Tag Archives: god

A Guided Lament you can use right now

21 Dec

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Do we lament when life is so rotten and dark that we have no where else to turn?  Yes.

Do we lament when there is still hope, but much work yet to be done?  Yes.

What we have seen this Advent as we’ve studied psalms of lament, is that lament is a faithful, clinging to God, an emotional plea asking him to intervene.

When we lament, we pray, “How long O Lord?” because we are waiting for him in the midst of our pain.

When we lament we are asking God to restore and revive us.

As you read this post, you may be at your wits’ end.  And you might not be.  No matter if you are going through a difficult time, or if things are relatively good, I encourage you to practice lament.  Include lament as a regular part of your prayer.  So what I’ve created below is a guide that you can use to help you lament.

Maybe even take the guide and use it to lament with your family or small group.  When we used this guide during our worship service at Faith Church, I read a section, then gave a few minutes for people to lament.  I invited our church family to lament out loud if the wanted.  Some did!  Most prayed quietly to themselves.

You’ll notice that the guided lament below starts broadly, lamenting for our world, and then gradually narrows, finishing with a lament for yourself.  Feel free to read over the brief description I’ve created ahead.  You might want to personalize, add to it, totally change it!  What I have listed below is just a guide.

So find a quiet place, away from distractions.  You might want to put your phone on airplane mode, light a candle, and take a few deep breaths.  Maybe read Psalm 126 again.  And then when you’re ready, address your lament to God.

Lament for our world

Lament for our world.  Lament for the refugees without a home, often scraping together an sparsee existence in a war-torn camp.  Lament for the families around the world who have lost loved ones because of terrorist attacks. Lament for fractures that run deep between people and nations in our world.

Lament for our country

Lament for our country.  Lament for the homeless who wonder how they’ll survive the winter.  Lament for damage that sexual predators have caused.  Lament for the pain caused by mass shootings.  Lament for communities devastated by flood and fire.

Lament for your community

Lament for your community.  Lament for the hungry coming to food banks for help.  Lament for the people living in motels.  Lament for broken families and how deeply it affects children. Lament for the many in our community who do not know Jesus.

Lament for your church

Lament for your church.  Lament for those in your church family who have been experiencing physical pain for many months and years.  Lament for the families that have dealt with a different kind of pain, the pain of loss and brokenness in its many forms.

Lament for your family

Lament for your family and all the difficulties you’re facing.

Lament for yourself

Lament for yourself.

Dealing with the harsh reality of God’s invisibility

21 Sep

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Do you ever wish God would show himself?  Ever feel jealous of the disciples who got to walk and talk with Jesus for three whole years?  I do.  I’m not always certain that God’s idea to be invisible was a good one.  Why not just manifest yourself and prove to everyone you’re alive and well?  It seems like that would help a lot.

As we continue in Deuteronomy 4, we come to verses 15-19.  Moses’ description of idols is very interesting.  Unlike our invisible God, the idols were physical objects that could be seen.  Statues of people or animals, and worship of the sun and moon.  The nations around Israel all had idol worship.

Most Americans, myself included, have rarely experienced what Israel dealt with every day, being influenced by idol worship.  Only a few times in my life, on mission trips, have I traveled through lands where there were idol statues.  Guyana, India, Nepal, and Cambodia.  In these countries there were Hindu and Buddhist statues all over the place.  Imagine what it would feel like trying to be a faithful Christian in Cambodia with Buddhist statues dominating the culture.  In Phnom Penh we walked to the famous Wat Phnom, an ancient Buddhist temple, and peered inside the sanctuary. It was a room crammed with idols big and small.  An eerie feeling came over me.  In fact, in all of those countries, I felt a spiritual pressure, a darkness, and I was only visiting for a few days or months.  That’s what Israel had to live with all the time.

You might think, “Statues are so basic.  What is the attraction?”  Because pervasive idol worship is not a part of our culture, it can be hard to fathom.  But in the Canaanite culture surrounding Israel, statues or the sun or moon were tangible things.  You could see them, touch them, feel them, and smell the smells around them.  It works that way still today in nations with religions that feature idol worship.  Adherents believe those idols are connected to a real being, a real god.  It might be hard for us to imagine, but for them it was and is real.  In some cases they are connected to a real being, a demonic power.

Now here’s the rub.  What did God say to Israel?  He said, “I don’t want you making any idols.”  So how is Israel supposed to compete religiously in a culture and society that was all about physical representation of gods, when Israel’s God was invisible?  Maybe that is why Israel was so enticed by other nation’s gods and their statues.

Before this sounds foreign and irrelevant to you, ask yourself if you might feel a tinge of this.  Let me explain.  How do you feel about worshiping an invisible God?  Do you ever think, “I wish you would just show yourself, God!”  When you never see God, do you ever doubt God’s existence?  I do.  Even if we have a strong faith, we still at times long for a physical manifestation of God.

Moses reminds us in verse 15 that Israel didn’t see their God, Yahweh.  He had no form. They knew he was real, though.  Why?  They heard him!  Yesterday, I mentioned the story of when he spoke to them. They had evidence that he was real.  Other idols they could see, but those idols could not talk because they were not alive.  Yahweh, though they couldn’t see him, was absolutely, clearly alive.

Even still, clearly for Israel and for us too, being in a relationship with an invisible God can be hard.  When you can’t see something, when you don’t have evidence, it is hard to stay faithful.  Imagine your spouse was invisible, and you only very rarely heard their voice.  They wrote a book long ago, however, and that is the primary way you continue to stay in relationship with them.  From time to time you see the evidence that they were around, but it is rare.  How do you think your marriage would be with that kind of invisible spouse? Most of us would say “Forget this.”

