The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 5

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Heeding Warnings.

The call of God is attractive when it’s a message of love and grace, of forgiveness and mercy, of hope and acceptance. That kind of call is heartwarming. It lifts us up and encourages us when we are down and discouraged or weak and defenseless. But sometimes the call of God demands more of us, requires a degree of grunt work on our part to obey; it takes us the next step further in our process of spiritual growth and development. Sometimes God’s call entails warnings—even condemnations—and is designed to evoke in us a response of holy fear.

Introducing emotionally charged words like these is risky business; they are not culturally acceptable words these days. Warnings and condemnations brings to mind the ‘Hell, Fire and Brimstone’ sermons we cringe in recollection of hearing about in the post-enlightenment days of our Western culture—sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ address of the 1700s. Are harsh words and concepts like these really an aspect of the call of a loving God?

“By faith Noah,” the author of Hebrews continues in his eleventh chapter discourse, “when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”

What was is that distinguished Noah from all the rest of his culture, that saved him and his family from peril while possibly millions perished? From what we read here in Hebrews and in the more detailed account in Genesis, Noah’s life was characterized by a “holy fear” of God. His worldview, his mental set point, his philosophy of life was distinguished by the acceptance of God as the rightful ruler of his life. He attended carefully to everything he had learned about God and applied that knowledge to his life. Genesis tells us that Noah “walked with God” and was both “righteous” and “blameless among the people of his time.” Those are terms used in the Bible to describe people who live with integrity the principles of God-honouring behaviour—whose day to day choices reflect their understanding of God’s character and His prerogative to set guidelines for human living, whose hearts admit God’s sovereignty.

In contrast, the culture around Noah was characterized by ideologies we currently call atheistic or agnostic. People had no fear of God. The Genesis account describes the situation from God’s perspective.

“The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” Note how it is the heart attitude of both Noah and his contrasting culture that God observes and to which He speaks when His call is a warning.

Noah’s response to God’s warning call was the next thing that distinguished him from his surrounding culture. Noah listened. He heard the bad news, believed that God was serious, and then as Genesis records, “did everything just as God commanded him.” Now that took faith. Building an ark of enormous proportions was one thing. Passing on the warning call of God to his community was another, perhaps even more daunting task. It is quite possible he feared for his life and liberty among those who would have considered his message ‘hate speech.’

We know the rest of the story. Noah completed the ark and filled it with his family, land creatures of every kind, and enough food for a year of crazy confinement; his culture refused to accept the rescue and perished enmasse. Later, when the floodwaters had subsided, Noah and his entourage disembarked their floating quarters and were welcomed back on terra firma with a rainbow, symbolic of a promise of blessing.

Did you notice how the Hebrews account of this momentous event ends? It explains that Noah “became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” This phrase is crucial. We might even say it describes the essential core of the Bible’s message, of God’s call to each of us as individuals. It speaks of faith, of becoming an heir, and of righteousness. It is saying that when we by faith choose to hear God’s call—be it of grace and love or of warning and judgment—and heed it, we become heirs. And what do we inherit? We become recipients of Christ’s righteousness, of His perfect heart, and we are accepted into an eternity with God. This is the result of listening to God’s call.

The warnings, like the expounding of God’s love and grace, run throughout God’s word. So let’s take advantage of the opportunity to take them to heart. Let’s hear and humble ourselves and obey God’s directions. Then we will become people characterized by faith, by holy fear, and (O great mystery) by righteousness.

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The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 4

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Communing with God and Escaping Death.

Community requires communing. That may seem obvious to most, but perhaps we need a reminder when it comes to our relationship with God. His existence is so vastly different from ours we may forget that a relationship of intimacy with Him is our life’s chief purpose. Communing with other people means talking and listening to each another, expressing hopes, dreams and core values, and seeking to understand each others’ perspectives. Communing means living life together, walking alongside one another. It’s what families and good friends do.

