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 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.

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 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)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 24 (Conclusion)

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‘Taw’

“How Should We Then Live?’ asks the provoking title of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary which bears the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of Western Thought and Culture.’ The documentary is an expression of Schaeffer’s defense of Presuppositional Apologetics—the view that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. Remove that basis and rational thought decays. It’s a bold presupposition, isn’t it?

We all make sense of our experiences from presuppositions we hold. That is why two observers seeing the same thing can come away with two very different impressions. These suppositions, inferences, even hunches create the worldviews through which we make sense of everything we observe. Christian faith, explains Presuppositional Apologetics, presupposes the universe, the Bible, and Jesus, the Son of God are divine revelations without which every other worldview is lacking essential information for rational human life. There are no neutral assumptions from which reason can arise. Only the assumptions that arise from God’s revelation provide us with full rational thought that leads to full flourishing life.

As the psalmist brings us to his concluding stanza of Psalm 119, he summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the personal nature of God. He connects his experience of God with the rational basis of human thought: the Scriptural revelation that God alone is worthy of worship, that God’s precepts alone are faithful guideposts for life, and that God has created one salvation, the ultimate solution to every human problem.

“May my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word. / May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise. / May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. / May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me. / I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (Psalm 19:169-176).

“Give me understanding according to your word,” pleads the psalmist. He is convinced that the wealth of wisdom (rational thought and the behaviours that arise from it) for the present, and hope for the future come from God. As modern thinkers, we may be tempted to think social consensus or political charters make Scriptural revelation obsolete. But can charters of rights and freedoms really trump the noble virtue God’s character and principles express? What about when society or nature and their current cohort of ‘freedoms’ and restrictions fail us?

The psalmist’s hope is in the Lord. “May your hand be ready to help me,” he prays, and “I long for your salvation…” So the psalmist guides us to look to the Hope of the Nations, the Lord’s salvation—Jesus—who alone offers a rational basis for believing that there is hope for us.

How ought we live each day in order to reflect the rational foundation of our faith? By coming to the Shepherd of our souls admitting we are “strayed…lost sheep” and “servant(s)”, and asking for His help to live lives of integrity, lives aligned with the truth of His revealed will. That is the message the psalmist has painstakingly taken 176 verses in twenty-two stanzas to communicate. Without God we are nothing. With His salvation we become everything He imagined. That’s more than epic. That’s rational.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 22

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‘Resh.’

If there is one thing God has communicated to us humans, it is that we matter. The most relevant piece of information we will ever be able to grasp is that you and I are immeasurably loved and valued by Him.

“(Our) shared core hunger,” writes Tony Schwartz in an article for the New York Times, “is for value…We each want desperately to matter, to feel a sense of worthiness.” It’s what he calls ‘The enduring hunt for personal value’. James Gilligan, who authored “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic” after studying human violence for over 40 years, began to observe “the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners…why they assaulted…someone. Time after time they would reply, ‘Because he disrespected me’.”

As the psalmist moves into the third-to-last stanza of the interminable one hundred and nineteenth psalm, his singular petition is that God—who has embedded an element of His own worth into each person—will express the ultimate act of valuing human life: to preserve it indefinitely.

“…Preserve my life according to your promise,” the psalmist appeals. “…Preserve my life according to your laws,” he adds, and “…Preserve my life, O LORD, according to your love.” What does he mean by promise, laws, and love as the mechanisms of preserving life—the psalmist’s life, or yours and mine for that matter?

Firstly, the promise the psalmist references goes back ages to the time of Abraham. Abraham was God’s handpicked individual to begin a nation and race of people to whom and through whom God would speak. At God’s chosen time some 1500 years later, when strange prophecies like a virgin birth came together with others in fulfillment, Jesus was born from that race. The promise made to Abraham was, in short, “You will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The promise of blessing was fulfilled not at Jesus’ birth, but at His death and resurrection, because with that moral ransom paid, Jesus made the eternal preservation of human life available to every person on this planet. That was the promise. That is what is available to each of us who have accepted Jesus as our ‘ransom-payer’; we will find eternal life with Jesus on the other side of this life. That is how the promise preserves lives.

Secondly, the laws the psalmist references go back fewer ages to the time of Moses. Moses was God’s handpicked individual to lead the nation that Abraham had fathered into the Promised Land. On that journey, Moses was also given the daunting task of teaching the nation that God is a God of integrity, and that He can only be in relationship with people who respect God’s authority to require that integrity to be developed in them. The laws were commands God clarified through Moses, commands like: “I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not covet.” Those two commands alone were enough to make it pretty clear that every human on planet earth was incapable of obeying God completely. That was fine because it turns out that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). Consciousness of sin leads us to do one of two things: rebel further against God and make a grab for complete freedom from God’s presence, or submit to God in humble repentance, accepting God’s gift of forgiveness through Jesus, and access to His presence for eternity. That is how the laws both condemn and preserve lives.

