Prayer


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: 26, 27

Jesus has just been in conversation with the young man whose wealth was a major impediment to his ability to leave a life that was ruled by law and enter into one of service to God by selling all and following Jesus. So, the topic of salvation was on everyone’s mind, and Jesus takes a moment to enter into sharing one of the most important aspects of God’s desire, design, and plan for restoring people’s relationships with Him. In the conversation with the young man an impasse was reached in which the young man felt that he could not do what was being asked of him, for his wealth was far too important to him, perhaps his identity was primarily established by what he had accomplished and the rewards of that effort, for him to give that up. Yet, I think that Jesus is saying that the possibility still existed for that person to come into a saving relationship with God. We don’t know the final outcome, but the story of the wealthy young man and Jesus may not have been finished on that day.

The bigger question here takes us into God’s heart and its desire and intent. God does not want any of us to perish. He desires to be in a relationship with each and every one of the people who exist on this earth. No one is outside of His plan for grace and redemption to prevail over the lostness of sin and the separation from God that is its result. All of us are born lost and with dead souls that conform to the declining states of our bodies. God provided us with an absolute and all-inclusive answer to that desperate state of being in the person and the blood sacrifice that Jesus grants to any and to all who will receive it and surrender control over this life to Him. It is the second of these two aspects of entering into eternity, salvation, that the young man was not willing to do. He could accept Jesus and even ask to follow Him, but the young man was not able to submit to Christ’s authority and leave his old way of life behind. So, he was unwilling to enter into the new life of redemption that God wanted to provide to him.

Thus, since the things that God requires of people in order to enter into a relationship with Him are so hard for most people to accomplish, the question regarding who can be saved seems to be important to consider. From God’s perspective there are no people who are beyond the reach of redemption. No one is so evil, so set in his ways, or so antagonistic to God that the Savior’s reach cannot extend to him. So, we should never give up on anyone either. Our words may be rejected, and we may even find ourselves in a position where that push back has become so strong that our ability to interact with an individual or with a group may be jeopardized. There are places and people in our world where it is physically dangerous to discuss Jesus, but even these places and people are not beyond Christ’s reach and outside of the arena of prayer. We may be discouraged or feel defeated by the lack of response to Christ in others, and we will encounter rejection and dismissal when we present our faith to some. These are inevitable facts that are a part of living in a word where God’s standards are exacting. However, we also follow and serve a Lord who is greater than all of this and whose love for these same people that are rejecting our appeals to them is beyond measure. With Christ all things are truly possible, and in Christ we can trust Him to never stop the pursuit of any lost soul. 

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Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

Romans 8: 35

It might seem that there are forces at work in our world that want nothing more than to keep people away from being close to God. For things just happen to us, around us, and to those that we care about. It can become relentless at times, and the assault certainly does not ever cease for very long. Paul is speaking to the reality of life as he knew it personally, and he is also warning others about what he observed and anticipated in the lives of others. These cold water in the face words are intended to set us free from the sudden assaults of the unexpected and unanticipated, and they are also here to give assurances to each of us that the things that we are experiencing are normal and are a part of the natural course of life in this world where brokenness and sin are cured only by the blood that Christ has shed for us.

A response to the thoughts that have just been expressed might be to question why I see a form of warning or expectant caution in the Apostle’s words of encouragement here. Paul’s point in this section of Romans 8 is that there is nothing on earth or in the heavens above or in the powers of those who dwell in Hell below that can rip, tear, or pry one of Christ’s own souls from His grasp. Christ holds onto the people who come to Him with both tenacity and overwhelming power. Yet, that long list of forces that are attempting to work their potions of trouble, disbelief, and pain upon Christ followers is, in fact, just a sampler or partial list of all that works against us in this world. The faith that we hold in Christ will be tested over and over again as we go about living, and the more that we exercise this trust in Christ by engaging in doing His will and serving His kingdom, the more that various forces around us will see us as targets to be attacked mercilessly.

So, the assurance that God is providing for us is founded in the nature and the character of His own heart. The Lord not only desires for us to draw near to Him and to enter into a relationship with Him that will be active and alive today and for all of eternity, but He also will do anything that is required to protect our souls and to defend our place in His kingdom of grace and glory. There will be days when it will feel almost irrational for us to continue to cling to faith in Christ and to stay true to His calling to serve God by seeking out Him and His truth and righteousness; yet, those doubts are nothing more than tools that an enemy is using to develop separation from Christ in His people, and these are times when we are called upon to turn the doubts into trust by submitting it all to Christ in prayer, meditation, and the fellowship of His body of faith. In the end, Christ’s love is so deep, so prevalent, and so all pervasive that it is never far from us, and His hands that are placed upon us in loving embrace cannot be pulled or pushed away from us.       

