The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 6

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Is it Reasonable?

Our premise is that God speaks, that He is the initiator of a conversation into which each of us it seems is called—a conversation broad enough to include everyone ever conceived in human history, and specific enough to be heard as if you and I were the only ones here on planet Earth. In this series we are looking at the record in Hebrews 11 of men and women who listened intently to God’s voice and how in consequence the course of their lives changed. But were those changes necessary? Was it reasonable for those people to try to hear God? Did it make logical sense to go to such extremes? And most importantly, is it reasonable for us today to listen for the call of God?

“By faith Abraham,” begins verse 8, “when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Imagine Abraham. The current phenomenon of leisure travel that we know today did not exist in Abraham’s era. There were virtually no resources out there to ensure anyone’s safety and survival when traveling. When Abraham heard the itinerary God had planned for him, he knew it would be anything but easy. Or safe. There were no consulates, prophylactic travel meds, or Fodor’s guides to the territory through which he would be traveling. God had not even told him the details of where he was going. Abraham would need to exchange security for uncertainty, community for loneliness, and the life of a landowner for that of a nomad in enemy territory. Listening to God would, within two generations, reduce his descendants to 400 years of slavery nowhere near the land God had promised to Abraham. Was it reasonable to hear and obey God’s call? And more to the point, is listening to God a logical, sensible course for any of us to adopt for our lives?

Firstly, we must admit that all decisions have risks associated with them. We cannot guarantee outcomes. Sometimes our choices have wonderful results—intended and unintended ones. Relationships flourish; opportunities abound. Other times our choices spin and spiral back to bite and devour us. Wisdom teaches us that when we take carefully calculated risks based on the trustworthiness and reliability of a person or course of action, we put ourselves in the best position for good outcomes. Listening to God is no more a risk than refusing to hear Him or admit His right to our lives. What could be more logical than attending to the Creator and lover of our souls?

Secondly, while God rarely reveals to us the short-term implications of obeying His call on our lives, He does promise long-term blessing. While Abraham suffered many hardships as a result of obeying God, he gained something far greater: the friendship of God, a right standing in God’s sight based on his trust in God’s provision of a Redeemer, and a true home in eternity with the community of other God-followers. Each of these outcomes was not promised only to Abraham. God promises them to you and me too. Our vision for the distant future is part of the impetus that drives us to listen to God.

And thirdly, it is a self-evident truth that personal growth requires us to look and listen to wisdom outside of ourselves. We are not the source of knowledge. We admit the need to submit ourselves to instruction from others in every realm of life from arithmetic to zoology. How much greater is our need—and the associated benefits—of learning from the source of all life, from God. The more we open ourselves to God’s voice and message, the more we will be enabled to grasp it, absorb it, digest it and integrate it into our lives. And it is imperative that we do this because of God’s goal for our lives.

“(Y)ou must realize from the outset,” explains author C.S. Lewis, “that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal.” “When troubles come along,” continues Lewis, “—illnesses, money troubles, new kinds of temptation…God is forcing (us) on, or up, to a higher level; putting (us) into situations where (we) will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than (we) ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us” (Mere Christianity).

By all the laws of reason and logic, listening to God and obeying Him makes sense. It is reasonable. It is the best of risks, the surest of long-term investments, and is our only hope of becoming wholly complete people. It is not easy. It is not safe. But can you imagine anything truly better for us?

(Photo Credit: By Maria Ly – Flickr: rock climbing @ lei pi shan, yangshuo china, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16221809)

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The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 5

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Heeding Warnings.

The call of God is attractive when it’s a message of love and grace, of forgiveness and mercy, of hope and acceptance. That kind of call is heartwarming. It lifts us up and encourages us when we are down and discouraged or weak and defenseless. But sometimes the call of God demands more of us, requires a degree of grunt work on our part to obey; it takes us the next step further in our process of spiritual growth and development. Sometimes God’s call entails warnings—even condemnations—and is designed to evoke in us a response of holy fear.

Introducing emotionally charged words like these is risky business; they are not culturally acceptable words these days. Warnings and condemnations brings to mind the ‘Hell, Fire and Brimstone’ sermons we cringe in recollection of hearing about in the post-enlightenment days of our Western culture—sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ address of the 1700s. Are harsh words and concepts like these really an aspect of the call of a loving God?

