The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Conclusion

finish line

Finish Line.

Friends and family line the edges of the finish chute roaring encouragements, waving flags, rattling cowbells. Gaining strength for the final few hundred metres, the runners gather their remaining strength and push for the finish line. Some sprint. Some hobble. Some do little more than crawl. All give everything they have to cross the line.

This scene has been repeated countless times at competitive events in the modern world—marathons, triathlons, even jog/walk/push and drag fundraisers. We know the importance of the finish line.

The author of Hebrews concludes his eleventh chapter treatise on men and women of faith by picturing their lives as a kind of a relay race; a race in which the likes of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who have finished their portion of the race look on like a cloud of witnesses and fans over those of us still plodding on; a race not finished until the whole team has run; a race in which the trainer Himself has set the pace, endured the most difficult leg of the course, and cheers on the runners with loudest voice.

“These were all commended for their faith,” the author summarizes,” yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

Something unusual has happened. Hear it? Only together with us, he writes. The amazing lives of the heroes of the faith, of Abraham and Sarah, Joshua, Rahab and others are somehow teamed with ours. They ran first, but they carried a baton of faith that they reached out to pass on to people no different than you and me. They were not perfect; they experienced the same dichotomy of wanting to do right while finding themselves lying, lusting, doubting and disobeying, just as we do. They did their best but they never deserved to have statues of themselves raised. Nor do we. God knows the core problem of every one of us is our sin-infected human nature. We are not inherently good, though we long to be. But there is hope.

God, who longs for us to be good more than we do—to run the race well—solves the problem. He comes into our world as a human baby named Jesus, lives the perfect life we ought to live, and chooses to die a significant death to pay the debt our godless rebellion has earned us. Then He rises from His grave, victor over not only His own death but Death itself and offers His relay team the same victory when the race is finally done. Not only that, but the perfect sacrifice of God ultimately makes possible the future perfection of human lives. People who want to receive this gift must have faith and thereby enter into the community of faith. This is the body of believers who make up what the writer of Hebrews pictures as the relay team.

“Therefore,” concludes Hebrews’ ‘Hall of Faith’, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The call is to focus on Jesus. This has always been the call of God toward people who would become women and men of faith. Some had to look forward to the future of Jesus’ incarnation, others lived alongside Him, and many—like you and me—have poured back over the pages of God’s Word to meet Him. Yet we all fix our eyes on Him and listen carefully to His commands in order to run our leg of the relay well. We are called not to become weary or lose heart when the way is hard—terribly hard. We are to endure hardship as the surest way to developing the holy character traits of Jesus, traits that will enable us to move the baton forward into the next set of waiting hands.

So be encouraged. Stay in the race (or join it today). The finish line will come, all in good time.

(Photo Credit: Gary D. Avey)

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The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 17

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A Heart That Responds to God’s Call.

Rahab gazed out her window across the valley. On the far side of the spring-flooding river thousands of people were camped. These, Rahab knew, were the people of the God whom she herself believed was “the LORD…God in heaven above and on the earth below.” She new she was alone among her people in her belief; their god was their stomach, their pleasures, and their power of trade. But Rahab had suffered under her peoples’ abuses. There was no reason for her to love their god.

Glancing back out her window Rahab felt the shaking of earth and heard the rumble of boulders tumbling upstream the river Jordan. Then, like a swarm of ants she saw the multitude of Israelites crossing the riverbed, moving westward across the valley. She checked the scarlet cord hanging out her window for the hundredth time. It was still there.

Rahab had staked her life and the lives of everyone she loved on hearing the still small voice in her heart that assured her that Yahweh—the LORD—was the One and Only God, the one worthy of worship the one to whom her allegiance was due. Having harboured the two Israelite spies days earlier, Rahab had made her loyalties known and was willing to face the consequences, come what may. The author of Hebrews 11 records these first steps of Rahab’s faith—of her bold scarlet cord flying like a flag in the face of her old way of life—for our benefit.

“By faith,” we read, “the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.” There are some loaded words and ideas in that verse, and it’s worth sorting through them, but primarily we need to hear God’s message. In this one short verse God teaches us three things about Himself: Who He calls; What His call creates; and How His call changes lives.

WHO GOD CALLS: God calls prostitutes. He calls the weak, the poor, the failures, the lonely, the abused and the misunderstood. He calls you and me, because no matter how we present on the outside, we’re all prostitutes of a sort. We’ve found ourselves—by force or by choice—wasting the great gift of our lives. We have believed one lie or another that we are victims, trapped in our life situation, or that we are gods with the right to create whatever self-interested life situation we want to pursue. But we’ve found ourselves wounded because of those lies. God’s call is for the Rahabs of this world, for you and me. God’s call sees us as the holy creatures He designed us to be, rescues us from the bondage we’re in, and invites us to join His people on a journey to become holy and wholly His.

WHAT GOD’S CALL CREATES: God’s call creates faith. His voice, His Word, speaks uniquely, kindling within receptive hearts something unknown to the hard and skeptical hearts of this world. Rahab herself recognized the role of the heart to lead people to a place where they either seek out God for help, or fully and finally reject Him.

