A Pause to Lament

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I attended a grief seminar this weekend.  Sounds fun, right?  Actually it was and it wasn’t.  It brought to the surface a loss in my life.  It gave me permission to grieve that loss in a corporate setting. It affirmed a basic need, as individuals and as the church, to lament.  God used the speaker to challenge myths in my thinking and to address the regrets and the resentments that have weighed me down for a very long time.   Ultimately it put me on a path to hope.

Thinking on the senseless loss of life this weekend in Paris and Beruit, I think we could use some hope!  Jesus knows how we feel.  He too was killed by “terrorists,” people enslaved by their “religion”, anxious to kill the one who “threatened” their God.  Even though he had come to this earth to endure such a sacrifice, to lay down his life for our sakes, he still felt the senseless injustice, the shock of betrayal and loss, the agony of pain, and the great spiritual anguish of separation from his Father. 

Jesus gave us a wonderful example to follow, crying out to the Father from two different lament songs of the Jews.  They came from the Jewish hymn book, the book of Psalms, words set to tunes, implanted in the memory banks of the brain, as a means to worship and appeal to a faithful God.  I imagine that in his greatest suffering, unable to put many coherent thoughts together, Jesus recalled the words of these songs, giving voice to his deepest emotions.

Consider some of the words from Psalm 22:

1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.[b]…
6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.  7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him…
15 My mouth[d] is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles methey pierce[e] my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.  18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.  You are my strength; come quickly to help me.  20 Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Matthew captured and transmitted all these emotions to his readers when he recalled Jesus’ words on the cross in Matthew 27:46…

46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Again, consider some of the words of the lament in Psalm 31:

3 Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hands I commit my spiritdeliver me, Lord, my faithful God…
11 Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbor and an object of dread to my closest friends—those who see me on the street flee from me.
12 I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery.
13 For I hear many whispering, “Terror on every side!”  They conspire against me and plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.”  15 My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.
16 Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.

Thought to be a common bedtime song for young Jewish boys, this song may have been a source of comfort and a means to praise in Jesus’ deepest agony.  Luke captured this sentiment and the depth of the entire lament, when he recorded Jesus’ last words before his death in Luke 23:46…

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

What if, in our times of deepest loss and overwhelming sorrow, when nothing makes sense and God seems indifferent, we took our cue from Jesus and cried out in lament?  Would it convince us that we have a good dad who is present and longs for us to cry on his shoulder?  What if the words of songs like these were so ingrained in the conscious memory of the church, that they flowed forth between the sobs and the pain?

All psalms of lament (and there are A LOT of them) include four elements:  an address, a complaint, a request, and an expression of trust, though not always in that order.  By quoting two of them, I think Jesus gives us precedent and permission to:

1.  Address God.  Even in a very loud voice, cry out to God in the midst of pain!  He listens with great empathy and compassion.

2.  Complain.  (I don’t like this.  This is horrific. This doesn’t make sense.  Why?  When will it ever stop?)  He has demonstrated in Scripture, an infinite tolerance for complaining.

3.  Request.  (Lord, do not be far from me.  Let your face shine upon your servant.  Save me in your unfailing love.)  His promise is that He will never leave us, that he quiets us with His singing, and that He is, by his very nature, love that never fails.  He may carry us through death, but He will carry us nonetheless.

4.  Express trust.  The psalter helps us do this.  Just repeat the conclusion of Psalm 22:22,24 and Psalm 31:24, all together now…

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help… Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”

Stick Together

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Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Matthew 18:5-14

How is this for advertising?

IT’S BETTER FOR YOU….
to tie a giant, heavy circular stone around your neck and jump into the ocean!
to cut off your hand or your foot and throw it away, and enter life crippled or lame!
to tear your eye out and throw it away and enter life with one eye!

“Better than what?” you might ask! Exactly.

Those things sound awful: Sure death. Dismemberment. Eye balls popping out. But ALL of them are better than the effects of SIN, for yourself and for others.