We long to people in relationship with real people.  We long to communicate, to look into each others’ eyes, to hear and to be heard, to touch one another.  I recently listened to an interview on NPR that featured a communication specialist.  She reported research into what happens in the human brain when we communicate with one another.  The electrical energy in our brains goes wild, reacting, anticipating.  We are built to communicate with one another, she said.  Remember Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away?  He survived an airplane crash that left him alone on a deserted island.  Among the wreckage, he found a Wilson volleyball.  As the days passed, feeling desperate, using his own blood, he painted a face on the ball, and started talking to it, as though it was a friend named Wilson.  Hanks’ masterful acting depicts his character in “conversation” with Wilson.  He was so alone, starved not only for food, but for communication, and he created a friend to connect with.

Therefore it is sometimes painfully hard to stay faithful to an invisible God.  You can see why people long for a god they can see, hear, and feel.  You can see why people worship idols.

We are people who love to hear about spiritual experiences breaking into in our everyday lives.  The dreams, the visions, the miracles, the answers to prayer.  Why?  Because those are evidences of God being alive.  If we are honest, many of us would admit that we question God’s existence or the truth of the Bible, and we feel guilty about it. So we long for God to show up.  We long for those experiences of God in our lives.

I have to ask you, though: can those experiences become idols?  Can we become too dependent on the physical manifestation of God?  I think we can.

One of my favorite CS Lewis quotes from The Screwtape Letters  is when Wormwood, the senior demon, remarks to Wormwood, the demon in training, that if a Christian sees no evidence of God in their lives, but still obeys, that Christian is not worth trying to tempt anymore.  They are a lost cause…to the demon.  Why?  Because that Christian has attained a high level of spiritual maturity.  They don’t need to see God to believe and follow him.  They don’t need physical manifestations of God at work to sustain their faith.  There is nothing wrong with God manifesting himself.  He can and does.  But maturity in Christ means that we do not allow ourselves to become addicted to spiritual manifestations; we do not allow ourselves to get to a place where our faith will crumble if those manifestations cease.

This is why we spent so much time this past summer learning about the spiritual disciplines.  Scroll back through the blog and you’ll see those posts.  Why are spiritual disciplines so important?  When we develop habitual patterns of following God, we can have strength to get through the dry times.  The regular practice of spiritual disciplines is vital.

I recently heard the story about one of our local cross country runners who was nervous to start practice.  Remember those weeks in mid-August?  It was hot!  And humid.  Can you imagine running in that?  This particular young lady had never been on the cross country team before, and she was nervous she would do poorly in the heat.  You know what happened that first day of practice?  She was fine.  But another boy, not so much.  He ended up almost passing out due to heat stroke.  You know the difference?  She trained over the summer, and the other boy did not.  She logged the personal miles, and so her body was ready for practice, even in the heat.

Likewise we practice a disciplined faith so that we can become mature followers of Jesus.  Not following idols.  But following the way of Jesus, even when we see little evidence of God around us.

Are you working on growing your faith?  Practicing spiritual disciplines?  We might not see God, Moses reminds us.  But we can know that he is alive and well.

How parents and grandparents can bring revival to our land

20 Sep

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There’s a scary reality we need to bring up.

Though we are studying Deuteronomy, jump ahead to Judges 2:10, which takes place maybe 40-50 years after Deuteronomy.  By this time Joshua has taken over for Moses as leader of Israel, guiding Israel as  they take possession of the Promised Land and settle down.  Then Joshua dies.  What happened to Israel, then, one generation removed?  We read in Judges 2:10 that they totally forgot the Lord.

That freaks me out a bit.  Can this happen to us?  Can we totally forget the Lord?  Let us never think, “No way, that will never happen.” It sure can happen.  But how?  Just like it did for Israel in Judges 2. One generation that knows the Lord does not pass on the faith to the next generation.

Now let’s travel back to Deuteronomy 4, and I’ll explain why we took this little trip into Israel’s future.  Yesterday I mentioned that God is odd.  He really is, but in a good way!

Look at Deuteronomy 4, verses 10-14. Moses is reminding the people of Israel of a famous story in their history, a time the previous generation heard the voice of the Lord, and God gave them the Ten Commandments.  Moses is about to review those Ten Commandments next in chapter 5.  For now, he has a different purpose. He wants the people to remember their odd God.  Their God wasn’t like the Canaanite gods which were mute idol statues made of stone or wood.  No, Israel’s God, Yahweh, could speak!  Moses then tells the story of when God dramatically spoke in an audible voice to the people many years before, a story you can read in Exodus chapters 19 and 20.

What is the significance of this?  Why does Moses bring this up?  He knows how quickly we forget.  He knows that one generation can have an amazing connection to God, but sadly that generation is unable to pass on that connection to their kids and grandkids.  So Moses describes what the parents and grandparents are to do.  He says, “Teach your children and their children who God is, how he works, and what is Word is all about.”

How many of us are teaching our kids and grandkids what God is like? Are you teaching your kids the story of God?  It is crucial that we parents and grandparents take an active role in passing on the faith to our kids and grandkids.

Tell them God is so different from other gods.  Definitely this practice of teaching the next generation should include teaching them Bible stories.  But what about also telling them stories of how God has shown himself to be alive and well to you personally, to your family? Do you remember?  How has God been faithful, how he has answered prayer?

