The Curse

April 4, 2023


Holy Week 2023 Reflection

Honestly, when I first read this passage, I didn’t know what to make of it.

In Matthew 21:18-19, we read that Jesus was hungry and went up to a fig tree. But the fig tree bore no fruit, it was all leaves. So He cursed it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the fig tree withered.

Wait. Wasn’t that a tad harsh? Couldn’t He just tell the tree to produce fruit?

It was as of Jesus was not just hungry but hangry.

One scholarly interpretation is that the fig tree represented fruitless Israel. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was likened to a vineyard or tree. It was supposed to be a blessing to the world (Isaiah 27:6), but God found it to be barren. In fact, it found itself under Roman subjugation. Fruitlessness was seen as a divine curse (Deuteronomy 11:17) and Jesus only made the picture starker.

We are under the same peril.  We all have broken God’s laws. I doubt there’s someone who can say he has perfectly obeyed the Ten Commandments. Therefore, we are cursed (Galatians 3:10).

But the astonishing Good News is that instead of Jesus cursing us as He did with the fig tree, He took up the curse Himself. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole” (v 13). In other translations, the last word is not “pole” but “tree.”

Think about it:

  1. Jesus has every right to curse us for our sins. But instead, He took up the curse so we have every right to become children of God.
  2. Jesus cursed a fig tree. But to become a curse for us, He had to hang from a “tree”, the Cross.
  3. If we can get to heaven on our own, then why did Jesus have to take up that curse? Therefore, we receive eternal life not by our works, but by faith.

 

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Holy Week 2023 Reflections

We usually think of Jesus as this meek and mild person, radiating so much love and gentleness, that you can feel perfectly at ease with Him.

But that’s not how the Passion narratives paint Him.

In the Monday right after Palm Sunday (Mark 11:12), Jesus was outraged at what He saw at the Temple. It was meant to be a holy place where people can commune with God, but it was converted into a marketplace where people do commerce with goods.

It made His blood boil so much that He overturned tables of the money changers and benches of those selling doves. What’s more, He even barricaded merchandise from entering the temple courts.

He raised a ruckus so big that the chief priests and the teachers of the law connived how to kill him. Mind you, not just how to stop Him, but how to remove Him from the face of the earth.

Make no mistake. This is a Jesus Who is not meek and mild, but mean and wild!

Reflections:

1.  Actually, at the end of Palm Sunday, Jesus visited the temple and likely saw what He saw the following Monday (Mark 11:11). But because it was late, He did nothing.

When we are doing something wrong and God is not apparently calling our attention, never mistake the silence as His approval.

2. The same Mark 11:11 says that Jesus looked around at everything on the Temple courts. In the same way, Jesus sees everything about us.

Would there be something that will make His blood boil? Why wait for that to happen? Why not start ordering our hearts right with God?

3. When I think about it, it is good Jesus is not a softie Savior. I am glad that He strove for what is right when He drove the money changers away.

Because it means that He strove for what is right for ME when He died on the Cross to take my iniquities away.

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Holy Week 2023 Reflections

Imagine with me that you have a car inside your garage. Two strangers come up and ask you for the car keys. Startled, you ask why. The two strangers reply, deadpan, “The Lord needs it.”

I don’t know about you, but I will be calling the cops.

But that’s essentially what happened so Jesus can do the Triumphant Entry, the event which we celebrate as Palm Sunday.

Jesus told two of His disciples, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’” They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” (Mark 11:2-5)

Now imagine the people, especially the fellow who owned that donkey, calling the cops. Or Roman centurions.

The astonishing thing was that the disciples answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go (v 6). No police alerts. No road blocks. No cease and desist order.

We rightly focus on the King Who rode on that donkey on His way to Jerusalem. But I wonder what we can learn from the fact that the donkey was borrowed under unusual circumstances.

First, the Lord is sovereign over everything. Would it be possible that someone will stop Him from getting that donkey?

Second, if the Lord wants something from us, would we have surrendered it to Him whole-heartedly?

Third, think about what we surrender to the Lord. Can it be that the Lord will use it to further His Kingship?

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Recall the context: While Moses was up on a mountain, the Israelites had fashioned and were worshipping a golden calf. God was so incensed that He told Moses that He will utterly destroy the people (32:7-10). If there was a time that God made up His mind, it was this one!

Insight #1. Prayer relates us to God in human terms

Brother Andrew of “God’s Smuggler” fame wrote a book with the intriguing title: And God Changed His Mind. It challenged my notion that God is an inflexible and stubborn Deity, as if you have to twist His arm to get what you want.

