Let God Speak to Your Inner Wilderness


I’ve written recently about John the Baptist[1], who announced the coming of Jesus, baptized Him, and led the way for His ministry to begin.  This John was identified with “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’”[2] prophesied by Isaiah.  Today I want to describe a little more about the passage from Isaiah 40:3-5, which says:

A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
            make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
            and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
            and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
            and all flesh shall see it together,
            for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’”

Is Isaiah talking about a massive, miraculous geological event, creating an easier route for Jesus to take to His kingdom?  Perhaps in the future something like this will happen, but I think Isaiah is saying that God’s power over nature is a symbol of His power to reform and perfect us into the character of His Son Jesus.

Before Jesus comes into our lives, we are a spiritual “wilderness” full of “uneven ground” and “rough places.”  The path of our salvation begins in this wilderness, an unorganized chaos of thoughts and desires.  We are like “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”  However, the power of the LORD enters our low valleys – our guilty secrets, shame and depression – which will be raised up.  It progresses through our mountains and hills – areas of pride, self-sufficiency, and our desire for power – which will be made low.  God, with the same power that created the universe, removes all obstacles to the coming of His kingdom to us, and to the world.  He has given us His word, His Spirit, and fellow believers to strengthen us, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”  (Ephesians 4:13-14)

John the Baptist called his followers to confession and repentance.  In announcing the coming of the kingdom of God, John anticipated a time when our internal and external wildernesses will become a paradise.  Until then, we each have different hills and valleys, different uneven and rough areas.  Until then, the world remains full of false doctrine, cunning, craftiness and deceit.

Today, pray that the powerful voice of our LORD will reach into your wilderness and remove obstacles on the path to His kingdom.  Pray that His word and His Spirit will reveal His glory.  Pray that all believers will answer the call of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” to build up His church.

Amen.


[1] See recent post here.
[2] Isaiah 40:3, quoted in Matthew 4:3.

Compassion for the Harassed and Helpless


And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” – Matthew 9:35-36

Jesus lived under the greatest empire the world had yet seen, and in a deeply religious Jewish culture developed over centuries.  The people had powerful leaders, both political and religious.  Why then were the people seemingly without a shepherd to lead them?

The Roman Empire touted widespread peace and prosperity due to the Caesars and their government.  But the people still had many unsolved problems and no hope.  “Throughout all the cities and villages” were diseased, afflicted and helpless people, and Jesus could help them all in ways the Romans could not or would not.

The Jewish Pharisees, jealous of Jesus’ ability to solve problems they could not, claimed “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”  They rightly described His power as supernatural, but they called it evil.  Even as He was performing life-saving miracles, they could not tolerate Him as a rival, and so rejected the people’s only hope.

So, the people remained “harassed and helpless,” not knowing who to trust.

Is your culture also faithless?  Your workplace?  Your community or household?  Jesus encouraged His disciples to see rampant lack of faith as an opportunity to show the crowds the compassion of Jesus: “Then He said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” – Matthew 9:37-38

Today, pray for workers to bring in the harvest.  Also, know that God might make you and I those workers.  As in Jesus’ day, it is up to individual disciples to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom – through compassionate action and often in spite of what those in charge of other kingdoms might prefer.  Harassed and helpless sheep can be frustrated and difficult, but only humble disciples know the problems on the streets of their cities and villages best.

Pray for the compassion of our Great Shepherd who can work miracles. Is there a need He can meet through you today?

A Kingdom of Gentleness and Respect


With another history post coming up, I set out this week to write about this blog’s approach to history and politics, knowing that with these topics, the hardest part can be how to say what you want to say.  Imitating David in Psalm 3, I write to testify that “salvation belongs to the LORD,[1] to some an inherently political statement, in a way that obeys God in approach and tone.  What does that mean?  1 Peter 4:15-16 says:  “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”  This means it is not as simple as just yelling the right story from the rooftops, or in my case, from an unfiltered blog.  “Gentleness and respect” matter.