The author of Hebrews 11 had earlier reminded us of Adam’s son Abel, the first human to experience death. As if to swing the pendulum in the extreme other direction, he now tells us about Enoch, four generations after Abel’s time. “By faith Enoch was taken from this life,” he begins, “so that he did not experience death;” What? Is he sure? As if to explain it another way, the author adds, “he could not be found, because God had taken him away.”

To be sure this is strange. Enoch was what we might term ‘translated’ from his earthly life into eternity without having to experience the usually-essential process of human death. His experience was unprecedented. So what do we know about Enoch and what is God communicating to us about this man’s life that would be useful to people like you and me. Is it a how-to lesson on escaping death?

We have only tidbits of information about Enoch—a few verses in Genesis and a couple verses here in Hebrews. What we know about him is just a condensed, compact synopsis of his life, and that’s a handy thing to have. From it we learn six things about Enoch: he accepted God’s existence, he believed God rewards people who earnestly seek Him, he walked with God, he pleased God, and finally, he did not experience death.

What we are not explicitly told, but can surmise by these six descriptors, is that Enoch lived his life attuned to the voice of God. He had a heart attitude that was open to God, ears perked and piqued to hear anything about God or from God that could be heard by a mere man. He believed God’s promises and obeyed God’s counsel. Consequently he lived his life in such a way that he is described as walking with God. Does that sound like a relationship that would please the heart of God? Does it sound like the kind of life you and I could live?

Well, yes and no. No, it’s not possible for anyone to live a life pleasing to God—at least apart from faith in the work of Jesus. While Enoch live millennia before Jesus’ earthly life, we can safely surmise he believed God’s promise to send a Redeemer some day—a sinless offspring of sinful mankind—one who would crush the head of sin and eventually destroy death itself. Enoch’s predecessor Adam was still living in Enoch’s time, and had preserved the memory of this promise of God for Adam’s progeny.

But it’s not only no; it’s also yes, Enoch shows us that we can live for God and please Him if we will listen to Him and humbly come into a communal life with His Son Jesus. This kind of living relies completely on the life of Jesus living inside us, interpreting the truths of His Word so we can apply them, and ultimately providing eternal life for us after we die.

“…Enoch’s example,” explains Blue Letter Bible’s Don Stewart, “provides hope that believers will achieve an ultimate victory over death.” So in a way, Enoch’s life story is an instructional manual on dodging death and gaining life. Communing daily with God—seeking Him, listening attentively to everything He wants us to know about Himself and about ourselves—is the source of eternal God-present life.

The call of God inspires faith, and faith open hearts to the call of God. “Come near to God,” invites the Apostle James to all who will listen, “and he will come near to you.” Be part of the community.

(Photo Credit: Meghanbustardphotography)

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 3

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Agreeing with God.

Do some hear the call of God better than others? “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did,” the author of Hebrews 11 explains, launching into the list of the first of those named as having heard and responded to the call of God. “By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4).

We’ve been exploring the theme of God calling to people, and are given Abel as our first personal example. What we know from this verse and from the early chapters of Genesis where the story is originally recorded is that Cain and Abel were the first offspring of Adam and Eve following their expulsion from Eden. They symbolize all of humanity that would follow, blazing the two moral paths from which each of us may choose.

One day, Cain and Abel brought to God each of their respective offerings from the products of their labour. One brought the best of what he had. The other brought some of what he had. Each product was good, but it was obvious to God that the hearts of the two young men were quite different. Abel the younger had listened to God’s call and embraced the opportunity to offer God his best. Cain the elder had hardened his heart to God’s call and refused to respond with much more than lip service. God accepted the one but rejected the other. Cain was incensed by God’s rejection. Giving free reign to his growing anger and jealousy, Cain murdered his brother Abel and defended his action by arguing, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

How could such a seemingly innocent practice as presenting an honorarium to the Creator have such disastrous repercussions? The anecdote condenses for us in one concise account the state of affairs each of our lives mirror. God speaks to each of us—calls to us—in ways that allow us the opportunity to agree with Him or not. It all depends on our willingness to listen. Those who choose by degrees to listen to God’s call, to agree with what He says about the human heart, find faith growing. They believe that He is telling the truth when He says that no one can find peace with Father God except through Jesus. In contrast, those who refuse to listen, who choose to ignore or blatantly reject God’s call on their lives begin a downward spiral of hurting themselves and others. Abel himself still speaks of this great dichotomy of choices.

