“The Heart of the Matter”

(Matthew 15: 15-16) 15 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Explain to us the parable that says people aren’t defiled by what they eat.”  16 “Don’t you understand yet?” Jesus asked. 17 “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. 18 But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. 19 For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. 20 These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.”

Jesus came to bring freedom…freedom from sin, and yes, freedom from the legalism of the past.  The life and death of Christ, though not easy or simple in any way, took place so that our faith could be simplified and our redemption more accessible. 

In his ministry, Jesus told many parables and gave even more examples of and metaphors for the moral situations we face in life.  He was a gifted teacher…a relatable source of God’s own mind and heart…and through His words we find that a life of faithfulness and righteousness is attained through living out one word:  love.

37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:37-40)

It isn’t about rules…what foods are bad, when to wash your hands, whether or not you should shave your beard or get a tattoo…rather, it is a matter of the heart.  In all things, the condition of the heart is what governs our choices and actions. 

I teach children at church, so I spend a lot of time finding ways to make scripture easy for them to relate to their lives, and I have found that the thing that I say to them most is that it all comes back to love.  Is it hard to memorize a bunch of laws?  Sure it is!  Is it hard to remember to love others?  Nope.  Well, it certainly shouldn’t be hard to remember that.  Sure, it’s hard to do at times, but we all know that it’s what we are supposed to do.  Right? 

Think about the ten commandments:  would you commit any of them if you are loving God first and others next (above yourself)?  Noooo.  Many times we try to trick ourselves and justify things we are doing that are contrary to the truth…things that don’t reflect God’s love.  When we are not reflecting His love, we are rejecting Him, because His very existence is just that…love

7 Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. 8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.  (1 John 4: 7-12)

Because of Jesus, the very embodiment of love…because He came that we might have abundant life…because He died to free us…we don’t have to hem and haw over every detail of our lives wondering, “Is this wrong?  Am I sinning?”  It’s basic really.  Ask yourself, “Is this loving?  Is this kind?”  If the answer is no…well, don’t chance it.  The acronym that was so famous in the 90’s might be corny but it’s always applicable to EVERY situation:  WWJD  (What Would Jesus Do)?  The answer is:  Jesus would love

Prayer:  Heavenly Father, help me to keep a watch over my heart and what I allow to occupy its space.  Fill me with Your love, so that I am walking and living a righteous and faithful life, reflecting and magnifying You in all that I do. 

“My Bad Reputation”

(Proverbs 22:1, NLT) Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.

“An’ I don’t really care

If ya think I’m strange

I ain’t gonna change

An’ I’m never gonna care

‘Bout my bad reputation!”

(Bad Reputation by Joan Jett)

This probably should’ve been my theme song when I was a teenager.  I was painfully apathetic about what others thought of me, and my reputation from that time in my life still lingers a little.  I have learned, the hard way of course, that it is a harsh reality of life that your reputation will most likely follow you for many years.  Even when you grow out of old habits, make amends, and rebuild those long-ago burned bridges, the stories and memories can remain a tarnish on your image. 

We live in a world where anything goes, and it’s so easy to get caught up in alternative ways of thinking and feeling like you just don’t care what anyone thinks about you.  I remember thinking the same thing many times.  It can be exhausting and frustrating having to stop and actually think before you say or do something.  When I was a teenager, the last thing on my mind was what someone would think about my choices.  But…then I grew up!  I started to realize that, especially (and most importantly) because I am a Christian, I am under a microscope.  I had to accept the fact that my reputation matters.  My choices matter.  I had to accept this, and then I had to make concentrated efforts to choose to build for myself a better reputation. 

The Bible tells us (in Philippians 1:27), “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Our actions not only affect our own lives and futures, but they also reflect upon God Himself, and they indirectly affect those with whom we are associated.  We are called to be shepherds and to testify of the goodness of God, but how can we ever expect to be taken seriously if we have only negative reputations as our foundations? 

The truth is, we all have a circle of influence.  For some of us, it’s so big we could never even begin to imagine all of the people within our reaches; then for others it consists of just family and/or a few friends.  Yet however big or small your circle is, you do have influence in the lives of others…whether you realize it or not.  You may not like it, and you may not want that kind of responsibility on your shoulders, but it’s yours all the same.  When you carry the name of Christ, that is part of the deal. 

Please understand, the expectation is not perfection.  That’s just unrealistic, and I fully believe that God, in His infinite grace and love, is a realistic and merciful Father.  He sees our limitations and failures for what they are before we ever even experience them.  So no, we aren’t expected to go without error.  However, the expectation is that we strive toward holiness. 

In 2 Corinthians 7:1, Paul urges us, “Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.” 

So let us rise to the occasion, so to speak, and let us rise above the past.  We know that the best we can do is do the next best thing.  So let us focus on what is in front of us, and on those who are around us.  We can build holy and righteous testimonies for ourselves, creating reputations that outshine the shadows of our pasts, when we choose to care what others think of us. 

Prayers:  Heavenly Father, let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in Your sight.  I know there is nothing I can do about the past, but I choose holiness, and I choose to move forward as a light in the darkness and a beacon of Your love to those within my circle of influence.  Amen. 

In the Absence of the Crowd…

(Luke 22:3-6 ESV) 3 Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. 4 He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. 5 And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. 6 So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.

Judas…The man who had walked with Jesus and beheld the dead brought back to life, blind eyes opened to new vistas, deaf ears hearing new sounds, mute tongues speaking clearly. He had witnessed the miraculous activity of the very Son of God. What a privilege! What an opportunity!

He was a member of an elite society. He had been hand picked by Jesus to carry out the work of the Kingdom of God. He walked among godly men. He dined with a rare band of brothers. He was given the responsibility of carrying the purse.

But, it was not enough. Judas wanted more. And, in a moment of weakness, he turned himself over to the work of Satan and struck a deal that would culminate in the capture of the Messiah. Judas was not naive. He knew they wanted to capture Jesus and kill him. They wanted his message silenced. They would stop at nothing. So, Judas agreed to turn Jesus over…in the absence of the crowd.

As many times as I have read this story, I had never noticed those final words… “In the absence of the crowd…”

It’s easy to compromise our character in the absence of the crowd. Sinful attitudes are easier thought about in the absence of the crowd. Inappropriate activity comes easier in the absence of the crowd. Fantasy runs wild in the absence of the crowd.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

Solitude can be a time of positive reflection. Christian maturity can be developed in the absence of the crowd. Scripture study can be much more enlightening in the absence of the crowd. Worship can be sweeter in the absence of the crowd. Rest is more peaceful in the absence of the crowd.

What will your life look like in the absence of the crowd? The choice is yours! Make it a good one!

PRAYER: Lord, may I always remember that You are my constant companion. Even in the absence of the crowd Your presence is near. Help me make the most of my time, my thoughts, my actions—at all times—particularly in the absence of the crowd. Amen.

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