The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 11

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To Hear is to Worship.

Jacob had been a schemer. As a young man he had blatantly deceived his own father in order to obtain the proverbial ‘blessing’, a divine endorsement he expected would ensure his health, wealth and tribal superiority. He had maneuvered a plan to purchase the girl of his dreams only to discover he had been out-schemed by his new father-in-law, Laban. An unexpected switch found him married to the weak-eyed sister of his intended bride. Jacob had schemed with regard to the wages he earned from the equally wily Laban, and then secretly escaped with Laban’s daughters, idols, and flocks in tow to make a break from the uncomfortable relational ties. He schemed for decades to save his own hide at the expense of family, friends, and the entourage who relied upon him. Jacob’s conniving nature seemed bent on achieving his name’s meaning. He was a ‘supplanter” and ‘heel-grasper’ to the nth degree.

But God would not abandon Jacob to his own miserable misanthropic ways. He would not stand by and watch Jacob dehumanize himself, lost in the downward spiral of his foolish pursuits. God would speak into Jacob’s life in a way that was completely unexpected and counterintuitive. God would call Jacob and rename him. No more was he to supplant those he envied. Never again was he to descend to relationship-destroying deception. Jacob must replace his identity as a manipulative, cunning heel-grasper with a new identity. No longer must he try to grab the world by the tail. Henceforward he must grasp only God. Now he would be called Israel (“he wrestles with God”).

We don’t need to imagine what this new identity did for Jacob/Israel. We’re told. Genesis 35 tells us that following this mid-life christening, Israel immediately put a halt to his travels and worshiped God. And not only then, but also from then on, worship would become the modus operandi, the defining practice, of the renamed patriarch. Some time later, after exacting a promise from his son that upon his death his bones would be transported back to Canaan—the land promised by God in connection with the Covenant—Israel again is recorded as commemorating the moment with reverential worship of God. So when in Hebrews 11 the author summarizes Israel’s life, it comes as no surprise to hear that, “By faith Jacob (sic), when he was dying…worshiped…” Hearing God’s call transformed Jacob’s identity, gave him a new lease on life, a new hope after death, and a new faith in the identity-giver.

The amazing story of how God spoke words of truth and hope into Jacob’s life are relevant to us today. God doesn’t call merely one man. He is not limited to one historical setting or one unique people group. God calls all whose hearts are soft toward him. He calls us and we find ourselves being changed into worshipers. He calls us and our new identity is as His workmanship, His children, His friends, His beloved, His heirs, members of one body, sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus, overcomers, the faithful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, sons of God, the persecuted, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the sanctified, the forgiven and the forgiving, seekers of God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, storers of heavenly treasures, loved by God and enabled in turn to love others. Read that again and worship Him.

His call to each of us is recorded throughout the pages of Scripture. His words are life and light, identity-giving and worship-producing. Today, God calls us to live by faith, but one day our faith will be made sight.

And in eternity, each of those who have faithfully listened to God’s call will be given a new name. They will be names upon which our identity in Christ will call us to higher and truer deeds of worship that bring ever-expanding glory to the One who gave everything for us. As a result, our worship of Jesus will be transformed into something far more thrilling, effective and productive than any of our feeble heel-grasping ventures came close to approaching on curse-bound earth. The new earth will be a place where our mother-tongue will be worship.

For now, we open our hearts to listen to God and to worship Him as we are able. That is enough for now. That is faith.

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The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 9

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Faith and Reason.

“Stop!” Abraham heard God command in no uncertain terms. It was time to interrupt Abraham’s obedient display of faith. A ram ensnared in a nearby bush would be the substitution for Abraham’s son Isaac who had been awaiting his fate upon the hilltop altar. Listening to God had brought Abraham and Isaac here, and listening to God would take them home. This father and son were given a new vision of God. He is God the Great Provider.

This is the story, first recorded in Genesis, to which Hebrews 11:17-19 refers. It’s an unnerving and unsettling story in many ways. We’re left feeling less sure of the boundaries within which God contains Himself. God had emphatically labeled the pagan practice of child sacrifice a “detestable” thing, a practice “I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.” Yet God used Abraham and Isaac as actors in a display that would foreshadow the ransoming sacrifice of God’s One and Only Son, Jesus, two millennia later. How could Abraham have agreed to obey God’s direction, not knowing what the outcome of his obedience would be? The author of Hebrews explains “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

Abraham reasoned.

Reason, the process of thinking in logical, orderly and rational ways, is a gift of God to us humans. It enables us to take what we know about God and this world and infer conclusions that then inform how we ought to behave. Abraham, listening to God’s directive to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, needed to use a high level of reason to be obedient.

He first reasoned that having heard this command spoken directly from God, it must be a good command—God is good, therefore His every command will result in ultimate good for His followers. Abraham reasoned that he could entrust the outcome of his obedience to a good God.

Secondly, Abraham reasoned that God is all-powerful. A humanly speaking hope-destroying event such as death was as nothing to God. God would be able to bring Isaac back to life. Abraham could see compatibility between God’s promise to build his family through Isaac and God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.