And finally, the psalmist references the LORD’s love which covers both the span of eternity and of creation, of which this planet is a mere blip in time. God, who is three persons in one—Father, Spirit, and Son—exists in a unity described by perfect love. He is completely fulfilled in the expressions of love that bind the Trinity unsparingly, perfectly, and completely together. Yet somehow—in the greatest mystery of the ages—as God created the universe, He made humankind the pinnacle of His loving creative expression. To be in loving relationship with Him was the purpose God embedded into every man, woman and child. We are created in such a way that our greatest joy and fulfillment comes only through loving Him in return.

The psalmist was right. The promise, the laws, and God’s love, are the essential components of God’s great gift to us: the preservation of our lives for eternity. He values us immeasurably. He wants us to be in continuing existence with Him—in future bodies created to last forever—long after these present shadows of bodies have ceased to be preserved. So dig out a Bible. Begin again to pour through its pages and find out how God valuing our person is tied to His intention to preserve us for eternity. Come to this sanctuary of preservation.

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 17

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‘Samekh’

Kim Peek could read two pages of an open book at one time by splitting his vision. Using his unique savant skill, Peek was able to memorize more than 9,000 books while he had an IQ rated at only 87. It seems that the prenatal development of his corpus callosum—the tissue normally connecting the two hemispheres of a brain—had somehow been arrested, leaving him with a condition known as ‘split-brain’. The surgical operation to produce this condition is called corpus callosotomy, and is used to reduce epileptic seizures. It seems to accomplish its purpose, but it comes with the strange side effect of dis-integrated actions. In one instance, a split-brain individual was documented as finding himself pulling down one pant leg with his left hand while pulling up the other pant leg with his right because of dueling desires to undress and dress. There are difficulties with being double-minded.

In ‘Samekh’, the fifteenth stanza of Psalm 119, the Psalmist tackles the dilemma of double-minded thinking. He is appealing to God with deep intensity a prayer borne out of experience. He has felt the sting of opponents whose double-minded treachery has traumatized him. Perhaps he has even felt the influence of succumbing to their faithless double-dealing deceptions. The old King James version begins by translating his words as, “I hate vain thoughts…” Actions begin with thoughts, and none of us are immune to surrendering our minds to moments of low and ignoble imaginings in the hidden arena of our thoughts. Hatred against this most base indication of human degradation is appropriate. There is something in each of us—the vestige of a memory—that knows we were created for true and noble thoughts; we cringe when we recognize how far and how easily we can slip from the single-minded, undivided loyalty to our Creator and His calling.

With this caveat in mind, we read a newer version/translation of the stanza to say, “I hate double-minded men, but I love your law. You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.”

Why does the psalmist contrast double-mindedness with loving/hoping in God’s word? It sounds like he’s comparing apples to obelisks. We might need to begin by exploring and defining double-minded thinking.

Double-mindedness is a mindset of dualism that separates life into disconnected categories. Relationships, work, leisure, goals, desires, character and behaviour all stand apart from one another, and may be manipulated to achieve whatever an individual desires. There is no regard for any integrated whole to the sum of the parts of that individual’s life. If one were to investigate this kind of life more thoroughly, one would find inconsistencies and illogical, indefensible reasoning, a foundation crumbling from within. Double-minded thinking causes people to reject truths that annoy them and imprecate “Ignorant!” to deflect reality from piercing their souls.

Whereas, loving God’s revealed truths—His principles for living, His solution for our rebellion and His goals for our future—is the epitome of single-minded wholehearted thinking. It provides an integrity for our lives. It gives cohesion and logical coherence to everything we think, say and do. Only God can provide true single-mindedness. He does it by directing us to “Fix (your) eyes on Jesus,” to “Set your minds on things above…with Christ,” and to “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves…(but to) do what it says(!)”

This is why Jesus is quoted so many times as prefacing His remarks with the phrase, “I tell you the truth.” It is because He intends us to pay close attention to His words, to mull over them, to discuss them with other people and wrestle with the concepts until we can incorporate them fully into our lives. His words make us people of integrity and are the only remedy for double-mindedness.

“I will give them singleness of heart and action” promises God to the body of people He considers His children. What a promise! Let’s reach out and embrace Jesus, accept the gift, and embody the trueness He longs to impart deep into our being.