Tomorrow Will Be Anxious for Itself: Finding Grace and Peace for Today

"Life is lived forwards but understood backwards." I believe that my Christian preaching professor was quoting someone else when he spoke these words in class more than eight years ago, but I attribute them to him and have never forgotten them.

Back in perhaps late October or early November (I don't remember now), the women's minister at my church called me. The speaker they had lined up for their Fall Women's Coffee event had cancelled; would I step in. I agreed. With less than a month to prepare I prayed for a text for the coffee event. The Lord kept leading me to Matthew 6:25-34, "Do not be anxious...".

By God's grace, I gave the same talk at two different times on this passage on November 13. I said that the answer to incessant anxiety or worry even when our circumstances are grim is believing and knowing that God is a good father who loves us.

Life was going pretty well, by the way.

Then four days after I gave this talk, I had an unusual thing happen that prompted me to seek a colonoscopy.

The colonoscopy showed I had ulcerative colitis (UC), an auto-immune disease that attacks the colon. Ironically, my husband had suffered from the same disease for the past 12 years and we both had UC in the same spots of our colons!

On the heels of grappling with a new diagnosis, just two weeks after my colonoscopy, our 4 year old son went to the bathroom and also had an unusual thing happen. He was too young to have this disease and it would be too coincidental if he and I would "get" it at the same time!

After a tumultuous two months and some odd weeks of doctor's visits, blood work, stool samples and tears, he finally had a colonoscopy two weeks ago that revealed colitis. Three days after his colonoscopy, he began having abdominal pain. This led to him being hospitalized last week with pancreatitis and learning that his colitis is in fact Crohn's colitis. Two days after being home from the hospital, I fell ill very quickly. I went to the doctor just this Saturday and learned I had bronchitis and what she thought was a virus. She didn't test me for the flu. Sunday I thought I was going to die. Yesterday I tested positive for the flu.

Two Mondays ago, hours before we took Philip to the ER, I listened to the talk I gave that November morning for the first time despite the fact that I hate listening to my voice. I listened to myself, an earlier self without any real problems, talk about trusting in God's goodness and his love for us as our Father. I listened to myself say that when we take our eyes off of our circumstances and place them on the goodness and love of God we find relief from our anxiety and worry.

I believe often times it is the teacher who learns the most when he/she prepares to teaches. I don't know if God gave that message for anyone in those rooms on November 13, but I do know I needed the message. Perhaps I didn't need the message on Nov. 13, but I needed it last week, this week, and even today. I don't think it was a coincidence that the Fall Women's Coffee speaker cancelled or that God put the Matthew 6 text  on my heart. He knew that I was about to enter into a time when I would possibly question his goodness and his love for me. He knew that I was about to face a diagnosis of my own and of my beloved son's. He knew that I was about to go through the ringer of physical exhaustion and face situations that would cause great worry.

Perhaps I still don't understand looking backwards why these things have taken place (I don't know if I ever should), but I do understand looking backwards that God was reminding me of his goodness and love (and even had me teach on it!) on the cusp of when I would need reminding of it the most.

I don't know what's going on in your world, but perhaps you, too, need reminding of God's love and goodness. If so, you can listen to the talk I gave here.

Table #3: Where is your faith?

"And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces."

Read Luke 9:10-17.

I imagine you are by yourself somewhere reading today's devotional. There's no one but you, God and the words on this page. So let's get reflective and honest for a moment. It's a safe place to do so. What is causing unbelief in your life at the moment? What is it about the identity of Jesus that you seem to struggle with at times? Perhaps because of a prayer that wasn't answered how you prayed you are struggling with whether God is good or able or loves you. Perhaps you are very intellectual and your intellect tells you that Jesus cannot be God or that He no longer intervenes in the world. Perhaps you have seen God's faithfulness over and over again in the past and instead of it giving you confidence in who God is you think that at some point His goodness is going to run out, that you've used up your quota for answered prayers. Where are you?

The disciples

After studying this passage I'm almost convinced that this feeding story is more for the disciples' faith than for anyone else. Let's back up a minute. Since the calling of the first disciples in chapter 5, we learn that while these men have left everything to follow Jesus and have found forgiveness of sins, they still don't fully grasp the identity of Jesus. In fact if you read Luke all the way through, which we'll see when we look at the last meal scenes, they still don't believe Jesus is who he said he was. If they did, they would have been waiting anxiously outside the tomb for Jesus to appear! (Jesus had told his disciples on at least 3 separate occasions that he would be raised from the dead.) Instead, after Jesus' death they were locked away in an upper room brokenhearted and afraid of the Jerusalem leaders. Where is your faith, disciples?

