Examine yourselves… punks!

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2 Corinthians 13:5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! 6 I hope you will find out that we have not failed.

Throughout this letter to the Corinthian church Paul has been responding to challenges to his authority. Is he really an apostle? After all, he didn’t sit at Jesus’ feet like the original 12 disciples. And his physical appearance was not impressive in the least. Could a broken old man truly manifest the signs and wonders they’ve heard about? They question Paul, doubt him, examine him via written words. So in this passage Paul turns the tables.

“Examine yourselves…”

If you’re a leader in any capacity you know that critics are everywhere. People love to second-guess your decisions and whisper doubts about your leadership behind your back. At least the people in Corinth are criticizing in the open. But Paul’s not worried about what they think because soon enough he will visit Corinth in person. Soon enough they will have first-hand knowledge of what apostolic power looks like – in the body of an old man. They will understand what Paul means when he writes,  “for (God’s) power is made perfect in (my) weakness” (1 Corinthians 12:9).

And then his critics will be tested. In the face of the power of God manifest through the apostle Paul will they pass muster? Will they pass the test of faith or be found wanting? It’s as if Paul is saying, “Better pull up your big boy britches because it’s going down!” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” – Holy Spirit edition. 😉

Poor sinner that I am…

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Ecclesiastes 9:1 All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.

This passage repeats a refrain of Ecclesiastes – justice is hard to find in this life. It should be that good people prosper and the wicked are punished, but that’s often not how it works out. Evil prospers and righteousness suffers. It’s an age-old problem “Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people?” Answer: Only God knows. Two more thoughts…

First, our time in this life may appear to be unjust, but the after-life will not be. The teaching of scripture is that all people will be held to account in the end. This would be good news except for my second thought:

v.2b “As are the good, so are the sinners…”

I tend to think of myself as among the “good”, but the truth is that I am very much among the “sinners”. Apart from Christ I am a child of wrath. But by the mercy of God, through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, my sin is cleansed and I am made righteous in his sight. This morning I’m reflecting on this truth and giving thanks to God for his incredible love and faithfulness.

I hate being weak…

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2 Corinthians 12:7 Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. 

Paul has been talking about the incredible revelations God had given him related to things of the spirit. However, in this passage he mentions a “thorn… in the flesh” and “a messenger of Satan”. The natural question that comes to mind is, “What is he talking about?”

Scholars think it may have been some kind of physical problem – an illness or disease or injury that plagued him. He could also be referring to people who persecuted him or challenged his claim as an apostle. We just don’t know. However, we do know that Paul learned to embrace his weaknesses, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong”. We know Paul was not strong in the traditional sense. To the contrary he was likely a bodily mess. He’d been beaten, abused, and more. However despite his unimpressive physical state, the Lord moved through him with power.

It was in those times when Paul’s weakness was most apparent that the Lord released in him divine power.

I’m no apostle like Paul, but I know what it is to be weak and/or be in over my head. Our culture doesn’t value weakness. Frankly neither do I if I can help it, but there are times when I have no choice but to embrace it – when I don’t know what to do or where to go or what to say. And all I’m left with is a keen awareness of my inadequacy and complete dependence on the Lord. Yet it seems in those moments of my fear and trembling, when my need of God is greatest, that God most readily and powerfully appears.

Thank you Lord for your faithfulness. Teach me to embrace weakness so that your power can be revealed in me. Amen.

Two is better than one…

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Ecclesiastes 4:9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. 

Much of the book of Ecclesiastes if pretty depressing, but this passage is an exception. I like my alone time as much as anyone, but am so grateful for the people who journey through life with me. They are a blessing from the Lord.

Does my life make a difference?

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Ecclesiastes 2:11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

The writer is someone making an honest assessment of his life’s works/pursuits. He writes about pursuing wisdom and pleasure – and both fail to deliver as he writes, “all was vanity and a chasing after wind”. I might phrase it like…

“I spent my life working hard, staying busy, but accomplishing little.”

I understand the impulse to evaluate life, particularly now that I have more years behind me than in front of me. I also understand the feeling of futility – that little of substance has changed or improved. It’s a sobering thought. That said, I’m old enough to know that good things often happen slowly, over many years. I may or may not get to see with my own eyes the things God has done through me, but I trust things are happening anyway.

Lord, do a work through me that matters to you. Amen.

How long, O God, how long?

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Psalm 74:4–9 (NRSV): 4 Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there. 5 At the upper entrance (of the temple) they hacked the wooden trellis with axes. 6 And then, with hatchets and hammers, they smashed all its carved work. 7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground. 8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land. 9 We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no one among us who knows how long.

The Israelites were habitually unfaithful to God at the time these events took place. For generations God had sent prophets to warn the people to turn from their idol worship (among other grievous sins) to no avail. So God withdrew his protection and Jerusalem was sacked while the surviving Israelites were taken to exile in Babylon. The part that sticks out for me today is:

9 We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no one among us who knows how long.

In the Old Testament the people of God did not have direct access to God, but relied on prophets as their go-between with God. Since the prophets were gone (killed or sent to Babylon) they had no way to ask God the important question “How long?” How long would they suffer? How long would the pagan people prevail over Israel? How long until God delivered them? They had no idea.

Sometimes when we’re in a difficult season, it helps to know an end is coming. We can circle a date on the calendar and push ourselves to get across the finish line. What’s far more difficult (at least for me) is when there is no end date in sight. Is the situation temporary or is this the new normal? If it is temporary, how temporary? Will it be days? Weeks? Years? Not knowing… is the worst.

Lord there are some of us living in difficult seasons of life right now. The question on our minds is, “How long?” Give us grace to keep going when our situation appears hopeless. Help us to place our trust in you, first and last. Amen.

Rebellion of the broken-hearted…

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Psalm 73:21–23 (NRSV): 21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, 22 I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you. 23 Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.

The psalmist describes himself as both heartbroken (“pricked in heart”) and rebellious (“a brute beast”). Most of us have experienced disappointment. Loss. Betrayal. I know what it is to be hurt deeply and think to myself, “screw it”. I know the temptation to throw off boundaries and limits and good sense. Go on a bender. Act out in destructive ways. And sometimes I’ve gone beyond temptation to action. Not good. Maybe you know what that’s like. Then the psalmist reminds us of the nature of God.

Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”

Even in my rebellion the Lord doesn’t forsake me, turn his back on me, leave me to suffer in my sin. Instead he holds on to me, loves me, forgives me, restores me to fellowship by his grace. That doesn’t mean I don’t have to suffer consequences, but in the midst of my consequences I never have to doubt my identity as a child of God. Lord thank you for your abounding grace. Amen.