The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 12

baton.jpg

Faith Speaks.

“By faith Joseph,” continues the Hebrews 11 account, “when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.” An emigration and an exhumation is an unlikely pairing for a dying valediction. What was Joseph, great grandson of Abraham, thinking?

The end of life—like the end of a good novel—has a way of clarifying the most important things to us. To Joseph, it served to supply a final opportunity to speak hope to his loved ones—the descendants of his father Israel who were living in Egypt with him, far from their Promised Land. If Joseph had learned one thing in his long and challenging life, it was that God’s plans are for our good, even when everything around us seems to be stacking up against us. That’s a lesson some people would never learn unless someone like Joseph were to speak out.

Some ninety years earlier, Joseph had been bullied and sold into slavery by the brothers to whom he now spoke. Enslaved in Egypt, the angry treachery of his master’s wife had then sent Joseph to the pharaoh’s dungeon. Kindnesses to other prisoners were repaid to Joseph with thoughtless indifference. Joseph was forgotten by all.

But somewhere in the midst of the darkness of his life experience, Joseph remembered what God had said. He remembered the promise God had spoken to his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. It was a promise that God was working for his—Joseph’s—good and the good of all who honoured God from their heart. Like a piercing ray of light, this word, this call of God on his life, brought Joseph hope.

And later Joseph began to see God using him to bring hope into others’ lives, including those brothers who had begun the terrible chain of events Joseph had suffered. “You intended to harm me,” he would later summarize for his guilt-ridden brothers, “but God intended it for good.”

Now Joseph had one more opportunity to speak. He could have used it to bitterly berate his family members for their cruelty to him resulting in so many years of his youth being lost to slavery. He could have used it to take credit for the personal skills that led to his release from prison. He could have used it to flaunt the power and prestige to which he had eventually risen in Egypt. Rather, Joseph’s words reveal that his heart was set on something bigger, something much more important, something of eternal value. Joseph was now thinking of the distant future. He was visualizing God’s promises fulfilled.

God had promised the Israelites a land of their own. He had promised to bless them. More than that, He had promised to bless all nations on earth through them. And most notably, He had promised to send a unique Someone through the Hebrew family line who would reverse the ancient curse produced in Eden by humanity’s inaugural sin.

Although Joseph knew he would not live to see the day these promises would be fulfilled, he had two reasons in mind when he spoke the message captured in Hebrews 11. Firstly, Joseph believed God’s call on individuals’ lives to be authoritative—both practically and spiritually; Joseph understood every event of his life to be a concatenation—at series of connected events—through which God’s call and promise would be fulfilled. Without Joseph’s enslavement there would have been no inroad into an Egyptian prison. Without the prison, there would have been no opportunity to serve the Pharaoh. And without serving the Pharaoh, Joseph’s family back in Palestine would have perished when the years of drought wreaked their havoc. Looking back over his life, Joseph was able to see that God’s seemingly distant promises had influenced Joseph’s day-to-day opportunities to be faithful. So when Joseph’s final words reminded his people that God would be true to his promise to lead them to their Promised Land, he was passing the baton on, so to speak. He was encouraging them to remain hopeful, faithful and true to God.

Secondly, Joseph believed that God’s call involved inexplicable hints that life was designed to be eternal. He knew the oral tradition told by his ancestors. It spoke of death as a post-scripted addendum to God’s original plan for human life. Had there been no sin there would have been no death. So while Joseph knew with certainty that he, like his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would die he wanted to make a final statement on behalf of God’s original plan for an undying humanity. He wanted his bones to be brought to the Promised Land because if God’s plan some day included reinstituting eternal non-dying life—if there was Someone who would initiate a resurrection—Joseph wanted to be in on it.

That is what faith in God’s call speaks. It speaks of God taking the difficult events of your and my faith-filled lives and turning them into good. It speaks of a resurrection to eternal life. It speaks of Jesus. This is how faith has and will speak. Are you letting it speak through you?

Advertisements

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 7

stars.jpg

Enabled.