So prior to our passage, Jesus' disciples had witnessed numerous healing miracles and the raising of a widow's son from death! Then in Luke 8:22-25, Jesus and his disciples were in a boat when a dangerous storm came upon them. They woke up Jesus believing they were going to die. Jesus rebukes the storm; the storm ceases, and Jesus asks, "Where is your faith?"

Now at the beginning of chapter 9, Jesus sends his disciples out on a mission to preach the kingdom of God and heal with a stipulation. "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money." Talk about a HUGE leap of faith! Imagine as an American setting out on a journey with no car, snacks, suitcase or money. It's unthinkable. Jesus wanted them to learn total dependence on God.

Our passage begins with the return of the disciples from this mission. It's safe to assume that the apostles had no problem with their needs being met. In fact, they accomplish the mission that Jesus sent them to do and had experienced the power of God upon them as they preached and healed. Then, as we read, it's not very long after their return that in his attempt to withdraw with them, Jesus and his disciples are surrounded by a huge crowd. Jesus not only welcomes the crowd but does the very thing he sent his disciples to do: preach and heal. And again, the kingdom of God is the content of the message being preached!

{The expression the kingdom of God, from a Greek grammatical perspective, should be understood as God reigns, hence the reign of God. The kingdom of God as seen in Luke was inaugurated with the coming of Jesus Christ.}

Now you would think that after seeing the supernatural over and over again manifested in healings, raising of the dead, provisions, and calming of a storm, that when it came to feeding a multitude of people the disciples would have had no problem trusting Jesus. Instead, the apostles say, "Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place (or, wilderness)." Jesus responds, "You give them something to eat." Peter, John, James, and the rest of you disciples, you just got back telling me about all the miracles you were able to perform, you give them something to eat. Show me your faith. But the disciples again respond, "We have no more than five loaves and two fish -- unless we are to go and buy food for all these people." Their response shows that they still do not get it. You might even begin to wonder, will one more miracle make a difference? And perhaps they're being a little sarcastic in asking Jesus if he wants them to go buy food when, remember, they took no money with them on their recently-returned mission. Again, Where is your faith?

But Jesus doesn't rebuke them or say, "Just forget about it; I'll choose new disciples." His patience is a supernatural one! But before we think we would somehow have done better than the disciples at having faith, Luke gives us a detail that will help us understand the magnitude of the problem. Luke says there are about 5,000 men. Let's put this number into perspective. I grew up for part of my life in a small town in Arkansas called Sheridan. I just checked and the last consensus had the town's population at 4,779. Samford University, where my husband teaches, has around 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students and faculty/staff. Trying to imagine that many people, whether in Sheridan or at Samford, all congregated together at one time and only having 5 loaves and 2 fish is ludicrous. It would take an act of God to feed that many people with that little of food.

And that's what happened. Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread and fish to the people. This sequence -- took, blessed, broke and gave -- was a common practice for Jews. But Luke only includes this detail in three places. I don't think we should try to read too much into it. Rather, I think it is a literary device Luke uses to connect the three stories together. (Put this on the back burner in your mind and we will look at it later.)

Jesus not only multiplies the food, which is reminiscent of God providing manna from heaven in the wilderness, but he multiplies it enough that each disciple would have a basket to pick up of scraps! Can you imagine? Jesus in his kindness didn't want the disciples to miss what had happened. Each one carried a basket of leftovers as a reminder that Jesus is able to do abundantly more than is imagined. Now, Peter, as you hold the basket, Where is your faith?

Further reflections:

1. Whereas the first two table stories we looked at were hosted by other people, this table scene is hosted by Jesus. Instead of a literal table, here we have a conceptual table, much like having a picnic. Whereas the first table scene was a celebration of redemption and hospitality shown by the recipient of grace, this table shows us the provision and hospitality of God toward people. But where there are differences, here is where our three table stories thus far reach the same conclusion. All show that Jesus is divine, the Son of God. In the first two events this is evidenced by the ability of Jesus to forgive sins, and in today's passage it is seen in the power he has over food. We can't miss what Luke is doing here. Right before the feeding miracle, we are told that Herod is perplexed by the identity of Jesus. He has heard rumors that perhaps Jesus is John reincarnated, Elijah or another prophet from old. The question, Who is this Jesus?, is left dangling for us as we move into the feeding miracle. During the feeding miracle, clues such as the word for wilderness, also translated as desolate place, are used to remind us of the Jews in the wilderness in Exodus. Who is the only one who can provide bread to feed a multitude? God! Who provides bread and fish out of basically nothing for a multitude? Jesus! Then following the feeding miracle Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter responds, "The Christ of God." If we walk away from this passage not grasping that Jesus is divine, then we've missed a very big point.

