The Heart of God vs the Hardened Heart

There’s a scene from the first Incredibles movie that reminds me of the text we’ll be reading this Sunday. Mr. Incredible is a superhero forced into retirement who had taken on a job as an insurance salesman. He keeps looking after his customers best interests, which gets him called into his boss’s office. Rather than describe the scene to you – let me just put it here for you to watch:

This Sunday we’ll be reading Mark 3:1-6 in our study of this gospel.
Do you see the parallels between a puny and petty boss trying to exert authority over a superhero?

As you read this passage, think about the contrasts. Who is Jesus looking at? Who are the religious leaders looking at? Following that, contemplate this question: what is the main concern of the religious leaders and what is the main concern of Jesus?

Answering those questions will unlock the lessons of this text.

What is it about the religious leaders that made Jesus both angry and sad? How does Jesus’ reaction to this help us to identify the priorities God intends for us to live by?

In a fast changing world we, as followers of Christ, often struggle to know how we interface our Christian values with this morally fluid society. Sometimes we’ve fallen into the same snare that the Pharisees did. In what ways has the church been blinded by a commitment to what might be considered necessary rules that we miss God’s overarching value of compassion? How can we keep that from happening while still holding to a conviction?

Those are the topics we’ll consider – it should be a thought provoking text to explore!

The Gospel in Unity

The most tolerant dog in the world. Tolerance is a oft-used word in our present world. I’m not always convinced we are using the word correctly. Tolerance implies that there is an objection to something – but that objection is intentionally set aside for the sake of peace or unity.

Unfortunately, tolerance, as presented on a societal level, is more a demand for uniformity, leaving little room for intellectual dissent. People who hold deep convictions have felt pressured to compromise, and the terrible by-product is a mistaken notion that outright intolerance for people who hold different views or values is the only way to respond if one is to be faithful to one’s beliefs. That is most certainly a mistake. Tolerance is a Christian virtue – and acceptance of others in spite of differences is held up as the standard for appropriate representation of the gospel.

The church could learn a lot from that dog in the video.

This Sunday we’ll be looking at Romans 14:1-21 as we continue our study in that book. Paul will be talking directly to the divisions in the Roman church – divisions over convictions and doctrines that were very important to those who held to them.

As you read through this chapter – how would you characterize Paul’s emphasis? What does he seem to hold as a greater importance than the specific practices and beliefs that people had?

Paul stresses the idea of God’s acceptance of believers who hold their convictions before the Lord. What is the basis of God’s acceptance of us?

What are the issues that seem to cause division in the church today? How might we learn from what Paul says and apply them to our own community today?

I believe this is one of the most important chapters for us to really grasp as 21st Century American Evangelical Christians. I hope you can make it this Sunday!

The Struggle is Real

Have you ever seen one of those experiments where they secretly record what happens when someone encounters a sign which says “wet paint, do not touch”? It’s pretty amazing to see how often people, and especially children, seem compelled to touch what has been forbidden. Come to think of it…have you ever encountered a sign that warns you not to touch or do something? What is the first thought that usually goes through our minds? “I could just do it quickly, what would it hurt?”  I realize there are some personality types that wouldn’t experience this particular temptation, but enough of us do that it becomes a familiar and relate-able trope.

Something in us seems to always feel an urge to go the wrong way, even when we know better.

This has been something that philosophers have puzzled over since philosophers became a thing. It’s also something that the Scriptures give a lot of attention to. Paul will have that as his major theme in the section we’ll be reading this Sunday as we continue our study in Romans. We’ll be reading ch 7:7-25.

Paul once again points out the impotence of the Mosaic Law to change the nature of our lives. Yet, he exonerates the law from any culpability for our condition. Once again he makes the point as to what the Law was able to do. What is it?

He then  launches into a beautifully honest expose of the human struggle to do what’s right, even when we know the right thing to do. What does Paul attribute this to in v 17 and 20? How do you understand his differentiation between “sin” and “I”?

All the way through, we have to keep the context in mind – Paul is asserting that the Law of Moses, or any other religious system of rules, is incapable of rescuing us from our plight.