Last time, I wrote that “Jesus isn’t on the ballot this fall, but flawed candidates of many types will be.  Some more like David, and some more like Absalom.”  David, even as God’s appointed king of Israel, knew that not every problem was in his power to solve.  However, David was at peace with his limits in an imperfect world, knowing that his salvation came from God alone.  But Absalom hated David’s inability, or unwillingness, to solve all his problems.  Absalom harbored angry resentment against David for years before violently overthrowing him.  During this rebellion, David was calm and able to sleep because the kingdom of God was real to him, even when it didn’t look like it.  Then he wrote Psalm 3 to let us know about it.

This conflict between David and Absalom echoes in broad narratives or stories told throughout history: 1) we can and should perfect ourselves, or 2) we are dependent on God to save us.[2]

In the 1 Peter quote above, he says that we defend our eternal hope with “gentleness and respect.,” meaning that those who trust God’s salvation should use not only their words, but also their attitudes and very lives.  The story must be real to us to be convincing to others, and those who hope in God’s kingdom should show obedience to that kingdom.  Easier said than done.

Fortunately, when we truly believe, experience, and stand for God’s salvation, our brokenness and failure is part of the testimony.  When we know God’s salvation is the only solution, we can approach people with different worldviews with our common need for salvation, in “gentleness and respect,” instead of fighting over solutions we know are imperfect.  David was able to sleep at night even when chased out of Jerusalem by his own son, because he had “a good conscience,” showing gentleness and respect toward Absalom.  The kingdom of God was real in his heart, and he believed God would prevail no matter what.  Circumstances could not shake his faith, and God ultimately delivered and restored him.

If, on the other hand, our brokenness and God’s solution for it is not part of our story, we may be left defending an imperfect political solution to those who demand perfection.  In David’s case, he may have insisted that God was unjust in allowing Absalom to succeed.  After all, he could argue, he was a humble king after God’s own heart, while Absalom was bitter and unreasonable.  If David had done this, it may have ironically helped Absalom’s case for tyranny.  In addition, David would not have been able to find peace and sleep at night until Absalom was overthrown.  However, if the starting point is that weakness is common to all of mankind, then the imperfection of the system is both part of the “reason for the hope” and a reason for even the unbeliever to resist tyranny.  In this case, imperfection is not hypocrisy, but a condition common to mankind.

Declaring “salvation belongs to the LORD” with actions, along with words, gives evidence that worldly utopia is not the answer.  But when words or actions fall short, we can still point to the One who is perfect since we aren’t trying to prove worldly utopia is possible.  The two lessons from Absalom’s rebellion are reconciled in a life lived with “gentleness and respect.”  Because God does not rely on political systems to work His salvation, tyranny is just another “temporary and provincial authority” subject to the greater authority of God.  We can have a clear conscience based on the sacrifice of Christ and not on worldly success.

A life lived in hope for the eternal kingdom of God is one lived in love for those left behind by every imperfect system of this world, but also one that testifies that all systems, including our own individual wills, are not perfectible by human effort.  Peter wrote that those who hope in God will be slandered, but also that those who live humble lives based on hope in God and not themselves will ultimately be proved right.  Until then, by their example as they follow Christ, they can show the futility of tyranny.  By God’s grace, His people will inherit a real utopia by learning to love those who hope in a false one with gentleness and respect.

Our failure is part of our testimony as we drive toward morning, but “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” – Matthew 6:33


This post is part of a lead-in to the next “History Bits” post planned for April 9th, and hopefully I can get one more in tomorrow out of the four I had planned…


[1] Psalm 3:8
[2] There’s also a third common story: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” (1 Corinthians 15:32) Today, we focus on the other two.

King David Didn’t Let Politics Keep Him Up at Night


The U.S. midterm elections are later this year, and some are already considering turning off their social media feeds until its over.  Jesus is not on any ballot for the elections, but this does not mean His people are without hope and comfort.  It also doesn’t mean Christians should ignore it all.  Last fall, I wrote a twopart series partly about not over-reacting to the threats of worldly kingdoms because “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” (Psalm 2:4) When recently reading Psalm 3, which is “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” I saw that this Psalm may not have come after Psalm 2 by accident and may also comfort us in the face of political bad news.