“We have heard,” explained Rahab to the spies, “how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt…(and) when we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:10,11).

Hearts melted. The courage of everyone in Jericho failed—everyone but Rahab. For some reason Rahab, melted heart and all, reached out to ally herself with God. In that moment, Rahab’s faith was born. Rahab’s belief was a simple heart act of obedience to God’s call.

HOW GOD’S CALL CHANGES LIVES: Rahab’s simple trust that God is LORD of all not only produced obedience in her heart. The obedience moved outward to her choices. She chose to protect the spies from Jericho’s evil king and ruthless soldiers. She chose to hide the men on her rooftop, lower them down by a rope through the window, and direct them to the nearby hills for a safe escape. These choices were the acts of a very different Rahab than the Rahab she had been before hearing God’s call. Later, when the spies returned to rescue her from the tumultuous town, Rahab’s life was changed even more dramatically. She gave up her business of prostitution, entered Hebrew society first as an alien and then married to a Jewish man, bearing him a son who would become part of the lineage of Jesus.

God calls. We can be sure of that. But until you and I admit that He calls us, that He creates faith in us, and that He changes our lives, we will miss out. We will miss out on knowing the God who made us, the God who loves us, and the God who wants to give us a new life. It starts with our hearts—hearts ready to respond to God’s call. It’s time to hang our scarlet cords, to plant our flag. That’s  responding to God’s call.

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 16

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Sandals, Faith and Holiness.

Tell es-Sultan tells us a story. The jumble of bricks exposed by the archaeological dig reveals a fallen wall. It indicates an upper balustrade atop the surrounding city enclosure had fallen against its lower rocky ramparts. The remains of brick houses lie in tumbled and torched ruins—signs of an ancient earthquake followed by a great fire. Evidence of substantial stores of grain add to the story of a city suffering a quick and effective siege. Its inhabitants had not been starved into surrender but rather had found their defenses nullified when a freak earthquake coincided with the arrival of their enemies. Only one or two structures remain standing—simple apartments built into one section of the outer wall that remains standing.

The author of Hebrews 11 summarizes Joshua’s story in one line: “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.”

God had selected Joshua to lead the ancient Israelites into their Promised Land. He had spoken to Joshua earlier, commissioning him for the daunting task, three times encouraging Joshua to “be strong and courageous”. He had promised to be with Joshua, to never leave him or forsake him. It was no small thing to lead God’s twelve-tribed unruly band of Chosen People. God was preparing Joshua. Encouraging the fearful is something God takes seriously. But God knew there was something more Joshua needed in order to face the ordeal.

One day, as Joshua neared the iconic border city of Jericho, God revealed Himself to him. He appeared as a fear-inspiring, weapon-wielding commander and there was nothing Joshua could do but fall prostrate to the ground in reverence.

“Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy,” thundered the voice of the commanding God.

The message was clear: it is not enough for a follower of the LORD God to be strong and courageous. Neither is it enough to know He is near, ever-present and supportive. God’s followers must also be holy. They must be tenaciously persistent, adamant and committed to being nothing less than holy. And God knows our natural bent is to be anything but that. So God often speaks to us of specifics. He calls us to look at our normal daily activities, relationships and attitudes and apply holiness to them.

To Joshua God spoke about sandals. Joshua’s sandals had helped him in untold ways: they had protected his feet through forty years of desert wanderings; they had insulated him from the scorching daytime paths and the risks of nighttime scorpion stings. The sandals had provided him with a measure of self-respect and deportment—going barefoot was for the poor and marginalized. And sandals had given Joshua a Plan B of escape, a hope of fight or flight if any of God’s Plan A plans put Joshua in danger.

But God explained to Joshua that he was standing on holy ground, sacred and set apart for God’s glory. He was illustrating for Joshua that every place God’s servants stand is set apart by God as holy, and so they must become holy too. God Himself is holy—He is completely other than any one or thing in all creation. This otherness describes His unmixed and perfect goodness, justice and loving-kindness. To tread on holy ground is a calling to access God’s holy character. It is a command to set aside the destructive self-interest, self-protection, and self-satisfaction that we humans insist is our right. Selfishness has no place in holiness. Only as we remove self-centredness like kicking off shoes unfit for the task will holiness have a chance to grace our feet.

“How beautiful are the feet,” Scripture tells us, “of those who bring good news!”

Joshua was changed that day. God’s holiness dusted and baptized the feet and the person of Joshua. Joshua went back to the Israelites and in turn inspired them to be holy. He spoke to them of God’s goodness and of God’s call. He inspired them to grow in their faith. The landscape began to change for them that week. Their feet, too, began to stir up holy dust as they walked. Prison-like walls fell. People were rescued. God’s followers were enabled to enter their Promised Land.

What is God speaking to us about through this story? What are our ‘sandal issues’? Which of our activities, relationships or attitudes need to be doffed in favour of simple holiness? God’s plan for our journey always leads us to a process of becoming people characterized by the goodness of His character. He wants us to be other than our natural bent toward selfishness. He wants us to have faith in His Son Jesus and to step out to exercise that faith as He commands. He wants us to break down walls of injustice and bondage, freeing others to become holy too. He’s calling us. That’s holiness.