24-7 Joyful?

This morning, I read a tweet that said the following. “What is God’s will for my life? Surprising answer: 1. 24-7 joy. 2. 24-7 prayer. 3. 24-7 gratitude.”

I can see where this comes from. In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, we’re told: “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus”, but what about Jesus? What about when He said: “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38), or when we read that while Jesus lived on earth, He prayed tearfully and was heard because of His reverent submission (Hebrews 5:7)? Was the Son of God a rebel because He wasn’t 24-7 joyful?

I have a deep love for Jesus. I believe He was faultless and not rebellious at all, so maybe 24-7 joy is more about attitude than a show of emotion. While Jesus was in Gethsemane – his soul so overwhelmed with sorrow, being all-knowing, I imagine He was grateful when He thought of the people His sleeping friends would later become. We’re told Jesus endured the cross because of the joy that awaited Him (Hebrews 12:1-2); that is, the joy of completing His saving work for us – of being with the Father, and seeing countless people come into a relationship with God because He died in our place.

Jesus endured the cross by focusing on what awaited Him. In other words, He was centred on joy even when His soul was sorrowful.

When you read about 24-7 joy and 24-7 gratitude, don’t take it as an indictment because you feel sadness. Take it as a reminder that even in your grief, you can find the joy in life and things to be grateful for.

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There in a Crisis

The other week, I was having lunch with friends. We were talking about Brexit, which is pretty big on the news these days. Will Boris Johnson get us out of the EU on October 31st, or will his opponents thwart him so they can keep extending the deadline? Whichever outcome you favour, you’d have to say there’s a lot of uncertainty here at the moment. To some it feels like a bit of a crisis.

Well, our friend told us over lunch that a Christian leader had said: “What crisis? There isn’t one, because God’s in control.” I get where the man’s coming from, but it sounds quite dispassionate. Is that something Jesus would say?

Read the rest at my friend Alex’s website, Worship Unlimited Ministries, and please keep Alex and family in your thoughts and prayers.

Fully Accessible

Here we are, at the biggest celebration of the Christian year. We remember that first day of the week two thousand years ago, when some women came to Jesus’ tomb and found His body wasn’t there. Two men in shining garments tell them Jesus is alive! Luke elaborates later in the chapter and says it was a vision of angels (Luke 24:22-23). They say: “Remember what He told you back in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that He would rise again on the third day” (Luke 24:6-7). I had never noticed that before. I always imagined Jesus talked to only His closest friends about going ahead of them into Galilee (Matthew 26:30-32; Mark 14:26-28), but no; it was the women as well.

As a blind person, I hear a lot about accessibility. So many times here, Jesus sets out to prove how accessible He is. Two of His followers have walked nearly seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13), and unknowingly talked with Him on the way. They invite Him in for the night and with the scent of bread in their nostrils, as Jesus breaks it to pieces, their spiritual eyes are opened and they recognise Him. Jesus disappears and straightaway they do the seven-mile walk all over again, going back to tell their story.

As they’re speaking, suddenly Jesus is among them. “Look at My hands. Look at My feet. You can see that it’s really Me. Touch Me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do” (Luke 24:39). Bringing in the sense of taste, He asks for something to eat and they give Him a piece of broiled fish. Then He opens their minds to understand the Scriptures. I would’ve loved to have been at that Bible-study!

Jesus wants to fill our intellect and all our senses. He’s God-with-us, who wants everyone to have access to the forgiveness He offers. “You saw these things happen – you are witnesses. You must go and tell people that they must change and turn to God, which will bring them His forgiveness. You must start from Jerusalem and tell this message in My name to the people of all nations. Remember that I will send you the One my Father promised. Stay in the city until you are given that power from heaven” (Luke 24:47-49).

Jesus gave convincing proofs He was alive, appearing to His followers over a period of forty days (Acts 1:3). Then comes the end of Luke’s gospel, and the beginning of Luke’s second book – the book of Acts. As His friends watch, Jesus ascends to heaven before their eyes, and they’re told: “Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday He will return from heaven in the same way you saw Him go” (Acts 1:11).

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this series, taking us through Jesus’ life in the gospel of Luke. Happy Easter, and if you’re accepting for the first time that Jesus died so you could be forgiven, welcome to the family.

