The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 12

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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?

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The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 4

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Impossible?

Picture the largest indigenous land animal in your country—on the west coast of Canada it would be a grizzly bear. Now picture the smallest hole which technology of our day has devised—that would be the apertures made by UC Berkeley’s semiconductor laser that are smaller than a single protein molecule. Now, imagine you want to communicate a hyperbole to make a point. You might say something like, “That’s as likely as a Grizzly squeezing through a semiconductor laser aperture!” It would be unusual enough that you would be making your point (no pun intended).

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus making a similar comment—a first century Middle Eastern version of it. Jesus uses hyperbole to make a point, to catch His disciples’ attention, to correct a firmly held cultural belief. Jesus’ comment follows His interaction with the rich young man who has turned away, unwilling to redistribute his wealth, precursor to softening his heart to following Jesus.

“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23-27).

The problem was that Jewish culture equated wealth with spiritual blessing. It read Moses’ words, “God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to” (Deuteronomy 15:10) and made it into a holy grail. Wealth became a defining sign of God’s reward. The wealthier the Jews became, the more they ignored God’s words fore and aft of the ‘blessing.’ The commands, “do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother” (v.7), and “be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (v.11) had been disregarded. It is human nature to twist God’s words in such a way that it benefits oneself rather than obeying the true spirit of the command.

Jesus’ hyperbole was meant to bring that mindset to a screeching halt. The disciples are “amazed” and then “even more amazed” at his words. He is clearly explaining that we can neither earn our way to eternal life nor presume that our wealth, social status, or ethical standards give us a foot in the door to paradise. There is nothing we can do to position ourselves to deserve God’s blessing. No one can be saved.

Exactly, confirms Jesus. “With man this is impossible.”

But Jesus continues. There is hope because God turns the impossible into the possible. As in creation when He speaks His Word and everything from rainbows of light to species of life are created, His Word must be spoken for humanity’s salvation to occur. Jesus is the Word of God in the flesh, and it is He who makes salvation possible for each of us. He is the one who has spent the wealth of His perfect sinlessness to pay with His life-blood the debt of our moral bankruptcy. They unpayable bill has been paid in full.

No matter where we are at today—long-time followers of Jesus, cautious explorers of this thing called saving faith, or hard-nosed atheists—we are all on common ground. Not one of us can access any real paradise on our own. It’s impossible. But Jesus can and does. Jesus makes the impossible possible.

Be amazed an even more amazed. He has made eternity available to us.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 14

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‘Lamedh’

At 117, Violet Mosse Brown holds the honour of being earth’s oldest living person. She saw the advent of flight, the early development of the automobile, the overthrow of Czarist Russia, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, the rum-runners of the Prohibition, and the decolonization of the British Empire. She has outlived everyone in her generation, and most of those in her children’s generation. She predates virtually every household appliance including every digital device upon which our lives are now so dependent. To her, insulin, anaesthesia, and antibiotics are new inventions. If there is one thing we can say about this supracentenarian, it is that she is enduring. But compared to Someone Else, Violet Mosse Brown’s life is but a breath, here today and gone tomorrow—a speck on the horizon of earth’s history. Listen to how the psalmist puts it.

“Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. / Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures. / Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you. / If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. / I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life. / Save me, for I am yours; I have sought out your precepts. / The wicked are waiting to destroy me, but I will ponder your statutes. / To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless”(Psalm 119:89-96).

That is ‘Lamedh’, twelfth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and twelfth stanza of Psalm 119. In Lamedh, the psalmist uses words and phrases like “eternal”, “continues through all generations”, “endures”, “preserved” and “boundless” to express the lofty theme of God’s great timelessness. There is something secure and restful in the contemplation of God’s boundless, enduring existence. He is the epitome of one who keeps His word, both because He is unerringly faithful in His promises, and because He is unlimited in His enduring perseverance loving humans.

While the psalmist admits he experiences the affliction and conflict common to humans, he sees himself as brought into an uncommon circle of friendship with God that allows him to request help from God. He says, “For I am yours.” He is claiming God’s ownership of him. He is acknowledging he relinquishes his autonomy and self-made rights, accepting God’s purpose for his life. Not as a mercenary contract but as a natural corollary, the psalmist anticipates being the recipient of God’s great salvation through His word—the living Word we know as Jesus.

Where the psalmist ends, limited by his place in history, other servants of the ever-enduring God continue expanding on the concept of the boundless nature and gift of God. The Apostle Paul records in a letter to early Christians on the coast of present day Turkey a prayer he prays for all who will ever say, “I am yours” to God.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).

This passage is rich with descriptions of the boundless love with which our enduring, persevering God wants to transform our lives. His love, rooting and establishing us, fills us with His fullness. It is wider, longer, higher and deeper than we could ever imagine.

Timothy Keller suggests “wide” refers to the scope of God’s love, available to every human being—no exceptions; “long” refers to the eternal nature of His love—His never-ending faithfulness to bring good into our lives; “high” suggests the heavenly realm to which His love will ultimately bring us, where body, soul and spirit will enjoy the fullness of God’s design for humanity; and “deep” reminds us of the depth of horror to which Jesus submitted Himself, dying on the cross to pay the penalty for my sin and yours.

Which brings us back to the psalmist’s request to be saved. God’s love, fully expressed through His Son Jesus, is the culmination of the answer to that prayer. The Father’s love and the Son’s ransom-paying act ultimately save us from ultimate harm, preserving us even through death for a boundless, delightful eternity with Him. Now that’s enduring.

What’s to be Thankful For? Part 8

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Dependable Presence.

