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

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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.

January 30, 2020 – God Creates and Chooses as He Pleases- Trust Not in Princes- Isaiah 45:1-13

KING-CYRUS

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed:

“I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.

I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me;

I am the Lord, and there is no other.

I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.

“Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit; let the earth cause them both to sprout; I the Lord have created it.

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?

Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”

Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: “Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?

I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.

I have stirred him up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward,” says the Lord of hosts. Isaiah 45:1-13 (ESV)

Isaiah spoke of King Cyrus of Persia 150 years before he reigned. Cyrus was not a believer in the God of Israel, yet he was chosen and set aside by God to overthrow Babylon and return Israel to their land.

It seems worthwhile to note that God puts who He wants to put in positions of power, even Persian kings.  Throughout Scripture we see God’s unlikely choices, such as Ruth, the widowed Moabitess who ends up as a foremother of Jesus, David the shepherd boy who became king, and Saul the Pharisee, persecutor of Christians who became the apostle Paul, the greatest Christian apologist and evangelist of all time.

It’s easy for us to question why certain people are in the roles in which they end up.  The past century has seen no shortage of despotic, ruthless and unjust rulers.  We can look around and see the backroom deals and quid pro quo relationships of human governments (on both the conservative and liberal sides) and wonder if God’s hand is in it at all.

Of course God’s hand is in the left-hand or earthly kingdom, though it might not be as easy for us to discern as His sovereignty in the right-hand or heavenly kingdom.  We may see certain rulers and authorities as being despotic or evil (and they may very well be despotic and evil) yet even those rulers rise and fall within God’s limits and control.

If we look at the kings of Israel and Judah, most of the kings were categorized as “bad kings,” who did not uphold God’s laws and standards.  Eventually both Israel and Judah fell to foreign conquerors who enslaved the Israelites.

Yet we see something odd in the Scriptures about human government, whether it is just or unjust.

Jeremiah instructs the Israelites who were taken captive to Babylon:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.
 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. Jeremiah 29:4-14 (ESV)

When Jesus was asked to weigh in on whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, He had a response that the Pharisees didn’t expect:

(The Pharisees ask Jesus:) Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:17-21 (ESV) 

Isaiah’s prophecy of the reign of Cyrus teaches us the importance of the Fourth Commandment.  We may not like the civil authorities, just as teenagers might not like their parents when they set down rules, but we are still bound to obey them.  Our elected leaders and civil authorities may actively oppose our belief systems and morals, but God may still be working in and through them to our benefit, whether we realize it or not. Nothing is outside of God’s control.

Even in a representative republic like the United States in which we have a hand in electing officials and determining public policy, we often disagree with the morality and the effectiveness of our laws and how public resources are used.  We may not agree with paying tax (especially when our taxes subsidize policies or programs we oppose) but we are obligated to the civil authorities to follow the law where it does not actively violate God’s laws.  For example, speeding is not mentioned in the Bible, but engaging in speeding is technically a violation of the Fourth Commandment- because we are violating a law set forth by the civil authorities.  Whether we agree with it or not is not the issue.

This is good news for Christians on both sides of the political fence.  God is in our civil government regardless of how ungodly individual politicians or policies may seem to us. God is still at work even when it seems that the opposition to all that is good and holy is winning.  Neither “side” has a monopoly on right or wrong, as all human beings are fallible sinners.

It is a Christian obligation to participate in government, regardless of whether or not we find politics vexing and repugnant.  We have a responsibility, especially in a representative republic, to try to elect officials who will be good stewards of public resources, who will enact policies for public benefit and safety, and who will strive to uphold our Constitution. This does not mean government will ever be perfect or that we will ever root out all the corruption, vice and graft that comes with temporal power.  It does mean that Christian voices should actively oppose and seek to change governmental policies that destroy life, that steal from working people, that unfairly feed into graft and vice.

Ultimately we have no way of knowing who God will choose to work in and through. We are called to trust Him and to remain faithful to Jesus.  He will work through who He chooses, and the result will ultimately coincide with His will.

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. Psalm 118:9 (ESV)

 

 

 

June 27, 2018 -God’s Mercies are New Every Morning- Lamentations 3:22-33

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The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.

Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.

 For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. Lamentations 3:22-33

Suffering is a common denominator across humanity. Whether a person is born privileged or in poverty, all of us are touched by the fallout of the Fall.  Sometimes we would like to think that material wealth is the answer to all earthly problems, but to see the broken relationships, chemical dependence and suicide rates among the “beautiful people,” it’s clear that money alone can only buy the misery one likes the best.  There is no escaping suffering, loss and despair by attempting to do so in burying oneself in the comforts of this material world.