Hope that Doesn’t Disappoint

Today we remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us when He died on that cross. I don’t think I could retell it in a way that would do it justice, but three scenes from this chapter stuck out to me.

Scene one: The Jewish hierarchy brought Jesus before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, since their Law wouldn’t allow them to execute Him (John 18:31-32). When he found out Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate sent Him to Herod – the ruler of Galilee. We’ve seen before that Herod thought at one point Jesus might be John back from the dead, so he already knew of His existence. Luke says Herod hoped to see Jesus perform a miracle (Luke 23:8), but it wasn’t to be. He plied Jesus with questions, but Jesus refused to answer. Then Herod and his soldiers started insulting and mocking Jesus.

Scene two: Herod’s dismissed Jesus and sent Him back to Pilate, who wants to release Him. The Jewish leaders aren’t having any of it, so they incite the crowd to shout for Jesus’ crucifixion. “They shouted louder and louder that He should be crucified, and eventually Pilate capitulated” (Luke 23:23). John tells us Jesus carried His own cross (John 19:17), but He had already been severely beaten. Perhaps He was too weak physically to continue carrying it because according to Luke, as Jesus was led away, the soldiers seized a man named Simon and put the cross on him (Luke 23:26). Simon came from Cyrene (a city in northern Africa), and Rufus and Alexander were his two sons (Mark 15:21). Other than that, we don’t know much about him, but I can hazard a guess that as he came into Jerusalem from the countryside, Simon hoped for an uneventful Passover celebration. He wouldn’t have wanted to be ramrodded by a bunch of power-hungry soldiers into the brutality of that day.

Scene three: Jesus is nailed to a cross, and two criminals to crosses alongside Him. Both criminals start out ridiculing Him (Matthew 27:44), but I guess one felt a check in his spirit. As the first goes on cursing, the second speaks up. “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). All that’s ahead for them now is death, but the God-fearing one seems to have some concept of something more. I imagine his eyes locking with Jesus’ as he pleads: “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom”, and Jesus famously promised he would join Him in paradise. It’s a wonderful hope – that even if we haven’t known Jesus for the majority of our lives, if we turn to Him in our last moments asking to be remembered, He won’t fail us.

When Jesus is the centre of your hope, you won’t be disappointed.

On Monday, I did my first-ever open mic night at the Cavern Pub in Liverpool (amazing to be able to say I’ve sung at the Cavern!). I sang my song:
“You’re the only one who satisfies completely;
You’re the only one who never lets me down” …

Sometimes I might feel let-down because I haven’t got the things I’ve been hoping for here on earth, but in reality, He hasn’t let me down. I’ve always got the presence of Jesus. He’s never going to leave me; He’ll never expect me to cope with life on my own. Do you have that hope?

Hard to Take?

There’s so much in Luke 22 that I want to just focus on its three main characters: Judas Iscariot, Peter, and Jesus.

Judas: We start the chapter with his agreeing to betray Jesus. Luke doesn’t tell us why, but in all the other gospels, this happens after an incident at Bethany. Jesus has returned to the home of Martha and Mary, and their brother – Lazarus. In John 11, an illness took the life of Lazarus and Jesus raised him from the dead. That’s why when Jesus arrived at Bethany, a dinner was given in His honour and Mary, still full of gratitude, poured expensive perfume on His feet (John 12:2-3). Some of the guests were indignant. The perfume was worth nearly a year’s wages and they thought she had wasted it (Mark 14:4-5), but Jesus told them to leave her alone; she had done a beautiful thing (Mark 14:6). That’s when Judas goes to the priests to ask about betraying Jesus. Judas loved money, and Jesus’ attitude to it offended him.

Peter: He and John were sent to prepare the very last meal Jesus would have with His closest friends here on earth. The meal begins and as they eat, Jesus talks to Peter, using his old name. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). Peter protests that he’s ready to be imprisoned and even to die, but Jesus knows better. By the end of the chapter, Peter has denied knowing Him three times, just as predicted. Peter’s also the one Jesus had to chastise for fighting when He was arrested (John 18:10-11). Doctor Luke is the only gospel-writer to tell us Jesus healed the servant after Peter cut off his right ear with a sword. What was written about Jesus had to be fulfilled, but Peter took exception to the way things were playing out.