Those who have been willing to listen to God’s call and agree with Him have looked back over their lives and discovered God’s transforming power and goodness runs parallel to His voice. When God speaks sparks fly. Lives are given wings, darkness is dissolved by light, and death is swallowed up by life. This recollection of humankind’s early history on earth teaches us that when God speaks to us, it is because He has our ultimate good in mind. God’s call is always for the purpose of protecting us from our own tendencies toward selfward and otherward destruction.

What about Abel? Suffering an early and turbulent death hardly seems a fitting reward for one who listened and responded well to God. Where’s the fairness in that? Where was the good God seems to promise? Look again. It’s there in the middle of the Hebrews verse; “By faith,” we’re told, “he was commended as a righteous man when God spoke well of his offerings.” God commends Abel. He makes a judgment call on Abel, taking everything He knows about Abel into account: his heart attitude, his willingness to listen to God, his convictions put into practice even when it cost him dearly. All these aspects describe true faith. As a result, God judges Abel righteous.

This word ‘righteous’ is a key word in God’s economy. In means God has transferred, by the highest standard of justice that characterizes Himself, the guilt of that individual onto Jesus. In exchange, the perfect right-ness of Jesus is transferred to that individual’s account and God sees that person as right with Him. Abel—like his brother Cain—was intrinsically sinful. But Abel chose to listen to God’s call and respond. It was an act of faith, of agreement. And God respects that heart attitude so highly—not only in Abel but also in each of us who make a similar choice—that He offers eternal life to those who have listened to Him.

So we have before us a choice and a fine example in Abel who lives in eternity’s grand glory with His Lord. Softening our hearts to God’s voice is the first call of God. Then listening to and agreeing with what He tells us about Himself through His Word, the Bible, is next. And then obeying what He commands through His Word is the natural by-product that will mark our lives. Do you hear Him calling you?

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 2

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The Call to Be.

          Does God call people? We have said that God is the initiator of a conversation into which each of us is invited. That assumption alone may need to be explored further because for many people, ‘a conversation’ is the last descriptor we would apply to our experience of God. Let’s begin with something simpler then. Can and do people—normal people, people like you and me—hear God calling them?

We’re looking at what the writer to the Hebrews exposes in his eleventh chapter survey of historical characters who heard the call of God and responded. It begins with creation and spans several thousands of years pulling characters from the pages of the Old Testament who not only heard God’s call, but also responded. Why explore these examples of ancients who heard something they attributed to God? Firstly, if the same God who revealed Himself in the past reveals Himself today, you and I don’t want to miss out on the experience that makes earth-living worthwhile. Secondly—as will soon become apparent—those who heard God’s call and responded rightly became fortified by faith—a prerequisite for living beyond this life. And thirdly, hearing and responding to God’s call has an effect on God Himself—a mind-shattering connection we may never before have considered.

“By faith we understand,” begins the historical account, “that the universe was formed at God’s command so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:3).

Picture creation if you can as the singular germination of matter. All that we see today—from viruses to invertebrates, from subatomic particles to solar flares, from constellations to coronary arteries—all of it traces its emergence from nothing other than the energy of God’s voice. “Without Him (and before this moment) nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). He called and we fledglings of matter became. He commanded and we obeyed.

This is our historical beginning: God called all matter into existence—into being—and it was. From that first dawn of matter appearing from nothing but the rush of energy released by God’s call, we learn that God created humankind—called and breathed us into existence. It is the grandest and most personal example of Einstein’s formula. “So God created man in his own image,” explains the author of Genesis, “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Vast amounts of intrinsic energy sustain our existence for one purpose: to exhibit His likeness. And in some mysterious way we please God by reflecting Him.

What do we make of this? How does this revelation inform the way we think about God’s call and how we ought to respond to it? We do not need to understand Einsteinian formulas to realize that God’s call is powerful; it has the potential to alter things. God’s call has the capacity to release into our lives hope and help, comfort, compassion and God-honouring living. Most of all, God’s call releases His own Spirit into our lives to make us the kind of people He first envisioned us to be. God’s call fortifies His hearers with Himself.

