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.”

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Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 11

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Invitation.

Locked in prison awaiting execution was not what John the Baptist had expected. It’s not that he minded spartan fare—he had been living in the desert off locusts and wild honey for years. But when a vocation like John’s is disrupted and replaced with weeks in dank, dark confinement it can cause a body to doubt.

“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” John directed his followers to inquire of Jesus.

Do you hear the confusion in John’s voice? From conception John had been set apart for a specific purpose: to fulfill an ancient prophecy to be “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’.” John understood it as a calling to prepare the people for the coming of the long-awaited Messiah by urging them to humble their hearts in repentance. But one too many calls to repentance had landed him in prison, and a niggling thought was pestering him: was Jesus not the Messiah? How could Messiah’s messenger end up here?

Jesus’ reply is equally thoughtful and combines both a warning and an invitation.

“Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me,” He begins, and then finishes with “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus knew this was exactly what John the imprisoned needed to hear. John was feeling discouraged and maybe even on the verge of doubting. Things weren’t going well for him and in situations like his it is natural for feelings to begin to usurp conviction. Have you ever felt like John?

Jesus responds to John by encouraging him to face the facts—Jesus is the great Realist who knows the havoc our fears and delusions can wreak in our lives. In effect, Jesus is saying, ‘You are not in prison in spite of being my messenger—you are there because of me.’ Jesus’ work on earth paralleled a work in the unseen realm where righting a human wrong requires divine arbitration. The Apostle Paul would later describe this as “a struggle not against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Eph. 6:12).

Following Jesus is not about taking the easy way out; it’s about taking the true way to real life, which, He warns, won’t always appear attractive on the surface. It means choosing to ally ourselves with Jesus in a world where dark earthly authorities and evil spiritual forces will focus their power against anyone in Jesus’ service. Those who do not crumble under the assault, says Jesus, are blessed—are doing the right and reasonable thing in terms of eternity.

But He doesn’t stop there. It’s not just a warning that He gives; it’s also an invitation.

Jesus invites us to take His yoke upon us. He’s referring to the practice of harnessing beasts of burden together to allow them to pull a load more easily than one alone could have done. He’s saying that yes, those who ally themselves with Him will be—for a time—in the line of fire from earthly and spiritual forces opposed to Him, but He will make the burden bearable and even restful for our souls. It’s an oxymoron we find hard to conceive of until we actually choose to obey it. But it is a promise made by the One who would go on to bear the weight and burden of the guilt of all our trespasses against God—who rose from the grave that evil men and dark demons had hoped would swallow Him up and now stands at the Father’s side awaiting the right time to bring final justice to every created being.

“Come to me,” Jesus invites. Join my team; pull with me as I till the land and plant the seeds that will grow into an amazing harvest. Then join me feasting on the abundance that my hard labour will have produced.

So when (not if, but when) we feel tempted to fall away from our alignment with Jesus because we seem to be paying a higher price than we imagined and the turmoil we face is anything but restful, we are invited to quiet our soul and just come to Jesus. Even, come back, if we’ve strayed far. We’re not too far to turn our hearts back toward Him, find our rest in Him and learn from Him. Imagine a King and Master who calls Himself “gentle and humble in heart”—can you come to a God like that and trust Him to ultimately do right by you?

John the imprisoned Baptist did turn away from his doubts and rest in Jesus, as have untold other followers of Jesus through two millennia so far. Let’s heed the warning and accept the invitation to be part of the team of those who choose to be yoked with Jesus through thick and thin. Be assured we will find what our soul longs for. Rest.

(Photo Credit: Abdalian, Leon H.,[[File:Pair of oxen at the Clinton Fair.jpg|thumb|Pair of oxen at the Clinton Fair]]

WHY PRAY?

1280px-Haliaeetus_leucocephalus_in_flight_over_KSC “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40: 28-31)

Why pray? To the self-confident, the powerful, those who have the world at their fingertips, indeed, there seems to be no reason to pray. They think of themselves as gods. To whom would they pray? But to those who have known what it is to be weak and weary there are at least four reasons to wait on and hope in the LORD. Good reasons.

Firstly, God provides His undying Life as a renewable resource for the heart, soul, body and mind of those of us who admit we have fallen. When we become weary of our own strivings and turn to our Creator, we find our strength renewed. “Come to me,” invites Jesus, “all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” The everlasting God has this to give to those who humbly apply in prayer: strength for the day and peace for the night.

