“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.” Jeremiah 29:10-11
Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord,none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice,shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.When it comes to understanding the God of the Bible, context is everything…and perspective counts for something as well. Numbers 14:20-23
My brothers and sisters who preach a prosperity gospel (i.e., that God intends for you to have material wealth and to have it right now) claim Jeremiah 29:11 separate and apart from Jeremiah 29:10. In other words, they catch the good news of the promise of hope and a future but they gloss over the bad news that it would come only after a lifetime of exile and hardship (and for many who would die in exile, it would not come in this life at all).
By the same token, my brothers and sisters who favor a dark, judgmental, angry gospel point to Numbers 14 and God’s judgment on the people of Israel who rebelled against Him, but they tend to miss the unbelievable mercy He showed …
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Theology is difficult for me. Understanding God is difficult for me as well. I do so much better with stories and metaphors to try to get my mind wrapped around Biblical truth. Maybe you’re that way too…in fact, maybe we are all that way. Maybe that is why God gave us His Word in the form of Jesus and in the stories of the Bible rather than in formulas and spreadsheets. Surely that is why Jesus used stories, similes, and metaphors so much in his own communication.
The metaphor most of us use to describe our Spiritual pilgrimage, our faith walk, is relationship. We talk about our relationship with Christ, or with God. We use little sayings like, “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” We use that term (that metaphor, if you will), because it best captures what it means to follow Christ. It is NOT a metaphor Jesus used for ancient times, because it would not have had meaning then. It is NOT a vocabulary we find anywhere in God’s Word. But, like the term “mission”, it still has profound meaning to our culture today, and it is a useful way of describing our part in this amazing revolution that is Christianity.
The call to follow Christ is a call to relationship. Yes. So, why doesn’t that answer all our questions? Why does that metaphor fall short for …
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. Mark 6:4-6
I’m amazed at the notion that Jesus was amazed…about anything, really. If he were just “fully man” and nothing more, then it wouldn’t be quite so amazing…but that he was also fully God makes me wonder about what, exactly, could so captivate him, so catch him off guard, as to “amaze” him. So here it is: “He was amazed at their lack of faith.”
As it turns out, amazing God isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Jesus goes back to his hometown, to the people who changed his diapers and whose kids played with him on the playground and who saw him working long hours in his dad’s carpenter shop…with hopes they might be willing to see his growth, his ministry, and his power and authority over everything in this world. He had an expectation that his hometown would not be so constrained by their preconceived notions of him, that they would have room in their hearts for a hometown boy who turns out to be the savior of the world. As those hopes were dashed and his disappointment set in, he was amazed that their hearts could be so closed to the possibilities.
I like studying the gospels and paying particular attention to various people’s responses to Jesus. In each case, we ask ourselves, “Do I ever respond that way?” “Could that ever be me?” In this case, I suppose it is true that this could be any of us. God could well be amazed by …
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”…While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:51-53, 59-60
Learning to show love to a lost and broken world is hard enough for us as individuals…that challenge is magnified a hundred fold for the church corporately. We, the church, must live in the tension between standing for holiness (separateness, not giving in to the ways of the world) and loving the broken people around us, who are still well-entrenched in the ways of the world. It is tricky, isn’t it?
When I read Stephen’s amazing sermon in Acts 7, and I see him brilliantly making the case for the pattern of rebellion throughout the history of the Jewish people (it is very much like an intervention…laying out all the evidence in a rational and indisputable way) and then leveling his charge against the church leaders of his time by associating them with that same pattern…I think to myself, “Now THAT is definitely going against the grain and calling out an entire culture!” I have seen churches who have no problem with walking against the grain…railing against our culture, screaming at all the sinners in the world and telling them they’re going to burn in hell, even telling them that …
Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Acts 3:4-5
The short, two-block walk in downtown San Antonio from my parking garage to my office usually crosses paths with at least a dozen or so people who are either homeless or at least very “down on their luck”. There was a time a few years ago when God brought me under conviction for my then-habit of crossing the street before I had to face them and their requests for money. I am pleased to say I do not do that anymore. I actually know several of the regulars by name now: Sal, Jorge, little Joseph, Becky, and one who just calls himself “Soldier”. While I am pleased to know these few names, God is not finished with me yet. The next lesson is about the eye contact…or lack thereof. I know God is leaning on me to be a better friend to these often-troubled souls, and in order to do that, I really am going to have to be better about making eye contact with them!
That is the real issue, isn’t it? We don’t want to see them, and we don’t want them to see us. And it is not just the homeless…it is anyone whose needs just seem overwhelming to us. We do not want them to see us as a possible source of help, because we do not believe we really have something that will help them. If you walked into a hospital ward full of sick people and you were carrying the one vaccine which you knew would cure them, you would look them all right in the eyes and tell them to line …
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Acts 1:6
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
For both churches and individuals, there is a difference between a good-sized vision and a God-sized vision. Which do you have? Great story about this in Acts 1.