Jesus: After eating supper, He goes with His friends to a familiar place of prayer – so familiar, in fact, it’s the place Judas has arranged to betray Him. Jesus encourages them to pray, then goes a little farther away to bring His request to the Father. “Please take this cup of suffering away from Me. Yet I want Your will to be done” (Luke 22:42). He surrenders His life to God and at that point, an angel comes and strengthens Him. This strengthening leads to more earnest prayer and Luke puts his doctor-hat on again, saying Jesus is in such agony that He sweats drops of blood – a medical condition called hematidrosis (when someone’s under extreme stress, capillaries in the sweat glands can break, mixing blood with sweat). But while Jesus agonised in prayer, His friends were falling asleep. They were exhausted from grief and hadn’t come to the point of surrender, like their Master. “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray,” He says, and along come His adversaries. When Peter fights to try to prevent His arrest, Jesus commands: “No more of this.” Jesus was mocked by those guarding Him. They blindfolded Him and demanded to know who struck Him. He was well able to answer the question and shut them up, but He didn’t. Jesus went through all that He had to, in order that God’s Word would be fulfilled and He would become the price paid for the wrongs of many people (Isaiah 53:11).

Judas took offence; Peter took exception; Jesus took it all in His stride.

What about us? Are we offended by Jesus? Do we take exception to the way He works? Or will we, as individuals, take Him into our hearts and surrender to what God has for us?

Behind the Questions

In the previous chapter, Jesus was zealous for the temple, driving out the animal-sellers with the rebuke that they were turning it into a den of thieves. Now the priests, teachers of the Law and elders (I’ve nicknamed them the ‘Religious trinity’) come to Him with a question. They want to challenge His authority, so they ask who gave Him the right to do these things (Luke 20:2). Jesus responds with a question of His own about His relative, John the Baptist. “Did John’s authority to baptise come from heaven, or was it merely human?” He already knows they’ll avoid answering, but His question makes them search their hearts. What do they believe about John, and therefore about Him?

Jesus then launches into one of His stories, this time about tenants looking after a vineyard. When the harvest was due, they attacked those who came to collect it on behalf of the owner. Finally they killed the owner’s son, who was heir to the estate. Jesus concludes with another question. “What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do” (Luke 20:15)? He’s explaining the kingdom of God to them. God’s kingdom is the vineyard, but those leaders who are in charge of it will be displaced in favour of others because of their shameful treatment of Jesus. They’re well aware He’s using the story against them (Luke 20:19).

In their annoyance, the leaders send out undercover spies. Pretending to be honest, they ask about paying taxes to Caesar, but really they’re trying to trap Jesus so they can report Him to the Roman governor. He cleverly answers by holding up a coin with Caesar’s image on it. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” They’re stunned into silence.

Next, it’s the Sadducees’ turn to question Jesus. I learnt from “Birth of the Church” that Sadducees don’t subscribe to any of the Pharisaic traditions. They pin their faith solely on the writings of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy – the first five books of the Bible. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 states that if two brothers live together and one dies leaving his wife without children, the other should marry her, and their firstborn son be considered the son of the dead brother in order to carry on his name. That’s why in an attempt to disprove resurrection from the dead, the Sadducees take this to the extreme. If a woman marries seven brothers and all of them die, whose wife will she be at the resurrection? Jesus responds, and also proves from Moses’ writings that there really is a resurrection (Luke 20:34-38).

No one dares ask Him any more questions, but Jesus has one final puzzle. To get them thinking more deeply, He asks how the Christ can be David’s son when David refers to Him as Lord. “The LORD said to my lord, ‘Sit by Me at My right side until I put Your enemies under Your control’” (Psalm 110:1).

What’s behind the questions we ask? Are we challenging people? Trapping them? Trying to disprove something? Or do we have more positive motives?

Truly Seeing Jesus

This chapter seems filled with the constant presence of a crowd. First, at Jericho, we meet Zacchaeus who’s too short to see over the crowd and climbs a tree. Jesus famously told him to come down and was welcomed into his home. Zacchaeus recognised Jesus as Lord of his life when he offered to give half his possessions to the poor and make repayments to anyone he may have cheated (Luke 19:8).