What will rescue us, according to v25? How do you understand that to be true?

This is a fairly complex bit of Scripture we’ll be tackling this Sunday – but SO worth our time to digest! I hope you can make it!

Grace and Rewards

Image result for fox huntingN.T. Wright, in his “Everyone” commentary on Matthew, shares a story, in typical British fashion, about a fox hunt he had witnessed as a boy (this is not to endorse such a thing, just his account). He described the riders in red coats atop of fine brown horses that blew trumpets and led the way for hunting dogs and riders who were less dashing on more humble horses. As they charged around chasing the fox, the clever animal hid in the bushes and back-tracked after the riders had all passed him. Suddenly, those at the back of the procession looked back to the hill they had just come from and saw the fox behind them. They blew their own trumpet to turn the group around, and suddenly those who were on humble mounts were at the front of the pack, while those on the fine horses were bringing up the rear.

He used that as an illustration of how God, in a very fox-like way, turns the pursuits of life and faith around so that the ones we assumed had it all are suddenly the ones needing to catch up. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. That’s going to be a concept we’ll be considering in our study this weekend.

This Sunday we’ll be reading Matthew 19:27-20:16 – which includes a parable that is unique to Matthew’s gospel. It is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

In chapter 19, Pete asks the question that is basically “after sacrificing all we had to follow you, what’s in it for us?”. Jesus does promise a reward to him, but where is it centered, according to v28? Some believe Jesus is speaking literally in his promise of a hundred-fold return of lands and…mothers, etc. What is missing from that list he gives? How does that fit with those who promise a 100 times greater return on your offerings to their ministry? Given the context of v28, what do you think the first/last dynamic is intended to teach us?

In chapter 20 Jesus tells a story about a rich landowner who hires day laborers to pick grapes during the vineyard’s harvest. The story is unsettling in it’s economic implications – but what about it’s spiritual ones? What reason does the landowner give for paying everyone the same amount? What do you believe that is teaching us about our pursuit of spiritual and eternal rewards and the actual source of it?

In v12, what is the chief complaint about the identical pay-stubs everyone had? What does this tell us about the self-perception of the complainers? In v 15 when it says “Or do you begrudge my generosity?”, it literally is asking “why do you give my generosity the evil eye?” Many, if not most, translations read a variation on “are you envious because I’m generous?”. What would the complainers be envious of? They received what they agreed on as a wage. Justice was done…but something else was added – what? Some think its hard to tell from the transcript what the object of the envy is. Some think that they are envious and angry at the landowner. What would they be envying about him?

I find this whole story to be fascinating…hope you do too! See yez’ on Sunday!

Traditional Troubles

Image result for christmas in japan

Apparently, Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan, but they still celebrate it. How they celebrate, however, is somewhat unusual. It seems that back in the 1970’s, the company behind KFC decided to do some intense marketing to the Japanese people, so they pushed KFC as the perfect way to celebrate Christmas. The idea caught on, and Japanese KFC’s report their biggest sales of the year on Christmas Eve. Because nothing says “Christ is born” like the Christmas Eve Party Bucket – it comes with fried chicken and wine.

Do you have any odd traditions for Christmas that your family has passed down through the years? I think the most unusual for our family is the annual watching of Die Hard. “Ho, Ho, Ho…now I have a machine gun.” C’mon? What’s more Christmasy than that?

Traditions are great. They can keep us in touch with our history and even connect us with what is unique about our family or community. Traditions, however, can become troublesome if we allow them to take precedence over the more important issues of life. That’s what we’ll be considering this Sunday as we read Matthew 15:1-20 in our study of Matthew.

The passage starts out with a controversy over hand washing. This wasn’t about hygiene – it was about this:

V6, 8, 17-20 sum up Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. How would you word what it is that Jesus is trying to communicate about religious traditions and rules?

What does Jesus point to as being the most important issue when it comes to our relationship with God and how we live our lives in this world (v19)?

It’s not addressed in this passage per se, but how do we go about seeing a change take place in our hearts if righteousness doesn’t come from the outside in?