2. Jesus is also fully human. Following a miracle and a confession that claims his deity, Jesus explains what being the Messiah, or the Christ, means. He will suffer. It's the greatest oxymoron that Jesus, who is God, and is the king of the kingdom of God, will also suffer and die. Immediately following Peter's confession Jesus foretells his death and then foretells it again a little while later (see 9:22, 44).

3. What does the identity of Jesus -- that he is fully God and fully man -- have to do with me? How does this information have any influence over my life and how I live? First, Jesus' identity gives us the infrastructure for belief. If I place my faith in Jesus, who is God, then I know he is able to have power in my life. He has power over my sin (first two tables); he has power to heal, to provide, and to protect. And the greatest power? To raise us from the dead. He has power over death and life. If Jesus were anything less than God then I would not have reason to believe. Second, Jesus' identity helps me to trust him during the hard times. I have struggled personally with unanswered prayers, with seeing and experiencing suffering and death, with trials and pain. If Jesus had only been God and not human I would have question whether he loved me. But I follow a person who has experienced suffering and death to the fullest. In Hebrews 4:15 we're told, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin." While this verse talks about sin, the same could be said of suffering. We have a Savior who is able to empathize with our suffering, for he, too, suffered and shares in our humanity.

4. If you've been following along you will have noticed that I talk about Jesus -- a lot! I probably do so to the point that you're thinking, "Say something new, Kristen. Jesus is God and his mission is to forgive sins; I get it." But I want to make sure we get it, because if we don't find our identity in Jesus and make our lives all about him then we are building for us a life on shifting sand. There is no power within myself to give me peace, forgiveness, or grace. I don't have the power to heal, to protect, or to not die. But yet when I read a lot of popular bloggers, all I hear bleating off the page is "I, I, I, me, me, me, you, you, you." Pray to make you feel stronger and sit up straighter. Love to make you feel better. Use your gifts to make you feel empowered. Be who God has called you to be so that you will find fulfillment. (Excuse my little rant, but...) I'm sick of this, y'all! These words tickle our ears and make us feel better...for a moment...but if it doesn't have to do with Jesus (and I'm talking about the Jesus of Scripture) then it's rubbish. It's trash. Don't believe it; stop reading it. Within the larger context of our third table scene, Jesus tells his disciples if you want to follow him and be part of his kingdom then here's what you must do. "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (9:23). If you want to follow Christ then you must deny yourself and take up a cross? "That doesn't sound very American! That doesn't jive with my wealth and health gospel that I have begun to believe." No, because that stuff being preached is not the gospel; it's not what Jesus of Scripture said. Following him is hard; suffering and death may come by following Him. Whether or not we suffer and die for the name of Jesus, as followers of him we take that risk. We do so knowing that the road won't be easy and that there will probably be suffering along the way. But with suffering, my friends, also comes future glory. 

“For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3:3

Table #2: The uninvited guest

Table #1: Dining with sinners

Come and Dine

Seeing Is Believing?

A devotional reading/reflection on Luke 24. Have you ever heard or read something so outrageous that you said or thought to yourself, "I'll have to see it to believe it.”? Have you done this with God? Is the reason you say you don’t believe God’s Word about His Son Jesus Christ because it just seems too outrageous to be true? What if you are a so-called believer, but you don’t know what to do on those days you struggle to believe God’s Word?

Read all of Luke 24.

The disciples of Jesus (this includes the Twelve and the greater group) should not have been surprised or caught off guard by Jesus’ death and later by the empty tomb. Rather they should have expected it if they had believed Jesus’ prophecies about his own death and resurrection and Scripture’s testimony of the Messiah. But the simple fact was they didn’t believe or understand Jesus when he said that he was going to die and raise on the third day. It wasn’t as if Jesus said these words in passing and probably many of the disciples didn’t hear it. On the contrary, Luke tells us there were at least three distinct times when Jesus foretold his death and resurrection (see Luke 9:21-22; 9:43-45; and 18:31-34).

In case we think maybe the disciples didn’t hear Jesus when he foretold his death and resurrection, Luke records the angels’ words to the women disciples when they were at the empty tomb. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise,” (Luke 24:6-8) and “they remembered his words” (v. 8). You can’t remember something if you never heard it in the first place. Jesus also tells all the disciples in 24:44, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you… .” They had heard this Word but had not received it or believed it. They wanted proof.