“By faith Abel…”; “By faith Enoch…”; By faith Noah…”; “By faith Abraham…” So launches the author of Hebrews into the historical examples of people who listened to God and let faith guide their lives. There is much to learn from these individuals’ lives. We’ve most recently looked at Abraham’s but we’re not done with him yet; twice more “By faith Abraham” is mentioned. His place in the ‘Hall of Faith’ has much to teach us about how a person actively heeds the call of God.

“By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”

The key word here is promise. The promise was an oath God had made first to Adam and Eve and then expanded upon to Abraham. Adam and Eve heard it as a promise that God would crush the head of Satan’s venomous lies; Abraham heard it as a promise to bless all peoples through his family line; much later Isaiah would hear it as a promise that God would enter Abraham’s line as a God-in-the-flesh infant and be “pierced for our transgressions”.

Each individual who heard the promise, heard it in terms and language that spoke to his or her need. The promise always spoke of something grander, more incredible and incomprehensible than they could fully envision. But He also enabled them to believe it if they set aside their cognitive pride. So when Adam and Eve or Abraham believed the promise they heard, their faith was based more on God’s faithfulness than on their own comprehension. They had a seed of understanding of what God meant, but the greatest reason to believe God was that God is believable.

God recognizes this challenge for those of us who listen to Him. To Abraham He gave both a broad promise and then more specific commands to enable Abraham to enter into the partnership of realizing God’s promise. Listening carefully to the broad overview of God’s plan gave Abraham perspective; and then listening to God specifically spell out Abraham’s part in the grand scheme of things gave Abraham an opportunity to demonstrate his faith. He was to make a general habit of trusting God for his welfare, and then to take specific steps of obedience such as building a family line only through his wife Sarah. God was asking Abraham to show his faith by acting on what God had revealed to him—be it general or specific.

Abraham did pretty well in living out his faith—that’s why he’s mentioned here in Hebrews 11. But he wasn’t perfect. He made several foolish mistakes in the realm of trusting God implicitly. One of Abraham’s errors led him into a scheme to produce a long-awaited son through a woman other than Sarah. But God’s promise entailed specifics in that case and the specifics included Sarah. Abraham’s attempts to steer and maneuver events outside of God’s commands led to marital tension and a social conflict that has festered for thousands of years between the Jewish and Muslim peoples. Abraham learned that attempts at self-enabling—manipulating either the generality or specifics of God’s call—lead not to improving upon God’s plans but only to complicating our own lives.

Eventually Abraham learned patience and trust, and God enabled him to participate in conceiving a child through Sarah. Hundreds of years later a great grand-descendant was born named Jesus and in every respect He was the complete fulfillment of The Promise. Abraham did not live to see that day, but his trust in the faithfulness of God to ensure that day would come enabled Abraham to become a recipient of his great grandson’s redemption.

God’s over-arching promise to bless anyone whose hope lies in Jesus, the Promised Redeemer, is for us too. The promise enables us to become humans capable of eternity. Like Abraham, we must listen to God’s words. We must admit God’s rights of sovereignty and accept His plan for our redemption. And we must live in submission to His call on our lives—a call clearly expressed in the letter to the Hebrews and in the rest of the Scriptures. It’s a promise with eternal potential where simple, life-changing listening is the means of access. Find a Bible and determine to listen. Then find yourself becoming enabled.

(Photo Credit: By Arches National Park – Delicate Arch at Night with HeadlampUploaded by AlbertHerring, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29670283)

WHO IS JESUS? #12

anchor.jpg

Promised Blessing.

Looking out at the religious figures that surrounded Him now, Jesus saw livid faces. He saw irritation and annoyance, indignance and outrage. His claims about Himself had been more than they could take; He had called Himself everything from Light of the World, to Out of this World. His claims had not enamoured Him to these men whose religious dictatorship of the community had not before been questioned.

They were an obstinate and thickheaded group. They simply could not understand Jesus because they would not understand Him. Referring to God as His Father had gotten Jesus nowhere—perhaps it was too abstract a concept for them—so He returns to the subject of Abraham. Earlier they had crowed, “Abraham is our father,” and Jesus now uses that notion to reveal His next claim about Himself

“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day,” announces Jesus; “he saw it and was glad.” His opponents were incredulous.

