The Thumb of God: Meditation for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

cast out demonThe Gospel of Luke relates many fascinating events encountered by Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem for Passover in A.D. 30. On one occasion recorded in Luke 11, Jesus was casting out a particularly troublesome demon. This evil spirit had caused its host to become mute, unable to speak. It must have been a notorious situation, because when the man is delivered and begins to speak, Luke tells us the crowd was amazed.

So amazed that they grasp at straws to find an explanation. Someone offers a plausible answer, although one that is dead wrong. This person suggests that Jesus has power over the demons because he is in league with the prince of demons, an entity known as Beelzebul. Others aren’t quite so sure, but ask Jesus to provide even bigger proof of his power, wanting a “sign from heaven.” We are not sure what this might be, perhaps a summoning thunderbolt or making the sun disappear, but Jesus does not take the bait. His demon busting ministry is not really for them. It is to relieve the suffering of the unfortunate man who was unable to speak.

In some ways, this encounter is representative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, even his entire ministry. The amount of miracles necessary to bring everyone to faith is a bottomless pit. Miracles like driving out demons cannot be understood without the recognition of divine power at work. If we fail to recognize the presence of God or refuse to believe in God’s activity, we must either concoct a ridiculous implausibility to explain it away or we must be insatiable in our demands for evidence. Today, as it was for Jesus, some look at him and respond with faith and love. Others reject with distrust and slander.

Jesus responds with dramatic language. He makes quick work of the Beelzebul theory, and offers this observation:

If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

The Greek word translated “finger” (δάκτυλος) does not have the distinctions our word “finger” does, because it refers to the digits of the hand, all five of them. It could be translated the “thumb of God,” and I think this gets the sense better. It is not God’s finger wagging at you for unbelief. It is God’s thumb pressing on you, pushing you, not letting you run away from a decision of faith.

For those of you who have joined with Jesus, Luke, and me as we make our way to Jerusalem and its cross during this Lenten season, may we not be relieved of the pressure of the thumb of God. May it not pressure us into decisions we should not make, but help us confront our doubts and believe even more strongly. May we never forget that we live in the presence of the living God, under his reign, in his kingdom. Our road to Jerusalem may be filled with the miraculous or it may not. Let us not demand or even seek signs, but be amazed at the Savior who drives out demons and saves our souls.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Working by Myself: Meditation for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Martha-and-MaryThe last part of Luke 10 continues the story of Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem. The narrator tells us that “Jesus and his disciples were on their way,” the final walk to the holy, fateful, temple city of Jerusalem. In these meditations for Lent, we are over half-way there as we follow our Lord to the cross. Let us look at the story Luke tells about Mary and Martha.

The story shows us that Luke’s material is stylized and topical, not a linear presentation of events in chronological order. We say this because the village of Mary and Martha was Bethany, just a few hundred yards from the gates of the temple in Jerusalem (John 11:1). Luke still has over eight chapters of material to relate, not reaching Jerusalem until chapter 19, but this is the story he wants to tell us now.

The incident is familiar to us. Jesus and his troop show up at the home of Martha. It feels like a place they have been here before, a welcome place. Martha immediately begins arrangements for a festive meal, a fitting reception for her friend and Lord. While things are being prepared, Jesus is talking and teaching, and we can imagine a small crowd of disciples, villagers, and other pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. Among them is Martha’s sister, Mary. Martha’s hospitable and niceness persona is dropped temporarily, and she goes and complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her, not sitting to listen to Jesus. We can imagine that tempers have flared a bit and the atmosphere of accusation and shame is strong in the room (or, more likely, the courtyard of the home).

Martha’s core complaint is this,

My sister has left me to do the work by myself.

How often have you felt that way? How often, in church work, have you felt that many are receiving and few are giving? How often have you felt that you are going it alone, just you and Jesus, and no one quite understands how lonely your journey is?

In this Lenten season, let us each make our way to the cross to celebrate Jesus’ great sacrifice for us. We must sacrifice, too, and there will be days when we feel we have been left to do a mountain of tasks of ministry all by ourselves. You need help, and there seems to be no help to be found.

Yet we know this is not true. It is not just you and your imaginary friend Jesus laboring in ministry. First, he is not an imaginary friend. He is a real presence in the lives of his disciples. Second, you are not alone. Look around. The road to the cross is full of pilgrims. Some are happy and have a bounce in their step. Some are sad and walk slowly. Some are even disabled, and are being pushed by another. Yet we are not alone.

When we feel the Martha blues coming on us, let us stop, and give thanks for the companions we have on the way.