You know what the Psalmist says in Psalm 71:18? This is a great reminder for older people who have kids and grandkids:“Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.

So parents and grandparents, invest in the spiritual welfare of your kids. Disciple them to be true followers of Jesus.  Don’t depend on the church to do this for you.  Have dinner together, and talk about the Lord.  Have family devotions.  Memorize Scripture together.  Then tell the stories of God at work in your lives.  Go on mission trips together, serve together.

Keep faith alive in the next generation.  Help the next generation learn what discipleship is all about.  Teach them how to advance in the unending cycle of being disciples who make disciples.

Was God being manipulative when he said, “If you obey me, you will live”?

18 Sep

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Is God being manipulative when he says, “If you obey me, you will live”?

Is he being threatening?  Why in the world would God say that?  If you remove the Christian filter from your mind, you can read God as sounding an awful lot like an abusive boyfriend.

As we continue our study through Deuteronomy, we come to a passage where God says that.  Jesus says it too.  Let’s take a look.  What are we to make of this?

In Deuteronomy chapter 4, verse 1, and we read the word “Hear”.  “Hear” is the Hebrew word “Shema,” and Moses uses it many times in the next few chapters, the most famous occurrence is in chapter 6:4-9, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  That Shema is known as THE Shema, a kind of credal statement uttered by the people of Israel regularly still to this day.  For them it is like the Apostles Creed or the Lord’s Prayer.

Shema means, “Hear, Listen, understand.”  Moses is saying, “Pay attention, people! Important information is about to arrive. Listen up! You don’t want to miss this.”

And what is the important info Moses has for them?  Well, there is a lot.  Look at what he says in verses 1-5.  They absolutely must get this because their lives literally depend on it.  They need to hear the Law, and then follow and obey the law, he says, to live.  To live!

And why?  Because of verse 3.  Moses basically says to the people, “You remember that situation at Baal Peor, right?”  You can read all about what happened at Baal Peor in Numbers 25.  It was a fairly recent event in the life of the nation, so Moses doesn’t need to retell it here in Deuteronomy 4.  He just has to say, “You saw with your own eyes what the Lord did at Baal Peor.”  What they saw would have been hard to forget.

The place was called Baal Peor because an idol to the Canaanite god Baal was there.  Some of the people of Israel were enticed to worship it, probably because there was temple prostitution there.  Some of the men indulged, which was bad enough, but they also participated in worship rituals, which included bowing down to the idol of Baal.  Imagine God watching them.  It was like a one-two punch to him.  First punch in the gut when they participated in sinful things, second punch right across the face when they bowed down to Baal.  How would you feel if you were God?

Betrayed.  Angry.  Jealous.   Maybe all that, maybe more.  God is a relational, emotional God, and Israel had really hurt him.  We learn that thousands of the Israelites died that day as a result of their severe disobedience.  Fast-forward to Deuteronomy 4, and the people Moses was talking to remembered that day.  The lesson God taught on that horrible day in the life of their nation was one they wouldn’t forget anytime soon.  Follow God’s Law and live.  Disobey and die.  It couldn’t have been more clear to them.

Moses also connects the obedience of the people to their ability to remain in the land. If the people obey, not only will they live, but they will also live in the Land.  In chapters 1-3 we learned that some of the tribes, 2 ½ of them, had just received their allotment of land on the east side of the Jordan River.  The rest had yet to cross the Jordan where they would receive their land.

They had come all this way from Egypt. Did they want to live in the Land?  Yes, they absolutely did.  So Moses reminds them that the promise of life and land was conditional.  God’s love for them was unconditional, meaning it would never change.  But life in the land was conditional; they could lose it.  If they followed God’s law, and held fast to them, they had nothing to worry about.

This is an instructive word for us too.  Jesus once said in John 14:15, “if you love me, obey my commands.”  In our modern sensibilities, we bristle at the suggestion that we are to obey another person.  It sounds demeaning or authoritarian.  Parental.  And to tie it to the idea of love sounds really manipulative.  “If you love, you’ll do what I say.”  If our friend was in a relationship with a person who said that, we’d tell them to break it off.  So why does God say this to the Israelites, and why does Jesus say it to his followers?  Are they manipulative?  Are they being demanding?

Maybe. Some people sure think so. But I don’t.  Instead, I believe God had the Israelites’ best interest in mind.  Just like Jesus does for his followers.  They know the best possible way to live.  They are not just trying to twist people’s arms into praising them and following them.  Instead they love us and want what the true good life for us.  That good life is found in obeying them.

God’s call for obedience from his people is a wonderful balance of what is best for them, and what he desires most.  Obey and live, rather than turning out to be manipulative, is actually life-giving, not just in the eternal sense, but in a well-rounded human way.  Paul would go on to talk about the Fruit of the Spirit, and I believe that teaching is an example of why it is so important and amazing to follow the way of Jesus.  Paul said in Galatians 5 that we walk in step with God’s Spirit, following his way, what will flow out of our lives are the best qualities of life: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

Jesus often talked about how following his way leads to eternal life, but it also leads to a new kind of life in the here and now.  Israel could access that life, God said, if they obeyed him.  We can access that life, if we learn to follow the way of Jesus.  What is that way?  Read the stories of Jesus in four accounts of his life, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  What do you see?

If you want to learn to be his follower, comment below.  I’d love to talk with you further. Take a look at what Paul says about following Jesus in the teaching right after the Fruit of the Spirit: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”  Let’s talk about how to do that!  Let’s talk about how to really live.