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

The air was thick with their incredulity and cynical skepticism.

Jesus had gone further than hard hearts could follow. He was explaining the motivation that had inspired Abraham’s life from the time he left his idolatrous roots in Mesopotamia, the ‘cradle of civilization,’ was a promise. More than a promise, it was a covenant made by Yahweh to the then-named Abram. It was a covenant promising that Abraham would become a great nation quite separate from civilization, as it was then known, a covenant whose purpose was to bless all peoples on earth—eternally. The covenant had come with the stipulation that Abraham leave his own country, people group, and father’s household and go to the land God Himself would show him (Genesis 12:1-3).

The author of Hebrews comments on the kind of faith required to follow a promise like that. He lists Abraham as one of several historical characters whose lives revolved around that kind of faith, who “considered Him (God) faithful who had made the promise.”

“All these people,” writes Hebrew’s unknown author, “were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. They admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own…Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:11,13-16).

Jesus is saying, ‘I am the personification of that promise. I am the Object of Abraham’s faith; I am the One that embedded in Abraham’s heart the joy of knowing Yahweh’s covenant would one day be realized; I am the One whose task is to bless every people group on this planet; I am the Promised Blessing; I am.’

To this very claim each of us must personally respond. The mark of a response that is authentic and truly receptive of everything offered in God’s covenant is that it will be accompanied by two things: it will be focused on Jesus, and it will be attended by an inner joy.

“Therefore,” Hebrews continues, “…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” (Hebrews 12:1,2).

So today we have this before us: we have Jesus and we have joy. These are the anchor points of the covenant God made so many millennia ago in which He even then intended us to be included. Jesus is the Promised Blessing. Let’s embrace Him today and be blessed.

(PHoto Credit: By Till Krech from Berlin, Germany – ghost shipUploaded by perumalism, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28664411)

CROSSROADS

Ambit_Guarantee

Exploring Romans 4

Promises don’t mean much in our contemporary culture. When we bring home a new appliance boasting the latest technology and most trendy styles, there is an implied promise. It promises to do the job it’s designed to do. It promises to do it better than any other product on the market. And it promises to make our life easier, happier, and freer than it’s ever been before.

When the appliance fails, sometimes only months later, all promises are off. We’re told we should have purchased the extended warranty – the fault is our own; we should have worked to ensure our easy, happy and free existence with the product would endure. The promise was merely wishful thinking on our part.

The same seems to go for most other realms in life: in education, career, marriage, parenting, health and especially our lifespan, there are no promises anymore. Or, at least, we have learned that the promises weren’t really meant to be kept. Our world is changing too fast to be hampered by mere promises.

The one exception to the rule is found here in the fourth chapter of the New Testament letter Romans. In it, we are reminded of a millennia-old promise made by God to us. To who? While it was voiced early on in the history of mankind to an ancient, later named Abraham, there was, even then in the promise, a clause that included us. It said, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” What this meant, the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans, is that because of Abraham’s unconventional response of faith toward God, he would be considered the father of all who would also have faith in God.

“It was not through law,” explains Paul, “that Abraham and his offspring received the promise…but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” And later, “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed…”

Let’s stop and rest here for a moment. This is heady news. God, the only being truly capable of making and fully keeping a promise of eternal value, has made you and me a promise. He has promised His blessing. The blessing of an all-good, all-loving and all-powerful God is not fairy dust and wishful thinking; it is the most solid, robust and meaningful element available to any creature in this world.

The great irony, or so it seems to me, is that it comes by faith. We are asked to simply believe it and entrust ourselves to the hope it will ultimately embody. But there is more. There is a guarantee. Unlike the new front-loading washing machine that self-destructs after only one year of service and is not worth repairing, God guarantees that our simple faith in His promise of blessing will never be disappointed. Faith is the full cost we bear in the transaction. The extended warranty is His responsibility alone.

“Having believed,” explains Paul in the letter Ephesians, “you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.”

