Secret buttons

The other day I came across a video expose about coin-operated games. It showed some of the test routines built into the games that allowed technicians to see if the games were operating properly. Some of the tests would make the game automatically go through a successful “win” without any of the usual manipulation of the controls.

What intrigued me was that the control buttons the technician used for such testing were there in plain sight, built into the facade of the game itself. But they were not labeled as such. These “buttons” did not look like the ordinary control buttons that were marked for customers to use in normal play. These “buttons” all seemed to be there for other uses. The game instructions painted onto the frame didn’t talk about the “secret buttons.” To learn about them you had to talk to the game creator, or read the manual that discussed the details of how the game worked.

This all came back to mind as I was reading the last great prophetic story Jesus shared with his disciples two days before his crucifixion (starting at Matthew 25:31). The “secret button” is revealed in verse 40. Reviewing the ways his servants have fed the hungry, clothed the needy, and visited those who were sick or in prison, Jesus tells them,

“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

These people were in plain sight. But unless you had heard from their Creator, you would never know the important purpose He had in mind when putting them in front of you. They were there so He could test you.

As I reflected on this, I saw more clearly why God often changed someone’s name. For instance, look at Genesis 17:5, or John 1:42. Where new names were announced, additional identity and purpose was also revealed for the person. They might still look the same, but now they knew a deeper significance for their place in God’s larger design.

The fact that outward appearances conceal inward realities is something the Church has long recognized in sacraments. These have both an outward sign and they carry an inward grace for us. This supernatural significance cannot be perceived or understood by our natural senses. (I Corinthians 2:14)

And the two parts remain distinct, though related and connected. At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) But the Church always understood this did not mean Jesus was himself the Father

In the same way, Saul of Tarsus was throwing the new followers of Christ in prison. But when Jesus intercepted him on the road to Damascus, he told Saul, “You are persecuting me.” (Acts 9:4)

They may have looked like ordinary people. But Jesus took what was done to them personally. They were a test for everyone who came across them. Even when no one realized that purpose was there.

One of the tests that has caused great controversy in Church history comes at the Lord’s Supper. As Jesus shared a final Passover meal with the disciples, he said, “This is my body… this is my blood….” as he handed them broken bread and wine. There in his hands, in plain sight, these elements looked like simple bread and wine. But Jesus was telling them they were mysteriously more than that. And he was renaming them to communicate the new and deeper presence they would henceforth convey.

Crowds had abandoned him when he spoke of this. (John 6:53, 66) They failed to see what was right in front of their eyes. And they trusted only what they could understand from their eyes. Things only had one meaning, the one they assigned to them. When Jesus renamed things, to help us understand what our eyes couldn’t see, they didn’t want listen.

The visible sign said to put your quarters in the slot right here. So they kept doing that until they ran out of quarters or got tired of losing.

And they walked away empty handed.

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St. Luke

Today my series of daily devotions on The Gospel According to St. Luke begins in The Journey published by the Bible Reading Fellowship. (Order a subscription here.) This is the kick-off entry for today.

Paul was uncertain during a strange moment on his second missionary journey. The Holy Spirit kept blocking Paul from going forward. Finally the direction came in a dream. When Paul was able to move forward, it was with a new traveling companion, a Gentile physician named Luke. In the historical account of the moment, as Paul set off from Troas to Macedonia, Luke suddenly begins to use the word “we” (Acts 16:6-12). Paul would mention Luke as a coworker both in the earliest letter we have of his (Philemon) and the last (II Timothy).

Although the new direction of Paul’s missionary journey had other important results, the “chance” meeting with Luke was far from the least significant. This physician was a careful, well-educated observer and kept accurate notes. Luke’s two books, a Gospel and the Book of Acts, together make for the largest part of the New Testament, even more than all of Paul’s letters. He became Paul’s biographer. Acts also provides critical history of the first years of the Christian church.

As a historian, Luke saved details for the record that others did not. During our study we will mark those unique parts of his Gospel.

Eastern Orthodox tradition recognizes Luke as the first one to paint (or write) icons. The Black Madonna of Częstochowa is credited to him as is the Theotokos icon brought to India by St. Thomas.

Would you be able to tell others about the people who greatly influenced your Christian beliefs? Do you ever think you may be having that influence on others?

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Stephen’s prayer

The day after Christmas is the Feast of Stephen, deacon and first martyr of the Church. (This is the day good King Wenceslas looked down and saw the poor man gathering wood for a fire.)

As we listened to lectionary readings this morning, I noticed something about Stephen’s opponents.

Acts 6: 9. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)–Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen….

I had always assumed the forgiveness Stephen asked for his murderers (Acts 7:59-60) was focused on Saul, who observed approvingly as the crowd took up stones (Acts 8:1), and who later became the great missionary to the world after his own conversion on the road to Damascus.

But this time, I noticed the particular identification that Luke gave to Stephen’s persecutors. They were “freedmen,” not ordinary Jewish citizens of Jerusalem. It is surmised that these “freedmen” were Jews and converts to Judaism who had come to Israel after finishing indentured service to pay their debts. Some were likely formerly captured slaves of the Romans who had come here after being released. This bunch would have drawn together with others who shared their history. Perhaps they were not much accepted by their fellow Jews who were natives in Israel.

They represented the wider Jewish community (and the world) that Jesus had told his disciples he wanted them to reach as witnesses. These outsiders were the ones who, ironically enough, by quarreling with Stephen, would trigger the missionary exodus from Jerusalem to that world.

Luke notes, in the makeup of this particular synagogue, that some were from the province of Cilicia. Luke wasn’t there himself, of course. He gathered these details from the person who was: Saul.

Saul, a native of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia.

This could explain why Saul was a part of that crowd that day. He was a part of the synagogue where men of his own native region gathered. In this way, God was using the very crowd He wanted to reach, to stir them up and prompt St. Stephen’s dying prayer, so that He could answer that prayer and show the grace and mercy that caused Him to send us Jesus is the first place.

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A Christmas Carol from G.K. Chesteton

G. K. Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at him.
And all the stars looked down.

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For over a year, each time we pray over our meals at the kitchen table, Melanie raps on the tabletop a few times with her knuckles. Read this old blog of mine to learn why.

This week, writing commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, I came to that moment on the final visit to Jerusalem where Jesus refuses to answer a question. I found myself wondering if his refusal to answer was, in reality, because he loved his interrogators. I copied and posted my meditations here on this blog as well. And I began to wonder if the long time Jesus seems to be taking to answer our knocking at his door was also an act of love and protection for me.

It doesn’t seem obvious at first. When Jesus exhorted us to keep asking, seeking, and knocking, the goal seemed to be to teach us persistence. But why can’t the Creator Who called the Universe into existence with a word answer my prayers just as quickly? Why does Jesus need to encourage us to keep knocking? Is he not eager to answer us? He wants us to answer quickly when it’s him knocking at our door, doesn’t he?

I have heard the argument that, in so many words, Jesus is herding cats. Sometimes it takes awhile to get them all going the same way so that the goals each one of them desires can be reached. It’s because he is honoring the gift of free will given us by the Father that he won’t preempt us if we choose to wander away. That makes sense to me. And it allows me to blame you if I have to wait for you to get in line where you’re supposed to be so Jesus can answer my prayer. It’s the nuisance of being in a big family.

But what if it really is me who is out of line and not where I am supposed to be? Am I the reason answers to your prayers are being delayed? (Pipe down. That’s a rhetorical question.)

I think I am standing at the right door, waiting for Jesus to open it. Doesn’t he recognize me? Uh… There is that unsettling parable that he told where the door is not opened because “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23)

I was listening to a message by Ken Fish where he was reviewing John Wimber’s five-step healing prayer model. Step One is asking what the distressed person wants Jesus to do. Step Two is asking Jesus what he wants in the encounter. That is when words of knowledge and discernment from the Holy Spirit can show up. And Ken had a few stories to tell.

One was about a visit he made to a church where the pastoral staff was in prayer before the service. This team of church leaders had noticed that attendance had leveled off after a time of growth in the congregation. They had decided to fast and pray for the Lord to show them why the church was no longer increasing like it had been previously.

Ken got a word. The pastor asked him to share it with the ministers. Ken hesitated. “It’s kind of negative,” he said. The pastor told him to share it anyway.

“There are people who have made vows to God that they have not carried out,” said Ken. He offered a speculation that it could be things like promising to help teach Sunday school or volunteer in some outreach where, ultimately, the people didn’t carry through.

It’s called lying to God, I thought. God doesn’t lie. He’s wanting to form the image of Jesus in me. When I knock at His door, does He delay answering because I look like a stranger and He can’t see a family resemblance yet?? Or He’s doesn’t want me tracking my muddy boots into the house??

In our house, we get those unwelcome phone calls from salesmen. (Recently we counted 25 of them in one day.) I have adopted a practice of hanging up without further chit chat as soon as I conclude the call is not from anyone we know. We have no friends who begin by saying, “This is not a sales call.” We have no friends who call us from noisy rooms filled with the voices of other people making calls.

Full disclosure: I once had a job making those kind of calls. (Is that why my voice is now crippled, God?) I came to be grateful for people who hung up quickly and didn’t waste my time, letting me get on to the next number. I extend that favor to these poor souls now.

My point is, I don’t have much interest in being interrupted by strangers. Is it just that the Almighty God before Whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from Whom no secrets are hid, takes just a little longer to open the door if I don’t look like I’m family? (I know He goes after stray sheep. I’m talking now about family discipline. I want a bigger allowance, do I? When is the last time I cleaned up my room or helped wash the dishes?)

As I listened to Ken tell about the word he received for that church about “unfulfilled vows,” a memory floated back to me.

Several years ago, I was approached about working part-time with a Christian charitable organization. At about the same time, they were doing a fund drive for some project. I signed up to give them an offering based on what I expected to be paid. But then the job offer went away, I wasn’t hired, and I didn’t have the money I’d counted on to pay my pledge. I felt bad about it but thought, “It’s not my fault.”

Now it was like God was looking at that old pledge card, and then looking at me. Did I sign that? Did anyone force me? Did I ever ask to have it returned, so they wouldn’t still be expecting my offering?

It was as if God was looking through the peephole on the door I was pounding on. “I hear you,” He was saying. “I’m just not sure I recognize you.”

This year, my mom died and left Melanie and me a small inheritance. There was enough to pay that old pledge. So we’re writing the check. I still have the address of that charitable organization. I assume they have mine, although they never asked me about my unfulfilled vow.

Father, I know I am not buying Your favor. You owe me nothing. Today, one reason I’m knocking at Your door is just to say thank You for helping me keep that vow I had made, and cleaning me up a bit more so I can get a little closer to looking like I actually am part of Your family.

I want to look like I do belong here when You answer the door.

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Matthew 21:23-24
When he had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority?”
 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, which if you tell me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Credit the chief priests and elders with recognizing the right question raised by the activity of Jesus. In the final week before his crucifixion, he had entered the Temple at Jerusalem and thrown out all the money-changers and livestock businesses set up there. What — or Who — gave him the authority, the right, to do what he was doing?

Satan had also recognized this as the basic issue during the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Again and again, Satan suggested that Jesus do something to reach a personal goal. Each time, Jesus deferred to what his Heavenly Father had already said.

It was no coincidence that Satan had selected decisions in matters that God had already spoken about. The temptation offered each time involved ignoring what God wanted, what God had said, and choosing another authority, another desire, to justify ignoring God’s stated will.

The plan had worked well with Adam and Eve. It did not work with Jesus, because Jesus refused to choose any other authority to shape his decisions.

Recognizing this underlying principle of authority behind actions, the priests and elders challenged Jesus to say what authority he claimed for his activities. They didn’t deny what he had done. They couldn’t. Blind people who now saw clearly, sick people who were now well, were becoming famous to the crowds following Jesus.

It is interesting that Jesus refused to answer this simple question. Not that the answer had ever been hidden from anyone. The sky filled with angels at his birth. God spoke from Heaven at his baptism by John in the Jordan River.