It’s easy to get into a place where we blame God for suffering, but it is a non-negotiable condition of living in a fallen world. Sometimes suffering is the result of our own poor choices, and can be used by God to bring us to repentance, but more often than not, suffering is brought about by something outside of our control or ability to prevent.

The reality of suffering is that we are not the ones in control. If it were up to us we would take it all away. If it were up to us we would try to figure out some higher meaning or noble purpose for suffering.  Sometimes we can see a purpose for it, but most of the time we are simply left to endure it and keep on wondering why. We are challenged by suffering to simply trust God when we do not understand.

It is encouraging to know that no matter what suffering we must endure as a condition of being a fallen creature that Jesus walks with us in our suffering. We are being tried and prepared for life with God forever.  Our bodies will age and decay and wither. We will all know grief and loss. Even so, there will come a day when suffering will end. There is life beyond the limitations of this world.

Jeremiah, the writer of Lamentations, was most familiar with suffering. He was sent to the people of Israel by God as a prophet, set aside to warn the people of God’s impending judgment on them.  The people weren’t terribly thrilled with Jeremiah’s message, even throwing him into a cistern to sink into the mud and die. (Jeremiah 38)  Nobody likes to hear that they are screwing up and that their screw ups are coming back to bite them.

Yet Jeremiah had hope even though his earthly life was rather bleak and he endured a great deal of persecution and suffering precisely because of his assignment from God. Jeremiah points us to the hope he had in God.

Jesus, too was no stranger to suffering.  The prophet Isaiah foresaw His coming as the Suffering Servant. (Isaiah 53:1-5)  Jesus knows the suffering of fallen humanity because He shared in it.

God’s mercy is always fresh and new. God is always listening to our prayers, God the Holy Spirit intervenes on our behalf, and in Jesus we have the assurance that He has died to save us from our sins and that we will be made whole and our tears will be wiped away forever (Revelation 21:4.)

We can trust in the compassion of God and know that in Him is comfort and peace, even when our circumstances would argue otherwise.

 

The New Covenant, Forgive and Forget- Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 103:11-12, 1 John 1:9, Ephesians 4:31-32

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“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the Lord.  “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.                  

“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.  No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NIV)

Forgiveness is almost always a process for us. There is something in human nature that compels us to hang on to our hurt and resentment when someone else doesn’t keep up his or her end of a bargain with us. When people break their covenants with us or they simply don’t live up to the expectations we have for them, we tend to want to hang on to the offense.

Over time, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can come to a place of forgiving others, but forgiveness doesn’t come naturally for us. It is something we struggle with and have to work at doing.

Forgetting the offenses others commit against us is quite another level beyond just forgiving. We forget things we want to remember such as, “Where are my car keys?,” or, “What is that password?,” but we seldom forget the kid in fourth grade who stuck gum in our hair or upended us in the trash can.

God promises to forget our sins.  Not just forgive them… but… still keep that incident in mind for future reference, but completely forget them.  Wipe them away as if they had never happened.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:11-12 (NRSV)

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (NRSV)

Because God has forgiven us we have the ability- and the obligation- to forgive others. We might not be able to forget the way that God forgets our sins, but we can always rely on the Holy Spirit for what we need to surrender our hurt and our anger at others to God and forgive them, not because we are so fantastic, but because God has already forgiven us.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Ephesians 4:31-32 (NRSV)

December 22, 2016- Wise Men and Kings, Matthew 2:1-2, Matthew 2:13-18

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In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Matthew 2:1-2 (NRSV)

Herod wasn’t exactly a nice guy.  Especially when anyone threatened his sovereignty.  Herod saw himself as being In Charge, and anyone who may have been seen as a challenge to that control was seen as a threat to be neutralized. Later, when Herod learned that Jesus was indeed the long foretold King of the Jews, born in Bethlehem, he ordered what was to be known as the Slaughter of the Innocents-

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:16-18 (NRSV)

Historically not much is known about the wise men from the east.  Legend has it that there were three, however, the Bible does not give a number.  There may have been two, or twenty.  The important part of the story is that they followed the star that was put forth as a sign, and they searched after Jesus without even really being aware of what His coming meant for the world and for humanity. They also took heed to the warning given to them in a dream not to return to Herod, allowing time for Jesus’ family to take Him to safety in Egypt during this time. (Matthew 7:13-15)

It is said that “wise men still seek Him.”  But do we really seek God with diligence in everything we do, and in everyone we encounter?

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” – Matthew 7:7-8 (NRSV)

Wisdom isn’t necessarily found as much in the answers as in asking the right questions.  When we search and knock and ask God we might not get the answers we think we are going to get.  The wise men sought after an earthly king- but they discovered what appeared to be a poor family with a infant that was born in an animal barn.

Did they know that they found the King of Kings?  Are we seeking Him also?

Are we asking the right questions?  Are we listening to the answers, and the warnings that God gives us?