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.

2 Corinthians 4: 16

People around the world celebrate the rolling over of the calendar at the end of the current year and the beginning of the new one. We look ahead with anticipation and with hope that things will get better than they have been in the prior twelve months. This change suggests a new beginning, a fresh start, and a reset for some of life’s ledgers that record our wrongs, shortcomings, and failures. Yet, in all of this effort and planning that is focused around refreshing life, there is one calendar, a singular clock that is never set back and that moves forward with relentless pace and purpose, for in the real world, no one gets even a second younger or a day less aged when the new year tolls its entry. Every day that we live in one more to mark off the allotment of days that we have received. Each year that goes by will contain events, situations, and circumstances that have a negative impact on the probable longevity of our lives. This was one of the two primary subjects that Paul is bringing up here.

Paul knew physical and emotional stress as he had experienced them in great and powerful ways and on numerous occasions. His body had to be a bit worn and often a lot tired as a result of the life that he was living in serving Christ with true diligence in a world that was mostly hostile to that message and to its author. The Apostle was fully acquainted with the hardships of travel, he had experienced shipwrecks and been arrested and locked away in jail, he was forced to flee from angry mobs, and he had been mocked and rejected. The lines of care must have been deep on his weathered skin, and the spring surely had gone from his step. Yet, his passion for the Gospel of Christ and his zeal for proclaiming its life-giving truth had not grown any less powerful. He continued to love people and to speak forth Christ until the very end of his life on this earth. I can envision Paul during those later days with his body battered and bruised and with aching joints as he went to the Lord in prayer regularly while continuing to repent for the sinfulness in his own life and seeking out wisdom and counsel for following Christ along the path that was to be his during the day to come. 

The Spirit was present with Paul just as He is with each and every one of us who know Christ. As we yield ourselves to the Spirit, He brings us the cleansing of God’s grace, the fresh water of God’s truth, encouragement for our spirits, and wisdom to renew our hearts and minds. The Spirit’s work within and upon us does what it did for Paul, it sets us back upright when we are knocked down, and it gives us the courage and the strength that we need to continue on Christ’s righteous path of engagement with our world. The Spirit also points our hearts and minds to the reality of that journey, for Christ takes us into the realm of the spiritual and reframes all of life within the bounds of God’s kingdom come to this world. So, this is the other subject that Paul is discussing. We live in a world that is hostile to the spirit of truth, justice, righteousness, and love that is the essence of God’s realm.  In serving Christ we are breathing in conflict; so, we will experience the abrasive and harsh impacts of those encounters in our bodies, minds, and hearts. This is where the Spirit also works as He brings peace to troubled days, grants rest when the nights are long, and provides shelter when the heart is weary and in need of time to regroup and recover. This life will be hard and its challenges are going to be continuous and grueling, but the Spirit of Christ is more than sufficient to take each of us through it all so that even when the body is broken down and the heart is feeling overwhelmed it is His strength that enables activity and His love that fuels the spirit into living out Christ’s will for this day.     

And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.

Luke 1: 45

Mary believed what the angel told her. It might seem natural to say something along the lines of, “Certainly, of course. Why wouldn’t she accept and embrace this great thing that she was singularly selected to do?” Yet, think about this for a moment. How might any of us respond to being told that our world was about to be completely interrupted and turned upside down by an event of this magnitude? This might not be the sort of thing that would even seem plausible or possible to comprehend. Still, Mary’s acceptance and belief are portrayed as complete, absolute, and without hesitation or doubt. In looking at her story, it strikes me that this little line of scripture that is buried in the flow of the narrative is very significant to others of us, as well. Her faith in God’s goodness and love is so complete that she is ready in body, heart, and mind to follow the Lord’s leading and to serve His will with all of her being and in every aspect of her life.

The Lord makes promises to all people. He did not start or stop in this sort of engagement with us with Mary, with the Apostles, or at any other point in history. From the beginning of time until the very end of it, God is a covenant making and keeping being. His word is given with great care and consideration of the purpose behind the promise that is made, and He does not waiver of recant on follow through and completion of His word. Creation was promised that God would provide a Savior for us when we rebelled and grabbed ahold of death as our new destiny. Then, in due time, Mary gave birth to the One who is the fulfillment of that promise. Jesus the Christ was miraculously born to this young woman, and our lives are redeemed from the state of separation from God and the living and eternal death that was the natural result of that estrangement. This is the greatest of all of God’s promises, and He has made it available to everyone who will respond to Christ’s appeal, “Come to me!”

