So the challenge is this: As we take up our cross, and follow Christ, don’t forget the importance of the first part – deny yourself. Let us ask ourselves the question, “Am I denying myself, or am I getting distracted along the way?” Satan is clever. I hardly think that if he straight said, “Put down your cross and don’t follow Jesus”, that many of us would be convinced. But what if he honed in on something appealingly personal, more particular to our individual weaknesses?
Remember, Satan didn’t tell Eve, “Hey Eve, stop walking with God!” So... You really think he’s going to be so blatant with you? Can’t you here the echo of similar devil devices in your own lives- “Surely God didn’t say…”, “Surely God doesn’t want us to deny ourselves completely, or at least not all the time”. Then comes in the subtle lie, “He just wants all your attention on him, not allowing you to enjoyyour own life!” Cue distraction- “Hmmm, this fruit tastes good”! We start feeling secure, and proud we didn’t deny ourselves. Then, we hear God call out, “Where are you”. Crippled by the fear of the reality of where we are, we look around to find ourselves naked and empty-handed. We realize we set down our cross and stepped away to indulge ourselves.
Now, go back for a second, and have another look at feeling “secure” and “proud” in your decision. Another word for it might be pride. I think you see where I’m going here. Pride comes before the “fall”. A sign, if you will- bells ringing, sirens blaring, and a robotic voice sternly shouting “warning, warning”! But seriously, does the “Fall of Man” ring any bells? For reasons that were completely false (taken on good word from Satan), Adam and Eve came to think God did not have what was best for them. Even despite all evidence to the contrary (hello perfect garden and nightly walks with the Creator), they felt it necessary to look out for themselves and look to something “better” than what God commanded.
Of course when this happens, we aren’t doomed to life without God, he makes a way just as he did for Adam and Eve- but not without repentance, and often times, consequence. Of course, he is still our loving Father, with new mercies for us every day. But the point isn’t to escape unfazed, it’s to see it for what it is before we wander. We aren’t supposed to stay twenty-somethings forever, we are called to grow up. Mature in our faiths.
Remind yourself in those moments (big and small) of “should I” or “shouldn’t I”, that God is good. We are called to deny ourselves, yes. But if you keep reading, Jesus says that it is actually for the sake of saving our life (Mark 8:35). Fully finding ourselves in him, not losing ourselves completely. He has a plan for each one of us, something personal and perfect just for us. Something that we, as his individual children, are personally equipped to do.
Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.” “For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
So, do you really think you have a better plan, a more perfect “Eden” in mind than what the All-Knowing God has created for you? No answer necessary. Moving forward, in the times of good, bad, and (oh, yes) ugly – Deny Yourself. Go “boldly to his throne of grace”, confess your self-reliant thoughts. He gets it! Then, receive his mercy and grace, and walk in confidence with him in the garden, knowing that God is right beside you in every time of need.
Hebrews 4:14-16 “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens – Jesus the Son of God- let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.”
Interestingly, the passage doesn’t tell us God will “fix our problems” or “ease our difficulty”, but that we will receive mercy and find grace because that is what actually helps us in times of need.
We are solution-oriented individuals. However, scripture tells us we are to be a Christ-focused family. If left unto ourselves, we will choose to try to fix our problems, and get what we think we need.
If Christ is our high priest, and he was “tempted in every way but without sin”, what does that actually mean? Did he always get what he felt his flesh needed? Well, he had difficulty with his friends, constant harassment from community leaders, and then there was that 40 days without food thing… but, amongst the other things, let me go straight to the obvious big one. Not to be vulgar, but when he was faced with being unjustly tortured, ending with certain distressful death on the cross, I doubt his flesh was in total agreement. Seriously, the bible tells us he was fully human and also fully God. (John 1:1-3, 14 and John 8:58) So… basic human nature is self-preservation. I would have to draw a scripturally lined arrow, and suggest that Jesus’s flesh was no different. However, he literally denied his basic self-interests, and took up his cross.