Next, Jesus tells a story to illustrate that God’s kingdom’s not going to come immediately. As the story puts it, a nobleman goes on a long journey, during which time some say they don’t want him as their king. When he returns having been crowned, there’s no good in store for his enemies. Luke makes the effort to tell us the crowd was listening to every word (Luke 19:11), and it’s just as well.

Jesus’ story is so important because the very next thing we see is Him entering Jerusalem as King. Hundreds of years before, God’s spokesman Zechariah foretold that Jerusalem’s King was coming, humble and riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9). Now into Jerusalem comes Jesus, peaceably and riding on a donkey. If He hadn’t prepared people, it would have been easy to think this might be the moment when everything reached its fulfilment. On Sunday, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem will be remembered in churches all over the world. It’s called Palm Sunday because as Jesus rode along in the centre of the procession, some spread their clothes on the road while others used tree-branches to give Him the red-carpet treatment (Matthew 21:8-9; John 12:12-16).

But as He came towards Jerusalem, the truth was inescapable: Not everyone would be as receptive. Within days, the establishment would have Jesus hung on a cross. He wept at the realisation. “Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you” (Luke 19:43-44). This did physically happen in 70 AD. Jerusalem was invaded by the Romans and the Jewish temple destroyed.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the beginnings of Samaria. It struck me then how different the world would have been if Jeroboam had trusted in and made God his security. Now I’m having a similar thought. What a different week it would have been if Jerusalem had recognised Jesus as her Saviour! No one plotting to kill Him; no betrayal; no trial; no death … Perhaps time and the world would have ended, giving way to the new heaven and new earth that Christians look forward to today. It’s all speculation of course, because it didn’t happen that way. Jesus died, and took the sins of the world on Himself.

Jerusalem didn’t acknowledge the saving power of Jesus and faced the physical consequences, but in a spiritual sense, it’s the same for us. Paul talks of being spiritually dead, but made alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-5). To experience what Jesus has for us, we need to be like Zacchaeus and give Him carte blanche over our lives. If you were in that crowd on Palm Sunday, would you have recognised Jesus?

The Suffering Servant

The end of Luke 17 really shows Jesus’ divine nature and His humanity. Jesus talks to His followers about the return of the Son of Man – a title He used for Himself. “People will tell you, ‘Look, there is the Son of Man,’ or ‘Here he is,’ but don’t go out and follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other, so it will be on the day when the Son of Man comes” (Luke 17:23-24). I imagine this being similar to the time they caught so many fish, and Peter asked the Lord to go away from him because he realised his sinfulness. It must have overwhelmed them sometimes – being in the company of one who was human like them, but at the same time so glorious. Jesus’ return’s going to be visible to everyone – the sky lit up from one end to the other!

But in the very next verse He says: “First the Son of Man must suffer terribly and be rejected by this generation.” I was struck by this. We’re now into the last third of Luke’s gospel – the last part of Jesus’ life, and He brings up the subject of His suffering and rejection. All-knowing, He sees all the mockery and the physical pain He’ll have to endure; and glorious as He is, it doesn’t take away His suffering.

“My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, melting within me” (Psalm 22:14).

“His face was so disfigured He seemed hardly human” (Isaiah 52:14).

These are just some of the things Jesus went through for us the day of His death.

One thing about Jesus dying for me is that He’ll always understand suffering. I’ll never have to go through the depth of agony that He did, but as we heard from Jesus a couple of weeks ago, students are not greater than their teacher (Luke 6:40). In order to share in His glory, I need to share in His sufferings. I mustn’t shrink from this. “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it” (Luke 17:33). Jesus tells us to remember Lot’s wife – a woman right back in the book of Genesis. The city where she lived was destroyed. She and her family had an opportunity to escape, but she looked back at what she was leaving behind – and turned into a pillar of salt! Because she looked back, she lost her life and her future.

I never want to forget the suffering Jesus went through for me. “For the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). As I share in His sufferings, may my focus be on the joy that’s waiting for me in heaven. Jesus is a great example to follow.

Home

Luke 16 starts and ends with one of Jesus’ stories, and both have the same theme.

Story one: A man’s about to be fired for wasting his employer’s money, so he calls in the debtors and tells them to change what they owe his employer, thereby cancelling some of their debt so that when he is fired, he knows there will be people who’ll want to be generous to him and welcome him into their homes. Though the man was acting dishonestly, Jesus uses this as a lesson to us: We should use worldly wealth to make friends, so they’ll welcome us to an eternal home (Luke 16:9). Can you picture the people you’ve blessed in your lifetime, waiting to welcome you into heaven?