Yet in the Exodus account, it seemed just that. God was going to wipe out Israel, but Moses talked Him out of it! He basically argued: “Look, God, what will happen to Your reputation? The Egyptians will say that You went through all this trouble to rescue us from Egypt, only to kill us in the middle of nowhere!” (vv 11-13).

And then we read this amazing passage: “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” (v 14).

Hold on! Wasn’t God sure of what He was going to do? Did Moses used shrewd negotiation? Do we imagine the Lord slapping His forehead and exclaiming, “Wow, Moses, that’s a great point! Why didn’t I see it that way? Okay, request granted”?

The answer is that Scripture shows God relating to people as if He Himself were human, that is, bound by linear time and literal space. Otherwise, no real relationship between a transcendental, infinite God and a temporal, finite man can be possible. In His omniscience, He already knew what Moses was going to say. He was never caught surprised. But He allowed this conversation to happen in linear time and literal space.

On closer analysis, God had have two options:  judgment due to His holiness or forgiveness due to His mercy. The tension is held by a general principle that says: God renders judgment but may bestow mercy if one appeals to it. Each side is consistent with His character. Moses astutely knew this and prayed accordingly.

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Consider Jesus’s words: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8).

You don’t have to be a five-year-old to ask the logical question, “If God knows what we need before we ask Him, then why ask in the first place?” After all, Psalm 115:3 asserts that “Our God is in heaven. He does as He pleases.”

I admit there are times when I feel prayer is like a cosmic lottery. You place your bet. You may win the jackpot. Then again, you may wind up with lemons. But I picked up a few insights along the way. Let me share three of them based on Exodus 32-34.

There was a time when I was jobless and broke for two arduous years. My savings went down to zero and my self-esteem went down to negative. I never felt so useless and ashamed in my life. You can imagine how earnestly I pleaded with God to restore my broken career.

Then out of the blue, I was summoned to a job interview. With bated breath, I wondered if God was at last granting my request.

But before I went to the prospective employer, I stopped by my church and shared my pain with two pastors. The two gave me some sort of pep talk and prayed over me. What they didn’t know was that, afterwards, I locked myself inside an empty office. There, I broke down and wept. I blubbered, “Please, God, I am so tired. I can’t take another disappointment. Give me this job. I claim it by faith.”

I didn’t get the job.

Can you imagine the seismic shock this had on my prayer life? Didn’t God hear those two pastors? Didn’t He see my hot tears? For quite some time, my spiritual walk was in a blue funk, which I had chronicled in my latest book Broken Faith (OMF Lit, 2022).

It has been over twenty years since that crushing disappointment. I suppose it still hounds me. I kept wrestling with the question: if God is sovereign, then He has decreed that I won’t get this job. So why bother with prayer at all?

I picked up a few insights along the way. Let me share three profound truths based on Exodus 32-34…

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Last Sunday morning, I grumbled. Yes, on my way to church.

See, I drive my car to church and go street parking. I would hunt for an empty space that is as near to the church as possible. Many times, I parked at a good spot: just a few meters away from the church entrance.

But that morning, for some reason, the street was full of parked cars! I wound up parking at the far end of that street. As I trudged to church, I was fussing why there were so many parked cars, why I didn’t wake up an hour earlier, or how tiresome this trek on foot was.

As I settled myself in the pew, I realized that it could have been worse. In an alternative reality:

·        I have no car
·        I have a car but can’t afford the gas prices
·        I can’t drive
·        I lost my eyesight
·        I lost my motor skills
·        I have a car but ran over someone
·        I crashed against another car

Grumbling gave way to gratitude.

The insight is that if we are fixated on an ideal state and see how reality is less than ideal, we will grumble. My ideal state is to park just in front of the church. My reality is that I had to plod what seemed like a kilometer (I exaggerate) to church. So I wept and gnashed my teeth (sort of).

But if we were to compare reality with a worse state, we will be grateful.

I don’t mean a guilt trip as in “Stop whining about your work! At least you have a job! A lot of people would kill to be in your place!”

Rather, it is perspective. Things could have been worse. But we’ve gotten better than we deserve.

Psychologists have observed the gold, silver, and bronze medalists in a contest. The silver medalist was miserable but the bronze medalist was elated. That’s because the silver medalist compared his status with the ideal state, that of the gold medalist, which of course he failed to grasp.

