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)

 

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.

August 2, 2017- What Are We Asking For? Matthew 7:7-11

ugly skater pants

(Jesus said): “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.  Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:7-11 (NRSV)

“Now you’re asking for it!” How many times did we hear that phrase directed at us when we were children?  How many times have we said it to our own kids?  It was always a phrase that meant you were asking for trouble, and you were about to receive it.

Kids ask for some pretty outrageous things. My son once begged me for a pair of horrendously ugly $100 skater pants- during a summer in which he miraculously grew from about 5’6” to about 6’ in the span of about three months.  Even had I been foolish enough to spend that kind of money on a rather (in my mind anyway) ugly and impractical pair of pants, by the end of the summer they wouldn’t have fit.  It was better for him- and for my wallet at the time- for him to wear the cargo shorts he already had in the summer, and for us to seek out more sensible and affordable pants to wear in the fall.

I wanted my son to have serviceable and affordable clothing, and for him not to be mocked too severely by his friends for his clothing choices.

Sometimes what we want and what we need are two different things.

Sometimes we come to God asking for silly or impractical things like the awful skater pants my son asked for when he was fourteen. Sometimes we ask for things that appear to be good on the surface, but would ultimately be harmful for us.  Sometimes we ask to be delivered from trials that are difficult and painful, but necessary for us to learn and grow into being the people God created us to be.

We don’t see the complete picture. God does, and He is out for our ultimate good.  He is equipping us for eternal life as well as for life right now. So sometimes His answer to our requests needs to be no.

It has been said that the purpose of prayer is not so much to come to God asking for gifts in the way that a child might make out a list for Santa Claus, but to come to God and talk with Him, to let Him speak to us and align our wills with His will.

God does hear our prayers, and through our prayers He does transform our hearts so that we desire the things that He desires for us. Even if we don’t always get what we ask for, God provides what we need- abundantly, fully and always.

December 27, 2016 – Putting the Rubber to the Road- Mark 1:9-13

The Temptation in the Wilderness 1824 by John St John Long 1798-1834

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. – Mark 1:9-13 (NRSV)

Of the four Gospels, only Mark completely omits any kind of nativity story.  Only Luke and Matthew go into details on the nativity, while John, in his rather otherworldly and ethereal way, makes the parallel between Jesus the Light of the World, and the Genesis creation narrative.

Mark goes right to the rubber hitting the road. Jesus was baptized, approved by God, and no sooner than He could turn around, He was stranded in the wilderness. Thanks, Mark. No fanfare or singing or shepherds or Mary pondering in her heart.  Mark gets down to the nitty gritty right away.

This sort of sounds like the story of most of our lives.  We just sort of end up plopped down in the wilderness at times.  We should expect Jesus in His humanity to be put in that wilderness situation.  God put Him in this world not to stash Him in an ivory tower and shield Him from all the dirty, painful and nasty aspects of humanity, but to immerse Him completely in the human experience.  How else was He supposed to be Emmanuel, God with us?

It’s telling that God equipped Jesus to sustain Him.  He gave Him what He needed to overcome the challenges He faced.  He did not take Jesus’ challenges away from Him.  He did not just snap His fingers and give Jesus an easy, uncomplicated life.  God did not play the old literary device of deus ex machina- literally “the god in the machine” in Jesus’ life. He didn’t just lift Jesus up out of troubles as if He were a hero in an action movie.  Jesus had to endure, and fight and suffer.

God gives us the resources we need to overcome temptation.  He gives us the strength to endure and overcome challenges, but normally He doesn’t just “magically” lift us out of them.

In the words of the great theologian, Mick Jagger, and the Rolling Stones, “you can’t always get what you want/ you can try sometimes / you just might find/ you get what you need.”  God might not give us what we want, but He does provide what we need. He doesn’t always give us what we need in the ways we expect, either.

I’m not sure why God allows us to go through suffering or trials. That to me is a mystery of faith that I will not understand this side of Heaven, and perhaps not even on the other side.  I do know that in suffering and trials He does sustain us and He does give us what we need to overcome and grow through them. That answer just has to be good enough for now.

If the goal in our earthly sojourn is for to become more like Jesus then we too, have to trust God and hang on when the rubber hits the road.  We aren’t called to a pristine, clean and untested faith, but one where we get dirty, make mistakes, suffer, cry out in pain, and struggle with questions and doubt.  Those are also parts of the journey- the one that Jesus came to earth to travel as well.