There is a quote, often attributed to the late great apologist, Ravi Zacharias, that I keep posted on my refrigerator. The actual author appears to be another great apologist, Edward Musgrave (E.M.) Blakelock, an Australian who lived in the 20th century. The quote goes like this:
God alone knows how to humble you without humiliating you, and how to exalt you without flattering you.
E. M. Blakelock
It is at once a simple and extremely profound statement. God knows us so well, He knows exactly those areas in which we tend toward pride and disobedience. But unlike our accuser, Satan, God doesn’t stand around saying, “AHA! AHA!” and pointing out our faults with glee. His loving discipline will cause us to be confronted with our errors–and our own pride and failure to obey may cause us to be humiliated by others–but God’s purpose is to bring us to repentance and transformation, not shame and dishonor. God wants us to learn from our mistakes, not be imprisoned by them.
In the same way, God knows our strengths and glories in our wise use of His gifts. But He loves us far to much to flatter us and lead us to improper pride. If we go there, we do so led by our own temptation. God may choose to do great things around us, for us, even through us– but they are God’s great deeds, and we are blessed to be part of the process.
One of Satan’s greatest lies is that we must be “like God”– knowing good and evil, and able to always choose the right course in our own power and wisdom. Such thinking leads us to wonder if God will be unable or unwilling to forgive us– that we must never falter, totter, or doubt. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23 NIV). But that is NOT the Good News of the Gospel– merely that reality of our lost state. Guilt without remedy is hopeless and dead! Such a picture places God in the place of prosecutor. But God is both our just judge (rather than an unforgiving one), and our faithful advocate!
God WILL humble us; and He WILL exalt us according to His wisdom. But God is more concerned about our ultimate well-being and redemption than in our temporary feelings.
My prayer for today is two-fold– first, that I would seek God’s opinion and His just judgment, so that I can confess, repent, and adjust my heart accordingly. Second, I would pray that I might seek to see others as God does; that my love for others would cause me to encourage and admonish with pure love, and not selfish ambition or spite.
It was almost 160 years ago, during the darkest days of America’s Civil War, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “Christmas Bells” that would become the Christmas Hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His son had been badly wounded in battle; his wife had died just a few years earlier, and the nation was in ruins and chaos. No one knew how much longer the war would continue or what the final outcome would be; Longfellow did not know if his son would live, or if he would be paralyzed for life. As he listened to the bells of Christmas ringing from church towers, he poured out all his doubts and fears in verse. Yet he concluded, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Christmas is not just a celebration of “comfort and joy” that comes from tinsel and lights, cozy fires, or gifts under brightly lit trees. Christmas is about Hope in times of darkness. It is about promises kept; prophesies fulfilled, victory assured, even when it looks as though the Enemy has the upper hand.
It is horribly tempting in troubled times to wonder and question God’s ways– does He hear? Does He see? Is He asleep? Does He exist? How can a “good” God allow such suffering and pain? And like Longfellow, we listen to our circumstances, and they seem to drown out the message of Christmas– “For Hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” The cannons of yesteryear may have been replaced with 24-hour news cycles or Facebook news feeds, with protests and lock-downs, COVID counts and contested elections, but the noise is still the same. There is hatred, deceit, destruction, and doubt in our world–it was present during the Civil War; it was present during the Roman occupation at the time of Christ’s birth. But that birth brought a singular hope– one that has become so familiar, and so casual as to be almost forgotten amidst the immediate urgent noises of the day.
The trappings of Christmas sometimes hide the very Glory of Christ’s Advent. God CAME. He LIVED AMONG US. He was humble. He felt the cold and heat of long days and nights; his feet got dirty from walking. He laughed and cried. And, He DIED. He felt agony and shame and fear as he gasped for breath, naked and bloody and facing sneers and anger from the crowd. But God IS NOT DEAD–He conquered death; He rose again victorious. And He did it so that our suffering is not in vain– our suffering is not the end of our story.
GOD IS NOT DEAD. Hope is not in vain. Nor does He sleep–even in the silence of our lonely nights, even in the noisy chaos of life in 2020–God has not stepped off His throne; He has not turned His back on mankind. “The Wrong shall fail–” though it may seem strong and strut arrogantly through the streets, shouting and threatening–God is the final authority. Nothing is hidden from Him. He sees every injustice, every secret sin; He hears every lie, every twisted truth, every deceit. And He has no favorites– there is no excuse, no “religious” exemption– ALL have sinned, and all will be held to account.
