March 13, 2018 Falling and Standing…and Snakes- Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:13-15, 1 Corinthians 10:6-13

moses bronze serpent.jpg

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. Numbers 21:4-9 (NIV)

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” John 3:13-15 (NIV)

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”  We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:6-13 (NIV)

Temptation and snakes are themes that run throughout the Bible. The serpent tempted Eve, and we know how that story goes.  Humankind has a sort of uneasy relationship with the reptilian world, but a sort of love-hate relationship with temptation.  We know we shouldn’t give in to certain things…but we do, whether it is something as trivial as scarfing down that hot fudge sundae we know we really don’t need, or constantly whining and complaining and being surly and unkind, or even something devastating  such as succumbing to desire for someone other than our spouse, or murdering someone. Even worse, we don’t actually have to do the deed to sin. We just have to want to do it in our minds and hearts, and that is sin. God sees our hearts and knows our motives no matter what our outward behavior might suggest.  All of us are guilty and law-breakers according to God’s Law.

Temptation is everywhere and no one is immune. All sins are disobedience to God. The only differences are that some sins are more tempting than others, and some sins have deeper temporal consequences depending on the damage that gets done to others and in the greater society.  What may be a temptation for one person is not a temptation at all for someone else, but we are all tempted and vulnerable to various and sundry forms of sin.  The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) are an excellent place for us to start to examine our hearts and see our sins revealed to us and put out in the open.

Temptation and sin are written into the human condition, snakes or no snakes. The apostle Paul makes it clear that we cannot live according to God’s will in our own power.  If we think we can live perfectly, upholding all Ten Commandments, all the time, we will fall flat on our faces.  We do fall flat on our faces, all the time.

We can only be made whole and healed of our sinful nature by looking to Jesus and confessing our sins. As the Israelites were bitten by the snakes- the bites that maimed and killed them were the consequences of their sins- God tells Moses to set up a bronze serpent.  Symbolically he is hanging up what has been made sin for them- so they may see their sins and have faith in God to look up, to confess their sins, and be healed of them. It was a free gift of mercy, a vision of Jesus.  It was God making a way for His people to be forgiven and healed of sin by faith even though they had earned the consequence of death by sinning against Him.

Jesus has been lifted up upon the Cross for us to look up to Him, to ask His forgiveness and be healed, to be forgiven, and to be made new. We look up knowing that He is our source of life.

Do we believe that Jesus has taken on our sins, no matter how bad we might think they are?

Do we believe He gives us what we need to resist temptation and live in a way that honors Him?

Do we trust that He purifies our hearts and motives and that He will make us more like Him?

Do we believe that on Calvary He became our sin, and in doing so, He put sin and death to death forever?

We can only stand and be justified (made good) before God because of Jesus. We can’t make ourselves good no matter how hard we try. Apart from Him we fall. The good news is that no matter how many times we fall, or how many times we overestimate our own abilities, because of Jesus we stand.  Because He was lifted up, because He put our sin to death, we stand in Him.

December 1, 2017- Faith Fulfilled, John the Baptist and Joy in the Morning- Luke 1:1-25, Psalm 30:5

zechariah

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.  Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  

 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:1-25 (NRSV)

Infertility is not just a modern issue. In Biblical times children (specifically sons) were viewed as gifts from God.  If a woman was not blessed with children those around her wondered what was wrong with her.  She was viewed as “defective,” and her husband was considered to be “cursed.” Zechariah and Elizabeth both wondered what they had done that was so wrong that God withheld children from them.  They had come to that place in life where they had probably accepted that they would never be parents.

Yet they still prayed, even when what they were seeing didn’t coincide with what they believed and hoped for.

Faith is not the absence of doubt, nor is it denying reality. Faith is trust in God that He has made a way, even if that way doesn’t fall in line with our expectations. God has the infinite ability to exceed our expectations and to answer our prayers in ways that we can’t envision.

For Zechariah (who had his doubt issues!) and Elizabeth the waiting and disappointment ended when God gave them the joy of a son in their advanced age, a son who God had very special plans for, who He chose to reserve for a couple who would cherish him and raise him in a home that honors God.

It seems a bit confusing that John the Baptist was a very austere man- set aside from the time of his conception to follow the Nazirite vow, (Numbers 6:1-21) a man who lived frugally, by himself, yet Jesus, his cousin who followed, enjoyed eating and drinking and celebrating.

John was a man who paved the way- a man who pled with us to get rid of all the things that aren’t necessary, to open our hearts and minds to receive God With Us. It is said he was the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament disciples.  He walked that long, lonely path of waiting and anticipating the “not yet.”

Many of us who walk similar paths of waiting and praying- those of us who are anticipating a breakthrough in our lives, whether it be an improvement in health, healing of relationships, financial worries, often have a hard time holding on to faith. We endure loss, suffering and pain of myriad kinds in this lifetime.  Whether we are aware of it or not, God does hear our prayers.  He does walk with us.  He does weep and mourn with us.  And He holds the promise of joy in the morning.

Our lives carry stories of tragedy redeemed. We live stories like the story of Ruth, who had lost everything and whose life looked hopeless, until she discovered Boaz, who married her and redeemed her. (Ruth 4)

Zechariah and Elizabeth had their joy in the morning. Infertility wasn’t the end of their story. Many of us are still in our lost and mourning and suffering part of the journey, wandering in the wilderness.  In this world we are waiting, anticipating, and almost consigning ourselves to the fact that the status quo will prevail.  God says differently. In the season of Advent we learn there is a Savior coming to us.  We can endure the waiting, the doubt, the suffering, because God With Us has promised healing, redemption and hope.  There will be joy in the morning.

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5 (NRSV)

 

 

December 29, 2016-God Sees the Heart, and Beauty for Ashes- 1 Samuel 16:7, 10-13, Ezekiel 36:26, Isaiah 61:3

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But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 

Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.”   Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”  He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”   Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah. 1 Samuel 16:7, 10-13 (NRSV)

I find encouragement in the story of David.  He wasn’t anyone who we would consider to be a “first pick.”  He had older and stronger and more “qualified” brothers.  He was consigned to the lowly and dirty job of caring for sheep. Even David’s own father considered him an afterthought.   Yet God knew his heart, and God chose David over his seemingly better equipped brothers.

God doesn’t always choose the beautiful people, or the strong people, or the smart people.  In fact, the theme throughout Scripture is that God equips those who He chooses. He has a real sense of humor in it too, as time and time again He chooses the underdog, the meek, the weak, the poor, and the flawed through which to do His greatest work.  We discover as we study the Bible that the only real hero in the Bible is God, and that He does amazing things with and through really messed up people.

Our potential lies in what God empowers us to do, not in what the world sees in us.  Even the condition of our hearts is not impossible for God to change.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26 (NRSV)

When we are put in those wilderness places, when we fall short and we know full well we aren’t among the “beautiful people,” or we have been used by others and left hurting for a long time, it’s easy for our hearts to become hard.  Yet God has the power to take our hard hearts and give us new ones- hearts that are after His own heart, hearts that God can use for His good purpose.

Even better news is that God brings restoration and healing to the hurting.  Not only can we be put to God’s good purpose, in the process of doing His work He makes us whole.

…to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair. Isaiah 61:3 (NIV)

Beauty for ashes.  Greatness from unlikely places and from even more unlikely people.  Such is the nature of God.

 

 

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.