Absalom’s Rebellion
The story of King David in the Bible is a very condensed version of his life but does not shy away from David’s serious failures and flaws.  The story of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba is not swept under the rug, and eventually, Absalom’s rebellion against his father David was justified in his mind by those flaws.  Absalom harbored resentment for years after David’s lack of punishment for Absalom’s brother Amnon, who raped his sister Tamar.  One can imagine Absalom thinking about his father: “You’re the king of Israel, so why didn’t you protect Tamar, or at least punish Amnon?  If my sister and I don’t get justice, you don’t deserve to be king!”

David, on the other hand, was quite aware of the limits of being king.  In Psalm 131:1, David wrote:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
            my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
            too great and too marvelous for me.

Even while writing as divinely selected king of Israel, David knew many things were “too great and too marvelous” even for him.  Instead, David focused his heart on the God-given task before him, which did not include achieving perfection in this world.  That task belonged elsewhere.  Later, Psalm 131 was included in the Psalms of Ascent[1], which served as a liturgy for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for three annual festivals.  In those Psalms are reminders of God’s provision for things the world can’t provide, including salvation for our souls and a way to perfect righteousness.  The pilgrims did not go to Jerusalem to worship the earthly king, but to encounter God, and including Psalm 131 in that liturgy would always be a reminder that our worldly aims should always be rooted in humility.

When Absalom raised several hundred supporters and entered Jerusalem to violently overthrow his father David, “a messenger came to David, saying, ‘The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.’ Then David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, ‘Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Go quickly, lest he overtake us quickly and bring down ruin on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.’”  (2 Samuel 15:13-14)

David’s Response
After surrendering the throne and fleeing, David wrote Psalm 3, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” which says in full:

“O LORD, how many are my foes!
            Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
            “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
            my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
            and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah

I lay down and slept;
            I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
            who have set themselves against me all around.

Arise, O LORD!
            Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
            you break the teeth of the wicked.

Salvation belongs to the LORD;
            your blessing be on your people! Selah”

Knowing the background of this Psalm and its placement after Psalm 2 make it far more interesting.  David had suffered a massive political defeat, being humiliated and tossed out of Jerusalem by his own son.  Instead of despairing, he turned to God for his salvation because he knew even the king of Israel could not save the people.  He was only a temporary and provincial authority.  Even though God had promised David the throne, God was able to save David, and Israel, without David on the throne.  With the murderous and vengeful Absalom on the throne, was God defeated?  No, instead we have this Psalm as a reminder of God’s presence and provision of salvation in spite of whatever situation we find ourselves in.

David, having cultivated over years an awareness of his own limitations as king of Israel, and the limitless power of God, “lay down and slept,” then “woke again, for the LORD sustained me.”  Surrounded by foes and removed from his throne, David slept soundly!  In contrast, Absalom is shown as one who broods upon every imperfection, plotting ways to force justice as he sees it on others, even if he must dishonor God.  You could say he is driven by the “utopian impulse,” belief in a government that can solve all of our problems and shouldn’t rest until it does.

Democracy and Tyranny
Jesus isn’t on the ballot this fall, but flawed candidates of many types will be.  Some more like David, and some more like Absalom.  A lesson from Psalm 3 is that we should be able to sleep at night in good conscience because no matter the world looks like, God says “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6) even when king David was on the run for his life.  The success of God’s plan does not rely on our political success. But a second lesson from the story of Absalom is that a ruler driven by achieving worldly perfection can be the worst kind, even if they seem to have good intentions.

Absalom’s story reminds me of this quote from C.S. Lewis:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under of robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to heaven yet at the same time likely to make a Hell of earth.”[2]

How do we reconcile the two lessons?

Coming This Week
This week, I’m hoping to squeeze in a short series of posts on narratives, history, and (gasp!) politics.  I’m very much figuring this out myself every day and learning how to engage without following my own utopian impulse to cut off Malchus’ ear[3] but I also know that waiting for a perfect answer guarantees failure.  This blog is part of that process for me.  This week’s posts will lead up to the next “History Bits” post I have planned for April 9th and give some background on that series.

Hope you’ll join me and let me know what you think.


