November 19, 2018- Beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Psalm 23, Job 19:25-27

valley of shadow

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalm 23 (ESV)

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another. Job 19:25-27 (ESV)

The valley of the shadow of death is not a popular destination, but mortality is a reality.  No one gets out of this life alive…except…those who believe by the grace of God in Christ will share in His resurrection.  In spite of the really bad pop theology that is rampant in American Christianity, Jesus never was about “your best life now.”   Even though televangelists and “Christian” authors may try to sell us a Cross-less Christianity, Jesus teaches us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

True Christianity holds to a theology of the Cross, one in which we die to our own selfishness and sins- not to earn points, but in response to the extravagant grace and the undeserved favor God has already given us.

Psalm 23 has been beloved among believers for millennia, precisely because God’s inspired words from David’s pen underscore God’s promise that death and the curse is not the end. We who are baptized into Christ are not alone.  This world and its valleys of shadow are not the end.

God with us, Emmanuel, does not shield us from suffering, but He is in it with us, ever present with his comfort, walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death, (Psalm 23:4) and leading us away from evil.

God so loved the world that He sent Jesus, His only Son to be a man- fully God and fully man- and live in this world with us. (John 3:16) When the time came for Jesus to give His life for us, He struggled with the cup He was given to drink, but the only way for Him to accomplish our salvation was through His suffering and death. Jesus was not spared the bitter path of the Cross.  The sin of the Garden of Eden could only be overcome on by Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, and ultimately His sacrifice on Calvary.

God does give us challenges that are way over our heads and way over and above our capacity to overcome.  We do not have life in our own strength. On our own we have no strength.  Apart from Jesus we have nothing to look forward to but despair, hopelessness and death in our trespasses and sins.  Yet in losing ourselves and relying on Jesus we can endure anything.  He has already overcome death and the grave.

As the church year is drawing to a close, we become aware of the groaning of all creation, awaiting the restoration of all things that the apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 8:18-25.

Those who are familiar with the musical work The Messiah, by George Fredric Handel, will recognize the verses from Job 19 above.  I know that my Redeemer liveth / and that he shall stand /at the latter day upon the earth./ And though worms destroy this body/ yet in my flesh shall I see God.

As we are very quickly coming upon the season of Advent and celebrating the arrival of the promised One, we put our focus on Jesus, the living Redeemer, the conquering King.

We can trust that we will endure the suffering that is simply a part of this life here in the now, but not yet. We will stand with Jesus, in our own bodies, on that great and glorious day when all tears are wiped away and there is no more suffering or mourning.

Love Like No One is Watching- Romans 12

happy friends tasting food in cafeteria

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.- Romans 12 (ESV)

What does the apostle Paul mean by being transformed by the renewal of our minds? Human beings are funny creatures who, if left to the designs of the natural man, like to have things just so, who don’t like to share with others, who want control of their environments and the behaviors of others.

The designs of the natural man are not God’s designs.  God has gifted each of His people with different gifts so that we can work together for God’s purposes.  It’s not always readily apparent what God wants to do with us.  Sometimes we think we are made to be one thing or desire to be something that is different from what God has planned for us or has created us to be.  Other times our roles change based on the needs of others, the stage in life where we are, and the circumstances God has put in our lives.

This is why prayer and discussion in a body of believers is so essential- so that together we can discern God’s direction and follow Him individually and collectively.

All of us in spite of our different gifts we are called to love like no one is watching. We are called to faithfulness and prayer, and to serve others because this is how we serve God.

We are called to listen for God’s call: what should we be doing, where, and how?

We are called to trust God, not to repay evil with evil, but to leave judgment to God alone.

We are encouraged to weep with those who mourn and rejoice with those who are rejoicing.

We are called to be flexible enough to put our own desires aside and let God make His desires our own.

We are imperfect. We are sinners even though we are also God’s saints. Yet God’s purpose and plans will prevail- even when we are dragged along kicking and screaming.

We are not made the same, and it is difficult at times to come together, yet God has a place and a plan for each of us.  He calls us to trust Him.

 

 

God our Fortress, The Weeping Prophet, and the Lasting City -Jeremiah 18:5-10, Hebrews 13:14, Psalm 121

triumph-of-christianity-detail-gustave-dore

This is what the Lord says:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?