There are many other ways that God has made promises to me and to others who follow Him. The Lord is generous beyond my ability to count or to measure; yet, I do not fully appreciate the breadth, depth, and scope of God’s commitment to me and to His kingdom on earth. Although I do not doubt God’s presence or the reality of what Christ means to and in my life, I admit that I do not think and act in a manner that fully and continually reflects a state of existence that is absolutely infused by the love, grace, mercy, justice, and righteousness that is the outworking of Christ’s presence in my life. I do not operate out of the simple, direct, and unwavering faith that are so apparent in this description of Mary’s response to the Lord. This lack of such a faith is something that demands repentance on my part and submission to Christ in any and all areas of my life where I continue to hold onto my flawed and much weaker form of control. So, I pray, “Lord, my faith is incomplete. I hold onto parts of my life when You have asked that I give it all to You. I repent of my sin, and seek to follow Your will and way in all that I think, say, and do. Lord, please grant to me the full and absolute faith that Mary knew. This is my prayer and my plea. Amen.”  

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven

   and do not return there but water the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

   it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

   and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55: 10, 11

This is a science lesson, and in it, God is sharing one of the basic aspects of the nature of the world that He created. The water that comes out of the sky has a purpose, and God was intentional when He set up the system whereby it develops in the sky and then falls to earth. In other words, this moisture has a purpose that is designed for it to fulfill when it drops out of the clouds and is pulled by gravity to earth’s surface. The moisture that was generated far above comes to settle in the ground and is used by various seeds to cause them to sprout, develop, and grow into plants that are useful in numerous ways. It also gives life sustaining fluid to all of the wide array of animals that reside on and in the earth. Water in its various forms is useful, valuable, and even vital to all life that exists in the world. It helps to feed and to sustain us in many ways, and no life exists without its presence, and none of us thrive if we do not take it in regularly and deeply.

But God’s science lesson is not really about the natural world so much as it is a discussion of the nature of the world. Yes, we are fed and sustained by the water, plants, and animals that God has given to us to use as food, but even more importantly than that, our deeper natures, our souls, are nourished by God’s Word. He has provided His word of life to give us the foundational understanding that we need to live as righteous and just people. The Lord also feeds us a regular diet of the wisdom that we require to digest this understanding so that it is useful in making the decisions that we need to make every day. God’s Word in all of its forms and expressions contains the nutrients that our hearts, minds, and spirits require in order to do more than just exist. Through His word of life, the Lord gives us strength, encouragement, and vision to utilize as we navigate our way through the days ahead. This same word shows us the long history of God’s faithful presence with His people throughout all of time so that we can both gain confidence to follow His path and also learn from the successes and the failings of our predecessors. 

God provides us with water, and we can choose to drink it in or not, but the result of refusing it is that we will shrivel up and ultimately die. God also pours out His Word for us to consume; although, our bodies will not perish if we do not drink it in, we will not thrive in that condition of self-imposed spiritual drought. Frankly, it is foolish to fail to consume at least a basic portion of what the Lord is providing for us to drink in. He makes it very easy to access and He continually refreshes the supply. God’s Word, whether written, spoken, or revealed to us through the work of the Spirit, surrounds us as if it were the air we breathe. God instructs and trains us through it, and He increases our depth of understanding of it as we discuss it with each other and with Him; so, prayer is also a form of study and contemplation of God’s Word. God gives us His Word so that we can grow closer to Him and in order for us to know His will and follow His righteous way. Consuming it brings us into the presence of the Lord in ways that make us strong in spirit and wise in the ways of the Lord.   

No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.

1 John 3: 6

John sets a very hard standard here. For there is no question in my mind that even as a follower of Christ sin is not absent from my life, and the same hard reality is attested to by others that I know and by the witness of many as set out in God’s Word. Accepting Christ is not some form of magic wand that immediately changes this aspect of who we have been for the prior duration of our lives. In addition, He does not take control over our hearts and minds in a manner that overrides all of the impulses, desires, and conditioned responses that we have to life. Through the work of His Spirit on and within us, Christ does change His people in ways that are both subtle and profound. Yet, He does this through a process that takes place over time, and this process involves us in on-going acts of submission to His will and of surrender to God’s holy and righteous way of engaging with life.

