DEEPER HOPE

Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings

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17 Observations on Matthew 13:

And now for something completely different: today I spent some time in Matthew, chapter 13. That’s the chapter chocked full of parables of the Kingdom of Heaven. Usually I try to write a structured post, with a beginning, middle, and end, but today I thought I would simply record a series of observations from this chapter. Grab your Bible and find Matthew, chapter 13: you’re invited to follow along. It could take just five minutes or you could spend an hour. As to whether it is well-structured--you be the judge.

(Bonus observation, not counted in the 17: don't think for a minute that Jesus is talking about "heaven" as in "Go to Heaven when you die." He's not!)

Verses 3 - 9: Why do so many people presume that an equal amount of seed fell on all four types of soil? Several different commentaries make such statements, but it’s not really indicated in what Jesus says. Wouldn’t it make more sense that a tiny amount fell on the hardened path, and that lots and lots fell into stony or thorn-infested soil? Wouldn't the sower discover which soil was which after things started to grow?

Verse 11: The secrets of the kingdom are given to disciples, not casual listeners. Would God actually conceal things?

Verse 12: Not only would he conceal things, he apparently entrusts treasures to those who have demonstrated that they will take care of them.

Verse 16: Yet he tells the disciples that they are blessed beyond many prophets and righteous people. He is lavish with those who are following hard after him.

Verse 19: “Anyone” can mean me, too.

Verse 23: I remember Derek Prince pointed out that thirty and sixty-fold add up to ninety. He said the hundred-fold dimension is a kind of fruitfulness that exceeds the other two combined. After 30 years I’m still not sure what Derek meant.

Verse 27: Why does everyone require the Master to explain himself? The implication is that it’s his fault. Do I do that? Do I demand that God explain why things go wrong?

Verse 29: Even in the presence of evil, God cares about the harvest.

Verses 31- 33: Jesus used little tiny “bookend parables.” Not everything has to be L-O-N-G. Am I listening?

Verse 36: People who hang around after the crowds leave usually get something extra. What’s my hurry?

Verses 44 & 45: Two more bookends. These are strikingly different. One guy finds the treasure, presumably by accident; the other guy has been purposefully looking for that one pearl. One guy recognizes what anyone can see--treasure; the other guy has trained himself to recognize something rare and precious. Both sell everything they have--everything?

Verse 46: For the sixth time, “the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Jesus is using images, not allegories. Where did these images come from? Well, for one, what do you think he was doing those first 30 years of this life?

Verse 49: For the second time, “so it will be at the end of the age.” True, the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into the here-and-now, but it is also about the end of the age. Do I live my life with the end of the age in mind?

Verse 51: Breathtaking! They answered, “Yes.”

Verse 52: Good news--we can be “trained in the Kingdom.” There’s hope for anyone who wants to be his student.

Verse 53: This should be the end of chapter 13. When Langton divided the scripture into chapters in the 13th century he got this one wrong.

Verse 53 (again): When you’re finished, it’s time to leave.

Monday's Meditation: No more correct answers!

I was thinking this morning about part of the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel— (should we reserve passages about his birth for December?)  the part where the Magi make their way first to Jerusalem and ask King Herod about the birth of the new king.  Herod calls the scholars together and tries to determine the location of the Messiah’s birthplace.  Of course the scholars get the answer right, and Herod sends the Magi on their way.
Why didn’t Herod or any of the learned men go with the Magi?  They got the answer “right,” but it did not lead them to Jesus.  What is the purpose of correct doctrine if it does not lead us into an experience with God?  Like the scholars in Herod’s court, am I content to know the truth without experiencing it?  
Who got to experience a relationship with Jesus?  It was those who were willing to act on what was revealed. My point is not only about meeting Jesus the first time—what if all the revelation contained in the scripture is placed there for us to experience him personally?  Lord, deliver me from “correct information” and give the grace to hunger for your presence.