The women were dumbfounded when they found the tomb empty, because they had not believed Jesus’ teaching about these things and because they didn’t see Him. Then the disciples to whom the women told their story did not believe the women and the words spoken by the angels, because Jesus they did not see (Luke 24:24). They wanted to see in order to believe. Why else would they be hiding in a room with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19) if they believed that Jesus had conquered death?

Then there were the two unnamed disciples, not of the Twelve but of the larger group, who left Jerusalem to go to a little village called Emmaus because they were sad. Jesus had been killed and now his body was missing. (Had they believed He was alive, they would’ve stayed in Jerusalem waiting to see Him and would have been anything but sad!) Catch this irony: The disciples wanted to see Jesus for proof to believe, but when Jesus showed up it was their unbelief that kept them from seeing Him. Luke 24:16 says they saw Jesus but they didn’t see Jesus. They saw a man but they didn’t recognize him as the One they were looking for!

Catch this again: Their unbelief kept them from seeing Jesus. They didn’t need to see Jesus in order to believe; they needed to believe in order to see Jesus.

Here are some quick take home thoughts:

1. At the end of the day there will never be enough “proof” to give reason to believe. Sure, there is lots of great proof of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ministry. In fact I think Luke 24 is a great apologetics text. Hundreds witnessed Jesus resurrected; the disciples went from fear and hiding to giving their lives even to death in order to make Jesus known among the nations. There’s no logical reason for that change other than believing and seeing the resurrected Jesus. The New Testament is very reliable as far as ancient texts go. But, if you are struggling with unbelief, it is likely because this isn’t enough for you. You want to see in order to believe. You want just one more testimony, one more proof. Scripture says, though, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. … And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:3, 6).

2. Like the prayer of the father of a child with a demon who came to Jesus in Mark 9, most days our prayer should go like his, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) This prayer says I believe as much as I am able to, but I need your help and grace O God where unbelief exists. Belief isn’t just a one-sided action; it is something that we are only able to do with the help of God. Some days it is easier to believe; other days it seems near impossible. On these days, especially, cry out to God to help supply you with the faith you need. And when you believe then you will see God and Him do great things.

O Death, Where is Your Victory?

March 2nd my grandmother, affectionately known as Nana Sue, died. That word "died" has a kind of brashness and finality to it, doesn't it? In fact, I didn't want to use that word at first when Nana died. I used "passed away" or "went to be with the Lord" in its place. Those are fine and true phrases to use for a believer, I just didn't want to use a word that assured me of the reality that Nana was no longer here with me.

But the real reason I didn't want to use the word "died" with Nana's name was because I wanted to avoid thinking about the issue of death. Even for me, a long-time believer, death all the sudden seemed scary and mysterious. It brought to the surface insecurities and doubt that I didn't know existed. When Nana died it was as if for the first time I stood at a crossroads of my faith. I could either continue down the path of believing God's Word is true and that those who believe in Jesus live forever with him OR I could go down a new path of cynicism and pessimism refusing to believe and hope in the unseen but only believing in what I could see -- that death was the end.

I remember praying, "God, I believe. Help my unbelief!" And for the first time, so it seemed, I understood what Paul meant by, "Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?" (Rom. 8:24)

Yesterday I listened to a podcast of Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, preaching about the Crucifixion from Matthew 27:46. In this verse, Jesus quotes from Psalm 22:1 crying out that God has forsaken him. Because Jesus took our sin, the death he died was one of judgment and punishment by God. Our sin had to be judged, punished. And in that moment, God forsook him.

Why does this truth bring me hope and peace when thinking about Nana's death and even my own? Hours before Nana died I went in to speak to her while she was lying in bed unconscious and on life support. One of the things I did was quote Scripture. I honestly cannot recall what Scripture I quoted her except for one, Hebrews 13:5b, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

It dawned on me while I was listening to Keller's sermon that the reason I could confidently say that truth to Nana and believe it for her was because Christ was already forsaken by God in her place in order that God might never forsake her. Did you catch that? Jesus was forsaken by God on the cross in our place for our sin so that in him we might never be forsaken but rather welcomed as children of God! I know that Nana was not forsaken by God at death and neither will I by the grace of God through faith.

But so many are and will be. Those who refuse to accept Christ's gift of him taking their place before God will have to endure it for themselves -- the judgment, punishment, death, and probably the worse thing -- forsakenness. What about you? Will you believe and accept Christ's gift?

Those of us who are in Christ can confidently proclaim Romans 8:31-37 now and for when they die:

"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died -- more than that, who was raised -- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."