In ‘Part 7: Counsel’ we asked the question, “How does God counsel us day and night?” As if the lyricist of Psalm 16 anticipates our question, he pens in verse eight: “I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” How is this an answer to our question?

Let’s begin with the great truth of God’s omnipresence. What omnipresence means is that God is everywhere present. It must be so, both because He claims to be, and also because the definition of God is One who is restrained by no limits other than to act consistently with His character. God inhabits a dimension that goes infinitely beyond the three-dimensional existence we experience, and nothing less than to be everywhere present and all-knowing is what we ought to expect from the unique and Sovereign Being we call God.

So if God is everywhere present, why do so many people on this planet fail to sense, appreciate, and benefit from His presence? This is the point from which the psalmist launches his testimony: “I have set the LORD always before me,” he explains. He places forefront in his consciousness the mindset of God’s presence with him. His resolve is to see, hear, smell, taste and feel nothing without it passing through the filter of the truth of God’s presence.

The use of mindset to accomplish a determined purpose is not unique. Elite athletes use mindset; they think about their sport day and night, viewing it from different angles, imagining and envisioning themselves meeting the various challenges that are common to their sport and gaining victory over them.

Storywriters and songwriters use mindset; their minds are constantly and even unconsciously mulling over their objective of communicating story through wordsmithy and tune mastery. It is not uncommon for great writers to awaken in the night with an idea, a word, a phrase or a tune that solves their creative dilemma.

So why not our grasp of God? When true seekers of God set their minds on things eternal, the Eternal One reveals Himself and His presence in the everyday ordinary things of life. The sixth sense that He is at our right hand guiding us, providing the support we need when our world shakes, is real. It is more vigorous and robust than the flimsy crutch God-followers have been accused of relying upon.

The awareness that God is here now, beside us, before us and within us is what the psalmist is describing when he explains that God “is at my right hand”; and because of this conviction that God is closer to us than our skin, the psalmist comes to the reasonable conclusion that “I will not be shaken.”

The clearer the understanding and acceptance we have of God’s presence, the more firm, secure and safe we will feel. This is why the young Hebrew prisoner Daniel, when thrown to the lions for his refusal to bow to his Medo-Persian captor, could face his situation with composure. He refused to allow the glaring, slavering appearance of peril to hinder his view of God’s presence.

This is also how many Christ-followers face their persecutors in countries where torture and death are the penalty for their faith. They set the LORD always before their eyes. They know He is at their right hand. And while terribly mistreated, their faith is not shaken.

God is no less present for you and me than He was for Daniel and is for the countless thousands who suffer for their faith. He is relevant here and now in your life and mine. The question is: Will we choose to have a mind set on Him? It is not easy. It will take everything we are and have to make good our resolve and not be swayed by the flagrant distractions of our eyes and ears. But the reward is rich. We will know irrefutably God’s dependable presence. We will benefit from His ever-present counsel. That’s something to be thankful for.

(Photo Credit: “Lion Yawning” by John Storr – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_Yawning.jpg#/media/File:Lion_Yawning.jpg)

PSALM 106: WHOLENESS, Part 3

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Remember Me (vs. 4,5)

“Remember me, LORD, when you show favour to your people, come to may aid when you save them, that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may share in the joy of your nation and join your inheritance in giving praise.”

‘Me too,’ the psalmist petitions. ‘Let me be a part of the great gift of wholeness You offer those You call Your people.’ Let’s not be fooled: he’s not talking about financial aid or prosperity; he’s not eliciting party favours or a wealthy man’s inheritance. It’s not money he wants. The psalmist’s ‘me too’ prayer is the plea of a humble heart that knows its brokenness can only be healed and made whole by God.

To be remembered by God is the greatest, fullest, most satisfying existence a person could ever know. The criminal who hung crucified next to Jesus repeats the same message as the psalmist when he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The thief knows both his and Jesus’ earthly lives are in their final hours, yet he does not speak as if he or they will cease to exist. He has a worldview that includes life beyond the grave – and he acknowledges Jesus as the One who will rule in undisputed sovereignty there. Notice how Jesus does not discount that worldview. He does not claim to be only a good man; he claims divinity and sovereignty and for that He hangs nailed between criminals, by those who want to end His existence. But this criminal believes something incredible. He believes Jesus is the Ever-existing One, and in that knowledge he takes hope.

In the world of men, the thief is without hope, but in the kingdom of Christ everything gets turned upside-down. In that world the humble and repentant are loved and remembered and welcomed. In that world they are mended and re-created and made whole. In that world, favour means knowing and being known fully by God, and loving every eternal minute of it.

We learn something scandalous about this dying brigand: we learn that he believes that Jesus, the sinless one, can forgive the worst of sinners; we learn that Jesus rules an eternal kingdom and remembers those who will humble themselves like children. We learn that paradise is being with Jesus in His eternal kingdom where we don’t get what our deeds deserve but what our hearts desire. We learn the spiritual aspect of what the psalmist tries to communicate in his prayer asking to be remembered.

Today is not unlike the day the psalmist prayed. We, too, can breathe those two words and find ourselves on the road to wholeness. The kingdom of God is not only a then-and-there hope – it’s here and now. It’s for psalmists and sophists, dying thieves and living amateurs. It’s for you and me if we will humble ourselves before our Maker and say, “Remember me.”

O God who knows me better than I know myself, remember me. Bring to Your vast mind Your promise of compassion for those who humble themselves before Your great mercy. Remember my needy soul, my weak and foolish frailty, my helpless condition. Remember that I need Your love not only every moment of this life, but also in the life to come. Remember me, and I will be whole.