Jesus is laying the foundation, one layer at a time, for life in the kingdom of God. It starts with all believers as “little ones”, totally dependent on their Father, God. Think of yourself less; trust your daddy.

Only from that perspective can each member of the community turn their focus to the other. Value them. Don’t harm their conscience (a more accurate translation of the Greek.) Don’t despise them; despise sin! Sin destroys people and communities!

In community life, it’s unifying to have a common enemy. Satan is that enemy and temptation to sin is his weapon of choice. Resist him together. Seek righteousness and holiness together. Don’t lose anyone; stick together. Look for the lost ones and bring them back into the community. This is a good way to live, friends. It minimizes conflict. It enables people, made in the image of a relational 3 in 1 God, to know and be known, to belong, and to have common purpose.

John said, “If you don’t love your brother whom you have seen, you cannot love God whom you haven’t seen.” (I John 4:20) Community life is part of loving God. You can’t have one without the other. It’s hard, but it’s beautiful God’s way.

Let’s flip the advertisement:

IT’S BETTER FOR YOU…
to belong to one another, like sheep hanging out on a beautiful hillside with their good shepherd.
to trust the shepherd (Jesus) to fight the bad guy out to kill and harm and destroy you.
to help each other resist sin because it’s harmful, and celebrate how good it is to live life God’s way!

Period.

Dependence

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“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 18:1-4

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
C.S. Lewis

In the upside down kingdom of heaven, humility is key. God, infinitely powerful and mighty, assumes the lowly form of a helpless babe, born to marginalized teenagers, grows up in obscurity, and then announces his kingdom as a demure carpenter amongst very ordinary lay-people. Meek and unassuming, Jesus ushers in a completely radical way of living, one where greatness is found in service, where the last are first, and where the trusting, humble nature of a child is valued above all.

Matthew 18 marks Jesus’ fourth major collection of teachings in this gospel narrative. In each of the previous discourses, the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), the apostolic send-off (10-11), and the seaside kingdom parables (13), Jesus has been expounding on the nature and implications of kingdom of God, present in heaven and now on earth. As his students are starting to “get it” on some level, they naturally start to feel pretty good about themselves, maybe even a bit proud of their inheritance as royal children of the King! It makes sense that they would want to know who is greatest, especially when the world and even the religious leaders didn’t think of them as anything special!

Jesus, ironically calls a child to them. If the disciples didn’t get a lot of esteem as fishermen, tax collectors, women or blue collar laborers, children got less in first century Palestine. Jesus certainly gives great value to the child, but his point is that would-be disciples, in his economy, must equally share the lowly status of children, a mutual condition of utter dependence on God.

Jesus is about to expound on the implications for the disciples as community. The groundwork for community life, Jesus says, is a shared understanding that no one is more important than anyone else. All are as helpless and reliant as a child in family life. Only God can be in charge. Even Jesus didn’t consider equality with God a reason to think highly of himself! (Philippians 2:6) Jesus, perfect as he was, said he could do nothing on his own accord, but only what he saw the Father doing. (John 5:27) He exemplified humility even as he demanded it.

A child, in a loving home, doesn’t question her status or her value. She doesn’t question where her next meal will come from or what she will wear. She simply cries out in need and trusts that the need will be met. She loves as she is loved. So it is in the kingdom of heaven. We cry out to a really good dad, who loved us enough to make a way to himself. He runs to us and loves to meet our needs. When we cry out together, from a shared posture of total reliance, we become the family of God.  And that is a really good way to live!

Kingdom Come

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51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Matthew 13:51-52

 

The kingdom of heaven. Jesus standing between old and new. Ancient promises fulfilled, while something new emerges. “God’s future was breaking into the present – heaven was arriving on earth.” (NT Wright, Simply Christian)

This is deep. These concepts were radically new and unexpected when Jesus spoke them. Jesus’ central message was that this kingdom of heaven was at hand, was essentially staring his followers in the face. The explanation required layers of meaning, backed up a continual, self-sacrificing demonstration of love by an incarnate God.

Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like…scattered seeds, fruitful in receptive soil, something tiny that grows exponentially into something beautiful and useful, a net and a harvest, where evil will one day be expunged. The kingdom of God…grows, produces, is mysterious, is unassuming, flourishes alongside evil, and will be subject to a final judgment.

Wrapped up in this information overload was Jesus’ invitation to imitation. He bid his disciples to walk with him, to trust him, to “come and see.” He asked them if they understood what he was saying. I imagine their answer as more of a question than a response…a shaky “Yes?” I imagine Jesus smiling back, knowing that this was going to take a lot of active learning. He affirms them, calling them scribes (people entrusted to copy the ancient text of Scripture!) They will be like the master of the house, commoners elevated to wealthy homeowner status, a kingdom inheritance! They are compelled now, to share this secret kingdom treasure, making sense of the old and the new to their circles of influence. And bring forth they will! The fact that we are pondering these words today is evidence!

I find it baffling that Jesus entrusted this kingdom message to a select few, in whom he invested divine time and energy, every resource at his disposal. It was God’s perfect plan. It wasn’t just information to be learned; it was the presence of God to be experienced. It was a preparation for the Holy Spirit that would, through people like you and me, make this kingdom real through every tumultuous period of history since, right up to the present day.

The kingdom of God is at hand, my friends.   It’s already here and its fullness is yet to come! We are the ones who now have the privilege to take this old and new treasure and bring it forth! May God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, through you and through me!

A Net

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47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13:47-50, ESV

 

Matthew ends this parabolic discourse of Jesus with a unique message to this insider troupe. These followers, made up of fishermen and tradesmen, tax collectors and housewives, commoners by all accounts, were being let in on great kingdom secrets. The king of kings, himself, was calling them to clandestine royalty, to be his secret agents in the kingdom of heaven. This mission, if they chose to accept it, was going to be costly, dangerous, and difficult. They needed courage and hope. Jesus served it up where it all began for them, at the fishing docks.

Jesus first called Peter, Andrew, James and John as he walked by the Sea of Galilee where they were fishermen. While they were mending their nets, Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:18-22) As hard as that was for them to grasp, they left their nets and followed him. They witnessed him proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, while healing every disease and affliction among the people. “Repent, for the kingdom is near,” was Jesus’ favorite tagline, his most used good news message.

Far from the political or military powerhouse the disciples and every expectant Jew anticipated, this messiah was soft-spoken and tender, meek and mild. His kingdom was near, but not nearly what they expected! He asked them to turn the other cheek, to resist fighting evil with evil. (Matthew 5) That took uncommon restraint and humility. Jesus assures them in this final kingdom likeness, that evil will not be overlooked in the kingdom of heaven. Judgment is coming. Evil will be put in its place.

“The kingdom of heaven”, he said, “is like a net,” a really big net. Probably understood by these fisherman to be a 750 to 1000 foot long wall-like structure, 25 feet high at its center and 5 feet high at the ends, weighted at its bottom, and buoyed at its top, this massive net could bring in large quantities of fish, the good with the bad. Just like they had to separate the good eating fish from the less appetizing or “unclean” ones (Lev 11:9-12), God will separate the evil from the righteous at the end of the age. Just like the wheat and the weeds were allowed to grow together, the net will be no respecter of persons. Every man, woman, boy and girl will find themselves in its scope. The good news is that it was not up to the disciples nor is it up to us as Christ followers today, to determine the good from the bad when fishing for men. God’s got that covered. He’s just and merciful.

Thankfully, for those of us who choose to recognize the enormous value of a God who gives himself to anyone who will receive him and apply his salvation to their life, he will show unlimited mercy. His righteousness is ours for the taking! But to those who will not accept Jesus death on their behalf, who choose to go it their own way, depend on their own righteousness, and who allow themselves to be used by Satan to promote chaos and evil in this world, a day of divine fairness is coming. They will get what we all deserve, ultimate death and despair, a complete separation from God.