“I the Lord search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct,
according to what their deeds deserve.” Jeremiah 18:5-10 (NIV)

 

Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, experienced the shame and heartache of his people being taken into captivity by the Babylonians.  God didn’t have good news for him to share with Israel, either.  God generally sent prophets to warn people of judgment to come, and to remind the people who really is in charge- not their princes or governments, or themselves, but Almighty God alone.

Thankfully God has mercy on us. Every single one of us falls short of the demands of the Law and should God judge any one of us on our own merits we earn the penalty of death.  But in God’s love and mercy, He sent Jesus to wipe out our sins- Jesus took the wrath our horrible conduct and our heinous deeds deserve, so that we may receive the reward of life with Him. The apostle Paul teaches us in Romans 3 that we who believe Jesus and have faith in Him are judged by His righteousness and not our own.  We have been have been baptized into Christ and made children of God to be with Him forever.

In this world we still experience bad news.  The world around us is still subject to the consequences of sin in general. The sin of the Garden has expanded out, and it has contaminated all creation.  We will experience trouble and trials in this life.  But Jesus is with us.  He is trustworthy. He will get us through our trials.

As the day approaches when Jesus comes to restore heaven and earth, as He warned us, the times are going to get more and more scary.  People will fall away from the faith and people will make fun of us and say we believe fairy tales when we profess our faith in Jesus.  Other people will openly fight and persecute the teaching and preservation of the Christian faith as we see evidence of more and more even in the United States.

Our churches and communities are becoming smaller and smaller, and the demands of our time and resources become ever more strained.  It’s easy to give up hope or drop away, or to resort to infighting or dissent.  Yet Jesus told His disciples to tend His lambs and feed His sheep.  For us it may mean we are called to spread out (as in the scattering at the destruction of the tower of Babel) or to join with other believers of like mind.

How can we best serve as the Body of Christ?  Can we join with another congregation(s) to not only pool our resources, but to serve more effectively?  As much as we want to keep our building, might it be worth investigating joining with another congregation in a similar situation to our own?  Might we want to consider a revolving house church set up such as the early Church used in the days of Acts?

Our lives and possessions on this earth are temporary. Only Jesus is a constant for us. No matter where we may find ourselves,

“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”- Hebrews 13:14 (ESV)

Seeking the city that is to come does not mean abandoning the “city” here, far from it,  but understanding that the church is not comprised of its building or its resources, but the church is its people, the Body of Christ.  God is our mighty fortress- not ourselves, our governments or even each other.

 

In Psalm 121, the writer lifts his eyes to the hills, on high, knowing that his help is from the Lord.  We may not know what that will look like, but we do know the Lord is our only anchor, our only foundation, the only one we can trust.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    From where does my help come?
 My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
 Behold, he who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
 The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time forth and forevermore. Psalm 121 (ESV)

 

June 9, 2020 The Weeping Prophet, Weeds and Wheat- Jeremiah 12:1-4, Psalm 73:23-28, Matthew 13:24-30

Jeremiah

Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
You plant them, and they take root; they grow and produce fruit; you are near in their mouth and far from their heart.
But you, O Lord, know me; you see me, and test my heart toward you.
Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter,and set them apart for the day of slaughter.
How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither?
For the evil of those who dwell in it,the beasts and the birds are swept away, because they said, “He will not see our latter end.”  Jeremiah 12:1-4 (ESV)

Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works. Psalm 73:23-28 (ESV)

Jeremiah asks God one of the age old questions of His people. “Why does evil exist, and why do evil people always seem to get their way?”

Of course we can always go back to the beginning, to the sin of the Garden, when Adam and Eve chose their own will against the will of God.  Humans brought evil in to the world and we live with one foot still in its realm.

Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet.  He had nothing but bad news and judgment to proclaim to Israel.  He was deeply reviled and mistreated by the people of Israel because he always had bad news (sort of like the saying, “if you don’t like the message, kill the messenger.) He was even thrown into a cistern and left to die- see Jeremiah 38.  Jeremiah did not back down no matter the evil that surrounded him or the evil that was done to him.  God did not take away the evil, but he kept Jeremiah through the evil.

Jesus warned us as well that there would be terrible things happen in the world, and that we as His people would have to live in the world.

He (Jesus) put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” Matthew 13:24-30 (ESV)

It is hard for us to understand God’s purposes in letting evil persist.  In today’s world it’s easy to resign ourselves to the fact that the weeds are quite overgrown, and we wonder how can God’s good seed grow here?

The Holy Spirit brings the growth. Even in the weed field, or the cistern, or the prison cell or the lions’ den. What is impossible for the world is possible for God.

