Highways to Zion March 2015 Archive

Week of March 29th


This is Holy Week, when we remember the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On what we now call Palm Sunday Jesus approached Jerusalem surrounded by crowds hailing Him as King. Just a few days later, these same crowds would be shouting, "Crucify! Crucify!"

The Apostle John tells us that very early in Jesus’ ministry many were believing in Him because of the signs He was doing. But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them because He knew what was in man (John 2:23-25). He knew men’s hearts are sinful and fickle.

So how was Jesus feeling about this Palm Sunday adulation? Most of us beam when we are praised for some accomplishment. Jesus accepted the crowd’s praise, and in fact, when the Pharisees told Him He should rebuke his disciples for their words, He said if He did, the very stones would cry out (Luke 19:39-40). Clearly He was receiving their praise as legitimate and His rightful due.

Yet as He approached the city, He wept over it, grieved because they neither knew the things that make for peace, nor recognized their time of visitation (Luke 19:42-44). He received their praise and at the same time looked ahead to what was coming.

In the days that followed, He experienced both the crowd’s hanging on His every word and the religious leaders’ sharpest confrontations. He condemned the Pharisees in His most pointed parable (Luke 20:9-19), and commended a poor widow’s tiny offering (Luke 21:1-4). He taught about the cosmic end times and His return, and ate the intimate Passover meal with His disciples. And finally, He experienced the agony of Gethsemane, betrayal, arrest, false accusation abandonment, mocking, beating, and ultimately crucifixion. How did He do it?

It certainly wasn’t the praise of the crowd still ringing in His ears that enabled Him to endure. Peter tells us that Jesus, "while being reviled did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously" (I Peter 2:23). Jesus knew who was trustworthy and who was not. He never let human commendation or condemnation affect Him. He entrusted Himself to God alone.

As we seek to follow Jesus, we would do well to follow His example by entrusting ourselves to God alone. How often do we fall into the trap of taking our identity from other people or the circumstances around us? When the family is happy, and the boss likes our work, we feel worthy and in control. When squabbles escalate to major conflicts, or everything we do is a failure, we fall into despair and hopelessness.

Jesus calls us to follow His example. The people and circumstances in our lives will not toss us about or define who we are if we look to God alone for truth.

© J.H.Nichols 2005


Week of March 22nd


My first job was as a page at the local public library. I had two duties: to put returned books back on the shelves and, if that was done, to read the Dewey decimal numbers on a section of books to make sure they were in the right order. As an introvert, that kind of job suited me just fine. I was happy to be making my ninety-five cents an hour and to have a job to put on my résumé for the future.

When I was a very young believer, one of the first Scriptures God spoke to me about was 1 Peter 4:11. "Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; whoever serves, let him do so as by the strength which God supplies." He let me know that the "whoever serves" part applied to me. He was calling me to be a servant.

In some ways, being a servant is easy. It’s like the entry level job. You’re told what to do and generally given the resources to do it with. In other ways, being a servant is difficult. Sometimes the work is hard or time consuming or apparently insignificant. In our flesh most of us want to be in the spotlight or at least be recognized for our contributions. Being a servant doesn’t fit that scenario very well.

But being a servant is our primary calling from God. We are His servants. We call Him "Lord," the One who has Authority over our lives. He is the One who tells us what to do and supplies all we need to do it. We call ourselves followers of Jesus. In the children’s game, follow the leader, the players do what the leader does.

Jesus said a number of things about why he came. He told the Samaritan woman at the well that He could give her water that would make her never thirst again (John 4:14). He told the Jews He was the bread of life (John 6:35). He multiplied food and fed the multitudes who listened to Him. He said it was the faithful servant whom he found giving His other servants their rations at the proper time who would be rewarded (Luke 12:42). Certainly ministering to people’s physical needs is part of our call as servants.

He also said He came to reveal the Father (Matt. 11:27). As we show mercy, kindness, patience, and goodness in our daily lives, we, too reveal the Father’s character. Jesus said He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Serving those who are far from the Savior may seem a thankless task, but seeing love done for Jesus’ sake is a powerful testimony to even the most hardened. Jesus said he came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). We do no one any service by remaining silent about sin and its devastating effects. Love demands that we – gently, lest we also be tempted (Gal. 6:1) – point out the error and restore the transgressor.

Jesus made it clear that the way up is down. "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). And He pointed to Himself as the example. "The one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? But I am among you as the one who serves" (Luke 22:26-27). He said this after washing His disciples’ feet, the job that was usually reserved for the lowest of household servants, at the last supper.

This Lenten season, may we heed the admonition of Paul in Galatians 5:13-14. "Through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’" And again in Ephesians 6:7-8, "With good will render service, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord." We may never be in the spotlight or have our fifteen minutes of fame, but if we faithfully serve whomever God brings our way, we will not lose our reward. "It is the Lord Christ whom [we] serve" (Col. 3:24).

