Does the sun rise in the east? Is the sky blue? Is the ocean salty? Is the atomic weight of Cobalt 58.9? Okay, that last one you might only know if you’re a science geek or tend to dabble in trivia, but the other questions have an obvious answer: “Yes.” In fact, questions like those are usually mixed with a hint of sarcasm.
If we’re not careful our modern, sometimes jaded ears can hear a bit of sarcasm in Jesus’s question to an invalid: “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). The obvious answer would seem to be, “Are you kidding me?! I’ve been wanting help for thirty-eight years now.” But there’s no sarcasm present, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Jesus’s voice is always filled with compassion, and His questions are always posed for our good.
Jesus knew the man wanted to get well. He also knew it had probably been a long time since anyone had even made an offer to care. Before the divine miracle, Jesus’s intent was to restore in him a hope that had grown cold. He did this by asking a rather obvious question, and then giving ways to respond: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (v. 8). We’re like the invalid, each of us with places in our lives where hope has withered. He sees us and compassionately invites us to believe in hope again, to believe in Him.
My family, all five of us, found ourselves staying in the heart of Rome over the Christmas holidays. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen more people jammed together in one place. As we snaked our way through crowds to see sights like the Vatican and the Coliseum, I repeatedly emphasized to my kids the practice of “situational awareness”—pay attention to where you are, who is around you, and what’s going on. We live in a day when the world, at home and abroad, isn’t a safe place. And with the use of cell phones and ear buds, kids (and adults for that matter) don’t always practice an awareness of surroundings.
Situational awareness. This is an aspect of Paul’s prayer for the believers in Philippi recorded in Philippians 1:9–10. His desire for them was an ever-increasing discernment as to the who/what/where of their situations. But rather than some goal of personal safety, Paul prayed with a grander purpose that God’s holy people might be good stewards of the love of Christ they’d received, discern “what is best,” live “pure and blameless,” and be being filled with good qualities that only Jesus can produce (vv. 10–11). This kind of living springs from a constant awareness that God is the who in our lives, and our increasing reliance on Him is what brings Him pleasure. And in any and all situations is where we can share from the overflow of His great love.
She was completely focused on the top shelf, where the glass jars of spaghetti sauce sat. I'd been standing beside her in the grocery aisle for a minute or two eyeing that same shelf, trying to decide. But she seemed oblivious to my presence, lost in her own predicament. Now I have no problem with top shelves because I'm a fairly tall man. She, on the other hand, was not tall, not at all. I spoke up and offered to help. Startled, she said, "Goodness, I didn't even see you standing there. Yes, please help me."
The disciples had quite the situation on their hands-hungry crowds, a remote place, and time slipping away-"It's already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food" (Matthew 14:15). When challenged by Jesus to take care of the people themselves, they responded, "We have here only . . ." (v. 17). All they seemed to be aware of was their lack. Yet standing right beside them was Jesus, not just the multiplier of bread but the Bread of Life Himself.
We can get so wrapped up in our challenges and trying to figure them out for ourselves with our often-limited reach that we miss the abiding presence of the risen Christ. From remote hillsides to grocery store aisles and everywhere else in-between, He is Emmanuel-God right there with us, an ever-present help in trouble.
Her name is Ruby. She is four years old. Like most children that age, Ruby loved to run, sing, dance, and play. But she started complaining about pain in her knees. Ruby’s parents took her in for tests. The results were shocking—a diagnosis of cancer, stage 4 neuroblastoma. Ruby was in trouble. She was quickly admitted to the hospital.
Ruby’s hospital stay lingered on, spilling over into the Christmas season, a hard time to be away from home. One of Ruby’s nurses came up with the idea to place a mailbox outside her room so family could send letters full of prayers and encouragement to her. Then the plea went out on Facebook, and that’s when the volume of mail coming in from friends to complete strangers surprised everyone, most of all Ruby. With each letter received (over 100,000 total), Ruby grew a little more encouraged, and she finally got to go home.
Paul’s letter to the people at Colossae was exactly that—a letter (1:2). Words penned on a page that carried hopes for continued fruitfulness and knowledge and strength and endurance and patience (vv. 10–11). Can you imagine what a dose of good medicine such words were to the faithful at Colossae? Just knowing that someone was praying nonstop for them strengthened them to stay steady in their faith in Christ Jesus.
Our words of encouragement can dramatically help others in need.
The actor Diane Kruger was offered a role that would make her a household name. But it required her to play a young wife and mother experiencing the loss of her husband and child, and she had never personally suffered loss to such a degree. She didn’t know if she could be believable. But she accepted, and in order to prepare, she began attending support meetings for people walking through the valley of extreme grief.
Initially she offered suggestions and thoughts when those in the group shared their stories. She, like most of us, wanted to be helpful. But gradually she stopped talking, and simply started listening. It was only then she began truly learning to walk a mile in their shoes. And her realization came by using her ears.
Jeremiah’s indictment against the people was that they refused to use their “ears” to hear the Lord’s voice. The prophet did not mince words, calling them “foolish and senseless people” (5: 21). God is constantly at work in our lives communicating words of love, instruction, encouragement, and caution. The Father’s desire is that you and I learn and mature, and we have each been given the tools, such as ears, to do so. The question then is, will we use them to hear the heart of our Father?
My daughter was ready for school a little earlier than usual, so she asked if we could stop by the coffee shop on our way. I agreed. As we approached the drive-thru lane, I said, “Do you feel like spreading some joy this morning?” She said, “Sure.”
We placed our order, then pulled up to the window where the barista told us what we owed. I said, “We’d like to pay for the young woman’s order behind us too.” My daughter had a huge smile on her face.
In the grand scheme of things, a cup of coffee may not seem like a big deal. Or is it? I wonder, could this be one way we carry out Jesus’s desire for us to care for those He called “the least of these”? (Matthew 25:40). Here’s a thought: How about simply considering the person behind us or next in line a worthy candidate? And then do “whatever”—maybe it’s a cup of coffee, maybe it’s something more, maybe something less. But when Jesus said “whatever you did” (v.40) that gives us a great deal of freedom in serving Him while serving others.
As we drove away we caught the faces of the young woman behind us and the barista as she handed over the coffee. They were both grinning from ear to ear.
My father has always had a directional sense I’ve envied. He’s just instinctively known where north, south, east, and west were. It’s like he was born with that sense. And he’s always been right. Until the night he wasn’t.
That was the night my father got lost. He and my mother attended an event in an unfamiliar town and left after dark. He was convinced he knew the way back to the highway, but he didn’t. He got turned around, then confused, and ultimately frustrated. My mother reassured him, “I know it’s hard, but ask your phone for directions. It’s okay.”
For the first time in his life that I’m aware of, my seventy-six-year-old father asked for directions. From his phone.
The psalmist was a man with a wealth of life experience. But the psalms reveal moments when it appears David felt lost spiritually and emotionally. Psalm 143 contains one of those times. The great king’s heart was dismayed (v. 4). He was in trouble (v. 11). So he paused and prayed, “Show the way I should go” (v. 8). And far from counting on a phone, the psalmist cried out to the Lord, “for to you I entrust my life” (v. 8).
If “the man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) felt lost from time to time, it’s a given we too will need to turn to God for His direction.