 This would seem to put most people at odds with God, or at least with John’s view of the way that God works in the lives of His people. There were very few people who knew Jesus better than did John. He was closer than almost anyone else to Jesus while He was living on earth as a man, and John’s continued service and leadership in the fellowship of faith became legendary due to its singular length and his intense devotion to the gospel of love as known only by and through a relationship with Jesus Christ. So, when John speaks, it is wise to listen, and when he says something this powerful about the fundamental nature of what it means to be in relationship with Christ, we should take his statement seriously. John was not a person who said things for their shock value alone; rather, he was a disciple of Christ who was charged with guiding many into an ever deeper form of living out their calling to service to God.

John is not saying that true followers of Christ will live sinless lives. Instead, he is indicating that people who have in fact given themselves to Christ and entered into a relationship with Him will never be comfortable with the sin that is remaining in us as we engage with and conduct life. In Christ, sin loses its hold on us and its rule over us is ended. (John 8:31 cf.) So, as we remain close to our Lord, as we abide in Him, the contrast between living as Christ’s true follower with its characteristics of love, grace, mercy, justice, and peacemaking and the way of the world with its characteristics of a drive toward power, control, personal gain, and self-determination of right and wrong, becomes ever starker and more uncomfortable to us. John is providing us with a strong warning and a clear reminder that we are to seek out the Lord and His righteousness as the primary focus of our days. We dwell in the presence of Christ when we turn to Him through consumption of God’s Word, in meditation and prayer, and by holding God’s view of what constitutes holiness and righteousness as superior to personal comfort, our long-established habits, or to life, itself. Thus, as we remain attached to the source of wisdom, truth, and gracious love, as we abide in the vine that is Christ (John 15), the sin that seeks to control our lives is driven off, and our souls are set free to live out the Lord’s calling and purpose for us.    

If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.

Mark 4: 23

Although Jesus speaks about a physical feature that almost all people possess, He is not talking about our physical bodies. The Lord is restating a comment that occurs several times in the words of the prophet Isaiah and that also run deep in a Jewish understanding of the way that God desires for His people to respond to Him. I think that a key element in what Jesus says two times in this section of Mark’s gospel is found in the all but universal presence of hearing in people. We were meant to hear. This is the way that God designed people, and that hearing is an important part of the manner in which we are intended by our Creator to navigate our way through this world. People can operate successfully with diminished or even absent hearing, but this takes extra effort, training, and on-going practice to do well. When it comes to hearing, Jesus is saying that God gives us all the equipment with which to hear, the ability to decipher this auditory input, and the capacity to use what we take in in order to live righteously in the manner that God desires for us to do.

The fact that we all fall short of this last aspect of what God intends for us is the result of our own rebellion against God, of our selfishness, and of our unrelenting need to go through life making our own decisions and following after our personally desired and fabricated gods. We don’t hear God’s word of truth and life because we refuse to listen to His voice. We fail to live as redeemed people in this fallen world because we shut off the receptivity that God designed into our hearts and our minds. In too many instances we become the fool, the person who should know better but who still acts as one who does not know Christ at all. This can be true in big things and it can also be the case in the small elements of life. Jesus is saying to those of us who know Him that we need to engage the full concept of the hearing that we have been given as a gift from God. That is, we need to let God’s word in, and we also need to surrender ourselves to obedience to the call to love others, seek justice, grant mercy, and hold righteousness as more precious than breath itself. In addition, people who do not know Christ are provided with an opportunity to hear Him in the expression of our lives when we follow Christ as He would have us do this.

For people who struggle with hearing, and I would guess that this includes most of us, there is hope. Jesus would not have made such a point of this if He were not also providing a way to redemption from the manner in which we have deviated from God’s will. In Christ, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit who grants understanding to us and who counsels us in all aspects of following God. We are also provided with God’s Word and the wealth of truth, wisdom, and descriptions of righteous living that are contained within it. Then, the body of faith invites us into its presence and provides followers of Christ with a place to dwell where support, accountability, instruction, and opportunity to use the gifts that God has given to us are formed together into common worship of our Lord. Thus, Jesus points to the obvious presence of ears on our heads, and He instructs us to truly hear, which means that we are to seek out the face of God, to meditate deeply upon His Word, to pray regularly and routinely, to listen even more intently that we speak, and to engage in the fellowship of the body of Christ even when those associations may seem hard or troubling. As Jesus said to us, “Hear and obey and commit your life to following what it is that God is continually saying to you through the ears of your heart.” At least that is how I heard His words in my heart.     

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