I hope this proves to be an encouraging foray into the Gospel of grace. See you on Sunday!

The Folly of Mere Religion

Image result for elephant at a parking meterDid you know that according to a law in Orlando, if you leave an Elephant at a parking meter, you have to pay the full fee that you would pay for a car? Some insist that no such law ever existed, but others are adamant about it. It’s hard to say, but we do know that strange laws like that still remain in the layers of various states legislation. I love trying to imagine the context for coming up with laws like Missouri’s ban on driving with an uncaged bear in you car. It would be hard to discern the original intent behind a law like that.

Still, with any law, original intent is important. One of the constant themes of the New Testament, and especially the gospels, is this conflict we witness between those who insisted on pressing the letter of the Old Testament law, and Jesus who administered the spirit, or intent of it.

That’s something we’ll be considering in our text this Sunday as we read Matthew 12:1-21.

In v 1-8 Jesus defends his disciples against accusations of breaking the commands of Oral Law, the Talmud, which forbade harvesting and threshing wheat – which they applied to the actions of the disciples in this section. What do you think Jesus’ point is in referring to David eating the showbread of the Tabernacle? When Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” – what does that mean to you? How does this apply to your life of following Jesus? What do you think he means by calling himself the Lord of the Sabbath?

In the second story, the same issue of Sabbath keeping is at the center. Jesus responds to the inquiry about healing on the Sabbath with a hypothetical situation where someone’s sheep falls in a ditch – common sense dictated that it was a necessity to come the animal’s aid. Jesus states his point quite clearly – people matter more. But by going ahead and healing on the Sabbath, we realize what he means – people mean more than _______ – what?

V15-21 act as sort of a summary of these two events. They give us a picture of Jesus that is very different from the religious leaders and Pharisees of his time. Their emphasis was on domineering people through their religion. Based on these verses, what is Jesus’ emphasis, and what sort of atmosphere surrounds his triumph?

This is a great section of the gospel to explore! Hope to see you this Sunday!


God’s Healing Rule

  • Image result for taxmanWhat are your first thoughts when you read the letters IRS together? Do you have negative or positive feelings about this agency? That’s sort of a rhetorical question, I don’t know many people who get the warm and fuzzies when it comes to our government tax agency. As John Oliver says, “It’s no wonder people hate the IRS. They’re unavoidable, they often function poorly and they combine things we hate the most: losing money and math.”

Things were no different in the world of Israel in the first century. Actually, tax collectors were probably hated more intensely in that context. They were considered traitors for collecting money from the hated Roman oppressors. Add to that the propensity of tax collectors to overcharge people who had no recourse for objection and we can see why tax collectors were lumped in with murderers, robbers and prostitutes.

That’s what makes Jesus’ actions and words so alarming in the section of Matthew we’ll be reading this Sunday – Matthew 9:9-17.

In v9-13 we find the invitation given to Matthew the taxman to become a disciple of Jesus. We wonder if Jesus knew Matthew beforehand and how much Matt knew about Jesus to accept this offer so suddenly. The party afterwards is where the main action develops. What does it say that Jesus is doing at the party? Is he lecturing people about ethics and occupations? Is he handing out tracts? What is he doing according to v10? Sharing a meal was a powerful statement in that culture and time. It meant acceptance and connection. People who ate together were considered a part of each other. Do you see what is perplexing the Pharisees now?

What do you think Jesus’ answer means in v11-13? What does the focus of his mission seem to be on? What is it that the Pharisees focus on? What should we learn from this?

In v14-15, John the Baptist’s disciples seem confused by Jesus’ behavior as well. John taught his followers fasting as a way to encourage God to send his kingdom and end the days of exile. The Pharisees taught that tradition as well. But here is Jesus who seems to be eating a lot (its one of the main thing Luke’s gospel portrays Jesus as doing). Jesus’ answer points to himself as an important part of what it is that John’s disciples were waiting for. What do you think he’s saying?

v16-17 provide two word pictures that contrast something rigid with something flexible. Jesus is contrasting the work of God’s kingdom coming through him with what came before. What came before? What do you think the new wine is, and what is the value of a flexible structure around it?

