned the ancient Israelites not to believe a prophet—even if he performed wonders and even if what he said came true—if he asked them to believe in other gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Likewise Jesus now warns his disciples against believing in any other messiahs but him. No one can take the place of Jesus in the lives of his followers. No one else is necessary, and no one else can do the job. Jesus is the only savior. God wants us to recognize the difference between the truth and a lie, and to believe only the truth.

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Then the LORD said to me, “Take for yourself a large tablet and write on it in ordinary letters: Swift is the booty, speedy is the prey. “And I will take to Myself faithful witnesses for testimony, Uriah the priest and the son of Jeberechiah.” So I approached the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. Then the LORD said to me, “Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the boy knows how to cry out ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 8:1-4)

When God solves a problem, it stays solved. Ahaz, the king of Judah in Jerusalem was facing serious problems. He was facing the combined armies of Damascus and Samaria and feared for his life and the life of his nation. But he resisted God’s offers for help, preferring to scramble on his own. But God insisted on giving him a helping hand, anyway.

The very odd name of Isaiah’s son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, means “Swift is the booty, speedy is the prey.” All names in Hebrew had obvious meanings to Hebrew speakers. But names usually were only one word, maybe two. The name for Isaiah’s son was a full sentence. It was not an ordinary sort of name at all. God used the prophet’s life as the illustrations within the book of his prophesy. Just as God had Isaiah run around naked for three years, just as he’d had Isaiah bury and thus ruin a belt, so now the birth of his son also served God’s purposes. God predicted that Damascus and Samaria would be defeated by Assyria before Isaiah’s son was old enough to even say “My father” or “My mother.” Thus, within three years of God’s words, they had both been defeated by Tiglath-Pileser, the king of Assyria. Ahaz—and Jerusalem—were safe.

God loves us despite ourselves. He’ll take care of us even if we resist him. He chases us with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives, determined to bless us whether we want it or not.

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God Talks to Sinners

When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, then he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him a distance of seven days’ journey, and he overtook him in the hill country of Gilead. God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream of the night and said to him, “Be careful that you do not speak to Jacob either good or bad.”

Laban caught up with Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen camped in the hill country of Gilead. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done by deceiving me and carrying away my daughters like captives of the sword?

“Why did you flee secretly and deceive me, and did not tell me so that I might have sent you away with joy and with songs, with timbrel and with lyre; and did not allow me to kiss my sons and my daughters? Now you have done foolishly.

“It is in my power to do you harm, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to speak either good or bad to Jacob.’

“Now you have indeed gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?” (Genesis 31:22-30)

God talks to sinners. Otherwise, he’d only be talking to himself. Laban was Jacob’s uncle and he was an idolater. He was also a scoundrel who had taken advantage of Jacob, cheating him repeatedly. His daughters knew what he was capable of, so his daughter Rachael, Jacob’s wife, had stolen the household idols when they ran away. How come? Because whoever held those idols was guaranteed to receive the inheritance. It was the equivalent of running off with Laban’s safe deposit box and his debit card. But of course it also meant that Laban, his daughters and even Jacob, being part of a polytheistic culture, still thought in terms of multiple gods, even as Jacob worshiped the God of his fathers, Abraham and Isaac.

The night before Laban caught up with the fleeing Jacob, God issued a warning: Laban could say nothing “good or bad” to him. That is, God prevented Laban from being able to pronounce either a curse or a blessing on his son-in-law. Such blessings and cursings were taken quite seriously by all involved. God protected Jacob by preventing anything bad from happening to him. God also prevented Jacob from thinking that the good that would follow in his life came from his idolatrous uncle—rather than from its true source: the God of Abraham and Isaac.

It is God who takes care of us. Nobody else.

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