It was a gift for Jesus to describe the kingdom this way! We face a similar challenge to our resolve today as followers of Jesus when we face evil on so many fronts.   Disciples are not immune to the destructive forces of lies, cheating, stealing, sexual sin, abandonment, rejection, personal violations, violence, and even death in all its cruel forms. We live in a fallen world, but we serve a victorious king! In his kingdom, evil will not prevail. Let go of the very human need for vindication and retribution, so that you can live a life full of the peace and joy only God can give. God will fight for you, friend. And He always wins! Redemption and renewal are on the way.

Value

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I saw this meme on my Facebook feed this morning: “The enemy wouldn’t be attacking you if something very valuable wasn’t inside of you. Thieves don’t break into empty houses.” (From One Purpose – 31 Days of Encouragement) “Really?” my subconscious said. “Indeed,” the Spirit confirmed. Amy, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (I Co 6:19) Amy, Jesus beckons, (Jn 14:23) “If anyone loves me, [she] will keep my word, and my Father will love [her], and we will come to [her] and make our home with [her].” Based on some of Satan’s recent attacks, this makes perfect sense. Hidden inside of me, mysterious as it may be, is a treasure of the highest value imaginable!

Jesus continues his parable-palooza in Matthew 13, but now he moves indoors, from the crowd to the committed. To the crowd, Jesus’ words were a great mystery. They were hard, even counter-culturally crazy at times. Many chose to turn away upon hearing them, but to the called, they were “the words of life.” (Jn 6:60-68) The concepts didn’t always make sense, but the disciples seemed to grasp that something very valuable was transpiring in their midst. Truth that “had been hidden since the foundation of the world” was being proclaimed. (Matthew 13:34-35) It changed everything.

It’s no surprise then that Jesus would tell this inner circle in confidence:

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

He was asking them to do just that, to “sell all that they had” to follow him:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

Why would anyone do that? Because the kingdom of heaven was that valuable! Like a field with buried treasure or a costly pearl, both hidden and invisible, it is worth the effort to find and claim and make real. The disciples had a great epiphany after Jesus death, burial and resurrection. He showed back up. His own Spirit came upon them and indwelled them and the world has never been the same!

The kingdom of heaven, friends, is inside of you. It’s the Spirit of God that makes his home with you. His kingdom is anywhere where He sits on the throne of an open heart. It’s hidden beneath the layers of flesh and desire that make you human. It’s Spirit. It’s truth. It’s a treasure. It’s the sand inside of you that is being transformed into a pearl. It’s so valuable that Satan is trying to move heaven and earth to get it. Don’t give him the pleasure of the slightest access. Guard your heart. Value the God in you!

Grow

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31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Matthew 13:31-32

My husband was talking about our trees yesterday. Before he pruned some branches, he stared at them. They looked like they were trying so hard to survive. They had done some miraculous gymnastic like adaptations to keep growing, but they weren’t healthy.  They had to go.

Jesus said the kingdom of heaven grows. It starts small and increases in size.  It assimilates material into a living organism. It springs up and develops to maturity. It develops from a parent source. It has an increasing influence. It becomes increasingly acceptable or attractive.[1]

Left to my own devices, I’ll grow, but more like the unhealthy branches of my backyard trees. My instinct is to start big, to get ahead of the process, and to control. I try so hard self-preserve and self-protect. The kingdom of heaven, however, in in God’s hands. He’s growing a kingdom that is big and beautiful and strong, but it starts with a tiny seed planted in me.

A small mustard seed miraculously becomes a large, healthy plant able to sustain even the homes of birds! While we may understand the stages a seed goes through to become such a flowering plant, the process itself is mysterious.   It requires transformative change. We may set the conditions for this change, but only God can empower the increase.

Sometimes that happens in the dark recesses of the soil. Sometimes it happens in broad daylight. Sometimes it requires pruning. Other times, it requires pollination and fertilization. For me, God grows me in dark, secret places, but also among friends. His Word and his gentle voice suggests that I make adjustments, but sometimes he has to make some forceful cut backs. His Spirit convicts, guides, and makes groans to the Father on my behalf. This is mysterious, but the transformation in me is no less exponential. It produces faith, trust in a God I can’t always understand, but who I am convinced is real and personal.

