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?

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WHO IS JESUS? #8

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Sent One.

There have been some unusual gifts sent over the years: the Greek Trojan horse sent to the city of Troy, the white elephant sent by the king of Portugal to a Pope, and Cleopatra rolled in a carpet sent as a gift to gain an audience with Caesar. Anything sent carries with it the intentions of the sender—an idea that takes on flesh in order to convey some particular meaning.

As Jesus addresses His antagonists in a verbal parlay recorded in the Gospel of John, He adds yet another claim to His list of self-descriptions. He describes Himself as sent from God. It’s another facet of the recurring theme Jesus claims about Himself; He self-identifies as uniquely connected with God with a distinctive task to be accomplished. He is up front and unmistakably apparent with His listeners, but He knows they don’t really hear Him.

“Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say’” (John 8:42,43).

This is not the first time Jesus has described Himself as sent by God the Father. In a conversation held one late night between Jesus and a cautious seeker—a member of the Jewish ruling council who needed to find out from Jesus some answers to important questions—Jesus reveals a similar claim. Again He refers to Himself as sent by God. To this seeker Jesus voices a claim that has become the most well-known verse in Scripture: “For God so loved the world,” He explains, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In the next verse Jesus continues, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Did you hear the actions Jesus applies to His Father: loved, gave, send, not condemn, and save?

In claiming to be the Sent One of God, Jesus is explaining that God’s idea of loving people is not an existential notion limited to the vast domains of God’s psyche. It’s not just a thought or even a fleeting emotion. Jesus is saying that as God loves His world perfectly—every person ever conceived—He has determined to express that love by sending the perfect gift: Jesus. Jesus is uniquely able to communicate the love of God to us because He knows what it is like to be both God and human. He is saying, I am the love of God here in human form to bring you back into relationship with God, to save you from perishing if you’ll have me. But there’s the rub: ‘If we’ll have Him.’

Sadly, Jesus’ antagonists could not hear what He was offering them because they refused to listen. Rather than hearing love, they heard offense. He wasn’t the gift they wanted. They dismissed this claim as they had His others with slurs and denouncements: “You are demon-possessed!” they sneered. “Who do you think you are?” they spat. They had their own agenda and it didn’t include a God-man sent from beyond earth to do anything for them let alone be a gift to them. So He could not rescue them from their perishing, much as He would have loved to. The hand He reached out to them as they tottered on the brink of disaster was despised. The gift was rejected. The choice was theirs.

The choice is ours too. With each of Jesus’ claims, we have asked how we ought best to respond. Here Jesus tells us that our search for love ends in Him. He is the one sent from God—God in the flesh, love in action—who meets our deepest needs. There is nothing we can do to merit this gift. It’s harder than that. We must receive it with open hands and heart.

Each of us knows the areas in our life we have held Jesus’ love at a distance. He continues to offer His love to you and me, giving us every opportunity to open our ears and hearts to His offer. And how are we to express acceptance of His offer? He tells us. He says, love me in return; that’s why I was sent. So let’s begin each day by saying, “I love you, Jesus,” and follow that up by exploring His Word for more ideas on how to demonstrate that love.”

 

WHO IS JESUS? #7

Recognizable.

The list we have been amassing of Jesus’ claims about Himself in John 8 is extraordinary in the truest sense— Light of the world, Supreme and Valid Judge, the Way, Deity, Sinless One, Above All. He is not the mere man some have identified Him as being. And He is neither silent about His identity nor is He one who may safely be ignored.

As Jesus deepens His conversation with the antagonistic Jewish hierarchy of His day we observe a phrase He uses twice in close succession. This is significant because while the phrases are identical, they carry with them two diverging results depending on how individuals respond to Him.

“(I)f you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” asserts Jesus (John 8:24), and moments later, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be” (John 8:28).

In both cases, Jesus explains that the claims He makes about Himself are not merely fantastic: they are authentic and they demand a response—a response from every person in His contemporary culture, but also from each one of us. He recognizes that those who have observed His life, who have listened to His words and have recognized the uniqueness of His claims, must and will make a choice about Him. That choice—like all choices—will be one of personal volition. In other words, it will be considered by God to be a choice each of us has made to believe the evidence Jesus presents or to discount it, to accept its implications or to reject it.

But rejection does not make Jesus go away—that is a blurred view of reality. That is like the perspective of an infant for whom only those within her half-metre range of focused vision exist. Dismissing Jesus and assuming He has therefore disappeared ignores something fundamental about our humanity; it is a denial of the connection between our free will actions and the real effects they have. Part of the value God created within us means that our moral choices have real significance, and that eternity is the stage through which those choices will be displayed. Jesus here gives clues to the ramifications of disbelieving Him.

Of the Pharisees, Jesus describes an unbelief that would become the death of them (“…if you do not believe…you will die…”). This is not the petulant verbal assault of a charlatan who worries his influence is fading. It is the warning of an authentic and reliable expert who sees the ultimate consequences of that disbelief. It is the ringing of an alarm that clarifies an eternal matter; an issue to which every person is accountable.