How God feels about sinners…even the worst ones!

31 Jan

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Can God save the worst sinner ever?  Would he want to?  You and I might not feel like the worst sinners ever in history, but we can often feel pretty guilty about our bad choices.  In the middle of the guilt, we wonder, “How does God feel about us when we have screwed up?”

As I mentioned last week in the intro post, our continuing study in 1st Timothy brings us to chapter 1, verses 12-17.  In that section, the writer of this letter, Paul, declares that he was the worst sinner.  He calls himself a blasphemer and persecutor, a man who arrogantly insulted God.  If you want, you can read all about it in Acts 7-9.  Paul is not exaggerating.  He was part of the same religious establishment that opposed Jesus, and now a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul was leading the charge to round up Jesus’ followers and crush their movement.

Why wouldn’t God just eliminate Paul?  Instead, Paul tells us in 1st Timothy 1:12-17 that God considered Paul faithful.  Faithful?  That seems incredulous.  How could God see Paul as faithful when Paul was on the brink of destroying God’s new movement to save the world?  The reason is that while Paul had not placed his faith in Jesus, Paul was very passionate about what he considered to be the truth about God, the Old Covenant that God had with Israel.  Therefore Paul considered the Christians a cult, a threat to the truth.

So Jesus stepped in, as you can read in Acts 9, when Paul was headed to imprison more Christians.  Literally breaking out of heaven in a bright light, Jesus revealed himself to Paul, totally changing the course of Paul’s life.   In 1 Timothy 1, at the end of verse 13 Paul looks back on that momentous event when God changed his life, and Paul says he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance and unbelief.

The word here that Paul uses to describe how much grace and faith and love God gave him is quite vivid.  The NIV uses the image of pouring, but I would argue that there is a better image.  The word is actually a compound word “over fill”.  It is the image of a cup into which a liquid is poured not just to the top, not to the brim, but overflowing.  The liquid pours out over the edges.  The container cannot contain that much!

I love that.  That’s how much grace and faith and love God gives to us!  More than we can handle.  You are the container, and God is filling you with his grace and faith and love, and he is giving you more of his goodness that you can hold!

That’s how amazing God is.

Paul continues talking about this in verse 15 where he refers to the mission of Jesus to save sinners.  Paul was the worst. Paul is using himself as an illustration of how far-reaching God’s grace is.  He was the worst of sinners.  Everyone in the early church knew this.

He was ISIS.  He was their worst enemy.  And how do you think they felt when they heard that their worst enemy supposedly changed into their strongest advocate?

No way, buddy!

How would you feel if a top ISIS leader started saying that he was now a Christian?

No one would believe him!  That’s what Paul was going through.

But the change in Paul was true, and in due time, Paul showed them that it was true.  We see clearly in Paul that Jesus has the power to save anyone and to change anyone’s life.  Even the worst of sinners.

I hear Paul saying in this passage that he was the worst of sinners, and I think “I don’t know if you were actually the worst of sinners even in your own time, Paul, but I can pretty much guarantee that with all the horrible stuff that has happened in the last 2000 years since you wrote this, you aren’t even close to the worst.”

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized it doesn’t matter who is actually the worst sinner, or whether or not Paul was the worst sinner.  What matters is that Paul saw himself as the worst sinner.

And when you can be honest about how sinful you really are, then you start to see how amazing God’s grace and mercy are.  Christian pastor and author Tim Keller has said “We only fully grasp the gospel when we understand, as Paul did, that we are the worst sinner we know.”

I’ll never forget a sight I saw at EC National Conference a few years ago.  We were all singing praise to God, a normal part of our sessions of conference.  One particular song emphasized this theme of brokenness before God, of taking our sin seriously, and a man in the crowd, without any prodding from the worship leader, got up from his seat, walked down the aisle, and got down on his knees in front of the whole assembly.  He was clearly broken up inside about his sin.

Do we let ourselves off the hook?  I wonder if we haven’t fully grasped the Gospel because we haven’t taken our sin seriously?

And if you’re thinking “Man, Joel…this sin talk dire stuff.  Bleak.”  Get ready.  What comes next is a game changer.

In verse 16, Paul says something that many people think is crazy: God showed mercy to the worst of sinners!

God shows mercy to sinners, even to really bad sinners.  And more than that, why would God do this?  Paul says that God showed mercy to him so that Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

God had unlimited patience for sinners.  That is crazy talk.  Unlimited?  On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is no patience and 10 is unlimited patience, where do you rank yourself?

God is a 10.  He is the only one who is a 10.

When you realize how God is so merciful, so patient with you, even when you feel like the worst of sinners, what do you do?  You do what Paul did!

In verse 17 he bursts forth in praise: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever!”  Praise Him!  Paul is praising him as he thinks about how amazing God was to him.

This is who God is!  Paul is looking at the depths of evil that was in his heart and how God saved him.  And he bursts with praise.

Paul uses himself as an example of why we should praise the Lord.  But all of us have stories.

If God can save the worst of sinners, of course he can save the rest of us.

Paul is also an example for us in that he is sharing his story.  Likewise we should share our stories of God’s intervention in our lives.  And I’m not talking about only super dramatic stories.  Stories of God’s work in the non-dramatic moments are also amazing.  It is just as astounding for God to save us in a non-dramatic way as it is for God to break out of the clouds and save a Christian-killer like Paul.

All of us should have the words of praise found in verse 17 flooding our hearts and minds!