This should prove to be an intriguing study- hope to see you Sunday!


An Unsettling Grace

Whoops! Got invited to go fishing and forgot to update Wonderwhat. Sorry about that. This Sunday we will be doing our final study in the book of Jonah. What a fun ride this has been! We’ll be reading all of Jonah 4.

Does a movie with really happy ending ever cause you to be furious enough to want to die? I’m going to suppose not. At least I hope not. That would be attitudinal behavior that would warrant some professional intervention, wouldn’t it? Yet that’s very much like what we’ll read about our prophet in this final installment of our study.

What reason does Jonah give for being so mad in v2? Why do you think God’s grace and mercy are  so upsetting to Jonah? Have you ever struggled with the idea that God really, really loves that person who did something terrible to you, and would forgive them if they repented? What ways do you find to reconcile God’s justice and mercy?

What does the vine God appointed represent to you? If Jonah built a shelter to get shade from the sun – why do you think God provided the plant? What does v6 say that God gave him the plant to save him from? The Hebrew word that’s translated “discomfort” in the ESV is “re’eh”. It appears 306 times in the bible and 112 times it’s translated at a different word. Follow the previous link to find out what it’s translated as 112 times. Does that change your idea about why God provided the plant?

If you were to summarize what God is trying to get across to Jonah as a stand in for all of  God’s people, what would that message be?

I hope you’ve like this study as much as I did! Hope to see you on Sunday!


A Scandalous Love

Imagine you’ve been asked to a dinner party for the small company you work for. When dinner is done and people are sitting and chatting while dishes are being taken away, your boss has quietly gone to the corner of the room and stripped down to his underwear and with a jug of bottled water, starts going down the line of guests and begins washing their feet.

Besides being the basis for a huge lawsuit – how would something like that make you feel? Would it unnerve you? Would you protest this action?

We’re going to be reading John 13:1-17 this Sunday, and the events described above sort of play out in our text. Sometimes we pass this strange display off as a cultural thing, something that everyone was accustomed to – but we have nothing to support that claim. Actually, just the opposite. Foot washing happened, but by and large, guests at a home would wash their own feet. Jewish servants were not required to do this sort of humiliating and intimate thing. Only gentile slaves were known to do something like this.

John sets the stage for this event by saying that Jesus had become aware that all things were in his hands…that is, he wielded the supreme authority of God. So with that knowledge, what did Jesus do with those hands, very first thing?

I don’t have a lot of questions to prod you with this week – just that image to ponder. If Jesus is our greatest revelation of God…who IS God as we see him on display in this section?

This is humbling, challenging and potentially life-altering stuff. Hope to see you this Sunday.

The Sign in the Wine


Our passage for this Sunday is John 2:1-12 as we continue our study in the Gospel of John.

It’s a very famous story – Jesus doing the remarkable thing of transforming ordinary water into extraordinary wine. It is the opening story in a section of stories that have the theme of the old being replaced by the new.

According to v11, why does John include this story in his gospel?

The function of a sign is to reveal where something is – this sign that Jesus does reveals, according to John, the glory of Jesus. His glory is the reality that he is the Son of God bringing God’s reign of grace and truth to this world (1:14).

So – of all things, Jesus chooses THIS setting and THIS miracle as his first sign to reveal what the kingdom of God is coming to do. I find that really interesting. What does this sign reveal to you about the nature of God’s inbreaking kingdom? How does it compare with the way the church represents the kingdom of God – is there a difference?

Think about the nature of water and the nature of wine – what can we discern about God’s presence in the world that is revealed in that contrast? Think about the amount of wine that Jesus creates – what does that tell us about the life God has in mind for us?

The water jars were used for ritual purification. Jesus looks at those reminders of human uncleanness and re-purposes them completely. What lesson does this sign teach us about the nature of what God is up to in our lives?

Have there been times in your life when the wine ran out? How about now? What does this sign encourage you to do about it?

Hope to see you on Sunday!