Prayer: Lord, may we not feel sorry for ourselves, the worst of all feelings. May we take joy in our journey, joy in our companions, and joy in you, our Leader. Amen

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Trampling on Snakes and Scorpions: Meditation for the Third Sunday of Lent

In Luke’s trample snakeaccount of Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem, there is an interlude in which a large group of disciples are sent out as evangelists (Luke 10:1-24). There are thirty-six teams of two, and Luke indicates they were sent as advance teams to the towns and villages that Jesus intended to visit. Their message was simple: the Kingdom of God is near.

This is synonymous with the arrival of Jesus. Jesus’ presence is the Kingdom of God. We see this in three things that happened with these evangelist teams.

First, they are to say to each house they enter, “Peace to this house,” a blessing indicating God’s favor. The Kingdom of God is accompanied with the blessings and gracious acts of the Lord. This week, as we journey with Jesus to the cross, are you accepting and enjoying the peace of God, the grace of God, the blessings of God? Is your life, no matter how dangerous and stressful, resting in the comfort and peace of the Lord? Here is a way to judge this for yourself: Are you angry or content most of the time? Peace and anger are not easy companions. This week, let us concentrate on releasing our angers and resting in God’s peace.

Second, the Kingdom of God is also a sign of God’s judgment. Where the teams were not welcomed, they were to announce that rejection did not mean the Kingdom of God was thwarted. Instead, such villages were to be warned that their fate was to be worse than the ancient city of Sodom, a place that received the deadly rain of heavenly fire for rejecting God’s call to repentance. This week, let us leave behind all of our rebellious attitudes and pretensions of independence as we travel with Jesus to the cross.

Third, Jesus tells the returned teams that they have the authority to “trample on snakes and scorpions and overcome all the power of the enemy.” The bites of poisonous snakes and the stings of scorpions are not necessarily deadly. More often they are extremely painful and debilitating. If Jesus’ metaphor says we can step on threats and crush the heads of opposition. We can travel with him in confidence. This week, let us confront our fears in following Jesus. Are we afraid of ridicule, of rejection, of sacrifice? May we lay behind these fears and stride confidently with the King of Kings as he nears the cross.

Lord, give us peace in this Lenten season. Let us drop our resistance to needed repentance. May we live confidently as your servants who journey with you throughout our lives. Amen.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

 

The Cost of Following: Meditation for the Second Sunday of Lent

After Jesus sets out for Jerusalem, Luke 9 records three mini-episodes of reactions from potential disciples. They illustrate the cost of following Jesus. As we proceed through the Lenten season toward Holy Week, let us pause to learn from the three responses.

Episode 1: The Cost is Too High

followingAs they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

There is no evidence that this fellow followed. When Jesus presents him with the harsh realities of being his disciple, he does count the cost, and he stays home.

Prayer: May we not see our journey to the cross with Jesus in a way that ignores sacrifice, hardship and commitment. Amen.

Episode 2: Responsibilities Trumping Discipleship

graveyardHe said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

A simple reading of this text is troubling for many people. Jesus seems to be a hard-hearted fellow, denying this potential disciple the dignity of taking care of his recently deceased father. But that is not what is happening. The man’s father is still living. He is declining the call to follow Jesus so that he can wait until his father dies, until all of his family responsibilities are settled.

It doesn’t work that way, then or now. The call to follow Jesus is immediate and cannot be delayed. Our journey with him to the cross must begin now.

Prayer: May we not delay in following Jesus, but point our faces like flint to the cross. Amen.

Episode 3: Not Quite Ready

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStill another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

As with the previous episode, Jesus seems to be asking too much of this man. Couldn’t Jesus wait a few hours for the man to say goodbye?

But Jesus’ answer reveals what is afoot. To look back while plowing would result in crooked rows, perhaps damage to the precious plow by hitting a rock while not watching. We must look at our leader when following and we must follow.

Does Jesus ask too much? Yes, of course he does, for he demands everything from his disciples. And he does not want to wait. The time to follow is now.

Prayer: May we follow Christ with abandon, not looking back, not harboring regrets, and never holding back. Amen.

Let us make this, the second full week of Lent, a time when we examine our disciple relationship and make new commitments to follow, no matter the cost.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Face Setting: Meditation for the First Sunday of Lent

face like flintToday is the first Sunday in the 40-day Lenten season. Lent is the period of the church year leading up to the celebration of Resurrection Sunday. It has been used for centuries as a time for personal reflection, sacrifice, fasting, and recommitment of the Christian’s life.

Luke’s Gospel gives about ten chapters to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem (a big expansion over Mark’s single chapter, Mark 10). In the seven Sundays of Lent 2015, I would like to use this narrative as a vehicle for our own journey to the cross.

Luke begins this epic journey with this statement:

 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

The phrase, “resolutely set out” is striking in the original language (αὐτὸς τὸ πρόσωπον ἐστήρισεν), literally meaning “he set the face.” It is surely an echo of Isaiah 50:7:

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
    I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
    and I know I will not be put to shame.