But the bronze medalist was not comparing himself with the silver medalist, let alone the gold medalist. He was comparing himself with the fourth placer, who got no medal at all. That was his “it could have been worse.” He could have returned home empty-handed. Thus, he was beaming with gratitude.

So the next time you’re tempted to grumble, think how your circumstances can be worse. Me, I have gone through two painful years of joblessness. That’s why I cherish every day at the office even though there will be stress and headaches. I certainly don’t want to go through those two years again. And I certainly don’t want that on my worst enemy.

So be thankful with what you have. It’s the grace of God. And in that pew, I began to worship.

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Never the Spectacular

February 26, 2023


Today’s Sunday message threw me way back in time (mentally, of course) when I was leading an office Bible study. It was the same text, Matthew 7:21-23:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

I still remember the forlorn look on a participant’s face at that Bible study. He said, “So I’m not doing the will of God. Does that mean I’m going to hell?”

I don’t recall how I responded and what happened to that young fellow. But today’s Sunday message by Pastor Chad put my thinking about this passage into perspective.

This passage can be misunderstood to mean that salvation is by works. That is, if you want to go to Heaven, do what God says.

But elsewhere it is clear that salvation if by faith, not works (e.g., John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9). So how can we reconcile this with the Matthew passage?

I used to worry that hey, I’m not doing the will of God all the time. I have my bouts of succumbing to temptation, said things I shouldn’t have, lost my temper when I should be gracious. Does that mean my salvation is dubious? That Jesus will tell me in my face, “I never knew you, Nelson!” ?

I am grateful that Pastor Chad put this passage to context. It is to be understood from the Kingdom paradigm of the Sermon on the Mount.

Briefly said, the Sermon does not tell us how to be “saved”, but outlines the values of the Kingdom and how someone already in the Kingdom (i.e., saved) is to live.

The point of Matthew 7:21-23 is that the evidence one is a Kingdom citizen is obedience, not the spectacular. One is obedient not in order to enter the Kingdom, but because one belongs in the Kingdom.

The chilling inference is that one can really do the spectacular – prophesy, cast out demons, perform miracles – and still be en route to hell!

The archetype is Judas Iscariot. From Matthew 10:1, we know that Jesus gave His his twelve disciples “the authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” Does that include Judas? Verse 4 says so and even specified him as “who betrayed [Jesus]”.

So we can imagine Judas also going around casting out demons and such. But we all know what happened to him in the end.

Summary: The Kingdom values obedience, not what the world would consider as spectacular. The Jews at Jesus’ time looked for signs (John 4:48, 1 Corinthians 1:22) and sadly, so do many people today.

But the Kingdom way, the beautiful way, is to display the fruits of love, purity, humility, faith, and wisdom.

Now THAT would be truly spectacular!

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Choice is Destiny

February 13, 2023


Why do we hang on to a habit or lifestyle that we know is unproductive? It may be as simple as scrolling through social media for hours on end. Or as serious as being sedentary and gorging on junk food.

Psychologists have a fancy term for it: temporal discounting. People tend to choose small, immediate rewards rather than larger, long-term ones.

Thus, the socmed addict prefers the dopamine kick of scrolling down his Facebook over using that time to develop marketable skills. The couch potato prefers smacking his lips on empty calories today over basking in vibrant health twenty years from now.

What I find helpful is this sobering principle: for every step you take, you are not just choosing a path. You are choosing a destination.

It’s my paraphrase of oft-cited wisdom: we are free to choose our actions, but we are not free to choose the consequences of said actions. Our decision can spell the difference between success and failure, between peace and regret, between pleasure and pain.

Yes, I am aware of the (for example) chain-smoker who knows that he will die of lung cancer, but reaches out for the next stick anyway. It’s like momentary denial. He knows he will get lung cancer… but thinks that wheezing on his death bed is still decades later. Thus, he can get away with just one more puff today. He will cross the Grim Reaper’s bridge when he gets there.

I have observed that such people are indeed aware of the dire consequences, but do not pause and reflect. I imagine that as our chain-smoking friend is lighting up his cigarette, an image flashes in his mind’s eye, that of wheezing on his death bed. But it remains a flash because he did not hold his impulse for a minute and let that dire future dose cold reality on his craving.

Reflection:
1.      Will your next action be mindful or impulsive?
2.      What is the path you are taking?
3.      What does the destination look like?
4.      What do you feel about the destination?
5.      If you don’t like it, what will you do differently?

So, where are you going?

Note: inspired by the wide and narrow road of Matthew 7:13-14.

#choices #destiny #habits #decisions #strategicthinking #lifecoach

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