Secondly, God provides a new perspective. Those who hope in the LORD “soar on wings like eagles.” From the heights of a heavenly perspective, God’s revealed purposes become the wind in our wings. Jesus modeled this benefit of prayer as He stood on the precipice of the greatest of suffering and weariness. He prayed, “not as I will, but as you will,” in deference to the Father’s plans. Great weights of suffering may frighten us with a sense of God-forsakenness, yet through prayer, the nighttime of affliction is always followed by the dawn of resurrection and hope. Just as Jesus was exalted to the highest place and given the name that is above every name, He promises we, too, through prayer, will be lifted up on eagles’ wings in the knowledge of the goodness of God’s ways.

Thirdly, those who pray gain perseverance. “They will run and not grow weary.” To do good and to keep on doing good are two different things. It is one thing to begin a good work, but only those who draw their strength from the all-powerful LORD can persevere in the task. “Since we live by the Spirit,” encourages the Apostle Paul, “let us keep in step with the Spirit…and not become weary in doing good.” Strength to persevere comes through prayerful dependence upon the resource of the Spirit of God.

Finally, humble prayer provides us with a keen alertness to the dangers and opportunities that face us day by day; “they will walk and not be faint.” Dangers abound because our enemy, the devil, prowls around looking for those he may devour. Forty days of prayer and fasting prepared Jesus to walk and not faint though the devil sorely tried to tempt Him to fall. Christ’s appetite was satisfied with prayerful dialogue with the Father. We, too, are given the resource of scripture-based prayer which Jesus used to keep from falling faint. Opportunities, too, abound to those who humbly pray – opportunities to bless and bring healing to those around us who are hurting. “This kind,” explained Jesus of the ministry of releasing people from bondage, “can come out only by prayer.” “And pray in the Spirit,” urges Paul, “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”

The promise of God to give strength to the weary and to increase the power of the weak comes to those who access the simplicity of prayer. To practice and invest the gift of prayer for eternal benefit is not only a unique opportunity, it is the Christ-follower’s calling. Obedient prayer anticipates the welcome of the Father at eternity’s gate. “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share in your master’s happiness!”

(Photo Credit: NASA/Gary Rothstein http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov/detail.cfm?mediaid=29963)

WHO NEEDS CHURCH? Part 4

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Work It and Rest It

Rhythm — We thrive on it. The toe-tapping beat of a tune is the rhythm of music; the inhaling and exhaling of air through our lungs is the rhythm of breathing; and the daily cycle of waking and sleeping is the circadian rhythm of living. Without the contrast that rhythm provides, we would be unable to benefit from the essential strengths of each rhythmic extreme. The rests and pauses between the notes of a song call attention to the musical sounds that follow each moment of silence.

As we look at the Church – the people of God that have been portrayed as the Body of Christ – we see a particular and important rhythm it is designed to practice: the rhythm of work and rest.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of this rhythm as a primary distinguishing mark in the lives of believers and their community in the Body. He is not referring to the nine-to-five employment of labour followed by evenings and weekends of leisure. He’s talking about a different work-rest rhythm the Body of Christ is called to adopt. It is the working and resting rhythm of faith.

RESTING. “Now we who have believed enter that rest…” (Heb. 4:3). “There remains then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (Heb.4: 9,10). The author is speaking to cultural Jewish people who understood the work-rest rhythm of the historical account of creation. God worked for six days, then rested. He uses this rhythm to picture a contrast between the striving, do-it-yourself labour of those who have tried to gain peace with God through their own good works. To rest is to relinquish our self-made attempts and accept by faith the saving work of Jesus. He alone was able to work to secure for us a recovered relationship with God. We must rest in that.

We members of the Body of Christ are called to rest in the saving work of Jesus, and also to encourage the other members of the Body to remember this rest. It is so easy to forget. It is so easy to begin thinking our church-going routines, our devoted study of the Bible, and our feverish acts of charity in the community are securing for us a relationship with God. We can help each other remember to rest in Christ with an encouraging word, by recalling the truths in God’s Word that speak to this rest, and by promoting spiritual retreat.

WORKING. “Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God” (Heb. 6:7). The author of Hebrews goes on to illustrate the Body’s role of work by picturing agricultural land. He is saying that the Church acts as an environment for producing rich resources. The Apostle Paul describes those resources as fruit produced in and through the lives of believers: the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Jesus also uses the same working analogy of our lives as crop-producing fields in a parable called the Sower and the Seed (Luke 7:4-15). He summarizes, “The seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” The work of the Body of Christ is to absorb Christ’s words and persevere in obeying them. Every member of the Church knows that only the indwelling Spirit can accomplish this work. It is He who waters the soil of our lives with His love, nourishes us with the nutrients of His truth, and produces a great crop of blessing with His grace.

It’s all about rhythm. We rest and we work; Christ somehow takes this motley mixture of introverts and extroverts, musicians and theologians, men and women, and makes us His Church – a living, breathing, organic Body of believers. Who needs Church? All who rest in Christ’s work, and work by His Spirit. It’s rhythm.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Bob Embleton)