EXCEPT– because of that one birth and death and resurrection–the debt is already paid. “The Right (shall) prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men.” For those who listen beyond the noise of battle, the bells of Christmas ring “more loud and deep” with the hope and joy and strength that overcome our pain and struggle. Longfellow found that truth– and I’m so glad he shared it. I hope his words will continue to remind us to listen through this season for the true message of Christmas.
The prophet Micah gave us three “requirements” to please God– to act justly (do justice), love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) I looked at the first of these more closely last time. I want to look at the second requirement today– Love Mercy.
Just like “do justice,” this statement seems simple and self-evident on the surface. We know God is merciful; we know that He delights to show mercy. In fact, throughout Psalm 136, the refrain is repeated, “His Mercy endures forever!” We also know that God is loving and faithful. It is reasonable to assume that God wants us to show mercy to others, and rejoice in His mercy toward us.
But unlike the first “requirement” of “do justice,” this is not primarily an action statement. I believe God is still pleased when we practice mercy, but the “requirement” is that we love mercy. That we embrace mercy; welcome it, and cherish it. And this is not always easy or straightforward.
I am to love mercy when it is shown to me. I am not to cheapen it by trying to pay it back or “earn” it, or disparage or refuse it. I am to love mercy as I show it to others. I am not to give it grudgingly, or keep a ledger. And I am to love mercy when it is shown to others who don’t “deserve” it.
This is difficult. I want to love justice and do mercy; not the other way around. I don’t want to see others experience mercy when I think they’ve done wrong to me. I don’t always want to rejoice with those whose sins have been forgiven. But until I can do all of this, and learn to love mercy, I cannot fully please God. My grudging show of mercy does not earn God’s approval. My arrogance in deciding who “deserves” mercy does not endear me to my Maker and Judge.
Lord, have mercy on me for begrudging mercy to others. Help me to show mercy freely and joyfully. Help me to love mercy as You do–to rejoice in Your faithfulness, forgiveness, and love.
I’ve been reading through the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.), and there are many references to altars and sacrifices–both the ones built to honor Jehovah God, and those designed for idols.
Israel and Judah were guilty of building thousands of altars and shrines to false gods. Some of them were found even inside the Holy area of God’s own temple! As part of God’s judgment, He repeated that He would no longer accept the empty sacrifices of His people–He would no longer hear their prayers, unless they repented.
I read these words and wondered– Where are our altars today? When I was a child, many of the older churches had what we called an Altar. It was usually a raised platform, with a podium for the minister, and possibly a “host table” for communion. My childhood church also had a small table that held a large Bible. Sometimes, the platform would have a railing around the edge, with a couple of stairs on either side. And, while many churches “passed the plate” for offerings, some had a special plate on the railing of the altar, where people would march up and place their offerings for the week. There it would sit for the rest of the service–random dollar bills of random denominations in random states of being crumpled, folded, and worn, along with checks, and, sometimes even coins. All of them brought forward and placed on the altar.
Today, many churches have stages, like any large theater or event center. There is no railing, but there are hundreds of spotlights and fog machines. There is no podium for the pastor–just a headset and maybe a small stand for notes. Sometimes, the pastor reads from a teleprompter. Often, he or she is joined by a full band or orchestra, and dozens of singers, actors, or other assistants. No one from the congregation approaches the stage– why would they get up from their comfortable reclining padded seat? No one even “needs” to bring a Bible– the sermon text is printed out on the giant screens hanging above the stage. Our worship is comfortable, and entertaining.
But we have no altars. There is no place for someone to lay their offering before God; no place to meet with Him in repentance or revival. There is no place to remind us of sacrifice and atonement. Oh, to be sure, many churches have a large cross on display somewhere. Some even have the “host table” for communion– somewhere in the wings, just in case–but the concept of an “altar” has all but disappeared from churches in the West. It is an anachronism–something ancient and uncomfortably part of the distant mists of tradition.
8 In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. 2 I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. 3 He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. 4 And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain. 5 Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. 6 And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” 7 Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. 8 He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.9 And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” 14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.” 16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east. 17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”
Ezekiel 8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com
We make a big fuss in our culture about privacy. What I do in my own home, with my own life, in my own time, is private. And, for many of us, our privacy is sacred. We rage and fight and panic about who may be invading our privacy– listening in or watching us when we least expect it.
I must admit, I don’t like the idea of anyone spying on me or listening in on my private moments. I especially don’t like the thought of someone manipulating or using my private words, images, or ideas without my knowledge or consent.