It’s good to think that through again, or maybe for the first time. God offers blessed relationship with Him; God provides the means for it to happen through Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross; and God guarantees our inheritance will be delivered by imparting His own Spirit to live within us. He is fully invested in His promise becoming reality for us. And again, what is our part? Our part is simply and only faith. Yes, it will be life-changing faith if it’s authentic. Our lives will be the expression of our relationship with God, not our means of purchasing it. That’s what happens when God makes a promise, and we accept it.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Ambitibo)

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS 2013, Part 5

origin_7107118693

Light on a Dark Night (Luke 2:1-14)

Months have passed and Mary’s time to deliver is imminent. Her wedding must have been unusual—a pregnant bride claiming to be a virgin; she and Joseph have commenced married life in small town Nazareth amidst the whispers of neighbours and disappointed glances of in-laws. When the Roman prefect announced the Emperor’s edict to enforce a census, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Now she and Joseph are traveling to the urban centre to register themselves. The dictate makes no room for extenuating circumstances. An imminent birth simply means one more Jew the Romans can tax.

The newlyweds are feeling more than taxed. They are overwhelmed by the stresses of the past months, and now, weary travelers, they look for a place to rest their aching feet. It seems a cave behind a noisy inn is the best they can find. Joseph clears away barn-like debris and spreads sweet-smelling hay to make a cushioned bed-pallet for them. Mary’s labour-pains pierce the stillness of the night. She catches a look in Joseph’s fearful eyes and feels the despair of the moment. Where is God now? Has He abandoned them in their greatest need? Is this what it means to be a servant of God?

They cannot yet see that in that simple cave-stable, a golden thread is being stitched into the complex tapestry of God’s plans for the world. The embroidering needle pierces the canvas with every stitch (Mary and Joseph wince with each threading) but the beauty of the finished work will be nothing less than stunning.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me 
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). Plans for this moment were laid long before the foundation of the world. Prophecies have spoken of it for centuries. The Ancient of Days becomes one of us, and it is happening this dark night.

I guess most of us can relate to moments like that. Life’s challenges and difficulties seem to descend upon us with suffocating weight at times. We are discouraged, frustrated and hurting, unable to find hope in our impossible plight. Good things seem to come to others, but we are stuck in a cave in the dark, feeling agonies worse than any labour pains.

I love how this story goes. Do you remember the shepherds who are also in the dark some miles away, watching over their sheep under the vast night sky? An eons-old promise God made to Abraham one other starry night is being fulfilled, and the shepherds will be the first to know. Flashes of light fill the sky as celestial messengers announce the birth of God’s Messiah to these simple farming folk.

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Read that with exclamation marks throughout its staggering message. Read it again. Here’s the amazing news: Fear is conquered. Great joy replaces it like flashes of light on a dark night. We are rescued from our plight not merely by a plan but by a person—the very Son of God, born to us, not just to Mary and Joseph.

“The people walking in darkness
 have seen a great light; 
on those living in the land of deep darkness 
a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2).

Let’s enter into the Christmas spirit, and let His Spirit enter into us. That baby was Mary’s son, He is God’s Son, but Good news of great joy He is ours too. He is ready to be everything to anyone who will accept Him as Savior. Admit it. Let His light dawn in the very core of your being. This is the message of Christmas.

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulelijah/7107118693/”>Paul Kline</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

 

 

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS 2013, Part 4

 488px-Newborn_in_blanket_by_Bonnie_Gruenberg2

Spirit-Inspired Prayer (Luke 1:57-80)

The eight-day-old baby needs naming. It is tradition to wait for this day. Friends and family are gathered around the grey-haired first-time parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. It is strange how Zechariah has remained unable to speak these past nine months, but now, more than ever, he needs a voice; it is time to name his infant son.

Some well-meaning friends speak up, happy to speak his mind for him.

“Little Zechariah”, they murmur approvingly to one another. His tiny wrinkled face looks so much like his father’s.

“No! He is to be called Jochanan (John)!” insists Elizabeth. The group freezes in surprise. This childbearing must have been too much for the elderly woman. What foolishness is she speaking? Does she not know the traditional method of naming children? Who in this family was ever named Jochanan? Someone snatches a writing tablet and thrusts it toward Zechariah. If you cannot speak sense for your old wife, at least write it!