Don’t worry about not hearing that call with ears designed to catch the vibrations and sound waves of other created matter—God is not created matter, and His voice is much more than a collection of sound waves. His call must be heard primarily with the heart—a humble heart—with sympathies willing to shed every ear-numbing layer of pride that plagues our species. We have each heard His call to be—to exist—and obeyed it at our moment of conception. Now we must utilize faith to hear His call and live our lives in ways that exhibit God’s likeness.

And what is the epitome of God’s likeness in human form? Jesus. Jesus is God incarnated into human existence to enable us to visualize what a life perfectly responding to God’s call looks like. More than that, Jesus is God’s plan to rescue us from our foolish selves, to bring us back from the brink of self-destruction, and to give us ears to hear and hearts to respond to Him.

So let’s start with the baby step of faith that accepts that the universe was formed at God’s command—at God’s call. There will be more, but for now let’s begin to ‘hear’ that ancient call and commit our existence to our Great Creator for His good pleasure. Because nothing comes from nothing.

(Photo Credit: http://www.heartlight.org)

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 1

The Conversation.

How often do each of us think about life’s biggest questions, like: “Why is there something instead of nothing?”; “Does life have meaning?”; “Are there such things as right, wrong, and truth?”; and “Does God exist?”?

Folks at Google know how often we think those questions. It seems people use Google to try to find answers to them and Google has collected that data and mapped it—at least for those who live in the United States of America. On that map we can see the questions and terms related to life, morality and religion that each state of the union Googled more than any other in the past year.

Illinoisians predominantly pondered, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Floridians primarily wondered, “What is my purpose in life?” New Hampshirites chiefly inquired, “What happens when you die?” and Alabamans first and foremost asked, “What is love?”

Those are good questions, but googling is a superficial fix. If we want a bigger picture, the fullest, most expansive appreciation and understanding not only of the answers but of why we ask the questions in the first place, we need a higher authority than Google. We need to approach the ultimate authority on such things.

“Do not be scared by the word authority,” advises well-known author C.S. Lewis. “Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority…None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority” (Mere Christianity, p. 62).

An ultimate authority on life would have to be something or Someone who was around long before anything ever occurred here on earth or—let’s go bigger—in the universe itself. Let’s call the Great Being responsible for causing the universe to exist, for being the uncaused Cause, the One who truly knows the answer to our every question, God. And if God is the originator of our amazing but relatively puny minds that utilize language to ask deep existential questions, surely He is capable of answering them. God is the epitome of language. He is able to communicate far more to us than we have imagined—or even liked. It is not a case of René Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” but rather “God thinks, therefore I am.”

In fact, God is the initiator of a conversation into which each of us is called. It is from this point that we will spend a little time considering what has come to be known as ‘The call of God.’ The Bible proposes that God calls each and every individual on planet earth—including you and me—and we respond one way or another.

“What!” you exclaim. “I’ve never heard a peep from Him!”

Is that so? Perhaps it’s time to explore it. Let’s take a look at a list of individuals—“ancients” they were called—people free from the clamour of 21st century busy-ness, people who heard and in various ways answered God’s call. Let’s explore their experiences and try to tease out what they heard, what they didn’t hear, how they responded, and how that made a difference to their lives and to the lives of those around them.

Hebrews chapter 11 contains that list. It begins by defining the hearing of God’s call as an expectancy and certainty—a hope. It labels that hearing faith and explains, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” Who commends them? God. What are they commended for? For seeing the invisible and hearing the inaudible; for setting aside the hesitations and skepticisms, the pride and rebellions that blind and deafen us to what God is communicating, to His call on every human life.

So join in the exploration. And if you are bold enough, come with an expectancy and certainty that delights God. Set aside the disappointments that have affected—maybe even soured—your idea of who God is. Ask God to open your ears, and then be open to a new kind of hearing, because we’re going in search of God’s call.