But there is a danger in our quest for privacy– we are inclined to believe that anything we do in private CANNOT ever be discovered; that we are safe to do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. The internet has made this idea even more dangerous–we can be private and anonymous behind the screen. We can say things we know we shouldn’t; we can view things we would be ashamed to acknowledge watching; we can explore fantasies, mask our inadequacies, pretend to be who and what we are not; all behind the “safety” of the screen.
And this is nothing new. In Ezekiel’s day, the moral, legal, political, and religious leaders of the day thought they were “safe” to indulge in idol worship behind closed doors. But more than that, they believed that God would never see as they practiced divination, witchcraft, ritual prostitution, violent orgies, even child sacrifice! They had built hidden rooms where they practiced vile rites and indulged in the very behaviors they taught others to avoid. Worse, they condemned and vilified others when they “got caught” doing the same things they practiced with impunity. And when prophets came to them with warnings–the very words of God– they had them ruined, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
In the eighth chapter of Ezekiel, God shows his prophet a vision. He allows Ezekiel to “go behind closed doors” and see the priests and leaders at their worst–over and over again–secret rituals, detestable practices, flagrant disobedience, arrogant rebellion…And all of this was happening as the nations of Israel and Judah had collapsed, and many thousands had died from war, disease, and starvation. People had been sent into exile– defeated, starving, enslaved. Yet their leaders were keeping up an image of righteousness and proud endurance, instead of turning to God for help and hope.
God was very clear–Jerusalem WOULD be captured and destroyed. Babylon WOULD take God’s people captive and send most of them to the sword or to exile. Defiance and pride– especially relying on the great victories of the past– would not save them. Rebellion and violence would not hold back God’s judgment.
The same is true today. It is easy to write about praying and walking closely with God–I’m hidden behind a screen. I can sound righteous and Godly for a few minutes three times a week. And it is easy to point fingers and call out the bad behavior of others behind the anonymity of a computer screen. We need to speak up, speak out, and defend the cause of those who are oppressed, abused, enslaved, and silenced. But we also need to beware that we are not crying, “Shame on you!” from a locked closet, while waving banners or buying merchandise supporting the abusers.
And God sees all of it. What we may find shocking and reprehensible, God has already seen through to its conclusion! God WILL bring judgment and punishment for those who shed blood and bring violence and injustice. But God also sees what I do in the watches of the night; when I’m alone with my thoughts; when I’m not on my guard against what I view on Facebook or YouTube. God knows what celebrity gossip I crave, or what I’m “watching” on eBay. He knows if I am ignoring or justifying evil happening all around me. He watches over my shoulder when I’m reading that new novel, or I’m driving down the road (hopefully not at the same time!), or when I’m wallowing in self-pity or jealousy or anger.
When I read about Ezekiel weeping over the behavior of Israel’s leaders, I am convicted. How often do I weep and seek God’s mercy over the behavior of our leaders–all of them, and not just the ones I voted for? Or do I just fume and post about how awful “they” are (whoever “they” my be) and how “they” need to be punished? How often do I ignore my own bad behavior? I may not have a “hidden room” filled with detestable images and idols, but God is still watching how I react to challenging times. He knows if I am obeying His voice or merely pretending to follow Him while leaning on my own understanding or my own image of self-righteousness. He knows if I have made money, politics, status, safety, health, or even “religion” into idols, hoping that one or more of them will carry me through tough times. He knows if I am condemning others for their bad behavior, while hiding or justifying my own.
I want everyone to see me when I am noble and righteous–but I need to see myself as He sees me every day–His much-loved, and ever-needy, child.
Father, may I be quick to remember that You ALWAYS see me– and that You ALWAYS want me to see You as well. Help me to see You in the middle of challenging times. Help me to see You when I interact with others. Help me to obey You in the private moments when no one else is watching.
God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.
FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet. I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others! God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction. Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.
May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.
It’s depressing to watch the news, lately–the reports include the COVID-19 pandemic, rioting and violence, injustice, crime, natural disasters…there is very little to celebrate. And yet, my nation just recognized the 244th anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain. In that declaration are the immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..” America has never realized perfection of these truths. No nation can claim perfection, just as no individual person can claim perfection. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). But the truth still stands. All men (and women, children…human beings) are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. God does not favor the rich or the poor, men or women; He doesn’t favor one skin tone over another; He doesn’t love Baptists more than Catholics, or agnostics! He is not partial to citizens of one nation over another; He doesn’t favor Republicans over Democrats. Governments and individuals may deny or withhold these rights; they may pervert the truth or twist and shape circumstances to their favor at the expense of others. But the truth still stands.