But “Reason,” muses Dante in Paradiso, “even when supported by the senses, has short wings.” Abraham must have second-guessed himself with every step he and Isaac took climbing the hill toward the spot God had directed him. Reason moved his feet but his heart was aching. Wasn’t it more reasonable that he a centenarian should die, Abraham must have thought, rather than this young son of his—this son of the promise? Abraham needed something to support and gird up his commitment to reason. So Abraham added to reason the wingtips of trust.

Trust took Abraham the final steps of that distressing trek. Trust kept his ears open, listening for the slightest sound of God’s voice. Trust focused Abraham’s mind on the only One who is ultimately trustworthy, so that even the promise took second place to the Promiser. And trust enabled Abraham to hear God halt the test and joyfully exclaim, “because you have done this…I will surely bless you…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Each of us walk a similar trek. Subconsciously we reason out each action we take, each decision we make. But do these reasons include the goodness and greatness of God? Do we consciously remember what we know to be true of Him? Do we consider His great love for each of us and His unlimited power as we rationalize how we live?

To entrust ourselves to the One who is unmatched in trustworthiness is the pinnacle of reason. Faith and reason together lift us up over the valleys and crags we face in our lives and bring us to the blessing God promised us through Abraham and finally accomplished through His Son Jesus. Listen to God’s voice and find faith and reason come together.

 

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 8

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Longing.

Sometimes the surest argument for the existence of something is to see the existence of its opposite, the twisted and distorted version. Suffering the discomfort of wearing poorly made shoes heightens our desire for well-fitting, high quality footwear. Ownership of a lemon of a car reminds us painfully that not all vehicles are equal. Obsessions and addictions remind us that healthy appetites can become deformed and contorted until they destroy us. Some enterprises derive their profit by deliberately twisting wholesome longings to create in their clients insatiable desires. If we are honest, we’ll recognize the dark side of desire—that when desire is corrupted it begins to rule us.

We all have desires. But by untwisting the distortion of consumer-mentality-gone-wild cravings, we can imagine that the capacity to desire in its purest form is something God gives us for our good. There are clues. Have you ever sensed a longing arrive like a mist and then disappear as suddenly, hinting of something good—really good—that you failed to fully grasp or realize? Sometimes it rides on the heels of a glance at a majestic mountain, or in the smell of spring, or in the sound of a child’s voice. Many have experienced it.

“We are homesick most,” muses author Carson McCullers, “for the places we have never known”;

“It is a longing for home,” adds poet and Nobel Prizewinner Hermann Hesse;

The author of Hebrews 11 recognizes this phenomenon in each of the women and men of faith who opened their hearts, minds and ears to the call of God. “All these people were still living by faith when they died,” narrates the first century author. “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 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.”

God is not ashamed to be called their God. What an amazing thought. A longing for something and Someone much bigger than ourselves is exactly what God created us to pursue. That longing is God calling to each of us, “Come!” King Solomon once mused that God has “set eternity in (our) hearts;” it delights God when He sees people track that heart-deep longing to its supernatural end—eternity. It is obedience to God’s most primal call in its most essential form.

Obeying this call of God, this desire to be brought into community with Him, is not only delightful to Him, it is essential to our completeness as human beings. All these people were still living by faith when they died, narrates Hebrews. They died. The great and final disquiet that each of us must face is our own personal, physical death—we cannot escape it. We must face it from one of three perspectives: We can devise a story to camouflage the problem of death; we can own the problem of death, yet see no solution; or we can admit the problem of death and accept God’s solution.

The first perspective, says D.H. Lawrence, is a lie, “…which brings us to the real dilemma of man in his adventure with consciousness. He is a liar. Man is a liar unto himself.” Os Guinness adds “the folly of the modern mind is to make the precision of scientific thinking the model for all human thinking, so as to forget the bias, self-interest and moral defect at the heart of all thinking.” We tell ourselves the story that after death we will cease to exist, or reincarnate as a greater or lesser being, or become part of the vast ocean of divinity, or something like that—anything to still our restlessness.

The second perspective, although rarely held, leads to insanity. “God is dead,’ moaned Friedrich Nietzsche. “God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves…?’ Nietzsche spent the final 11 years of his life in a state of mental insanity—the only possible outcome for the problem of considering an existence devoid of God and morality.

The third perspective is to trust God and the revelation of His Word implicitly—to trust that God created us as His image-bearers; to believe the revelation that we all have hearts bent in rebellion against Him; to believe that our rebellion leads us to become godless, Hell-bent and Hell-bound; to trust that Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and unique resurrection is our only hope to regain community with God and a solution to our dis-ease with death and longing for eternity. This perspective alone relieves us from the restlessness of the death dilemma. This is the outcome of listening to God’s call. It gives us rest. The list of men and women of faith is a list of many who listened, longed, died, and are with God.

“You have made us for Yourself,” prays St. Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 7

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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)

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)

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?