“By faith Noah,” the author of Hebrews continues in his eleventh chapter discourse, “when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”

What was is that distinguished Noah from all the rest of his culture, that saved him and his family from peril while possibly millions perished? From what we read here in Hebrews and in the more detailed account in Genesis, Noah’s life was characterized by a “holy fear” of God. His worldview, his mental set point, his philosophy of life was distinguished by the acceptance of God as the rightful ruler of his life. He attended carefully to everything he had learned about God and applied that knowledge to his life. Genesis tells us that Noah “walked with God” and was both “righteous” and “blameless among the people of his time.” Those are terms used in the Bible to describe people who live with integrity the principles of God-honouring behaviour—whose day to day choices reflect their understanding of God’s character and His prerogative to set guidelines for human living, whose hearts admit God’s sovereignty.

In contrast, the culture around Noah was characterized by ideologies we currently call atheistic or agnostic. People had no fear of God. The Genesis account describes the situation from God’s perspective.

“The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” Note how it is the heart attitude of both Noah and his contrasting culture that God observes and to which He speaks when His call is a warning.

Noah’s response to God’s warning call was the next thing that distinguished him from his surrounding culture. Noah listened. He heard the bad news, believed that God was serious, and then as Genesis records, “did everything just as God commanded him.” Now that took faith. Building an ark of enormous proportions was one thing. Passing on the warning call of God to his community was another, perhaps even more daunting task. It is quite possible he feared for his life and liberty among those who would have considered his message ‘hate speech.’

We know the rest of the story. Noah completed the ark and filled it with his family, land creatures of every kind, and enough food for a year of crazy confinement; his culture refused to accept the rescue and perished enmasse. Later, when the floodwaters had subsided, Noah and his entourage disembarked their floating quarters and were welcomed back on terra firma with a rainbow, symbolic of a promise of blessing.

Did you notice how the Hebrews account of this momentous event ends? It explains that Noah “became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” This phrase is crucial. We might even say it describes the essential core of the Bible’s message, of God’s call to each of us as individuals. It speaks of faith, of becoming an heir, and of righteousness. It is saying that when we by faith choose to hear God’s call—be it of grace and love or of warning and judgment—and heed it, we become heirs. And what do we inherit? We become recipients of Christ’s righteousness, of His perfect heart, and we are accepted into an eternity with God. This is the result of listening to God’s call.

The warnings, like the expounding of God’s love and grace, run throughout God’s word. So let’s take advantage of the opportunity to take them to heart. Let’s hear and humble ourselves and obey God’s directions. Then we will become people characterized by faith, by holy fear, and (O great mystery) by righteousness.

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 10

Glory.

The disciples had been thinking about glory. They had been dreaming about it, savouring the taste of its pleasures in their imaginations, and they had begun talking about it. They had even mentioned it to Jesus, hoping to guarantee and entrench their position as founding investors in the ‘Messiah Project.’ They had dictated their request to Jesus, saying, “Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.” They were probably caught off guard by the piercing light in Jesus’ eyes as He stopped everything to answer them.

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

Jesus’ question directed to the brazen brothers was rhetorical. Asking them, “Can you drink the cup I drink…?” was similar to his earlier statement, which could be rephrased as another rhetorical question: “Can a rich person enter the kingdom of God?” Jesus didn’t need an answer from them, because He is able to plumb the depths of all history—both past and future—and see the answer displayed in the life of every person who has or ever will populate this planet. Jesus knows the answer is ‘No!’, not by themselves. No one, rich or poor, who depends on their own resources or methods, can enter the kingdom of God. We’ve shut the gate by our core pride and selfishness, and by our failure to give God the unique position in our lives He deserves. We can neither enter the kingdom of God nor endure the task for which Jesus is the solely qualified contestant. The ‘cup’ (and the ‘baptism’) that Jesus refers to is His redeeming death. Only Jesus meets the perfect standard for humanity, and only He can sacrifice His life to pay the kind of death penalty 100% of humanity legitimately owes God.

Jesus doesn’t argue with the self-confident duo. Rather, knowing that His death, His resurrection and His later ascension would be necessary prior to the gifting of His Holy Spirit to all of His followers, Jesus prophecies the suffering His disciples will face. “You will drink the cup I drink….” reminds us that every one of His twelve disciples would face untimely deaths or extended political exiles directly as a result of their faith. And yet, every one of them would be sustained with an inner strength not of their own, but as a result of the indwelling divine comforter and strengthener, the Holy Spirit. Jesus saw that future.

Jesus also saw the lives of every one of us—of you and me—who would one day rest our lives in His redeeming hands. John—one of the emboldened brothers—later records a prayer Jesus prays for us, that we might be set apart by truth and love and unity together with the Godhead and with each other.