Peace That Passes Understanding

Our age is characterized by activity, energy, and action. Peace, however, is not an attribute of our times. When magazines and television broadcasts highlight the lives of celebrities, peace is not mentioned as one of the advantages of “the good life.” Jesus, however, offered his disciples the yoke of discipleship, and under his instruction they would experience rest and peace. “Peace I leave with you,” he told his friends at the Last Supper. “My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14: 27)
He spoke about peace often: when he looked over Jerusalem he cried because the people of the city had never learned the things that would make for peace; when he commissioned his disciples to preach the Kingdom of God he told them to give their peace as a gift; when the resurrected Jesus appeared he greeted his friends with “Peace.” Peace is among the fruit of the Spirit. Peace is an attribute of believers even when they face persecution or violence. Peace is the fingerprint of Jesus upon the lives he has crafted.
Students of Jesus can learn rest and peace has they submit to his instruction in everyday life. We can learn peace. He can teach us how to live a life of peace. The Apostle Paul, writing to a healthy group of believers in Philippi, gave these words as his final command:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4: 6 – 7)
These are famous verses. Perhaps you have heard of this incredible promise of “the peace which transcends understanding.” But has anyone taught us how to receive the gift of God, this perfect peace?
As we read this passage in Philippians we could easily think of the first words as a command, “be anxious for nothing.” But it is not a command, it is an outcome—an outcome that depends on living out the words that follow. We can be free from anxiety through prayer and thanksgiving.
For many followers of Jesus prayer is more a source of frustration than peace. We know that we are supposed to pray, be who has instructed us in how to pray? For some of us, our prayers are driven by need or fear. For others prayer is a duty and a mystery. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. As they spent time with Jesus they saw a qualitative difference in prayer as they understood it and prayer as Jesus practiced it. Fortunately, we have a record of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Luke 11 is a particularly useful passage on prayer. We hear again a version of The Lord’s prayer; Jesus asks us to imagine that we a have a friend—the kind of friend we can approach even in the middle of the night; he reminds his disciples that there is a perfect parent in heaven who longs to give the Holy Spirit in response to our requests. One reason we do not experience the peace that passes understanding after we pray is that we have not learned how to pray as Jesus taught.
The passage in Philippians also reveals the key ingredient in prayer: thanksgiving. A thankful heart is the foundation for peace in God’s Kingdom. As we “present our requests to God,” we are instructed to do so with thanksgiving. Requests, with thanksgiving. These need not be opposed to each other. Thanksgiving changes the atmosphere whenever it is present. Thanksgiving orders our world properly. God does not demand thanksgiving, he is teaching us that a heart thankful toward him is a heart in right relationship with him. Do we need to petition God? Absolutely! But the life-giving way to bring our requests before him is with a genuinely thankful heart. Many followers of Jesus pray from a place of worry and care, and consequently emerge from prayer even more anxious than when they started! We can learn to be thankful. We must pursue this heart-quality if we are to follow him.
Finally, we need to see the connection between our understanding and peace. Christians, especially those of us in the western world, are driven by the need to control our circumstances. Part of that control is the driving need to “understand” what is going on in our circumstances. We believe that if we can understand what is happening, we will somehow have the power to affect our situation. This is largely an illusion. We rarely are capable of the perspective needed to understand our complicated lives. Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, CA, puts it this way: “until you give up your right to understand you can't have the peace that passes understanding.” We want to know: why have we been treated unfairly? Why did our loved one make such a foolish choice? The “why” questions reveal our inner desire to be in control, and when we are not in control we are filled with worry, grief, and care. God can indeed give understanding, but it is a gift to the heart at rest in him.
The good news is that we can learn the things that make for peace. We can learn to pray the Jesus way. We can cultivate thankfulness that springs from the heart. We can experience transcendent peace. He calls us to learn from him. We can start there.

Monday's Meditation: has yesterday's word become today's bird seed?

Quick: what was the main point of the sermon you heard yesterday in church?  It's a little bit like trying to remember what you had for dinner last night:  you're sure you ate something, but what was it?

Today's memo is brief because the point is important: has yesterday's word become today's bird seed?  (Matt 13: 4) As we put our heads on the pillow last night, how many of us gave any thought to putting the words of Sunday church into action the rest if the week?  We protect what God gives us by intentional action: "How does this apply to me?  What can I do to make this real?"

Jesus, the Master Teacher, concluded his most famous sermon with this very challenge: act on my words and your life will be well-built; ignore my words and ruin is sure to follow. (Matt 7:24 - 27)

The Facebook Quiz You'll Never See

Have you seen the explosion of personality quizzes available on Facebook? Which Twilight character are you? What is the theme song of your life? Which super-villain are you? Which love-language do you have? Who knows how many other quiz topics are available? Carl Jung read our cultural urges quite well a half-century ago when he said, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.”

There is another quiz we should be eager to take, but it’s not on Facebook. It’s in the other book:
“The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop--thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown."
Mark 4: 14 – 20

Just because we have heard something before doesn’t mean we should pass it by. Watchman Nee observed that patience in the face of the familiar is a sign of spiritual maturity.

Let me tell you about the first time I ever heard this parable. The night after I became a follower of Jesus a speaker used this parable to challenge new believers with an admonition continue as Christians. I just naturally assumed that I was the good soil. How could I be anything else? Sitting next to me that night was a friend from high school who had also just turned to Jesus. After the message she wept and wept and wept. Finally she composed herself enough to sob, “I just don’t want to let Jesus down. I’m afraid I might turn out to be one of those other types of soil.” I had assumed that I was the kind of person who was naturally good and would bear fruit, while she was moved to tears, crying and asking for the grace to live up her calling. At that moment I realized that after just one day she was already way beyond me in her walk with Jesus.

Here’s a quiz that should be all over Facebook: Which kind of soil are you?

Jesus may have had more than one application for this parable. For example, do we think this parable refers only to the first time God calls to us? Perhaps Jesus was explaining the nature of every word God speaks to us. Each time God speaks all four possibilities are in play. Will his word penetrate my heart today? If he has a life-changing word for me today, will I let it take deep root? Will today’s cares choke it out? Or will the fresh word he speaks yield an amazing crop—today?

As a young Christian I thought Jesus was describing a fixed reality: too bad for those with hardened hearts, rocky soil, or lives full of weeds! Thank goodness I was the good soil! It never occurred to me that his words were a call for me to tend my own heart. I am never further away from the Kingdom than when I think that his words are for someone else, but not for me.

Another question: why do most people assume an even distribution of the different kinds of soil? So many commentators discuss each soil condition as if 25% of the seed fell on each type. Can you imagine anyone sowing one quarter of their seed on a walking path? The greatest difficulties are the conditions below the surface. The rocky soil or the type filled with weeds may well have comprised most of the field. Perhaps the North American church struggles with power and fruitfulness because the vast majority of our hearts are shallow or filled with other concerns like worry or wealth. Do we know what lies beneath the surface of our lives? Do we dare ask him for his assessment?

Finally, this isn’t just any parable. Just before his explanation Jesus asked his disciples, "Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (v 13) Jesus cautioned his students that this parable was critical to receiving the Kingdom of God (v 11). These very famous verses can still speak with authority today if we will take time to tend the garden.