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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OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 2

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‘Aleph’ (vs.1-8).

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who keep his statutes, and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways. You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.”

Not many of us know Hebrew. Many Bibles, though, have labeled the stanzas of Psalm 119 in that ancient language. The first stanza is labeled ‘Aleph.’ Does it sound familiar? Think of our word alphabet. The Hebrew Aleph is our ‘A’ and Bet is our ‘B’. Alphabet is simply ‘The A’s and B’s of a language.’

It’s an interesting device the psalmist uses. It’s as if he is saying, ‘These are the a b c’s of living in close communion with God; this is the language we must learn if we want to be part of God’s original intention for creating us.’ But just read through those verses again. It doesn’t take a Hebrew scholar to see the incongruity and conflict that has escaped from the psalmist’s pen.

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless…Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” he bemoans. The psalm-writer has begun to examine his own life and beliefs about God and with a shudder realizes he has fallen short of the glorious God-centred life he thought he could live. Perhaps he suddenly recognizes the two-edged sword of human free will: God has revealed His moral nature, but He gives humans the choice to discount Creator-dependent living in favour of their own freedom-seeking trial-and-error methods. To do so comes naturally to us, but also comes with a price. We bypass the blessing and success God designed our lives to produce.

We hear in the psalmist’s words his anxiety and apprehension. His best attempts to be true to God, to be morally consistent and steadfast in obedience have failed. He is a sinner with a sense of morality that won’t go away. He tries to reverse the negative influence of his choices by looking up at the moral benchmark where he sees hope shining. He sees blessing and an upright heart and an overall goodness of living that he wants. What he also discovers is an intersection of two distinct and diverging paths, a crossroads he faces every day. He seems to describe the paths as the Way of Blessing and the Path of Shame, roads he, like every human, consciously or unconsciously walks upon as a result of choices made. He hasn’t got the full picture, but he knows his own anxiety because his walk is inconsistent.

Centuries later, Jesus elaborated on the picture the psalmist was beginning to sketch. He described those paths and the dilemma of our struggling moral nature. “Enter through the narrow gate,” He advised, “for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). Jesus clarified the psalmist’s and our dilemma by revealing that the situation is both worse and better than the psalmist had imagined.

Jesus expands the psalmist’s word shame into total destruction. A gram of rebellion against the Creator becomes a mushrooming cancer of self-destruction in the eternal realm Jesus foresaw. Yet Jesus also expands on the psalmist’s term blessing; he calls it life, an expansive, God-infused, flourishing and eternal life to which He will refer on many other occasions. He shows us something we know deep inside. The stakes are high; the rumours are true: the decisions we make in this life matter for eternity. Our moral nature intimates and necessitates it. We are more than tissue and bone; the One who made us calls us to prepare ourselves for our unseen future while we are still bound by that tissue and bone.

The trouble is that inhabiting bodies as we do, we are the most natural materialists and sensualists. We are drawn toward things that satisfy our senses—things we can see, touch, hear, taste and smell. Many of those hankerings are good and are essential for our survival: food, clothing, shelter, loving relationships, and meaningful work are the basics of life. But some of those appetites damage us: harmful addictions, injurious relationships, and unethical work. We can make our own lists of those ones.

But the real danger is when we allow our senses (empiricism) to block our perception of God communicating to us through our spirit. Because we fail to literally see the two paths, our tendency, in practice, is to deny or at least ignore that they exist. Yet, recognizing this, there seems to be nothing more we can do than to cry out as the psalmist does, “Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” Or is there?

(To be continued)

Crossroads, Part 5.

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The ancient Syrian city of Palmyra may be next. The destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq is spreading; from burning the National Library, pillaging the National Museum, and bulldozing Hatra and Nimrud, the Islamic State jihadists have advanced on Syria. It’s a violation of the Hague Convention, the Geneva Convention, social and ethical convention. And that destruction pales in comparison to the human destruction being wreaked. Investigations of one month alone (November, 2014) show that 80% of all death in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and Afghanistan were the result of jihadist violence. That the ISIS-led reign of destruction appalls us is a good sign, though. It reveals that we have deep within us a sense of fair play, a knowledge that although this reign of destruction is all around us, it is somehow foreign to our inner moral code.

There is a more fundamental issue in the realm of earthly reigns and destruction than what ISIS or any violent group or individual is doing, though.

“Death,” explains Paul in the fifth chapter of Romans, “reigned…” He is explaining the moral situation of which all of us, Adam’s hapless descendants, have found ourselves both perpetrators and victims. We are all morally culpable not only for our own personal continuation and version of the Great Rebellion against God. At the time of Moses, Judaic Law was introduced. Was this a crossroad, a solution to the age-old problem? No, explains Paul. “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” Our situation was moved from bad to worse. Our problem was simply highlighted to draw our attention to it. So death continued its merciless reign.

Study the history of the human race. Pore over the documents and archives of our sad story. Watch the news. Beneath the innovations and revolutions that emerge intermittently, something deeper permeates the journey of our species: Inequities, cruelties, and atrocities stain the social fabric of our history across time, place and culture. In a word, death reigns. That path is descriptive of the movement of humanity’s masses even today.

Picture it. Imagine a huge highway absolutely plugged with people jostling and rubbing shoulders with one another, fights breaking out occasionally, some being trampled by the many, a rare helping hand reaching out to another. This is the picture that describes us.

Now picture a gift—not a box wrapped in tissue and ribbon, but an opportunity to escape the mad wanderings of the death reign. This gift is mentioned five times in three verses—Paul must be trying to make a point. It’s a “gift…not like the trespass”; it’s a “gift of God (that) is not like the result of the one man’s sin”; it’s a “gift (that) followed many trespasses”; it’s a “gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ”; and it’s a gift that allows “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness (to) reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

Did you catch that? At this crossroad, we step from the road where death reigns onto the path where life reigns, where those who accept the gift reign in life.

It’s a noteworthy crossroad. It’s the same crossroad we’ve been exploring through the first four chapters of Romans, and now we hear it in yet another way. We’re reminded yet again of this uniquely central intersection Jesus created for us two thousand years ago to be current today. It is no wonder the cross is the paradoxical symbol of life for those who have chosen to follow Him. It pictures death being crossed by life. So take the gift and treasure it – and move into the reign of life.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Voice of America News; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvOZnXeJs3M&feature=plcp)