Later, Jesus says, if you have faith, even as small as a mustard seed, God can do things through you that you can’t even dream possible! (Matthew 17:20) That’s the kingdom, friends. It’s so near; it’s in our mouths and in our heart. Paul says it’s the word of faith that we proclaim. (Romans 10:8-9) That’s Jesus, the final word, the only one that matters. Believe him. Share him. He has the power to save, to transform hearts, and to grow a kingdom so large from the tinniest of seeds.

 

 

[1] These are all definitions of the intransitive verb form of “grow” in the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary.

Weeds

Common Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and Forking Larkspur (Consolida regalis) in flowering meadow, Bulgaria, May 2008

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds[c] among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants[d] of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:24-30

 

Seeds of the kingdom were planted in me a long time ago and grew into deep and abiding faith. Words, like, “Amy, while you were a sinner, I died for you. You are valued in my kingdom. You are loved.” Jesus rescued me from a dominion of darkness, and brought me into the light! With perfect light and nourishment, those seeds have grown. I’ve been fruitful. The trouble is that weeds have been planted in my heart as well. An enemy came and dropped them in my heart in the most deceptive of ways and God has been contending with them ever since.

The biggest weeds have grown from seeds of rejection. Someone I love once told me that they loved the idea of me more than they loved me. That one phrase was a seed planted so deep in my heart that the weed has been growing alongside a healthy understanding of love for quite a while. “Will I ever be good enough?” fights a battle with “You’ve been clothed with the righteousness of Christ” in my mind and heart.

Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like that. It’s like a field of wheat, sabotaged by a night predator. Apparently weeds grow just like wheat, so it’s not productive to uproot the weeds right away. They’ve got to grow and reveal themselves, and then the sower gathers up the weeds and burns them, so he can gather his wheat to himself.

God is the sower in this kingdom. He sows seeds in hearts and draws men and women to himself. He’s a good gardener, but he doesn’t manipulate the crop. He allows an enemy free roam, and gives him access to hearts as well. The good news (gospel) of this Jesus story, however, is that we are the soil, not the wheat! The seed becomes wheat; not the soil. The soil doesn’t have to uproot the weeds around it; it just allows the seed God planted in it, to grow. It submits to the sower who determines when and how to harvest the crop! The sower is in charge. He will burn up all the weeds, in his timing, when doing so won’t harm the heart He’s transforming to look like his own.

In my case, God doesn’t anesthetize me, dull my mind, or take away my choices. To enable freedom, He lets me feel pain while he’s maturing and growing his perfect seed. He wants me to love him with everything, and that means choosing him over every competing voice. Winning the battle in my mind is as simple not fighting the weeds. Our desire to control and poor choices can give weeds the license to choke out the seeds of truth. I think I’ll leave the weeding to the master gardener. One day, Paul says, I’ll know fully even as I am fully known. (I Co 13) That love is perfect; it never fails nor rejects. It always hopes and always perseveres.

Seeds

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I recently heard a singer/songwriter/theologian tell about writing songs of redemption with incarcerated women in a Nashville prison. She told about the experience and then sang the songs that the women had written. The songs were powerful, written from deep places within the hearts of caged women who were really free.

One song was about a seed.   A woman, imprisoned for life, planted a sunflower seed out of a package of trail mix in a paper cup and got it to sprout. She gave it to her songwriter friend and told her, “My seed wasn’t supposed to grow, but it did.” The songwriter took the contraband sprout home, and watched it bloom and grow.  It was a visual reminder that only God can make the seeds of redemption, sown in the hearts of his people grow and flourish!

In Matthew 13, Jesus sits in a boat and tells some stories to a crowd of people sitting on the beach. He starts with a story about some seeds. The farmer scatters them about, but not all of them grow. Birds eat some along the path and the sun burns up the rootless ones in the shallow, rocky soil. Thorns choke others. But some grow.  In the right soil, they are fruitful and multiply many fold into grain.