God is our refuge, no matter what circumstances bring us.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

June 4, 2020- From Where Does Our Help Come? Psalm 121

help from the Lord

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,who made heaven and earth.                                                                                                                                            He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.                                                                             

Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.                                                                                         The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.                                                                                                         

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore. – Psalm 121 (ESV)

It is a theme in Scripture that our provision comes from God.  It’s human nature that we want to rely upon ourselves, or we expect others or even the government to defend or provide for us.  God is the One Who supplies us.  He gives us our talents and abilities so that we can earn an honest living, and so that we can serve our neighbors with the gifts we have been given.

It is easy to get discouraged and lose hope when we face adversity.  It’s hard to trust God when we can’t see him working for us.  Yet the same God Who created heaven and earth does have our lives in His hand, forever.  Even in the valleys of shadow- in the sickbeds, in the times of scarcity, in the times when others betray us, in the dark nights of our souls, Jesus walks with us.

We are guaranteed to have trials in this life.  Jesus said that we will have to take up our crosses and follow Him, and sometimes following Him is not easy.  Even so, He gives us our daily bread.  He gives us the grace to persevere in times of trouble and to lift our eyes to Him in every circumstance.

Lord, give us the gift of faith to trust You.  Comfort us in times of turmoil with the peace that only You can give.  Help us to rely on You alone for our provision, our help and our salvation.

May 27, 2020 – The Tower of Babel, a World Divided- Pentecost, God’s People United- Genesis 9:1-6, 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-24

tower of babel

 

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Genesis 9:1-6 (ESV)

When God made the covenant with Noah when the flood waters had cleared, God had intended for Noah’s descendants to multiply and scatter all over the earth.  However, humans, in their disobedience, had other plans.  Rather than glorify God and do what He wanted, humans decided to build a monument to themselves and their own power. Instead of spreading out, people decided that they would build a tower and a city.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.  Genesis 11:1-9 (ESV)

God did not want all of human society concentrated into one big city with one language and one culture.  God wanted people to be diverse, to have variety, to have different languages and customs. There is a saying that, “good fences make good neighbors.”  While it is good to acknowledge our common humanity, and to respect each other, as God’s children and as inhabitants of the earth, it is also good that humanity has variety and boundaries.  When governance and culture becomes too centralized and too many people are crowded into a limited space, scarcity, famine and diseases take up residence, and infighting and chaos rule.   So God intervened so that people would spread out and live in smaller tribes.

When Jesus came to earth, He did not come as a political or military leader, but as the Author of life, the King of creation.  He did not come to unite nations, or to bring families together (if anything, as He said, He came to bring division- see Luke 12:51-53.) He comes to judge the living and the dead- those who belong to Him and those who do not.

There is unity among those who have their life in Christ, regardless of biological family connections, regardless of culture, color, language or citizenship in a worldly nation. The appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost illustrates that Jesus came to earth for all of humanity regardless of the earthly boundaries that separate us.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.

But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. Acts 2:1-24 (ESV)

Throughout world history – from the building of the Tower of Babel, and God’s scattering of the builders, forward- there have been multitudes of cultures and languages and nations. While we share common heritage with the entire human family, we only have true unity in the Body of Christ.  Jesus paid the penalty for the reckoning we deserve in His life blood.  No matter our language, or our nationality, or our color, or our culture, life and salvation are gifts to us.  By the grace of God, by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross alone, we have life in His name.

 

May 21, 2020- Jesus Ascends to Heaven-Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11

jesus-ascends

 

Then he (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,  and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,  and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.  While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke 24:44-53 (ESV)

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:1-11 (ESV)

He ascended in to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father- as we confess in the Apostle’s Creed.  But why did Jesus have to ascend to the Father?  What does this mean for what we believe?

Jesus’ resurrection and ascension give us the confidence that He is who He says He is, that we will be given immortal bodies  and that we will be with Him at the end of days.

Jesus gives his disciples the promise of the Holy Spirit (who will descend upon them at Pentecost.)

Jesus does not give the disciples an answer regarding restoring the kingdom of Israel.  Many of Jesus’ followers still saw Him as being a military or political leader, so it seemed logical for them to ask if He was going to free Israel from the Roman occupation.

Jesus did not come to free us from oppressive temporal governments.  He did not come to display military might or political power.  He came to ransom the human race from the curse of the garden, the curse of death that hangs over all of humanity.  He came to earth to live among us, and to pay the penalty of death that we deserved.