Long ago, there was an empire called Assyria– powerful, ruthless, domineering. They were not governed by principles of fairness, equality, or justice. They conquered and slaughtered other people at will. Their capital city was Nineveh. The prophet Jonah, a man thoroughly familiar with their cruelty and lack of justice, was dispatched by God to warn the people of their coming judgment. Instead of obeying, Jonah fled. It would seem understandable that Jonah might fear the people of Nineveh. Delivering such a warning could put him in danger. But that wasn’t why Jonah fled.
The story of Jonah is well-known. After fleeing toward Tarshish on the first available ship, God sent a storm. Fearing that the ship would sink, the sailors cast lots to choose a human sacrifice to appease the sea gods. Jonah volunteered, saying it was his sin that “caused” the storm. Reluctantly, the sailors threw him overboard, and the storm ceased immediately. Jonah was “saved” when a giant fish swallowed him. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, and God rescued him again, causing the fish to spit him out onto dry land. Jonah took advantage of his second chance, and went to Nineveh, preaching the message of destruction.
But when Jonah’s message results in mass repentance and a “second chance” for the Ninevites, Jonah is disgusted. THIS was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh– because he did not want them to receive a warning and a potential reprieve! He knew that God was sending him, not with a message of doom, but with a message of hope! There was a chance to repent– to try again–to seek justice and avoid destruction. They didn’t deserve it. Certainly, they had never given mercy to any of the peoples they had already conquered. God had every right to destroy them without any warning– and Jonah had counted on it.
I almost always focus on the character of Jonah when I read through this story. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah+1&version=NIV (follow this link to see chapter 1 and use the site to read the other three chapters). But what about the people in the city of Nineveh? Imagine a stranger walking around one of America’s major cities– Washington, New York, Seattle (in light of recent events there)… His face and skin are unnaturally white and blotchy; bleached by stomach acid from an enormous fish. He looks like a zombie, and his message is delivered in utterly horrible assurance–“yet forty days, and this city will be destroyed.” Not by a spike in COVID-19 cases; not by looters or protesters tearing down a couple of buildings here or there–total destruction by the hand of God.
What might we do differently if we had forty days to convince God to stay His hand and give our nation a chance to repent. We claim we are not like the Assyrians– we were founded on truthful principles and ideals. We “hold” these truths, but we do not live them out as a nation.
The Ninevites did not have time to amend or rewrite a Constitution. They did not have forty weeks or forty years to “reconstruct” their empire or implement social justice legislation.
But they had time to pray. They had time to fast, and repent, and seek the mercy of God. From the least to the greatest, they fasted and prayed. Even their animals fasted! They stopped frantically trying to grab power, and turned their eyes toward their Maker and Judge. And God listened! God forgave! God showed mercy!
May we pray– in every nation, region, city, village, or settlement– for God’s mercy in these times, and at all times. God is not waiting for us to “get it right.” He is waiting for us to come to Him. May we be humble and hopeful and turn to Him today. And may we learn from their example.*
*Spoiler alert– while the Assyrians in Nineveh repented after the message of Jonah, they quickly forgot God’s mercy and returned to their wickedness. Just a few decades later, God DID bring destruction on the entire empire– this time without warning!
We’ve been hearing a lot lately about people who are “essential.” In times of crisis, certain skills and services are necessary to preserve or protect life. In times of war, soldiers, medics, makers of tanks and arms, helmets, planes, boots, and armor become essential. In times of famine, farmers, and anyone with reserves of food or water become essential. In times like these, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and those who make or distribute medicines, PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, etc., are essential.
Being “essential” may sound wonderful, but it comes with a heavy price. Doctors and nurses are stretched and stressed, working ridiculously long shifts and scrambling to find ways to arrest the progress of COVID-19 among their patients who test positive. Meanwhile, their neighbors are complaining about being told to stay home and do nothing because their skills, their businesses, and their contributions are considered “non-essential.” Grocers and the cashiers, restaurant owners, farmers, and truckers are risking their lives to keep people supplied with food, only to have people complain about prices and temporary shortages. And any one of their customers could be spreading the virus– not just to them, but to their other customers. Police officers, already putting their lives on the line, are now asked to interact with those who may be carrying and spreading this virus, as well as dealing with an angry and frustrated population chafing under orders to stay home and stay inactive. And those who are “essential” are also vulnerable– tired and frightened and inadequate to meet every need–they are not infallible or indefatigable.