And, in Mark 8:34, he commands us to do the same: …”If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”.
So what is denial? Merriam-Webster says it is “a refusal to satisfy a request or desire”. Perhaps the Google dictionary strikes a bit closer with “the action of declaring something to be untrue”. In other words, “the bible says that God has a good plan for my future to give me hope (Jer. 29:11), but I don’t know if I believe that, so I’ll keep trying to make my own way. Besides, doesn’t the bible also say ‘God helps those who help themselves’?” (Nope, actually that was made famous by Benjamin Franklin, and last I checked his writings were not included as God’s Spirit-inspired words.)
One might even say that if you piece those definitions together, the best antonym of self-denial, is self-relial. Ok, I made that word up, but at least let’s call it self-reliance, or self-sufficiency.
Now hold on, you may say, isn’t being self-sufficient a good thing? Sure! If you are a twenty-something and are forging ahead into the world and out of your parent’s house. But if you are married (newlyweds or decades deep), the single-focused act of being “self-reliant” will present certain doom for that sacredly united relationship. You can’t stay bonded to your betrothed and put self, first.
Spoiler alert, we are the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:31-32). So, as we approach God’s throne of grace with boldness, shouldn’t we do so hand-in hand with Christ? When you walk with somebody, your steps are in sync, you are unified. As we have been raised with Christ (hope for the eternal as well as renewed daily hope for purpose and part in bringing God glory), we must first have allowed our flesh to “die” with his. You don’t get one without the other. Just let yourself go already, and then you can truly start to live!
Balaam. The name may not be familiar, but if I mention the story in the Bible with a talking donkey there’s a chance you might recall him. In short, Balaam is referred to as a prophet of God who speaks freely with the God of Israel, even though he’s not numbered among the Israelites. His story is all about how a neighboring king (Balak), afraid of the approaching Hebrew nation as they mover through the wilderness, desperately tries to get Balaam to pronounce a curse on God’s people as though that might give the king some advantage in battle. However, no matter what the king does, Balaam can only produce blessings for gods people! So you seem to complete the story found early in the book of Numbers, thinking that Balaam ended up pleasing God.
However, just a bit later in Numbers 31:8, you find Balaam listed as someone put to death by the Israelites while they were carrying out God’s instructions to attack the people of nearby Midian. And if you keep reading far enough, at the last book of the Bible you’ll find Balaam mentioned it again this way:
Here’s the point: many people of faith try to live purely on good feeling, intuition, and on their personal ideas about God or the Bible, often made up of just little snippets of reading here and there. Any time we open the Bible to read is better than not reading, but I want to encourage you to KEEP ON READING! Many of the stories in the Bible develop across chapters, and sometimes across whole books. Balaam’s story starts early in the Old Testament and you get the last word on it in the last book of the New Testament! I know it can seem overwhelming, but the point is that we continually keep at our reading of scripture, asking the Holy Spirit to help us understand the full story, get the facts straight, and and comprehend the spirit in which He wants us to live these things out!
Balaam’s story is a warning about the persistence of evil in our life, and the temptation to think the story’s over before we’ve read the ending. In other words: it’s a challenge to stay on your toes!
Keep reading! Keep looking at the truth! Keep living the truth! We tend to have short attention spans, and even shorter memories: God is working in you today – make sure you give Him your full attention! Keep at it!
“So these are the results of the registration of the people of Israel as conducted by Moses and Eleazar the priest on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho. Not one person on this list had been among those listed in the previous registration taken by Moses and Aaron in the wilderness of Sinai. For the LORD had said of them, “They will all die in the wilderness.” Not one of them survived except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” - Numbers 26:63-65
In a time when it was crucial to stand in their faith, Caleb and Joshua had refused to be swayed by their culture, their peers and the prevailing attitudes of the day. 40 years later, they are still standing with their greatest days ahead of them. They were the exceptions in their day and have proved to be exceptional in the light of history. Their names are being discussed - you are thinking about them right now 3500 years later!