There were witnesses who saw Jesus ascend to heaven, witnesses who saw and believed because they saw Jesus being brought back to His Father.

Jesus is the first fruits of those who sleep. He put death to death.  He is faithful, and He is coming back for us.

May 20, 2020 God Has Done It, Boasting Is Excluded, Isaiah 48:1-11, Romans 3:21-28

 

redeemer

Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel,and who came from the waters of Judah, who swear by the name of the Lord and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right.

For they call themselves after the holy city, and stay themselves on the God of Israel; the Lord of hosts is his name.

“The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them;then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.
Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, ‘My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.’

“You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forth I announce to you new things, hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, lest you should say, ‘Behold, I knew them.’
You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened.
For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously, and that from before birth you were called a rebel.

“For my name’s sake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another. Isaiah 48:1-11 (ESV)

When God sent the Old Testament prophets, He did so because His people were getting off track.  God never sent prophets to tell people how fantastic they were, or to have a nice day. God sent prophets to warn people of the consequences of continuing to break His Law.

It’s human nature for us to take credit for things that aren’t necessarily due to our own merit or effort.  A beautiful child is a gift from God rather than an achievement of her parents. Even our efforts to pass a class or earn a living are gifts from God.  It is only in and through Him that we can accomplish anything at all. (Acts 17:28)

Isaiah tells the people of Israel that their redeemer was coming- God Himself was coming to redeem them, so they couldn’t take credit for it or attribute salvation to themselves or to their idols.

We break God’s Law just as the people of Israel did.  We may call ourselves Christian, but how often do we call ourselves God’s people without acting like God’s people?

The truth is that behavior modification is not sanctification.  To a degree we can control what we say or do, but we cannot control the condition of our own minds and hearts.  The Holy Spirit must transform our hearts and minds to conform to God’s will, even as we are continually subject to the temptation of Satan, the world, and our own sinful natures.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Romans 3:21-28 (ESV)

The apostle Paul expands upon the teaching of Isaiah.  Paul is talking to the greater Kingdom of God – Jews and Gentiles- and he reminds us that regardless of our heritage we are justified by faith in Jesus alone.

We are continually faced with trials and suffering and the process of being refined.  Some may say that the reason we suffer is so we learn to trust God more fully.  Perhaps it is only God’s prerogative to decide what sort of training and refining we need to prepare us for our roles in His kingdom.

Paul reminds us boasting is excluded- that we cannot take credit for the gifts of God.  Rather we thank Him for His grace, His mercy, His kindness toward us, that He would grant us the gift of faith and that by His wounds, we are healed.

Lord, help us to trust You, to thank You, and to love You.

May 13, 2020- Joy In What God Has Given Us to Do- Ecclesiastes 3:9-15

various colorful threads hanging on rail in workshop

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. Ecclesiastes 3:9-15 (ESV)

The book of Ecclesiastes has traditionally been attributed to Solomon, the son of King David.  Upon ascending David’s throne, Solomon asked God for wisdom, and God granted him wisdom, more so than any man (save Jesus) who has lived before or since.  At the end of his life it is said he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes (which means “one who speaks openly to the congregation.” )

The work of life can be joyful as well as it can be exhausting or downright vexing. We are given different tasks during different seasons of life as well.  Teens and students may work exhausting schedules doing dirty or menial work for low pay, along with keeping up with classes and friends.  Young mothers may feel strapped between work and the demands of children and chores and schedules.  The middle aged and elderly may have to struggle to keep up with the demands of work within the context of personal health limitations and the needs of aging parents and loved ones.

We can’t admit to loving our vocations all of the time.  Sometimes we feel as if life is just one giant ratwheel spinning out of control with no way to get off of it or to change course. The Teacher (Solomon) of Ecclesiastes points this futility we see in life out quite often- “all is vanity, vanity and chasing after wind,” is a phrase repeated throughout this book.

Even amidst all his talk about vanity, the Teacher still points us back to God. He has made everything beautiful in His time. Even our vanity and seeming futility serves God’s purpose, even if we never understand it.

Everything is beautiful? Really?  Even all the evil that surrounds us? Even our own fatigue and apathy and rage? Is there anything beyond our hopelessness, frustration, and despair?