So if you grew up in a Christian family and you always believed in Jesus, that is just as awesome as if you didn’t grow up in a Christian family and have a more intense conversion experience.

Christians, be reminded of the grace, love and patience of God in saving you, pour out in praise, and tell the story!

How to survive the holiday blues

12 Dec

surviving-the-holiday-bluesAre you feeling low this Christmas?  Though there are Christmas lights everywhere, does your life feel like a dark place?

In the sermon intro blog post, I introduced a story in the history of the Israelite nation of Judea.  At the time, Hezekiah was King, and he was trapped inside the Judean capital city, Jerusalem.  Outside the walls of the city, the powerful Assyrian juggernaut, 185,000 soldiers strong, was knocking on the door saying “Surrender or die.”  If you want, you can read that post before continuing here.  And look up Isaiah 36-37 to catch up with the story.

When we left off, we were on the battlefield just outside the walls of Jerusalem.  The Assyrian field commander had just mocked the Jews.  In fact, take a look at verse 20 and notice the very last thing he said: “How can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”  He had just pointed out that so far no one else’s god has saved them.  If you look back just a few verses farther to 18, he says to the scared Jewish soldiers on the city walls, “Don’t let your king Hezekiah mislead you when he says the Lord will deliver you.  We’ve been bulldozing our way through every town, and they all have gods too, and no one is stopping us.  You think your God is any different?”

What a challenge!  He even uses God’s personal name.  YHWH.  Notice in verse 20 how the word LORD is in all capital letters?  That means the Hebrew here is actually using the personal name of God, YHWH.  That’s a real slap in the face of God. This Assyrian field commander thinks YHWH is a joke, just like the other so-called gods that had put up no fight.

Hezekiah’s envoy returns to the palace and tells him the dire news.  It’s not looking good for Jerusalem.  The choices are awful: either try to hold out on a siege and slowly starve, or surrender and lose everything.  What would you do?

Hezekiah’s response is amazing.  Look at chapter 37:1.

He tears his clothes and put on sackcloth.  Instead of calling his response “amazing”, I could have said that it is strange.  If you didn’t know this was in a Bible story, you’d think it was a Hulk Hogan move, tearing off his t-shirt.  In our culture, tearing your clothes is not what you normally do when you are sad, afraid, scared or nervous!  What do you do you when you’re upset?

Lay in bed.  Get a huge bowl of ice cream.  Shop online.  You probably wouldn’t tear your clothes and put on a canvas bag.  That would be seen as odd. And no one would understand you.

In the Ancient Near East, however, when you were really worked up, you tore your clothes and put on sackcloth.  It was how you showed everyone that what was going on was a big deal to you.

What Hezekiah does next, though is awesome, and it will seem a lot more familiar to you.  He goes to church.  In Jerusalem, the church was the temple.  Hezekiah is deeply distressed, and so often when we are distressed like that, we do what Hezekiah did.  We seek God.  Then he sends for the prophet Isaiah.  He wants to hear from God.  He is seeking out counsel.  This is just like you and I might seek out wisdom from a trusted spiritual advisor, a pastor, a counselor, and we might go to the Bible and pray.

Hezekiah tells his envoy to pass a message to Isaiah the prophet telling Isaiah all that has been going on.

Isaiah hears and responds.  In fact, he has a message from YHWH.  Now this is getting good.  YHWH, who has just been defamed by the field commander of Sennacherib, is now speaking back.  What does God say?

“Do not be afraid of that underling!”  Isn’t that awesome?  God calls the field commander an underling.  And what’s more, God says that field commander is not going to last long.

“Do not be afraid.”  Maybe you’re are one of those people who likes to count things.  How many times in the Bible do think God says “Do not be afraid”?  There are people who have counted it.  And they found that God says “do not be afraid” 365 times in the Bible.  One for each day.  That would be a cool study to do throughout a year!

Will Hezekiah give in to his fear?  Or will he trust in God?  And what will his men do?  Will they be faithful to their king, or will they mutiny?  We’re about to find out.

Briefly the setting of the story moves away from Jerusalem.  We read that the Assyrians are winning still more battles, and Sennacherib continues to taunt Jerusalem in a new letter to Hezekiah saying that there is no stopping them.  Not Jerusalem’s God, no one, can match the power of his Assyrian army.

Now what does Hezekiah do?  Things have gotten worse.  Any help that Judea might have gotten from surrounding cities and nations isn’t coming.  Assyria controls it all. What’s worse, YHWH hasn’t shown up yet.

Sometimes when life is low, the hardest part is the waiting.  When you pray, how long should you have to wait for God to show up?  We want him to respond immediately.  He might, but he might not.  The fear, the uncertainty, can start to eat away at our already-thin faith.

Was Hezekiah starting to lose faith?  We’ve been learning a thing or two about Hezekiah.  He was a good dude.  He does what he did before.

He takes this new letter to the temple. He spreads the letter out before God and starts praying and says “All this stuff Sennacherib is saying, Lord?  It’s true!  Nothing has been stopping him.  But you, Lord, deliver us, so that all may know that you are the one true God.”

And just like last time, after Hezekiah went to the temple and Isaiah had a word from the Lord, now Hezekiah has gone to the temple again, and Isaiah has another word from the Lord.  This time the Lord rips into Sennacherib’s arrogance and says to him “I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth and make you return.”  That’s YHWH saying “I will totally dominate you Sennacherib.”