© Judy Nichols 2015

Week of March 15th


In order for me to really get into cleaning, I have to be in the mood. When I’m in the mood, I can go at it intensively for hours. This usually happens for the big projects, like cleaning the kitchen cupboards or washing the windows, jobs that don’t get done that often. After the rush of the holidays, when things settle down, I begin to notice the accumulated dirt I’ve overlooked for so long. I begin to feel the urge to clean it up. Lent is just such a time, set aside for us to slow down, look around in our hearts, assess conditions there, and do some things we haven’t done for a while.

But "just do it!" is not the slogan for Lent. We cannot do the things we need to do during Lent without being in the mood. We can’t just up and say, "I repent all my sins; I forgive all my offenders; I will turn away from sin; I will eschew oppression; I will be radically generous; I will mend all my relationships," and think it will be done. That is more akin to the hit-and-miss kind of house cleaning I too often do.

What is needed is time, quiet, reflection, pondering, all in the presence of God. We call this prayer. For many people, myself included, prayer is most often just asking God for what we want or need. It’s a one-way street. Lent is the call to listen as well as talk. Is it not reasonable that, if we believe God wants a real relationship with us and wants to hear all our concerns, there might also be concerns on His heart that He wants to tell us about? If we believe praying specifically will help us recognize His answers to prayer, should we not also believe He will tell us specific things so that He can recognize our reverent response to Him?

So many times the Scripture says, "Wait for the Lord." We do not wait well in this day and age. Waiting, by definition, involves the elapse of time without activity. This is not easy to do. Our minds are so full, our schedules so over-committed. We are governed by our goals, agendas, and deadlines. These are not bad things in themselves, but too often they trump everything else. Lent is when we move these things a bit lower on the list of priorities in order to pursue greater intimacy with the Creator and Lover of our souls.

It is only as we quiet the other voices and delay the other demands that we may begin to allow God to point out to us the places in our hearts where clean-up or change is necessary. Deep cleaning of something as intricate and delicate as the human soul requires careful assessment and knowing and having the tools needed to accomplish the task. Those who restore valuable antiques spare no time, expense or effort to do the job right. Only God can direct and enable the cleansing of the human heart.

How grateful I am that He has, in fact, done this very thing. He did it once for all by sending His Son Jesus Christ. He continues to do it by having sent the Holy Spirit to indwell His people. May we give Him the pre-eminence He deserves as we take the time to quiet ourselves to listen for His voice and get in the mood.

© Judy Nichols 2015

Week of March 8th


I would venture to say that what most people think of when they think of Lent is self denial. "Giving up something for Lent" is a fairly common practice, at least among religious people. And while I would never denigrate a person’s giving up something for Lent, some of the things we give up are inconsequential at best, and at their worst make a mockery of the whole concept.

I have been guilty of this myself. I’ve given up chocolate (something I dearly love) for Lent, only to realize all I really did was switch to some other candy to satisfy my nibbling habit. Not a lot of self-denial there, for sure. I gave up facebook one year because I realized it was taking up far too much of my time. That’s probably a little closer to a real sacrifice, but still seems trivial in light of Jesus’ call to take up our cross daily in order to follow Him.

If these shallow things are what we give up for Lent, what does that say about our faith? In these days where some are beheaded or burned alive for their faith, surely there is something of more significance we can offer to our Lord by way of self denial.

I turn to the book of Isaiah to see God’s heart on the matter. The ancient Israelites were careful to observe the religious rituals, including fasting, even as their hearts were cold and hard. "This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote" (Isa. 29:13). They fasted and humbled themselves in sack cloth and ashes in the midst of a lifestyle of oppressing their workers, quarreling and fighting among themselves, and pursuing their own pleasures (Isa. 58:3-5). Is this how we approach Lent? Is it a time for laying down a trifling pleasure or pastime while we continue holding a grudge against someone and pursuing our upward mobility?

Isaiah reveals the things we really ought to be giving up for Lent. First among them is sin. "Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness . . .?" (Isa 58:6). To turn away from those things that arouse our flesh – temptations, gossip, controversy, envy, pride – will keep us from sin’s grip. And to forgive those who have wronged us releases not only the offender but also ourselves from the debt. God’s desire is that we be free from sin and, indeed, gave up His Son to purchase that freedom. "It was for freedom that Christ has set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).

Next is oppression: "to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free" (58:6b). I am not an employer; there is no one over whom I wield authority. But I can treat people fairly, even when I have something to lose by doing so. To wait patiently even though I’m in a hurry, to overlook poor service and still give a decent tip, or to offer a gentle word instead of a rebuke are all ways I can eschew oppression.

