Jewels cousin invited me to write a few devotionals for a high school class she teaches. This little devotion is the latest entry, the others are listed under the category “Faith in the Desert”. I pray the Lord is glorified and you are blessed and challenged by my thoughts. dave
A Thanksgiving to Remember
Last week we looked at a few things from Luke 15 and I finished up by challenging you to find a mentor. Not an easy task but a life changing one. Well, I hope you decided to give yourself that early Christmas present but if not there is still time so don’t give up or forget.
This week I want to go back to Luke 15 to look at a little trilogy of stories. If you remember, the chapter opens with sinners and tax collectors pressing in to hear Jesus. Now when we read “sinners”, generally speaking, we have an idea who they were, sex workers, slave traders, convicts etc. However, when it comes to the tax collectors, I don’t know if we have the full picture. Tax rates back then were often up to 90% of a household income. Ouch, especially considering if you couldn’t pay the penalty might be death or slavery. Additionally, Rome ruled from India to England during a time where quick transportation included donkeys, if you know what I mean. As a result of ruling such a vast expanse without highly mobile forces, Rome chose to use merciless brutality to rule the land. Rome’s subjects were constantly reminded of who was in charge by the unconscionable acts of violence. History documents towns where literally 20,000 to 30,000 men, women and children were crucified along the roads to remind the people of Rome’s might. Now given this background and understanding that a tax collector was a Jew who sought and paid for the right to exhort money from his own people to fund this savage military machine gives you insight into how hated and evil tax collectors were. Zacchaeus wasn’t the cute wee little man we sing about—he was a despicable, wrath-deserving traitor to the Jews. That historical context is important because we need to clearly grasp whom Jesus was speaking to, otherwise we might miss the point and power of these stories.
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Stop for a second, close your eyes and visualize the scene in your mind? Got it, are you being honest, can you see it? Ok, with eyes still closed I have a question for you. Where are you in this picture? Seriously think on that for a moment. We will come back this idea but I bet you’ll be surprised where you see yourself once you understand the stories.
So here we go, a threesome of stories that Jesus tells in response to the Pharisees comment of “This man receives sinners and eats with them”. Just so you are aware, in saying this the Pharisees were implying Christ couldn’t be God because God would never associate with such people. Interesting thought…bet these guys didn’t like the fact the angels announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds first either. Those guys weren’t even allowed to come near the temple. Well, Jesus isn’t too amused by the peanut gallery comments so he just jumps in.
The first story is about dumb sheep. Smelly, dirty, not too bright, kind of remind me of me actually. Seriously, ask my wife. Anyway, just like these sheep some of us get lost because we are flat out stupid. On a side note, taking care of young soldiers I see a lot of…well let’s just call them interesting injuries. I’m often reminded of a lesson I learned early in my medical career—you can’t fix stupid. There are pills for a lot of things but there ain’t one for stupid. Not politically correct but undeniably true. Call it ignorance, laziness or simply being a few short of six pack we all act like sheep at some point. Nice little lambies wandering off and suddenly we find ourselves in trouble or hurting and we need help.
Others of us are like the woman. We fall away because of careless choices. We don’t see the importance of the little decisions which inevitably lead to bigger ones and before you know it we’re someplace we never dreamed of. Want to know an interesting fact? Do you know what is the biggest predictor of whether your life will go sideways (for example, drug use, teen pregnancy, jail, etc?) Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, male or female, pretty or ugly, even brilliant or sheep-like…the most influential force on your final destination will be your friends. I say again—your friends. Do you catch that; the most important choice you will make (save only your decision to trust Christ) is your friends. (I am trying to be annoying to make sure you remember this– in case your wondering.) So choose wisely, if you hang out with those who morph Jesus into who they want him to be and are falling in love with the world, just give it time and you’ll follow suit. If you don’t believe me, look at some of your older friends who were strong in the Lord and fell away in college, then look at their peer group. The association will be obvious, not comfortable, but painfully obvious. Most people aren’t like the prodigals who tell God to stick it and run the other way. Instead the two thirds of church kids who fall away most often do it through a series of small choices that slowly push Jesus out and bring the world in. It is uncommon for faith to be lost due to an overtly sinful choice; we are way too smart for that. Instead we slowly walk towards the world through countless small decisions where Jesus keeps finishing in second place.
Then, there is the last group. These folks are prodigals who fall away by choice. In fact their fall isn’t so much a fall but rather a sprint from God. Turning their back to God they enjoy the short-term highs and freedom, which always accompany rebellion. Unfortunately, the debt of sin will be paid and even though Christ’s blood washes us clean, memories fade slowly and some diseases can’t be cured.
So what can we learn from all this and why should you care?
Now, I don’t know if any of you actually found yourself in that picture earlier but after chewing on this awhile I think I have an idea where you and I fit in to the story. Now it might sound a little crazy, and no I did not grow up under power lines, but I think you and I are both the sinner and the Pharisee. Let me explain. You see as we discussed before our hearts are ugly and sinful. We, of course, don’t admit this to others, especially at church, but we are acutely aware of it. Instead, we either try to ignore or justify our sins, but neither works. Now at the same time we are also inwardly acting just like the self-righteous Pharisees. We have been brought up in the church, probably know a few bible verses and can belt out a song or two. We built a house for the poor or know somebody who did or thought about knowing somebody who did. We have faithfully endured many painful sermons, which must have made us more Holy right? Armed with all this spiritual wisdom we think we have a grasp on who God is. Combine our knowledge of the divine with the intimate awareness of our sin and we end up acting exactly like the religious leaders. However, instead of judging others, we judge ourselves. We subconsciously think God can’t be God if he’ll take me. He knows what I’ve done, He watched me sin, and He knows that I knew what I was doing. We don’t feel worthy of Christ’s love and feel as though somehow we must clean ourselves up before we can come to Him.
It’s true, we all do this to some degree if we actually stop and think about that. It’s why if we read our bible during the week and made it to youth group we feel good about going to church. But if we got drunk on Friday, lied to our parents and messed around with our girl we drag ourselves to church waiting for a lighting bolt to end our misery. What a bunch of dumb sheep we are. If that’s how you are thinking you realize you’re saying the cross just wasn’t good enough for you. Maybe for Dave’s sin, or Ms. O’s sin but not yours. It’s just too great. Pretty crazy thought, in fact it’s completely nuts for us to think this way, but we do. Since we addressed our self-condemnation I want to go back and look at your mental picture again. Can you see yourself in the audience? This is really important because once you do you’ll realize Christ was telling these stories for you.
You see, Jesus told these stories because we are all broken, in desperate need of a Savior. A sheep or coin can’t save themselves, only their owner can. A defiant prodigal has no right to come back home, but his father welcomed him back. No matter what the Pharisee’s told those sinners or what we tell ourselves Jesus is calling to us through these stories to come home. He longs for us to know His forgiveness and there is nothing for us to do but humbly accept it. It is so simple yet so hard. He has already paid the price through the cross. Let me be clear, no matter how retched or evil you have been, it doesn’t matter…you can be forgiven. Seriously, just look at the people standing next to you. Prostitutes, tax collectors, slave traders…get the picture. Your sin is paid for and your Savior is offering the forgiveness, which is only found in Him. If ever in your life you have had something to be thankful for– this is it. An eternity altering display of God’s Grace to the broken. A perfect Savior, who longs for you to know that no matter how stupid, careless, or defiant you’ve been His Grace is sufficient. You can’t earn it, and you definitely don’t deserve it, so this holiday season humble yourself and accept the gift Christ longs to give you, forgiveness and grace.