Then YHWH speaks directly to Hezekiah in 37:30: He talks about the future, planting vineyards, and a remnant of people that will take root and bear fruit, a picture of growth and health and vitality.  This is a new vision of hope, and he says “the zeal of the Lord will accomplish it!”

Zeal is not a word we use all that much.  Here the word in the original Hebrew is often translated “jealousy” or “envy.”  God is saying that he has strong feelings for Israel, and he will achieve his goal.

What about this massive Assyrian army?  YHWH says in verses 33-35, “Don’t worry about the Assyrians.  I have got this.”

What happens next is absolutely mind-boggling.  That Assyrian camp of soldiers that was laying waste to everyone and everything?  An angel of God goes out and puts 185,000 of them to death.  It is total decimation.  The men on wall of Jerusalem wake up the next morning to get a look at their enemy, and to their shock, they see nothing but dead bodies.

Sennacherib?  He doesn’t make it either.  By the end of chapter 37, the war machine of Sennacherib is gone.  YHWH did what he said he would do.  And why?  Look back at 37:21!  One little phrase tells us why.  “Because Hezekiah prayed to YHWH.”  Hezekiah trusted in God. God said “Do not be afraid,” and Hezekiah believed and trusted.  Therefore the prophecy was fulfilled.

There are generally three kinds of fulfillment we normally see in prophecy: the conditional, the immediate, and the future kinds of fulfillment.

The story of Hezekiah and the Assyrian attackers is so helpful for understanding the prophecy one chapter earlier in Isaiah 35.  Notice that for the one who listens to the prophecy and trusts in it, the promises come true!  Most prophecy is like that.  So often we think of prophecy as just telling the future no matter what.  But most biblical prophecy is conditional. When I say “conditional”, I mean that most prophecy says “I will tell you what the future will be like, IF YOU TRUST IN ME.”  Fulfillment of the future vision was contingent on the people trusting in and obeying God.

As we walk through the prophecy in Isaiah 35, we see these elements of prophetic fulfillment.

First, in verses 1-2, this prophecy with its images of a desert wasteland blooming into a garden reminds us of a future peaceable kingdom similar to the one we talked about the previous two weeks.

Second, in verses 3-4 we see the admonition to the people, such as those in Hezekiah’s day who were possibly the first ones to receive this prophecy, to stand firm, and wait for God to come and save them.  That is a conditional prophecy.

Third, verses 5-6 sure seem like they are describing the ministry of Jesus don’t they?  The blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk.  That is future fulfillment.

Next, the second half of verse 6 and into verse 7 we find an image very reminiscent of Moses’ ministry, through whom God provided water for the children of Israel during their Exodus from Egypt.   Some people have talked about how modern-day Israel has done a lot with irrigation, and thus how this passages shows us that we are in the end times.  Or is this image just a symbolic of the Messianic peaceable Kingdom?  We don’t know.  Again, what the prophecy is suggesting is future fulfillment.

The final section of the prophecy is in verses 8-10, and there we see the future ministry of the Messiah to make redemption possible.

While there are five parts to the prophecy with various levels of fulfillment, two of these I would like to look at further for the practical way they relate to our lives.

In verses 3-4 the prophecy says “Be strong, do not fear, your God will come.”  We might not get to be the ones who see this part of the prophecy fulfilled.  When this same thing was happening in Hezekiah’s day, not all people in Jerusalem got to see it.   People still were born, lived and died.  Generations of them did not see it.  But it did happen.

Yes, there was an immediate fulfillment of deliverance in the story of Hezekiah that they did see.  But there was also a future fulfillment 700 years later in the birth of Christ they did not see.  The same goes for us.  We might not live to see the second coming of Christ.  That is hard to take because we look around our world and there is much to fear.  But we have the same words spoken over us: be strong, do not fear, your God will come.

No matter how low you feel this Christmas, be encouraged.  God will keep his promises.  It doesn’t mean that we go hide in our houses and just let wickedness and injustice rule.  No we work for the flourishing of God’s mission now.  We don’t sit on our hands and wait for God to come.  We do what Hezekiah did.  We pray for deliverance, we seek godly counsel (meaning that we avoid individualism, we avoid going it alone), and we faithfully obey God.  We obey even when we don’t feel like it, when it seems ridiculous.  Imagine how tempting the thoughts of surrender would have been for Hezekiah.  As he is waiting for God to keep his promise, maybe Hezekiah feared the Assyrians were right, and the Judeans would have a better life in Assyria?  I can see how Hezekiah would be wrestling with this.  Yet he obeyed the Lord.

The next practical application in the prophecy is found in verses 8-10, and there we have a problem.  The vision describes a highway, the Way of Holiness it is called.  This is the Way to God.  The problem is that the unclean, the wicked will not be able to walk on the Way of Holiness.  Aren’t all of humans unclean and wicked?  Surely there are many of us who aren’t that bad as to be called wicked, when you consider how deeply evil some people can be.  But none of us are holy.  This Way of Holiness requires perfection.  That’s a huge problem.  Who can walk on that way to God?  Who are the clean, the righteous ones that are able to walk in that way?

Look at verse 9-10.  The ones who can walk on that highway are the redeemed, the ransomed of the Lord.  So what does it mean to be redeemed, ransomed of the Lord?  1 Timothy 2:5-6 tells us that there is someone who can ransom us.  Jesus.

We need to remember the story of the Good News of Jesus, starting with Christmas and carrying through Jesus’ perfect life, death and resurrection.  When we trust in him by believing and obeying him, we can be redeemed.  Have you been redeemed?  Have the chains of sin been broken in your life?  If you’re not sure, I’d love to talk with you about that.