Today, don't give in to that feeling of feeling like who you are and what you are doing is small and meaningless. You don't have the benefit of God's long term view of history - who knows how huge your impact might be? The thing you do have is the same God to trust in that Caleb and Joshua have.
Did you notice that last sentence? I said "have" - not "had". Jesus pointed out in Matthew 22:31-32 (go read it when you get a moment) that "God is the God of the living": Caleb and Joshua are standing before him right now. Their faith continues. You - stand on your exceptional faith in your epic God today! Stand with those exceptional people of faith in history who understand that public opinions come and go but it is always right to stand with our God even when you feel like the odd person out. Time will bear out this truth: your God is worth honoring and trusting. You - be exceptional today!
"...the nations that have heard of your fame will say, ‘The LORD was not able to bring them into the land he swore to give them, so he killed them in the wilderness.’ “Please, Lord, prove that your power is as great as you have claimed." Numbers 14:15-17
The Bible says God has a special relationship with Moses. Numbers 12 feels us God saw Moses "as a friend" - deep trust and mutual respect here - and Jesus says the same for us in John 14. So you can take a cue from what Moses said to the Lord in Numbers 14. Moses is looking at a hard place, a challenging situation, and he says "God, the world is watching - Remember what You told me about Yourself? The world knows what You ad I are supposed to be like together and they are watching! Do something! Help now or they will say You weren't able to save us!".
If Moses could say that to God and God recorded it for us, you can too. That feeling of "everybody's watching to see if my God is as big and mighty as I say" is something real and something God understands. Be like Moses - call on God to prove His power so the world can see He is Who you've been telling them He is! Don't be afraid to pray "God - SHOW THEM YOU CAN!"
Spark - short thought - but highly combustible!
So I’m reading in the parts of the Old Testament where God’s people are getting instructions on how to construct and travel with the Tabernacle - the place where the Presence of God appeared among them, where they made their sacrifices and worshiped the Lord.
If you’ve ever read these sections of scripture, you know they can seem to stretch on for a long time with tons of seemingly meaningless detail - for instance:
““4The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects. 5When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. 6Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.
7“Next they must spread a blue cloth over the table where the Bread of the Presence is displayed, and on the cloth they will place the bowls, ladles, jars, pitchers, and the special bread. 8They must spread a scarlet cloth over all of this, and finally a covering of fine goatskin leather on top of the scarlet cloth. Then they must insert the carrying poles into the table.”
- Numbers 4:4-8
I’ve got a tip you today: there’s gold in the symbolism here if you’ll take the time to do some digging. For instance, did you know the when you are reading in these passages, the colors have meaning? Inner curtain = the way to God’s Presence (at th Ark) is veiled (but we know Jesus tears through that on our behalf!) Goatskin reminds us that something has to die to get of the access to the Presence of God - sin has to be atoned for (literally “covered” - read more about this in the Book fo Hebrews!) Blue = “heaven” as in relating to the Kingdom of God. Scarlet - well, you know this: it points to the Blood of Christ, and finally the goatskin again reminding us of sacrifice for sins. The carrying poles? The weight of the sacrifice is carried on our shoulders - a “burden” that our ultimate representative, Jesus would carry for us.
And the whole of these passages are filled with these gems. Think of what a difference it makes to read the Old Testament looking for Jesus all over the pages!
It’s been a while since I’ve written a SPARK to you, but this summer you will see more again and hopefully they will help ignite something fresh in you - even in places like these that seem to be dry or loaded with seemingly insignificant details. There’s good fuel here - we just need to know how to get that spark to set it off!
SPARK - find the fuel, light the flame.
"Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus..." - Luke 19:1-4 from The Message
Have you ever caught yourself dreaming about making more money or getting the big promotion? Why do we sometimes do that - think about what we would do if we suddenly became rich or super successful? It's because we realize there is more out there - and mistakenly think that what we want will be found through more money or prestige or professional advancement or some stuff we don't yet have. If we just had X then everything would be so much better. Sure, if you can't pay your rent or mortgage, yes, a bit more would be nice. But that's not where we usually are coming from, is it? Usually its all about the "one more thing" perspective that says "If I just get that one more thing, then I'm good".
The shock comes when you talk to someone who has that "one more thing" that you want and often they have realized it still doesn't satisfy! In Luke 19, you read about Zacchaeus who was at the top of his field in his town, very wealthy and yet he desperately wants to see Jesus. Is Jesus just his next "one more thing" experience? No - Jesus is the end of that quest - He actually IS that one more that delivers on the promise.
The Way. The Truth. The Life. Whatever you find yourself searching for beyond Jesus today, it is a false promise. Learn contentment with Christ. That little man named Zach realized where MORE is truly found when he sought on Jesus. He was satisfied - you can be too. Choose to stay focused on Jesus and what he offers - the rest is just marketing and madness, promising everything but ultimately delivering little.
SPARK - to turn over your engine.
“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’
“But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time. - Luke 15:20-24 from The Message
Okay, so is God not listening to us sometimes? This version (The Message) seems to say so. Another version (The English Standard Version) puts it this way:
21And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22But the father said to his servants...
Same idea - the guilt stricken son is unloading his shame filled soul, and the Father doesn't even respond - He's too busy planning a celebration for His son who has come home!
Simple SPARK for today - whenever you feel the need to tell God what a lousy loser you are, how pathetic, how unworthy, how... oh just stop. He's probably not even listening. He LOVES you and is just glad you are home with Him safe and sound. Yes, own your wrongs. No, don't waste your time wallowing in guilt - Jesus has paid for it, and your Father isn't at all interested in beating you down - you are home with Him and He's wanting to celebrate redemption with you right now. Leave the guilt. Embrace your Father's love!
Spark. Big roaring fire to warm your heart.
"No lusting after your neighbor’s house—or wife or servant or maid or ox or donkey. Don’t set your heart on anything that is your neighbor’s." - Exodus 20:17
Most everything you see today will try to convince you that you need some different stuff, new stuff, better stuff. Your neighbor's got that new car - you've seen the commercials where the people next door are be utter than you because they've got the brand new 2018 Ford/Chevy/Dodge/Honda/Toyota/Hyundai/whatever and you... you've got that old thing. Yours was cool yesterday. Now you need the new thing that they have. Your life is not complete without it. Sure. Trust them. They know and you are missing out.
Only you are not - not at all - because God Himself says not to go there. Contentment is the key to fulfillment, not getting the latest greatest whatever they advertisers want to sell you. Don't set your heart on anything that is your neighbors. Jesus filled it out further by saying
God will get you what you need today. Trust Him and His goodness toward you. Most of us are pretty good at believing God wants good for others but we might have a hard time accepting that for ourselves when times are tough. Take it to heart right now - you believe He is going to care for others, believe that for yourself too. There's no need to focus on what the person next to you has - God will provide what is best for you. Focus on Him and let Him take care of you. Be thankful. Be content. Keep trusting. He is your hope and Source of joy - not the stuff.
Spark. Useful for warming, cooking, propelling you forward.
Moses said to the people, “Always remember this day. This is the day when you came out of Egypt from a house of slavery. - Exodus 13:3
Always remember the day. Remember the day God set you free. Remember the day when you said "YES" to Christ. Remember what life was like for you before Jesus. Always remember.
Why does Moses have to remind them not to forget? Its because we so easily DO forget. We get on with our lives, things improve and if we are not paying attention, we forget. We forget who we were before Jesus. We forget how we were before Jesus. We forget where we were before Jesus.
Today, take a second and remember what a difference He has made and is making in you. Always remember.
Spark. Remember the first time you felt the warmth of the Flame.