“His name”, the old man’s stylus scratches into the waxy tablet, “is Jochanan”. And like a bird breaking free from its snare, words pour from his mouth in praise of God. Fruitful wombs and mute tongues rejoicing can only be the work of God’s Spirit.

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

Why is the aged priest now speaking of God’s faithfulness through David? The people’s king of centuries before was from the Hebrew tribe of Judah, but this baby, Jochanan, is from the tribe of Levi. Has fatherhood addled the mind of this old man? Does he not remember a father’s blessing over his firstborn son must refer to that son?

All in good time. Zechariah, we are told, is prophesying under the impulse of the Holy Spirit. ‘Redeemer’ and ‘horn of salvation’ refers to another baby imminently due to be born of a virgin. Zechariah’s newborn son is merely a forerunner of the greater Son coming into the world. He refers to the other baby as ‘the rising sun (who) will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in the darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Zechariah’s benediction begins with Christ. It looks back to an ancient oath sworn to Abraham, a promise to King David and a covenant to a world of people who will accept it. Prayer is like that when the Spirit of God is in us. Spirit-driven prayer speaks truth. It opens our eyes to the works of God that we might so easily overlook. It shows us divine plans have priority over our small pedestrian ideas. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, our prayers and our small steps of obedience to God’s Word allow His Spirit to indelibly inscribe truth into our lives. Our minds become less ‘me-focused’ and more ‘Christ-focused’. He begins to use us in ways we never thought possible.

Come, O Spirit of Truth, O Father of Lights, O Redeeming Son. Inspire our prayers. Speak truth through our mute tongues; guide our feet into the path of peace and set us free to serve you all our days.

 

THOUGHTS FROM HEBREWS ELEVEN continued

SURE AND CERTAIN

Hebrews 11:1,2

IMGP2422

“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.”

Prayer is a thing of faith. It enters the realm of the eternal. It speaks to God who is spirit and invisible. So when we read that the ancients were commended for practicing their faith in a sure and certain manner, we are presented with an oxymoron. We more commonly associate sure and certain outcomes with non-faith-related experiences. We, of the enlightened scientific era, have been raised and nurtured to apply certainty only to empirical data. If an outcome can be reproduced reliably and consistently we are sure and certain of its truth.

Remember the pungent smell of the Bunsen burner in High School chemistry class? Mixing this with that over its blue heat produced such-and-such every time. It was sure and certain. The conclusion always confirmed the hypothesis.

Surely the prayer of faith does not fall within the confines of empiricism. There is no formula to ensure the granting of requests made by mortals to the Immortal One. How then can our prayers of faith be sure and certain?

Perhaps a phrase from verse eleven might give us a hint of the wisdom we seek. Abraham and Sarah’s strangely barren situation had been an obstacle to their family-production plans. They had even tried the surrogate-parent option; this had only succeeded in creating the beginnings of a nation that would plague the people of Israel for millennia to come. The writer of the book of Hebrews summarizes their story: Abraham “was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” What was that again? Abraham considered the promise-maker faithful. He focused on the character of God (His faithfulness) and the Word of God (His promises). There may be a hint here of how we could learn from the ‘ancients’ who practiced a sure and certain faith.

The ancients’ certainty rested in the unchanging character of God. His goodness, integrity, justice, patience, righteousness and loving-kindness (to name a few) are integral to who He is; they cannot be altered. So while we pray a particular request to God, our certainty rests in the realization that His response will be perfectly consistent with these eternal attributes. Can we say as much for ourselves had we the power to answer our own prayers? His wisdom, far beyond ours, and His power, unlimited, will ensure a better-than-humanly-possible scenario ultimately. Admittedly, from our point of view we cannot always see the good, but our certainty is not in our ability to see all; our certainty is in the unmatched character of God.

Secondly, the ancients’ surety rested on the promises of God. Our faith must cling not to notions we ourselves have devised regarding how God must act, but only to promises He has made. There are enough promises to meet every need in our lives; we do not need to fabricate more. (See Annie Johnson Flint’s poem, ‘God Hath Not Promised’).

As we express our faith in our prayers to the Almighty One, let us keep foremost in mind His character and His promises. These will guide and protect our hearts and minds as we pray. Then we will be “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”.