Hezekiah is a great example for us.  We show that we trust not just by believing something in our mind, but by staking our life on God’s promises.  Hezekiah’s decision to go to the temple, to pray, to not give in to the powerful Assyrians, was an amazing act of faith.  It was risky.  It was literally putting his life on the line.  God had to show up, or Hezekiah and Jerusalem were finished.  There was no human way of stopping the Assyrians from destroying Jerusalem.  And God did show up.

The same thing goes for us.  When we look around our world and we don’t have hope, when there doesn’t seem to be a human solution, we can feel hopeless.  In those moments, when we still obey God, when we still walk in his way, we show that our faith is real.

So put these two applications together.  Combine them in the middle of your life situations.  I know that there are many situations in life that can bring us down. Scary situations.  Hardships.  God says to us “Be not afraid.”  He is a faithful God that we can trust in!  I’m not saying that he is promising to make all the bad stuff of life go away.  Instead I am saying that when we trust in him, we can know that we will always have his promises in our lives.

First there is the promise of a future in his peaceable Kingdom.  Even if life is hell on earth on for us now, we can hold on to the hope we read about in verses 9-10, the hope of gladness and joy, everlasting joy, and our sorrows and sighing fleeing away one day in his Kingdom.

But second, there is also the abundant life of Christ that we can experience now.  And I would love to talk with you about that.  If you feel like the word “abundant” is not describing your life now, and you have little hope that you will experience the abundant life of Christ, please don’t be forlorn or upset.  You’re not alone.  Many people don’t experience it.  And many wonder why.  What should you do?  The first step is to talk about it. Follow Hezekiah’s example.  Reach out to the Lord and to the people who know him.  Please feel free to comment here to talk further!  There is hope!

The surprising thing God says about sex

19 Sep

Image result for God and our sexual culture

You fill in the blank: “Sex is ________”.

Too often we Christians have responded to our culture in negative, hurtful ways that have led people to conclude that we hate sex, that we think sex is bad.  Our young people have heard so often “don’t have sex”, that many Christians teens are scared of it, and they know very little about how God thinks of it.

I remember as a kid reading the biblical book Song of Solomon and thinking, “Woah, I cannot believe this is in the Bible.”  And yet there it is.  A husband and a wife expressing their sexual desire for one another in colorful language that leaves little to the imagination.  Some of the figures of speech seemed really kooky because in our culture we generally don’t use animals like gazelles to describe one another’s bodies.  But in Song of Solomon, as we read this racy story about marital sexual expression, we get it.  Their longing for one another, their description of one another is very real, very much like our own experience of sexuality.

And yet, it can be kind of embarrassing to read Song of Solomon.  Have you ever heard a sermon about Song of Solomon?  Mostly likely not.  Why?  Because we tend to think of sexual expression as deeply private.

We Americans need to realize, though, that not all cultures think about sexuality quite like we do.  Though we live in a sexualized culture, and that aspect of our culture has become a lot more open, we still are more cautious than many other places around the world.

So we read Song of Solomon and can question whoever decided to put this R-rated book in the Bible.

Why am I bringing this up?

Because the Bible says a lot about sex.  I mean, really.  A lot.

Additionally, we live in a culture very much like the culture in which the New Testament was written. Through most of 2014, I taught through the book of 1st Corinthians.  Paul talks about sex a lot in 1 Corinthians because sexuality was a part of their city.  It was even a part of pagan worship.  The local temple had hundreds of prostitutes, and one element of worship was to pay to sleep with a prostitute.  So when he was writing a letter to people living in a sexualized culture, Paul knew he had to talk about it.  And so do we.

Sexual expression is all over the place.  Commercials, TV shows, and even news programs are cluttered with it.  With the rise of the internet in the last 20 years, the sex industry has exploded.  We are bombarded with messages that say to us that we should express our sexuality however we want.

Unrestricted sexual expression has become commonplace.

I mentioned a favorite show a few weeks ago: Running Wild with Bear Grylls.  He recently had Olympic skier Lindsay Vonn as his guest traipsing through the wilderness.  She told Bear that she was married at 22, called it wrong decision, and got divorced.  Then she dated Tiger Woods, but with crazy schedules, they couldn’t manage a relationship.  Bear asked “What about kids, do you see them in your future?”  She said “Yes, but no more of this marriage stuff.  I don’t want to go through all that.  If you want to be with someone, just be with them.”  That’s pretty normal to hear these days in our culture.

In this post, I’d like to introduce you to the surprising thing God says about sex.  What do you think?  If God were to fill in the blank, just like you did above, what word would he use to describe sex?  Sex is ________.

One college art professor says “Nothing reduces a collegiate art classroom into nervous giggles quite like the sculpture of David by Michelangelo. As an art teacher for 13 years, I have seen reactions to David that have varied from amazement — “Wow! What an amazing work of art!” — to embarrassment and even outright anger — “How dare you show this in class?! He is… well, he is… you know…. Naked!”

She goes on to say that “Culture sends us many messages about the human body, nudity and sex. Unfortunately, these messages can taint our views of sexuality, causing us to feel shame about our bodies and the act of sex. For many, the word “sex” is synonymous with the words “dirty”, “shame,” and “guilt.”  Shame is not from Jesus. God created our bodies, including our sexuality, for good.  Our bodies reflect God’s image, and God created sexuality as a fundamental part of life.”