“He who has ears, let him hear.” Sounds simple enough, but Jesus meant something really deep. He had coded the secret words of the kingdom in that story, among others. He opened the eyes and ears of those who drew close to him, so they could see what is unseen and understand what defies logic and reason.

The seeds were kingdom words sown by Jesus. “The kingdom has come near.” (Luke 21:31) “The word is close to you.” (Romans 10:8) These words of redemption fall into different sets of ears, but always land in the heart. In the deep, dark places of the soul, the seeds may germinate but then be misunderstood, consumed by worry, or choked by greed and self-absorption.  The seeds that fall on receptive hearts do so in all kinds of external locations. They are sown in prisons and in the supermarkets, in rural Haiti, coastal Cambodia, and urban America, in the streets of the inner city and the pews of pristine cathedrals. It’s the hearts of the people that receive them that are open and receptive to God or ultimately closed. The seeds that fall in receptive places grow despite all the odds, because God is responsible for the growth. He is known for his gardens. His people are fruitful and multiply. His kingdom is unstoppable.

God planted some seeds in a Tennessee prison. The girls were behind bars, but the seeds fell on good soil. All they needed were the light of the Son and some “living water,” and they grew into something beautiful and eternally free. When the Son sets you free, you really are free indeed. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Watch a moving, full documentary of one of the girl’s stories on You Tube:

Come to Me

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Oppression is heavy. Maybe you feel the weight of the world pressing down on you in your work. Heavy. Maybe you’re thinking about big issues that will affect you and your family. Heavy. Maybe you’re bitter about discrimination or a lack of opportunity that has literally weighed you down and rendered you unable to move up or out. Heavy. Maybe you feel the weight of sin, as it tempts and torments you to give in. Heavy. Maybe the wake of death feels so final. Heavy.

At the end of some harsh and heavy words to a crowd of people equally burdened by oppression all around them, Jesus says, “Come to me, all labor and are HEAVY laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is LIGHT.” (Mt 11:28-30)

Wait a minute. This is the same guy who just chastised this crowd for their fickle behavior, likening them to children playing self-centered games. Jesus said, “Woe to you!” He said they were worse than Tyre and Sidon, pagan Phonecian cities, and even Sodom, an ancient city destroyed for its vile wickedness! What? That is pretty heavy if you ask me, not easy nor light.

What had they done that was so bad? (Mt. 11:20-27) They wouldn’t accept the message of the kingdom! Nothing was turning out like they wanted or thought that it would. John was too serious and weird, so they thought him mad. Jesus was too friendly with riff-raff, so they thought him a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus just wasn’t the messiah they thought he was going to be! Operative word is “they”. Self-centeredness was keeping them from “seeing” the God incarnate right in front of them. The yoke they were connected to was the law, a system of rules instead of a person. (See Lam 5:5)

Jesus, gently and humbly, turns the tide of the conversation. He says you don’t have to be religious elite, or even very smart, to understand the essence of the kingdom of God. He said God revealed it to Him, and He reveals it to the ones who can hear it with child-like submission.

Jesus is the wisdom of God, (I Cor 1:24,30; I Cor 2:7, 8) a person not a system. He invites rather than smites. “Come to me,” he says. I want to know you. I will walk with you and teach you. Under my yoke, I do the work, and you get a front row seat to witness the power of God. He yokes himself to you, as a sinner deserving death. That yoke leads him to a cross. He redeems us from the penalty we owe.  He restores honor to our shame, by taking all the shame upon himself.  What a privilege to take the yoke back up after the resurrection! Jesus bears all the heaviness of life with power and grace! He promises to redeem it all someday! In the meantime, the same person who helped him through the cross, the Holy Spirit, resides in us. Side by side, we are led into rest and peace that defies human reasoning and understanding.  The yoke is easy and the burden is light, because someone else is doing all the heavy lifting! As complicated as life may become, discipleship is at heart, simply walking with Jesus in the real world, and having him teach us step by step how to live life his way.

This song says it all: