Following Jesus

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“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Mark 8:34

“Who wants go to heaven some day?” asked Miss Wilson of her preschoolers. Every hand went up and she beamed with joy at her class of 30 “converts.” Bill got the same results at the county jail when he asked if any of the incarcerated men were “Christians.” Nine out of ten nodded. Likewise, teenagers smoking pot behind the gym laughed through a smoky haze about the times they “got saved” at youth camp, VBS, or when a friend forced them down the aisle at church. We’ve come to accept such claims as valid, but do those situations sound anything like Jesus’ definition of following Him?

Nowhere in scripture do we find commands to “ask Jesus into your heart,” “pray this prayer after me,” or “accept Christ.” Those phrases are attempts to explain the spiritual transaction that must take place in order to begin a relationship with God. Jesus called it being “born again” (John 3:3). But we have substituted the idea that “Christian” means checking the right boxes on a heavenly survey. However, Jesus was startlingly clear about what it means to know Him. He doesn’t take the back seat. He doesn’t offer to be “part” of our lives. Unless He is first in our lives, we are not His followers. If we won’t choose Him over everyone and everything, we are not worthy of Him (Matt. 10:37-38). Taking up our cross means we are willing to die to everything that displeases Him. When we do, we find more than an escape from Hell. We find that He is all we were looking for.

Watch This!

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 There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 14:12

“Looks good to me!” shouted Tex. “No way I won’t land in the water. This roof ain’t that high.” He turned to his buddies with a confident grin. “Watch this!” Those words were engraved on Tex's tombstone a few days later. It’s easy to see the foolishness of some people’s choices, but not so easy to see our own. We may not be jumping off four-story buildings, but we may be jumping into toxic relationships, dangerous financial debt, or sexual sin with that same confident grin. And like Tex’s fatal jump, it all leads away from the plan of God and eventually to death: spiritual, emotional, or physical.

The Bible warns us that there are always two roads before us. Always. With every breath, every choice, we have the option of stepping off the path God designed for us because there is another one that looks so inviting. We stop to gaze at its smooth stones, shady trees, and beautiful flowers. We weigh its seduction against the red flags in our conscience, then decide with Tex: “Looks good to me! No way I won't end up where I want to be.” What we don’t realize is that Satan has laid camouflaged traps all along this pathway. We won’t see them unless we study the Map. The Bible is a road map that shows the location of most of Satan’s traps, but if we don't bother to check, we don’t see them until it’s too late.  Whenever we choose our paths based upon what looks and feels right, we often forfeit the good plan God has for our lives. But His word leads us to it.

 How do you know you're on the right path? Compare your life choices to God's word.

Good Fruit, Bad Fruit

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A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit.”  Luke 6:43-44

Jill wiped the sweat from her face and slapped the bark on an apple tree. “This one needs to come down,” she said. Her assistant gazed upward into the thick green foliage with a bewildered expression. “Why?” he asked. “Bad tree,” Jill answered. “Haven’t had any decent apples in two seasons. Those little ones up there? Half rotten. Tree’s no good to me now.” Her assistant still looked confused. “But…but all those leaves…it looks so healthy.” Jill shook her head and moved to the next tree. “It’s faking you out,” she laughed. “Pretending to be productive, but it’s all leaf. A tree is healthy if it produces good fruit.”

When a gardener plants and nurtures a fruit tree, he expects good fruit from it. If the tree is rotten inside, the fruit won’t be any good either. The same is true for us. The fruit of our lives is seen in the decisions we make, the attitudes we adopt, and the words we speak. If our hearts are self-centered, our fruit will be too. You can’t turn an oak tree into a peach tree by taping a peach to it. And going through churchy motions does not change our identities. Jesus offers to do that for us when we give our lives to Him. He changes us from the inside so that our fruit lasts for eternity. Unless our fruit is obedience to Christ, it’s all leaf.


Cursed By God

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For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”   Galatians 3:13

“Crucify Him!” The screams from the bloodthirsty crowd echoed through the universe and Satan’s host cheered. Evil had won. Perfection would be silenced forever and humanity was all his. What neither Satan nor Jesus’ friends realized was that this moment had already been decreed as part of God’s plan to buy back humanity from sin’s enslavement. To be stripped bare and nailed to a tree in disgrace was the worst way to die. God’s law stated that any criminal who was hung on a tree was under God’s curse. To be crucified meant that even God had turned His back on you. What made this moment more incredible is that when Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 prophesied the kind of death Messiah must undergo, crucifixion had not been invented yet.

For Jesus to take our full punishment upon Himself, He had to experience the curse of God. In those hours as the Son of God writhed in agony between heaven and earth, He became our sin. His pure mind had never entertained a dirty, jealous, or hateful thought, yet it was flooded with every vile, perverted image human beings have entertained. The perfect hands that had healed lepers and blessed children became the hands of a pedophile, a murderer, and a thief. As He hung there, the embodiment of evil, God’s righteous wrath was poured out upon His own Son: “How could you murder babies! How could you lie steal, cheat, and lust! I cannot look at you!” When Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” the curse that Adam’s sin brought upon the world was broken. Our debt was paid. Adam brought sin’s curse through one tree; Jesus broke it through another tree.

Two Trees

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In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2:9

The garden was alive with brilliant color and a thousand songbirds entertained in perfect harmony. Roses, honeysuckle, and lilacs filled the clear air with their heady perfume. And it was all a gift to them, a wedding gift from a loving Father. “Do you like it?” He asked. Their eyes were wide with wonder as they clutched hands and tried to take it in. “It’s all yours,” He whispered. “But you see those two trees in the middle? The one with the heavy fruit is off limits. Please don’t eat that; it will kill you. But everything else I made is just for you. I’ll come down and walk with you this evening to see how you’re doing. Enjoy!”

We sigh at this point in the story because we know what happens. It’s the same reaction we have when the dimwitted heroine in a movie heads toward the dark room. “Don’t do it!” we shout. And through thousands of years of history, we shout at our first parents: “Don’t do it!” But they did. And we do too. Given the choice between good and evil, we choose evil. The forbidden carries such an allure. SELF rises up and insists that the consequences can’t be all that bad. But they were then and they still are. Like Adam and Eve, we break the heart of our loving Father. But He refuses to live with a broken heart, so He broke His Son instead. On a different tree. Two trees—one destroys; one redeems. We choose the tree; we choose the consequences.

Adam’s tree said SELF was lord. Jesus’ tree says Jesus is Lord. Which tree are you choosing?

Ulterior Motives

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The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this (miraculous) sign. John 12:18
“Have you seen that new Rabbi?” Jacob asked. “I heard He turned one kid’s lunch into a feast.” Isaac nodded. “I actually saw Him heal that blind guy.” Not to be outdone, Levi called out, “Oh yeah, well I heard He raised a guy from the dead!” The three friends shouldered their knapsacks and broke into a run. “Let’s go see what else He might do!” Jacob cried, joining the crowds headed toward the Jesus Parade. “That’s the kind of leader I want! He could make us rich and famous!”

The throngs gathering about Jesus that day came for a multitude of reasons, most of them misguided. They loved the miracles. People were still talking about the free food, and no one could get over blind Bartimaeus now reading the Torah for himself. We can easily see the wrong motives of the crowd that day, but what about our motives now? “I’ll give my life to Jesus if it will save my marriage,” says Stan. “I got saved in ’92, but my business went belly-up,” grumbles Rob. “Guess it didn’t do me any good.” 
When we learn about the supernatural, miraculous things that God does, we get excited about what God might do for us. We start to treat the sacrifice of Jesus as merely the secret code into God’s Goodie Basket. Are we really much different from the crowd that day? It’s no wonder He wasn’t impressed by their praises. He’s not always impressed with ours either.


Number One Goal

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“Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’?... Father, bring glory to your name.”  John 12:27-28

“Lord, help me! Get me out of here!” How many times have you prayed something like that? “Get me out of this job. This marriage! This contract!” “Save me from these kids! This mortgage! My in-laws!”  We assume that if we’re stuck on a difficult path, it must SURELY be the Lord’s will to save us from it. After all, isn’t our personal fulfillment God’s Number One goal? Doesn’t the Bible say that God exists to make us rich and deliriously happy every day?

If it does, then Jesus should have read His Bible more closely, because His life was anything but rich and deliriously happy every day. He faced all the troubles and temptations we face. But instead of begging the Father to beam Him up, He kept His focus on His purpose. Jesus knew He was headed for one of the most horrendous murders in human history, and every fiber of His being yearned to be delivered from it. Yet, He refused to give in to His trembling flesh. 

Instead He walked by the Spirit and kept His mind on His calling. His joy was in knowing He was bringing honor to God. What if that was our goal? We can pray for deliverance, but as followers of Jesus, our greater goal should be like His: “Father, bring glory to your name.” When we encounter tough situations, and ask God to be glorified in the way we handle them, we start to look a lot like Jesus.


What Kind of King Do You Want?

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They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna!"  John 12:13

Rabbi Jesus was the Man of the Hour. The crowds were in a frenzy of excitement. Their Deliverer had come at last! Things were gonna be great! All their hopes and dreams would now come true. Grab a palm branch, Benjamin, good times are on the way! But within a matter of days, the cries of joy became cries of “Crucify Him!” What happened? How could such love and joy turn into hatred so quickly? How could thousands adore Him one minute and betray Him the next? The same reason we do.