But that’s not all God wants regarding oppression. He also says, "and to break every yoke" (58:6c). God will be pleased when we not only avoid oppressing others ourselves but also work to overturn oppressive practices and policies in our society and government. That will demand we give up some time and effort to research and action.

Generosity is also high on God’s list. We may think we are being generous when we put our tithe into the offering, and ten percent is not insignificant. But radical generosity is what Isaiah 58 presents. "Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked to cover him?" (58:7). To give up part of my food is something I have done and will continue to do. But to give up part of my living space? And especially to down and out people? To have to interact with the needy, unkempt, and insensitive on a daily basis would truly be a denial of self. If I’m honest, I have to say I’m not sure I’m up to that kind of sacrifice. And what about clothing the naked? I do give away clothing I no longer wear, but my closet and dresser drawers are still jam-packed. What would it take for me to be content with just enough and little or no excess?

God is also concerned about our relationships. "And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?" (58:7b). Family is the laboratory where we are most often tested. Conflict, sibling rivalry, emotions, triumphs and failures, hopes and disappointments all have a way of shaping us and determining how vulnerable we want to be in the future. Isolation is something many have chosen, both in their nuclear families and in the church. This is not God’s call for His people. "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34). "Bear one another’s burdens and thereby fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). "Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed" (James 5:16). "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32). Intimacy is what God desires. Can I be intimate with Him while I hold others at arm’s length?

Self-denial is more about a heart change than about doing without something. "Self" is a very important word to us. Self-confident, self-aware, self-determined, self-assured, self-controlled, to be a self-made man; these are all things we admire and strive for. But at its core, self is that part of us that wants to be in control. Whatever we do that genuinely takes control out of the hands of self and puts it in the hands of God is self-denial. My prayer this Lenten season is that we not dance around the edges of self-denial but get to the heart of the matter. Wresting control out of the hands of self is not easy. I have not done it. But I know that Jesus died so that I can "no longer live for [myself] but for Him who died and rose again on [my] behalf" (2 Cor. 5:15).

© Judy Nichols 2015

 Week of March 1st


There are lots of things around my house that don’t get cleaned routinely. I clean the kitchen counters and table several times daily because we use them all the time. I only clean the cupboards and drawers a few times a year. Once a year I take down the curtains and wash them. And I am embarrassed to admit that there are some things, like the glass in the pictures on the walls and the knickknacks, that haven’t been washed in years. And don’t even ask about the basement! My house looks pretty clean, but there really is still a lot of dirt that hasn’t been attended to for a long time.

As we consider the Lenten spring soul cleaning, it is worthwhile to consider the past as well as the present. Are there sins, long past, that still haunt you from time to time? Are there wounds that are still painful whenever someone or some situation gets too close to them? We all have these things and, even though they were done long ago, they can still affect us today.

Most of us have probably dabbled in occult practices – Ouija boards, fortune telling, handwriting analysis, maybe even seances – in our teen or young adult lives. They seemed harmless, even fun at the time, but they opened the door to Satan’s influence over us. I had my palms read when I was in high school. As I waited in line at the party, I heard the palm reader tell each person how many children they would have. When it was my turn, he said nothing about children. When I finally asked, he looked, and hesitated, and finally said, "Two." During the eight years we were infertile, that scene played itself over and over in my memory, sowing doubt and fear in my heart. And even after my, yes, two children were born it continued to cast shadows in my mind about their futures. It wasn’t until just a few years ago, when I verbally renounced that sin, that it lost its power over me.

There are other "sins of our youth" that can still affect us -- mind-altering substances, sexual sins and unhealthy relationships, and even morally neutral things that become idols when we use them to dull our pain or fill voids in our lives. May I encourage you to explore, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, some of those long-unused hallways of your life? Let Him show you if there are some dusty relics of your past that need to be dealt with.

Likewise, most of us have wounds from our past that are still tender, if not actively festering. Whenever we find ourselves over-reacting, we can usually trace the roots of that back to a wound or a loss that Satan has interpreted to us in ways that hold us captive. If we would recover that lost ground, we must come to grips with our losses and forgive those who have wounded us. We should not take lightly our Lord’s words at the end of the parable of the unforgiving servant. "And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart" (Matt. 18:34-35). Forgiving others benefits us more than it does those we forgive. It sets us free from our bondage to the sins done against us.

I could never ever deep-clean everything in my house all at once. And we can never repent every sin we’ve ever done and forgive every offense we’ve ever suffered all at once, either. But if you would hope for a cleaner heart this Lenten season, ask God, by the Holy Spirit, to bring to mind the things He would have you surrender to Him. As Paul admonished the Corinthians, "Clean out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5:7). Jesus paid the penalty for all our sins and bore the grief of all our offenses. May we live our lives here and now with that truth in view.

© Judy Nichols 2015