Jesus is saying that He has made Himself recognizable to each of us—no excuses. He will ultimately be acknowledged as the one who I claim to be by every individual who has ever lived—no exceptions. “For since the creation of the world,” explains the Apostle Paul, “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

Jesus’ adds something more. He foreshadows something about the future. “When you have lifted up the Son of Man…” He says. What is this reference to being lifted up? Within that phrase He is layering two ideas. From a historical perspective, He is referring to the impending execution to which He would be subjected—the crucifixion that would lift Him up on a barbaric cross for all to see. He is speaking of His own imminent physical death—not a perishing/spiritual death such as His warning to the Pharisees, but a physical death all the same.

But His second meaning refers to a time much further into the future, a time of which even we have not yet seen the fulfillment. This lifting up of Jesus will be not one of derision but of exaltation. It is described also by Paul who writes as a hymn: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

What is our best response to Jesus’ insistence that He is the One—the Recognizable One? It all comes down to living out our belief in Him—to humbling ourselves and accepting Him; to trusting Him in the sometimes-messy situations of our lives. He power to impact us is not only for eternity but also for today. He wants us to lift up our eyes and recognize Him as the true and worthy One who is who He says He is. He wants us to open our eyes and see Him. Here and now.

Open our eyes, Lord – We want to see Jesus – To reach out and touch Him – And say that we love Him – Open our ears, Lord – And help us to listen – Open our eyes, Lord – We want to see Jesus. (Hymn by R. Cull).

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #2

Praising God’s Sovereignty (A Paraphrase of Jeremiah 32:17-27)

Sovereign God, all-powerful Ruler of the universe and beyond, Your fingerprint is on everything, seen and unseen alike. From the tiniest atom to the furthest solar system, Your signature mystery and beauty, order and surprise is stamped on all Your handiwork. Everything was made by You and is sustained by You; nothing is too hard for You to accomplish.

You understand the heart of every person who every walked this earth and breathed its God-rich air. Nothing escapes Your notice. You are incredibly fair: to those who bow before Your Sovereign authority You show Yourself to be a loving, compassionate Father and friend; to others who, in foolish rebellion, twist and pry themselves away from Your loving hand, You are as unbending as steel and as fearful as gravity.

O magnificent and might One, whose name is LORD Almighty, Your purposes and plans are matched only by Your power to accomplish everything You intend. You see every one of us, giving each of us unique opportunities to make our choices clear: we may honour, love and obey Your or ignore Your sovereignty and go our own way. You allow us the dignity of that choice, while cautioning us that each way comes with its own eternal consequences.

God of all mankind, in the midst of my daily living, help me consistently and clearly choose You. Help me obey Your commands even when they look strange by this world’s norms. Help me become the person You want me to be. Nothing is too hard for You!

JESUS THE GATE, Part 4

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Myth Dispelled

The myth of God as indifferent superintendent explodes. Elaborating on his metaphor of sheep and shepherd, Jesus teaches us something vital about Him. We learn how He views His role in this drama of humanity with which He so closely identifies.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10: 11-15)

Jesus here expands on the story of the flock of sheep. He moves Himself into the role of shepherd to contrast Himself with other leaders. His audience is familiar with the self-serving religious leadership in their cultural community. They are also accustomed to the indifferent superintendence of the political leadership of the ruling empire. They, like we, are more than a little disillusioned by the lack of authenticity in people who claim to care.

Jesus steps boldly forward here describing His leadership as uniquely good and caring. He is saying that He and only He truly loves people. He likens Himself to a shepherd who puts his life on the line to protect his sheep from the wolf. The hired hand doesn’t care any more for the sheep than that they provide him with income. The wolf surely cares nothing more for the sheep than as objects to be devoured. Only the good shepherd takes ownership of truly caring for the intrinsic value of the sheep. Jesus even foretells His own sacrificial death in this analogy. The good Shepherd stops at nothing to ensure the safety of His sheep. Imagine someone loving you so much they would die for you to ensure your survival. Do you know anyone like that?

We need reminding that the scenario of the human condition includes a bully whose sole purpose is to destroy your life and mine, for eternity. He’s not the only fool, either. We’ve all taken a major misstep. A man in tune with the truth of our condition once said, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Did you hear who it is that must bear the brunt of our human rebellion? ‘The LORD has laid on HIM’—Jesus—‘the iniquity of us all’. Jesus, the good Shepherd takes the rap, pays the consequences, so we can be back in the sheepfold. Jesus has such sympathy for our situation He gives of Himself to give us back something we failed to realize was lost: the ability to choose to return to Him.

Make no mistake, He’s heavily invested in your life. Don’t ever accuse Him of being distant, disinterested, or careless of you. That’s the wolf’s lie. Perhaps it’s been easier to label Him with those tags that to accept that they may in fact describe you. It’s worth considering, isn’t it?

So we see four points in Jesus’ sheep-gate metaphor: Followers of Jesus learn to distinguish His voice from all others; it is life-changing (Have you heard it?); Jesus is the only fodder that can nourish our spirit to live into eternity (Have you eaten it?); Jesus is singularly peerless in providing true life (Do you want it?); and only Jesus truly cares for us (Do you choose to accept it?).

Interesting theme running throughout, isn’t it? Did you hear it? Jesus is uniquely and closely involved in the lives of people. He is the means by which God reveals His interest, participation, and attachment to people’s lives. He’s the only Shepherd that’s just dying to spend eternity with a bunch of sheep.