I am thinking this had to be a disturbing and frightening scenario for the disciples who, for almost three years, had awakened each morning and simply allowed Jesus to set the agenda for the day. The only thing he asked of them was that they follow him. It was an easy arrangement, one that led them through amazing and miraculous moments and obviously changed them forever. Now, Jesus was leaving them and telling them “you guys take it from here…go and do this ministry!”
With this, the most significant revolution this world has ever known or will ever know was begun. The church was born. Your local body of believers and my local body of believers (and every local church around the world) all call ourselves followers…soldiers in this revolution. But the question this passage raises in my mind is this: am I an Acts 1:6 follower or an Acts 1:8 follower? Additionally, which is my church?
These disciples had an impressive vision…one found in scripture and supported by nothing short of a promise from God: they envisioned an Israel no longer under Rome’s thumb nor its puppet governors…an Israel who once again was on top of the world, boasting strength and numbers and the support of the sovereign …
Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2
I am not a sailor. Maybe you are. So, forgive my ignorance of the whole experience, and please forgive my stealing of this illustration…but it seems to me that sailing involves a whole lot of hard work and attention to details, on the one hand, and a lot of being still and waiting on the wind to blow, on the other hand. In that way, it is a lot like the church.
I once heard one of the important spiritual mentors in my life say: “I don’t like 5-year strategic plans for the church…I am always afraid we will reach the 5-year goal and have missed out on what God wanted for us.” When I was a young leader in the church, that truly spoke to me. It pretty much rocked my world. I learned that God does want God-sized things for His people. He does want to show us great and amazing things of which we cannot even conceive. We really do get so wrapped up in our planning and our business-like approach to spiritual things that we end up missing God completely…sometimes. I think those were valuable lessons for me to learn as a young leader. I definitely needed to expand my vision of God and of His sovereignty.
But there is another side to scripture. There is a very practical side to it. There is Jesus asking the question, “What kind of man sets out to …
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:6-8
Father’s Day is nigh upon us…just a little less than two weeks away. It is not too early to start thinking about what (for most of us) is the most difficult gift of the whole year to find. What in the world will you give him for Father’s Day? He is so very difficult to buy for! Whenever he needs something, he just goes and gets it…what could I possibly get him that he doesn’t already have? A tie? Did I give him that last year? Did I really give him a tie last year!? How cliche is that!? I am so embarrassed.
This passage out of Micah got me thinking about God and what He really wants from His church (from His bride) and what we could possibly give Him, and I wondered…What do you give the God Who has everything?
Some would answer we should give Him our very best gathered worship…excellence in music, in preaching, in communion, in corporate prayer…that we should give Him a truly amazing gathered worship expression week after week. They might cite Psalm 22:3 (our God inhabits praise).
Others would answer the church should give Him our broken Spirits and contrite hearts…that what …
Then God ordered me, “Start all over: Love your wife again, your wife who’s in bed with her latest boyfriend, your cheating wife.
Love her the way I, God, love the Israelite people,
even as they flirt and party with every god that takes their fancy.” Hosea 3:1 (The Message)
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” John 8:10-11
Hosea had a prostitute for a wife. I cannot even begin to relate to Hosea’s pain. I read Hosea and really do have to stretch my imagination to try to feel the pain, and even then, I am sure I cannot even get close. It is, I think, the severest form of unfaithfulness. That is probably why God chose it to illustrate His displeasure with His people. Hosea’s illustration represents among the deepest of betrayals and pain we can know, and the reconciliation to which it points likewise represents the most significant we can begin to embrace.
Just as God’s wrath is just one shade of His deep, deep love for His people, His forgiveness is likewise one shade of that same love. They are two sides of the same coin. They are both His very nature. But though He did not call His people to try to emulate His wrath, He absolutely does call us to forgive as He forgives. In fact, He created an entire movement (one we call “the church”) designed specifically to reflect that remarkable forgiveness. It is His very nature, and it is therefore in the very core purpose of His church.
And still, we, His church, read and grasp with great astonishment the …
So Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” Exodus 32:31-32
Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived. Numbers 14:38
Thinking today about the twelve spies in Numbers who explored and investigated the promised land and reported back to the people. Ten of the spies brought a discouraging report and two (Joshua and Caleb) brought a faith-filled report. The people went with the majority report and cowered from the task to which God had called them. All of them were cursed and sent to wander in the wilderness another forty years. Caleb and Joshua had to go with them.
I’m wondering if Joshua and Caleb had a regular Tuesday night support group for each other during those forty years of living under the consequences of everyone else’s mistakes. Can you even imagine the frustration…the pain of giving up forty of their best years to pay the price for other people’s sin? Can you imagine the temptation of gathering the entire assembly of Israel together on the annual anniversary of their collective cowardice and, together, Joshua and Caleb yelling out “We told you so!” But as far as we know, they did no such thing. As far as we know, Joshua and Caleb bit their tongues and continued to lead well throughout those forty years in the wilderness. That is what leadership sometimes calls us to do in the church…to suffer the consequences of other people’s mistakes.
But not only is it a call to suffer consequences, it is a call …