“Father,” Jesus prays, “I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24). The incomprehensible and unattainable goal of eternal glory is Jesus’ idea, planted deep within each human heart. But this hope has become impossible to reach because we’ve muffed it. We’ve tried to reach it our own way—our proud self-sufficient way. Then Jesus, gracious re-creator that He is, takes immeasurable suffering onto Himself so that the Father can see us as perfect—perfectly prepared for a glory we can only imagine in our wildest dreams. The impossible dream becomes possible because of Jesus, who models endurance, the kind of “endurance,” says William Barclay, “(that) is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.”

So glory falls into our laps too, somehow, by some impossibly creative means only God could have designed. It’s glory now—seeing with amazement how increment by small but steady increment the Holy Spirit is building character within us just like Jesus’ character. And it’s glory later—once this life is done and we enter a new aspect of living called ‘eternity’, we will reflect the Lord’s glory perfectly. In the meantime there will be the cup to drink, the cup of suffering that comes upon each of us in varying degrees simply because we are humans living in a fallen world. But even this suffering, borne with grace and faith in our Saviour, will become wisdom and patience and lead to an even greater faith in the One who suffered immeasurably for us. So come to glory, divine glory and human glory. Come to Jesus.

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)

WHO IS JESUS, #3

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The Way

“I know where I came from and where I am going,” Jesus challenges His antagonists; although an enigma to the religious ruling class of His day, Jesus is completely conscious of His role as the peoples’ way back to God. He speaks of His origins (“where I came from”) and His objectives (“where I am going”) with the composure of one who is singularly omniscient (all knowing) and resolute in His role. Unswerving faithfulness to His relationship with His heavenly Father informs His eternal purpose to be the redeeming exchange for the consequences of humankind’s sin.

With these words He claims identity as the One who alone can re-open the pathway of relationship between God and created persons. “I am the way,” Jesus later explains to His closest followers. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

It’s quite a claim Jesus makes about Himself. He does not say, “I am one of a variety of ways back to the Father.” Some would rather He said that. Then we could design our spirituality with a more eclectic flavour. We could have a little ‘mindfulness (spiritual-but-not-religious)’ here, a little ‘diversity-tolerance’ there, and add Jesus into the mix to fit our personal whims. But Jesus Himself doesn’t give us that option. He claims the exclusive right to meet all people’s total and complete spiritual needs. Period.

Just what is our best response to Jesus’ outrageous claim to be the only way to the Father? First, we need to rout out that niggling part of us that is irked, irritated and rankled with Jesus’ claim. We need to give it the name Malignant Pride, and release it to Jesus. He will dispose of it for us. “As far as the east is from the west,” says the psalmist, “so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103).

In its place we must accept humility, awe, thankfulness, peace, and a new insight into following Jesus’ Way. We will, in effect, be set back on the path we were created to follow when earth was young and life was a garden of possibilities.

But earth and its inhabitants have suffered an illness. Those that have submitted to the surgery to have the malignancy removed are in convalescence. Like John Bunyan’s character ‘Christian’ in his classic allegory ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, there are still challenges along the path of our journey. There is the potential failure to daily treasure God’s Word, leaving it at the wayside and becoming entangled in bypass routes. There is the tendency to take shortcuts that land us in the ‘slough of despond’ or in the giant ‘Despair’s’ castle of bondage. There is the temptation to turn back from the Heaven-focused journey in fear of the lion’s threats, or to give in to the suggestions of ‘Mistrust’ and ‘Timorous’.

We must cooperate with Jesus as He places us on the high but narrow road to Life; we must follow His every word of guidance and refuse to invite malignant pride back into our hearts.

Our best course is to remain close to Jesus, the One who personifies the “Way of Holiness” (Isaiah 35:8), who alone is qualified to “lead (us) in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24)—to an eternity of purpose and God-centered living. And like the best of adventures, not only is the final destination important, but so is the route itself; Jesus’ way bring travelers satisfaction and joy because Jesus journeys alongside us. He is our closest companion. So think again about Jesus’ claim to be the Way. It’s the best news we’ve had in a long, long time.

Christmas Wish List

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Remember Christmases when you were a child? Remember the weeks or days leading up to the grand moment and all the anticipation that swelled in your childish heart—anticipation of presents galore? A lot of it had to do with the pictures planted into our minds by the T.V. commercials of the day.

