God is a little more complicated than that…

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Isaiah 45:5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, 6 so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.

Through these words from Isaiah, God is reminding Israel that both the tragedies they are experiencing, and the salvation to come, are God’s doing. Some other god didn’t do it. It wasn’t a human creation. It was God. The good and the bad. I’m drawn this morning to verse 7:

“I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things”. 

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time this is a common theme. Our cultural theology which says “God is love” is not wrong, it’s just overly simplistic. As the bible repeatedly reveals to us, God is indeed love, but many other things as well – not all of them pleasant.

Leaving the past behind…

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Philippians 3:1To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— 4 even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Again, Paul is having to deal with people who’ve come into a church he planted, teaching the people they still have to follow parts of the Jewish law to be Christians. In this case the issue is circumcision. Paul is sick to death of this. He calls these people “dogs” and “evil workers… who mutilate the flesh”.

Then Paul tells us that if being a good Jew, and following all the laws of Judaism, were the key to Christian life he would be at the top of the heap. He was a Jew’s Jew in the first season of his life. But after meeting Jesus and coming to know the gospel of salvation by grace, he realized all he had known was of no help to him. In fact in v.7 he says of the ways of his former life as a Pharisee “I have come to regard as rubbish”. In fact, his old ways now aren’t a help to him, but a hindrance.

It’s hard to break old ways of thinking, doing, being. It seems to me each season of life has forced me to re-learn all kinds of things. From growing from a boy to a man, to a family man, to a Christian, to a pastor, and so on. The learning continues. It never stops. Today I’m wondering what things I need to forget so I can live into the next season the Lord as in store for me.

Work out your own salvation?

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Philippians 2:12–13 (NRSV): 12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Without any context one might think Paul is saying we are to earn our own salvation, but we know that’s not true. Paul himself teaches us repeatedly that salvation is a gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, not works. When Paul writes “work out your own salvation” I think he is referring to the process by which we live into our new Christian identity – individually and communally. We are claimed by the Lord in a moment, but it takes a lifetime to grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. And even then, it’s a goal we never fully realize this side of Jesus’ return. Sin always gets in the way, which sucks but it’s true. Then Paul throws us a lifeline in v.13,

“For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Paul here reminds us that we can ever make meaningful progress toward the goal of new life without the power of God through Jesus. Can’t be done. But in recognizing our lack of power we take hold of God’s power – manifest in our weakness. It’s another dimension of the reality of the Kingdom of God. As Paul writes over and over, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Thanks be to God!

From the dirt to the skies…

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Isaiah 40: 28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31 but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. 

If you read the rest of this chapter you’ll read about our God who is mighty and powerful, who holds the world and all things in his hands. Ours is a God who never tires – who is then compared to weary humans. I imagine a person on a long journey who is absolutely exhausted. Done. Face in the dirt. Cannot take another step. Then there is v.31,

“but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles…”

The Hebrew words translated here as “wait” can also be translated as “hope” or “trust”. When we are so exhausted that our faces are in the ground, if we will place our hope/trust in the Lord, the Lord will lift us up. And not just up on our feet, or even up off of the ground, but soaring in the heights like an eagle! What a beautiful image.

I think I know what it is to be weary of spirit, empty on the inside. Done. In that place I have already tried to raise myself up but can’t. I’m stuck. I hope in the Lord because it’s the only hope I have. And in that place where I’m out of options… the Lord comes.

 

Ashamed of my country…

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Philippians 1:12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.

Paul gets put in prison so, out of necessity, other disciples step up with greater boldness. Paul preaches within the walls of the prison and the others preach outside the walls.

There are echoes here of Mark chapter 1, “After John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time has come, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the good news.’ With both John and Paul the idea of the authorities was to stop the message by imprisoning the messenger. But in both cases the effort failed miserably. Rather than killing the message, imprisoning leaders multiplied the messengers.

There have always been forces opposing the gospel, including today. I realize that American Christians don’t do ourselves any favors when we fail to embody the message of the gospel. Lately I’m particularly drawn to the plight of the refugees from Central America, particularly children, who are being held pending adjudication of their family’s applications for asylum. The pictures we see coming out of these detention centers are appalling and disgraceful.

I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of immigration law and the ways in which our laws need to be changed to reflect new realities. I’ll leave that to the experts. However, there is something we know as basic human decency which appears to have been tossed aside just a few hours drive from where I write this blog post. It has been reported from multiple news sources that children have been held – for weeks – with no opportunity to wash themselves, or their clothes, or brush their teeth. “There is a stench…” was a comment from a visiting lawyer in Clinton, Texas as reported in the New York Times.

This is happening. In my beloved state of Texas. Perpetrated by the government I once swore to defend as I took the oath of service in the armed forces over 30 years ago.

We treat animals better than this!

And so the question emerges for me. What am I going to do about this? How does the gospel compel me to act? This is not a political question, but a question of faith. It brings me to tears that I am ashamed of my country right now – at least in this particular instance.

We must do better. I must do better. Period. The gospel demands it.

 

185,000 dead. Overnight.

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Isaiah 37:33 “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it. 34 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. 35 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” 36 Then the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies.

185,000 dead overnight. Even by biblical standards that is an enormous amount of death. Sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile the God of the Old Testament who showed such partiality to Israel with the God of the New Testament who gave his son Jesus so that all people might be saved. Boggles the mind.

Satan speaks… through a man named Rabshakeh

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Isaiah 36:1 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. 2 The king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem… 4 The Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah: Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you base this confidence of yours? 5 Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? On whom do you now rely, that you have rebelled against me? 6 See, you are relying on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. 7 But if you say to me, ‘We rely on the LORD our God,’ is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar’? 8 Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. 9 How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master’s servants, when you rely on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? 10 Moreover, is it without the LORD that I have come up against this land to destroy it? The LORD said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.”

Wow. This guy Rabshakeh from Assyria is bringing a verbal full-court-press against King Hezekiah and the Israelites. We’re told in v.1 that the Assyrians had already captured all of the fortified cities in the region of Judah, of which Jerusalem was the remaining holdout. And the smack-talk begins. He gives Hezekiah a whole list of reasons to give up hope and surrender, including his assertion that God himself has ordained Jerusalem’s destruction. As I read these words my mind goes to today’s New Testament reading from Ephesians 6:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

The words given in Isaiah may be coming from a flesh and blood human being (Rabshakeh), but do not be fooled. These are are words Satan hoping to exploit any possible weakness in Hezekiah’s faith.

This is spiritual warfare masquerading as a diplomatic engagement.