Burnout is a very real thing.  It can result from indulging in the very human tendency to believe we are the ones in charge (vanity and chasing after wind, anyone?) or from our own arrogance in thinking that the world will fall apart without our contribution to it. The sin of the Garden, after all, was the temptation and the desire to be as God.  Burnout is a wake up call to remind us that no matter what we do we are not God.

What God does lasts forever.  I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Faith is trusting God’s plan even when we are exhausted, burned out, and at the end of ourselves.  Perhaps that is where God wants us to be, so that He can set our priorities, that He can lead us to rest and to joy in who we are, where we are and what we do.

Lord, help us to trust You that we are in the circumstances where You need us to be.  Forgive us for our doubt and relieve us of our fears.  Our times are in Your hands, let us be joyful and do good, and find pleasure in the work of our hands.

May 12, 2020 – The One Who Serves- Luke 22:24-30, Deuteronomy 21:22-23, Isaiah 53:4-6

one who serves

A dispute also arose among them, (Jesus’ disciples) as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he (Jesus) said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.  For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

 “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials,  and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom,  that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Luke 22:24-30 (ESV)

Even today we are conditioned to see those in authority- the ones who make decisions and rule from the safe distance of their ivory towers as being “greater” than the people who do the physical work that makes the world function.  Jesus turns that idea on its head.

The leader is one who serves.  Sometimes a leader serves in a very public capacity, but often a leader serves in ways that aren’t glamorous or even readily visible.

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 (ESV)

Jesus became what we once were- condemned to death. He took our punishment. He came down to earth to live among us, to be one of us, and ultimately to be cursed by God and hung on a tree.

Jesus, in whom all things were made, became the Suffering Servant, and lifted the curse of death for us, because we are not able to redeem ourselves.

Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6 (ESV)

The idea of comparing ourselves to other people to determine who is “the greatest” is rather silly.  While competition is human nature, Jesus has done it all for us.  We are free to serve our neighbors through our vocations- the good work that God created for us to do.

In Christ we all have value, because He redeemed us.  The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22.)

So what does this say for the humility of humanity? It is a beautiful thing and pleasing to God when we do our daily work, when we regard others as better than ourselves, and when we aren’t afraid to come down from our ivory towers and get dirty.  We don’t earn brownie points or anything like that, it’s just that we are doing what God created us to do.

Jesus is the ultimate Servant. He is our King and our Redeemer.  We do fall into the temptation of categorizing ourselves and others based upon what we do (or what “they don’t do”) and we forget that Jesus has done it all for us.  There is nothing to earn and nothing to deserve.  There is no reason to compare and compete.

Lord, help us to follow you by serving others, and not concerning ourselves with “who is the greatest,” because we know You are.  Help us to live life in a way that brings glory to You as we live out our vocations and serve with joy.

May 10, 2020 – We Shall Be Changed, and the Death of Death- 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, Isaiah 25:8, Revelation 21:4

changed

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?” “O death, where is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.             1 Corinthians 15:50-58 (ESV)

He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. Isaiah 25:8 (ESV)

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. Revelation 21:4 (ESV)

We shall be changed.  Into what?

Jesus has brought us from death to life. This is why we celebrate Easter. We trust in Jesus, that He has put death to death and that we have the hope and the promise of eternal life with Him.

There are times in our lives when it’s easy to forget the Easter hope and we forget that we have been changed when we were baptized into Christ, and that we will be changed yet again when He transforms us and gives us bodies that will never die. Either we get distracted by the cares and sorrows of this world, or we get preoccupied with the all the things we think are important (much as Jesus’ friend Martha did) and we miss the one thing – the One Who should be primary above all.

The implication to believing God’s promise of eternal life and transformation that were given to the prophet Isaiah, and again to the apostles Paul and John, and that Jesus Himself also promised, is that we have nothing to hold back, nothing to fear, nothing to put in a higher priority than God.  We belong to Him.  He cares for us and provides for us in this life as well as the next.

Both Isaiah and John remind us that God will take away our shame and mourning, and will dry our tears.  This is a wonderful encouragement for all of us, because we are all held captive to our own sin, shame and sorrow.  We have been changed, and we will be changed. Not because we earn it, not because we deserve it, but because Jesus gave His life so that we may be a part of His resurrection and His life.

The sting of death has been taken away. There is nothing to fear. There is nothing holding us back from the life that Jesus has already won for us.

Lord, help us to keep our eyes on You and to know that You will wipe away our tears and take away our sin and sorrow.  Forgive us when we forget that we belong to You and that through You we are forever changed.