What if Jesus was acting in love by not answering the question directly?

The moment echoed earlier encounters where people had to reach a conclusion about what God was doing.

When Zechariah wanted to know some kind of proof that what Gabriel told him would happen, Gabriel took away his ability to say another word of doubt. (Luke 1:18-20)

John remembered a blind man healed by Jesus who was called before the Sanhedrin. They asked the man to explain what Jesus did. The man mocked them for not recognizing that no one could do what Jesus had done if God did not enable him. They threw the man out. (John 9:26-34)

Perhaps now Jesus wanted to keep his questioners from making a similar mistake in rejecting what God was doing. So he held back from starting a debate on their terms, where they would judge if he was right or wrong.

But he still honored their free will and right to make a decision. He replaced their question with one of his own, designed to examine their basis for evaluating authority.

By putting his own question to the priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority, Jesus also indirectly drew attention to the spoken statement from God Himself on that day. (Matthew 3:16-17) That declaration should have answered all questions about the authority Jesus had to carry out his ministry.

If doubters were afraid to accept that, it was a waste of time to offer any other.

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We hear about the families of only four of the disciples. We’re told Peter’s mother-in-law was healed by Jesus (Mark 1:29-31) but we’re not told her name. In Mark’s Gospel hers is, in fact, the first healing by Jesus to be recorded.

Mary, the mother of James the Less, was at the cross (Matthew 27:56).

The only other disciples who have family members mentioned in the Bible are the brothers, James and John. Mark says Jesus called them from their father, Zebedee’s, fishing boat and they followed him (Mark 1:19-20) though John indicates he had talked with Jesus earlier (John 1:35-37). John’s mother was one of the woman standing with Mary as she watched Jesus die on the cross (Mark 15:40). Interpreters have concluded she was either Mary’s sister (making her Jesus’ aunt) or Mary’s cousin. Mark says she had been following Jesus since his ministry began in Galilee (v. 41).

That close family connection may explain the audacious request that Matthew says she put before Jesus (Matthew 20:20). Mark only mentions James and John making the request (Mark 10:35 ff), but Matthew, who was there at the time, says it was mama who asked Jesus to seat her boys on his right and left when the time came for him to rule in glory. If Mary’s son was Israel’s Messiah, wouldn’t places of honor naturally go to his close family??

Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking.”

Matthew is clear he said this to them — so presumably to mama as well as her sons. Then he asked them, “Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?” The question seems one for those asking to sit in the two seats of honor, but I think Jesus was possibly also posing it to the mother who was making the request.

He might well have asked her Do you remember what my mother told you about what Simeon said to her? Are you ready to have a sword pierce your heart as well??

James and John didn’t hesitate to nod their heads. They were ready.

But only John was standing by his mother the day she watched Mary’s agony over seeing her son die. And before Jesus died, Salome faced another conflicted, emotional moment. She got to listen as Jesus spoke to John, her son, and tell him that his mother was now Mary. (John 19:25-26) Jesus had overturned the normal human family relationships before, when Mary and Jesus’ brothers thought he was crazy and tried to rescue him from the crowd gathered to listen to him.

These are my mother and brothers and sisters,” he had said then (Matthew 12:49). Now he was doing it again.

Salome may have felt like she was losing one son, that day of the crucifixion. Then a day came when it happened for real. Her son, James, became the first disciple to die, martyred by King Herod. (Acts 12:1-2)

Salome had been one of the women who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb (Mark 16:1). Perhaps she was one of the people present and watching the day Jesus called his friend, Lazarus, from his tomb. Perhaps she hoped Jesus would do the same for her son?

He did not. (Not yet.)

Instead, Salome got to wait, and take another drink from the same cup set before Jesus, the one set before her sons. The one they all thought they were ready for. The one set before every follower of Christ. A cup that drowns every self-oriented impulse and proud inclination. A cup to be drunk while joys are delayed. A cup always, therefore, to be drunk in tears.

You have to be careful what you ask for. Jesus said to start by asking that God’s will would be done. There’s not much we need to ask for after that.

Nor should we dare.

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