A change of heart…

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Isaiah 48:9 For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, so that I may not cut you off. 10 See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity. 11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for why should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.

God had been angry with Israel because of their unfaithfulness. But the Lord had apparently deferred his anger. In other words, he’d withheld the kind of judgment Israel deserved. “I have refined you, but not like silver…” (v.10). Why did God take it easy on the people thus far?

“For my own sake… for why should my name be profaned?” (v.11)

God held back wrath because he didn’t want his name sullied by the destruction of Israel – God’s own people. It would make God look bad in the eyes of the other nations. God eventually had a change of heart and brought the full weight of judgment upon Israel as they were conquered by Assyrians and Babylonians. This sort of indecisiveness (back and forth) is not what I would expect of the Creator of heaven and earth.

But then I realize God’s reluctance to bring wrath isn’t borne of indecision, but of mercy. God gave Israel every possible opportunity to turn away from their wicked ways. Ours is a God of second and third changes. For this I am extremely grateful.

The Lord is near…

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Philippians 4:Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Two things strike me about this passage:

First, the promise articulated here (v.6-7) is not that the reader’s problems are going to disappear in an instant. His outward circumstances may or may not change at all, but he will be  blessed with “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding”. God is ready and willing to take the spiritual, emotional, physical burden from the reader. From you and me. Through prayer. Sounds too good to be true, but it is.

Secondly, Paul exhorts the reader to do several things: rejoice (v.4), be gentle (v.5), refrain from worry (v.6), pray to the Lord (v.6). That’s quite a list. Any one of those things would be difficult for most people, including me. How are we supposed to do all of them? Seems pretty outrageous to me. But v.5b offers the key:

“The Lord is near”

I can’t really do any of those things, but our Lord (the triune God who is Father, Son, Spirit) is near. Is available. Is present with us at all times. And so Paul writes in v.13,

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

I can’t do any of these things, but through Christ I can do all of them because of the Kingdom reality than the power of the living God is made perfect – not through my strength but through my weakness.

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.