This verse comes in the third of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs,” passages that are deeply prophetic and descriptive of the coming Messiah. A common theme in these songs is the physical abuse and humiliation the Messiah would suffer. Yet Isaiah puts these powerful words in the mouth of the Messiah, “I have set my face like flint.”

Flint was the hardest of common stones for the people of Isaiah’s Israel, found as nodules in the abundant limestone of the area. Flint was durable because of its hardness and capable of holding a sharp edge. This made it useful for tools and weapons.

Luke’s use of this metaphor illustrates the great determination in Jesus to go to the holy city despite his expectation of a painful death. He has already revealed this to his disciples:

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Luke 9:22)

Would you begin a journey that you knew would cost your life? Would you have the courage to take that first step?jesus-walking

As we enter the Lenten season, let us examine our own lives in this regard. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you willing to endure suffering because you are a follower of Christ?
  2. Are you willing to follow Christ for the rest of your life, even until the day of your death?
  3. What are the particular distractions in your life that sidetrack or delay your own Journey to Jerusalem?
  4. What must you give up to follow Jesus to the cross?

Let us begin this journey with prayer and determination on this, the first Sunday of Lent, 2015. Pray with me:

Lord Jesus, I want to follow you. I know it will not be easy. Help me to make the hard choices a disciple of yours must make. Help me to leave behind the things of this life that would pull me away from you. Hold me close to you. Never let me go. Let my feet follow in your footsteps.

Amen.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Racism and the Christian

MLK DayToday is the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. This will be the 30th time this has been observed as a federal holiday, after being signed into law by President Reagan in 1984 and first observed in 1986.

This year, the media has used MLK Day to ask questions about ongoing racism in America. This has been fueled by events involving black men and local police in the last few months. This is a painful conversation for me, but one I think we still need to have.

I have read a lot of Dr. King’s writings and speeches. He is often portrayed as a champion of the rights of black people, but I think this is reductionism. He was operating in a different era, where discrimination against black people was both prevalent and legal in some states. This has changed, and it is difficult to make a case today that any type of racism is legally sanctioned in America today.

I think that Dr. King understood that there needed to be a fundamental change in the way his fellow citizens thought about race. Attitudes toward black people might have been Exhibit A for the problem, but it was not the root issue. The essential problem was the assumption among some folks that they were superior because of their race and should therefore be privileged. The corollary was that some folks were inferior because of their race and therefore justifiably deserved scorn. Dr. King said, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” He understood the root problem.

Here is the thing that bothers me. I run into what I might call “casual racism” all the time among Evangelical Christians. King helped bring American racism into the open as an issue nearly 60 years ago. Racism in any civic or business practices has been essentially illegal in America for over 40 years. Why would anyone think it is still OK for Christians?

Let me give you an extreme example. Last year I was in Nepal on a Week of Ministry trip for the college. Professor Mike Cahill and I took our group of students to an “international” church, the largest evangelical church in Kathmandu. When we were introduced to the pastor of this church before the service (an American living in Nepal), he told me a “joke” about our President that was clearly racist. Why would he do this? Why would an evangelical living in Nepal think it was OK to tell a joke denigrating the race of the American President to another evangelical from America he barely knew? I’ll let you figure that for yourself, but it makes me want to say, “Houston, we [still] have a problem.”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Martyrs for the Faith

Persecution of the Christians at Rome by NeroThe drama in Paris surrounding the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the subsequent hostage incidents were broadcast all over the world. This publicity is what the radical islamists want, I think, so I guess their bloody mission was accomplished. Repression is threatened by free press. This was demonstrated by the North Koreans recently, who flexed their hacker cyber-muscles to punish the Sony Corporation. Now gunmen use their guns and bombs to threaten and punish those whom they believe have insulted their prophet. I don’t think we have seen the end of this story, not by a long shot. The only power a bully really has is the threat of violence, and for it to be a credible threat, the bully must act violently on occasion.

Although this whole thing is disturbing, one thing disturbed me even more seriously. Apparently, before the French police stormed the hideout of the perpetrators of this atrocity, they were in contact with the gunmen via cell phone. Rather than surrender, the French authorities were told the men preferred to “die as martyrs for the faith.”

Excuse me, you are not martyrs. The term “martyr” is a Christian term. It comes from the Greek word for “witness,” and is used many times this way in the New Testament. In the early church, martyr was a label given to those believers who refused to deny their Lord and were put to death. A Christian martyr is properly one who witnesses to the end, even unto death. It is not a term that should be used for those who murder others, refuse to surrender, and are killed by the police. So, let’s use another term for these guys, not “martyr.”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College