My anticipation always grew to staggering proportions every December. One year my wish list contained the most realistic newborn-sized doll on the market. I wanted that toy badly. I wrote to ‘Santa’—a jolly man with a perfectly white beard who appeared on a seasonal show and answered letters written to the address he’d provided. One of the dozens of letters Santa selected was mine. He read my childish scrawl, assured his watchers that Santa always gives good children what they want, and sure enough my doll appeared in the mail some days later.

I loved that doll for months—until the next round of commercials drew my attention to the newest toys on the market. And so the cycle continued. I always knew I wanted something, but each year’s pick provided fleeting satisfaction. Perhaps you have your own stories of wish lists from Christmases past. Perhaps your longings were for other things: for daddy to come home and live with the family again, or for the bullies at school to leave you alone. Many wish list items remained just unfulfilled dreams.

The Old Testament book of Isaiah speaks of a dream God has had for each of us—God’s wish list published to whet our appetite for the gift to end all gifts. “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights,” Isaiah quotes God as saying. He was offering the current king of Judah to ask for a sign that would prove God’s interest in people’s lives. The weak-kneed fearful regent refused the offer, believing that nothing could save him from his current problem, the besieging armies that stood on the doorstep of his poorly protected city Jerusalem.

“Listen up, you lily-livered leader!” replied the incensed prophet. “It’s not enough you try the patience of your subjects with your spineless superintendence of the country. Will you also try the patience of God? God has a sign for you, whether you are aware of your need for one or not!” (Isaiah 7:13, paraphrased).

Isaiah moved back into quoting God, “The virgin will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV). With these words, God gives a clue to the greatest item ever to grace Christmas wish lists, fill stockings or adorn trees. It was a promise and a riddle wrapped in a ribbon that would take eight centuries to unravel. God was speaking not only to the inept ruler Ahaz. He was speaking to you and to me too.

He was explaining that of all the hopes, wishes and solutions to problems that promise to satisfy our yearnings, only one would truly fill the gap. Only Immanuel—God with us could be the wish list item to end all wish lists. Immanuel would describe the one unique baby who would enter this world’s landscape, who would be God Himself living among us. Neither time nor death would keep Him from accomplishing His purpose—to be forever with us.

The first Christmas morning would begin centuries of generations reflecting on God’s great gift of Jesus—of God intimately with us for eternity. All wish lists pale in comparison to the gift of relationship Christ offers those who want Him to be Lord of their lives. The life that flows through Him becomes an eternal life, which He offers to those—to you and to me—who embrace His presence.

Immanuel. Immanuel. Wonderful Counselor! Lord of Life, Lord of all! He is the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One. Immanuel. Immanuel!

 

(Photo Credit: By Genealogyphotos on Flickr – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8803906)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #29

Eternity Prayer (Paraphrase of Psalm 145)

I praise You, Sovereign and Almighty God. My words mix with the praises of Your worshipers from ages past to eons future in a symphony of eternal praise. Each day I lend my note to the throng of voices calling out to You. My prayers today are but the middle of a song that will continue forever and ever. Here are some of the verses:

You are Great. Your height and depth and breadth of existence and character are so great they are beyond comprehending. No one can fully fathom You. This is enough to warrant our unending praise.

You are Glorious. We’ve caught glimpses of Your splendor of majesty in Your creative works here in this universe: glorious mountains and majestic sunsets, intricate designs in nature and vast constellations, songs of birds in the morning and smells of the earth on the wind. We’ve heard tell of more in the descriptions told by men like Isaiah and Daniel and John, pictures of Your glorious visage. Some day we’ll see as much of Your glory as we can bear—what worship then will come from our hearts and lips!

You are Mighty. You are tirelessly involved in Your creative acts in our world. One generation after another has had ample opportunity to see You working for our good. Transforming hearts and minds—restoring lives broken by sin—is Your ongoing task among us. Your open hand satisfies the desires of every living thing.

You are More: faithful to Your promises, loving to all You have made, righteous, near to all who call on You, upholding those who fall, and lifting up the lowly. The list goes on.

So my voice is tuned to sing Your praises, LORD. Let every creature great and small praise Your holy name forever. And as our ears become attuned to the song of the ages, we’ll hear Your own voice, deep and rich and melodious singing from eternity. What joy is ours to sing with You for ever and ever.

(Photo Credits: By Astroval1 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; By Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2.jpg: shrimpo1967derivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 (talk) – This file was derived fromMount Everest as seen from Drukair2.jpg:, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18262217; By Andrew – originally posted to Flickr as Rock wren, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4215694)