Story two: A rich man lived in luxury, while a poor man named Lazarus was often put at his gate (Luke 16:20). Imagine this beggar – his body covered in sores; too ill to move himself, so he’s put at the rich man’s gate in the hope he’ll be fed. Even the dogs lick his open sores, but the rich man does nothing. When both men die, they’re sent to different places: Lazarus to the arms of Abraham (Luke 16:22), and the rich man to a place of great pain. “Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames” (Luke 16:24). The rich man’s so used to asking for what he wants and getting it, but not anymore. He had the good things in life while he lived, Abraham tells him, but Lazarus had nothing and now he’s being comforted. There are no more chances for the rich man; no one can cross from one place to the other. That must have heightened his anguish, and finally he shows some compassion. If Lazarus can’t cross over to help him, could he please go to earth for his five brothers? “I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment” (Luke 16:28).

What I want you to take away from this second story is that there really is a place of torment. I was told about the rich man and Lazarus at primary school, but no one explained it was a true story. Only the night I became a Christian did I feel convicted that it was real. When the preacher said: “Imagine you’re locked in a room. It’s hot and there’s nothing to cool your hands,” that story came alive for me; they weren’t just words on a page anymore. Then the preacher explained that when Jesus came along, He could make all our wrongs disappear (Isaiah 53:6). For the first time I knew that following Jesus led to heaven, but the alternative led to that fiery place of torment.

Only God can bring His words to life in your heart, so I’ll put these questions to myself and you can consider them too if you like. How am I living my life? Am I using my resources (my time, my words, my finance) to bless others? Will those I’ve blessed be waiting to welcome me into my eternal home? And am I still grateful to Jesus for taking my punishment, so I’ll never have to experience that place of torment?

One More Chance

I never met my great grandmother, but one story about her always makes me sad. At the end of her life, when she was very ill, she would say repeatedly (in Welsh): “What have I done? What have I done?” thinking her illness some sort of punishment from God. I wish she had read Luke 13, where Jesus addresses that very thing. Some Galileans have just been murdered whilst offering sacrifices at the temple. “’Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?’ Jesus asked. ‘Is that why they suffered? Not at all! … And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No’” (Luke 13:2-5). I can imagine the progression of Jesus’ thoughts. There’s no correlation between suffering and sin, but people are so quick to put others down! And so He tells a story about a fruitless tree. The owner wants it cut down, but the gardener asks him to give it one more chance.

And straightaway, this ‘One more chance’ story is lived out. Back in Luke 6, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, leaving His enemies enraged. Now, here’s their chance to react differently. As He’s teaching, again in a synagogue, Jesus sees a woman. Luke tells us she’s crippled by an evil spirit, and has been bent double for eighteen years. I suppose her sickness would be similar to arthritis. Jesus touches her and instantly she can stand up straight. How she praised God, Luke says, and it’s hardly surprising is it? But the synagogue leader tells the crowd they shouldn’t come for healing on the Sabbath. Perhaps Jesus would have stayed silent had he kept his grievance to himself, but turning the crowd away? Doing exactly what Jesus had talked about in chapter 11 – not entering God’s kingdom himself, and keeping others from it (Luke 11:52)? “You hypocrites!” Jesus says to those in charge. “Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” According to Luke, Jesus’ words shamed His enemies (Luke 13:17). Good; I should think so! They had a chance to show compassion and failed – miserably.

As the chapter comes to a close and Jesus continues teaching on His way to Jerusalem, He talks about entering God’s kingdom through the narrow door. John explains this best in his gospel. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). If people try to enter heaven any other way, they’ll be denied. “He will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘But we ate and drank with You, and You taught in our streets.’ And He will reply, ‘I tell you, I don’t know you’” (Luke 13:25-27).

In a nutshell, God is the God of one-more-chance. But at the end of our earthly lives, there won’t be any more chances. To go through the narrow door, you need to know Jesus personally. For those privileged to have spent time with Him during His life on earth, eating and drinking or listening to Him in the streets, that won’t be enough; Jesus has to have come into their hearts. If you don’t think He’s come into yours, all you have to do is ask Him.