Palm branches were the way common people welcomed royalty. When they waved palm branches and laid them on the ground for the donkey to walk on, they were declaring Jesus their new king. He was going to deliver them from the oppressive Romans and set things right once more. But He didn’t. He wasn’t the kind of king they expected. He let them down. So they let Him down too. Just like we do. 

Many eagerly welcome Jesus into their lives as Savior, but when faced with the Lordship question, they balk. “Wait a minute,” they say. “I want the forgiveness, the comfort, and eternal life. But what’s this obedience talk? You mean I have to do things His way?” They throw away their palm branches and invent their own kind of king“Sure I’m a Christian, but I decide what’s right for me.” 

Two thousand years later, Jesus is still not the King most people want.

What about you? 
Is Jesus Christ the King you want? 
If He is not Lord, He is not Savior either.

The Lord Has Need of It

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“And if anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say,

 'Because the Lord has need of it…’"  Mark 11:3

Kel had everything going for her: Ivy League education, bright career path, eligible bachelors in pursuit. But she left it all for the mission field of Sudan, where she spent the rest of her short life ministering to the poorest of the poor. Jak had hoarded pennies for years, scrimped when everyone else splurged, saved when everyone else spent. He knew it would all be worth it when he bought his first house. Then he learned about the orphanage in India that had been torched by terrorists. That very day, he bought a plane ticket, liquidated his saving, and headed to New Delhi. Why do they give it all away? Why would successful people who could live like kings in the U.S. choose to live like paupers in Ghana? Because the Lord has need of it.

Jesus did not ask for every donkey in Jerusalem. He had one picked out and He prepared the owner ahead of time. He did not steal the donkey. When the owner learned Who had asked for it, the animal was joyfully offered. A donkey is just a donkey until it becomes the King’s white steed. And our resources are common, everyday stuff—until they are placed in the hands of the King. Just as the owner of the donkey was prepared when the time came, so God prepares the hearts of those whom He has chosen for His purposes. He saves us and then calls us. He gives to us and then asks for it in return so that it will do far more in His hands than it could in ours. When others question, we answer like the disciples did: “Because the Lord has need of it.”



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When the days drew near for him to be taken up, 
he set his face to go to Jerusalem.  
Luke 9:51

Emmy Award Winner Dead of Self-Inflicted Gunshot Wound. Former Miss Universe Enters Rehab for the Fifth Time.  Headlines like these are so common they barely capture our interest. Many of them have a common theme: a person who experienced extreme popularity couldn’t handle it. Fame can make people do crazy things because they let it define them. Their self-worth becomes dependent upon the opinions of others, and when those opinions change, they are devastated. Whereas they once believed they were superior, they come to believe they are inferior—based solely upon their current level of popularity. We may never be in the headlines, but we have a tendency to do that too.

Jesus knows all about it. He catapulted to stardom, and then His adoring fans abruptly turned on Him. But one striking feature defined His walk through this world: “He set His face toward…” Jesus never let the opinions of others alter His course. They could love Him or hate Him; neither fazed Him. He loved people, but did not let their opinions define Him. One day they tried to make Him king; another day they tried to shove Him over a cliff. Jesus knew that popular opinion was not a reliable guide, so He never based His actions upon His current popularity—or lack of it. He set His face toward the cross, toward the plan of God, toward His purpose, and refused to look back. If we follow His example, we don’t let the opinions of culture, our peers, or even family, alter our course. We set our face toward God’s plan, knowing that we are always and only who He says we are.

When we set our faces toward obedience to God, no one can alter His plan for our lives.  

Don't Waver

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He did not waver in unbelief at God's promise, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God. Rom. 4:20

Have you ever been with people who cannot make up their minds? You ask, “Where do you want to sit?” and they ponder this as though the fate of the free world rested upon their answer: “Um, how about there…no, over there…no, wait…”  Our natural tendency is to waver. We waver over where to eat, what to wear, and when to make a call. Some even waver over their eternal destination. Someone asks: “Do you know for certain that you are going to heaven?” Waverers grimace, twist their hands and say: “Uh, I sure hope so…maybe. I guess.” Waverers have a hard time moving forward with anything, including faith.

Abraham is a great example to us of someone who could have wavered, but didn’t. God had given Abraham a promise: “You will be the father of many nations.” Abe was old and childless when this promise came. Yet, for twenty-five years he held on to it. He had heard from God and nothing could convince him otherwise. Verse 21 tells us how he kept from wavering. It says, “He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises.” Before we can believe God, we must know what He says. We must accept His offer to be Lord of our lives (Luke 9:23) and spend our days learning to follow Him. The more we know Him, the more we trust Him. As our faith grows, we become like Abraham, fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. Faith is believing promises before we see them. God honors such faith and strengthens those who persevere in it.