What that means is that the surprising thing God says about sex is that it is good!  Because God created us as sexual beings with sexual desires, and that means his plan for sex is good!  Here is a key principle: God designed sexuality to be the way a man and woman can become one. I brought this up a few weeks ago when I talked about marriage. In Genesis 2:24 we read “The two shall become one flesh.”  Marriage, then, the proper place for sexual expression, and it is so good.

Because of that, consider the amazing gift of your purity, your virginity.  You get to give that gift one time.  Imagine that you wait and give that to your spouse after you are wedding!  There are few gifts that you give them that are so exquisite at that.  By waiting your are saying “I saved this incredibly precious part of me for you and for you only.”  Isn’t that wonderfully romantic?

This gift is so important because the expression of your sexuality is much more than just a physical act.  The act of sex is also very emotional and relational.  When you make connection of becoming one with another person, the two becoming one flesh, you are connecting much more than physically.  We need to see sex as a deep connection in all these ways.  This is why it is such a powerful gift.  When you give the gift of your sexuality, you are giving your entire self to that person.  It is, therefore, genius of God to reserve sexual expression for marriage, for that one lifelong partner.  Your spouse is only person you are to go that deep with.

As a result, the writers of the NT have a lot to say about purity.  Here are few examples:

1 Cor. 6:12-20 “That is what you were,” Paul says to the Corinthians, “You used to indulge in an openly free sexuality, but no more.”  He goes on to teach that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and so it is to be treated that way.  What you see, what you eat, what you touch, all of it.  Strive for purity.

Eph. 4:17-5:20 is a long passage, but a very good one to read. One comment Paul makes in this passage is that “There should not be a hint of sexual immorality among you.”  Not a hint.  In other words, strive for purity.

But what if you haven’t been pure?  Are you ruined in God’s eyes?

I recently learned of an interview of a woman in 40s who was physically intimate with a number of men in college days.  20 years later in her 40s she was still reliving, with great pain, all the brokenness of those relationships, emotionally and physically.

That is not to say that if you mess up, if you have premarital sex, that you will be in pain for the rest of your life.  God is a God of mercy, grace and forgiveness.  He can restore.  He is a God of making things new.   Many people have experienced the transformation that God has brought to their lives.

You can be restored.  You can say “from this day forward I am practiced God’s way.”  You can be a virgin from that point on.  One of the most amazing verses in the Bible is where he says in Revelation 21:5 that he is making all things new.  In Christ we are made new.  No sin from our past is held against us!

We can be pure, and we can remain pure.  Do pursue ongoing purity, we need to talk about the roots of sexual purity.  If God is in the business of making us new, how do we have purity in our very sensual society?  We may desire purity, but we live in a society that makes purity difficult.  So what do we do about that?

Practicing purity starts in the mind, with our desire.  Jesus notes in Matt 5:27-30 that if you look at a woman lustfully, you have done the same thing as committing adultery with her.  Jesus wants us to take lust seriously.

But when he says “if you look at a woman lustfully, gouge out your eye!” he is speaking in hyperbole.  Or making an argument from the absurd.  What do I mean by hyperbole and absurd?  Let’s look at each one.

Hyperbole is exaggeration.  Jesus didn’t want us to literally gouge out our eyes if we lust, as just about every Christian would then be blind on their first day of being a follower of Jesus.  Instead, one way to understand Jesus’ teaching is that he wants us to take serious action to eradicate lust from our lives.

Then there is the argument from absurdity.  He and everyone else in the crowd listening to him that day knows, obviously, that gouging out your eye, won’t stop you from lust.  In fact, when he said “gouge out your eye,” there may have been laughter in the crowd.  Why?  Removal of your eyes clearly won’t stop lust!  You can still lust in your mind.  Lust is a problem of the inner life.  What really needs to change is your heart.

How, then, do we apply Jesus’ teaching to help us live with purity in a sexualized culture?

Someone has said that you can’t help it if a bird poops on your head.  But you can prevent them from a building a nest there.  Some of you know that you cannot handle certain forms of sexual expression or encounter.  And you may need to get help.  Stop allowing sexualized music, movies, TV shows, books, etc. into your life.

If you are allowing pornography into your life, even in light forms, like looking at pictures of scantily clad people on Google Image search, then you need to take action. Use both the argument from hyperbole and absurdity.  Take action.  Admit what you are doing, first to yourself, that it is wrong and confess to God as well.  Then confess to someone you can trust.  You simply must get the truth out.  Invite accountability, take the initiative to be held accountable.  Put the filtering and accountability software on your computer. And if you addiction is controlling you, seek professional help.  Locally here in the Central PA area, you can contact Day Seven as they specializing in helping get free from sexual addiction.

In addition to taking action to remove sexualized content and encounters from your life, seek to fill your life with pure, wholesome content and encounters.

In Psalm 119:9-11 we read some excellent advice: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…I have hidden your word in my heart so that I might not sin against you.”

One way to do this is to fill your mind with God’s good things.  Read, study and memorize passages from the Bible.  Get an accountability partner to work with you.  Fill your mind with good things, and that is what you will think about.

When considering purity, know this: God’s vision of human sexuality is not to impose rules on us.  God is not saying that if we express our sexuality in a way that is disobedient to him, we have committed an unpardonable sin.  God’s vision of sexuality is with our best interest in mind, and when we don’t live up to that best, know that there is grace, there is hope, and there is new life in Christ.  God is a merciful, forgiving God!  He loves you, and he continues to want what is best for you.