[1] I’m currently writing about those Psalms in a series, which began here.
[2] From “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” C.S. Lewis. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.  (1970).  P. 292.
[3] See John 18:10

4 8 15 16 23 42 – Blessed are the Meek #3


Do you ever feel that God has appointed a task to you that you can’t see the point of?  These opening verses refer back to previous posts about Jesus asking Martha to move the stone away from the opening of Lazarus’ grave, and also to the man who was given only one talent to put to work for his Master’s benefit:
“Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” – John 11:39
He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’” – Matthew 25:24-25

As we continue a series on the Beatitudes with the third Beatitude “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth[1] I am reminded of the mid-2000’s TV series Lost, where character Desmond Hume is trapped on a mysterious island and enters a code into a computer every 108 minutes.  He does it – even in the middle of the night – because he was told he is “saving the world” by someone he trusts.  When the code – 4 8 15 16 23 42 – is entered on time nothing happens except the re-setting of a clock to 108 minutes.  “The numbers” are referenced over and over again in the show, individually or all together, and seem to have a mystic power over events.  The number of minutes allowed to enter the code – 108 – is the sum of the six numbers.  Even fans seemed to believe “the numbers” had power – there was a boom in playing them in the lottery.

As other characters find Desmond and ask questions, the numbers and the button become a case study of faith versus reason.  Why is he doing this?  Eventually, the button isn’t pushed on two occasions and the consequences are very serious indeed, but this lesson is only learned by failing to act on faith.  While initially faith demands that Desmond enter the numbers over and over again, the two failures show that there was a reason behind Desmond’s faith even if he didn’t know it.  It wasn’t pointless after all.  However, failure isn’t always the best way to learn to be meek.

Every Talent Matters
In a story told by Jesus in Matthew 25:14-30, a man entrusts his servants with some money (the “talents” in the story were a large unit of currency, and the word later came to mean a natural or special ability): five to one servant, two to the next, and one to the last servant.  The first two servants use their “talents” to bring in more for their master, but the last buries the money in the ground to keep it safe.  This servant might have been thinking: “What’s the point?  The other guy has five talents, and with that I might be able to do something.  But with only one…Why bother?”  But if the master’s intent was to keep the talent safe, why would he give it to a servant?  It was only after some time, when the master returned from a journey, that the servant learned the consequence of his inactivity.  The servant is cast out and his talent is given to the better servant.

Waiting until we have more to offer, more to do, or a better sense of the possible consequences is like burying our talent in the sand and therefore determining for ourselves that it does not matter and there is no point.  In the words of “Shy Away” by twenty øne piløts, you “manifest a ceiling when you shy away.”  Whatever purpose God has for our talents – in their exact amounts and types – it wasn’t for us to bury them.  The meek servants who took what they had and worked for their master’s interest, were rewarded.  “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.[2]

For me personally – sometimes I put off, or want to give up, writing because it seems pointless – who reads this anyway?  But it’s what I currently feel compelled to offer.  Blogging may seem a strange thing to do, but it’s better than burying these ideas in the ground and hoping a fruit tree magically pops up.  I don’t know what will happen when I do or don’t write, but I know a refusal to be meek to our Lord has consequences.  Sometimes we aren’t sure why, but we know Who is asking.

Play Your Own Numbers
Jesus has not asked me (and probably not you) to enter “4 8 15 16 23 42” into a computer or to move a stone from a tomb, but He knows exactly what He wants us to do, to become, and how He wants to impact others through us.  There are specific needs He wants only us to meet, including our own needs for meaning and joy.  We should never just copy someone else’s “numbers,” but seek our own.  If Lost fans won the lottery with those numbers, they would have to share the prize, but if each won playing their own way their prize would be much bigger.  Likewise, I believe the eternal reward is higher when you play the numbers – and only the numbers – God gave you personally[3].

Consider God’s personal instructions to you as your own lottery ticket, or the most important treasure you will ever have:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field…
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” – Matthew 13:44-45

Being meek is not a matter of how much one has to offer but knowing who you offer it to and being faithful to that master’s interests.  It is not a matter of knowing why, but a matter of trusting the One who asks you to be meek.  He is the King of the Kingdom.

Finally, just because the consequences aren’t obvious to you doesn’t mean there aren’t any:
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Guardian angel Clarence Oddbody, in It’s a Wonderful Life


This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here


[1] Matthew 5:5
[2] Matthew 25:29
[3] Is it stretching the point to say what happened to Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3 resulted from them trying to “make up their own numbers”?

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