There are really only a few things in life that are actually essential–breathing (which is one of the reasons COVID-19 is so scary, because it attacks the lungs), water, food, and basic shelter (protection from excessive heat or cold). And, while many around the world are facing more extreme shortages than others, most of the chafing and complaining has less to do with not having the essentials than with being (or not being) labeled “essential” with very little notice or guidance, and asked to bear the brunt of a crisis they cannot predict or control.
For every person who is feeling the pressure of being “essential” in a time like this, there are others who have been labeled “non-essential”– redundant, expendable, “in the way.” “Stay home!” “Stay away!” “Don’t!” Don’t shake hands, or hug, or visit friends or loved ones (unless you can do so via phone or internet). Don’t touch– don’t touch door knobs or counters or surfaces– don’t even touch your own face!
The intent of these messages is a positive one–“help stop the spread of this virus”–but the message often gets lost in the tone of fear and panic that accompanies it. “If you don’t (go away, stay away, stop touching, stop asking questions, stop being in the way…) other people, especially ‘essential’ people, will get sick and die.” “If you could just go away, disappear, be quiet, etc., until this crisis dies down…” Feeding your family, keeping your business open, earning a living, using or developing your skills, offering your services or products– none of that is “essential” right now. You have nothing to offer in a time of crisis– you are expendable. Perhaps not forever, but just now– just for a few more days, weeks, months?…
Jesus offers us a shocking view of what is/who is “essential” or “redundant.” In his encounter with the “rich young ruler,” (see https://pursuingprayer.blog/2020/02/07/a-miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile/) Jesus listens as the young man seeks to justify himself. He has done everything he deems “essential” to inherit eternal life. But Jesus challenges him with one “essential”–sell what he has in order to serve the poor and “redundant.”
Jesus had frequent encounters with lepers– the most “redundant” and expendable people of his day. They were contagious, “unclean,” unwanted. And Jesus also encountered those with great power and prestige–priests and rulers, centurions and tax collectors. Many of them were also considered “unclean,” and unwanted! Those for whom Jesus had the sternest warnings were those who refused to accept, respect, or help those they preferred to judge.
Jesus, the only One who actually has the right to judge, didn’t come to further the division of people into categories and labels. While he didn’t turn a blind eye to sinful activities, neither did he point fingers. And while he celebrated faith and service when he found it, he didn’t flatter or fawn over those whose service was more “essential” than others’. Instead, Jesus invited “whosoever” to believe in him (John 3:16), to follow him, and to become part of the Kingdom of God. (Revelation 22:17). Someday, He will judge us, and we will be separated. But the one “essential” will be whether or not we have chosen to depend on Him and trust Him for the wisdom and strength to do His will in service to “whosoever” we encounter.
There is no one so “essential” that God is required to accept her/him into the Kingdom. This may be a strange notion to some of us, who have fallen into thinking that we earn our salvation through good works or memorizing doctrinal statements. But NO person is essential in Heaven. And that’s not bad news or meant to condemn–it is simply a reminder that God’s standard is level and fair. We don’t have to strive and stress; we don’t have to have all the right answers, or do all the “right” things– in fact, we can’t.
And there is no one so “redundant” that God cannot accept him/her into the Kingdom. Again, this may be a strange notion, that we cannot “out-sin” God’s salvation. We can’t mess up, wash out, face-plant, or fail such that God cannot redeem, rescue, or revive us. God will never tell us to “stay away,” “wait,” “don’t get too close.” Instead he says, over and over again, “Come!”
Whosoever is struggling with exhaustion, or impossible expectations, panic, fear, sickness, anger, depression, loneliness, hunger, rejection, injustice, confusion, or emptiness– let them come!
What Would Jesus Do? This question, shortened to the acronym WWJD, appeared as a fad on bracelets, t-shirts, billboards, etc., a few years ago. The idea was to ask oneself how Jesus Christ would act or react in various situations.
While I don’t disagree with the premise, I have never been a fan of this trend– mostly because it calls for people to speculate or imagine what Jesus would or might have done in their place. There is nothing wrong with wanting to act like Jesus– that’s what we’re supposed to do–to be disciples of Christ, and be His ambassadors. But our minds and hearts are not perfect; in fact they can be deceitful and arrogant, self-righteous and self-justifying. It is more common for us to justify how Jesus would act like us, than for us to adjust our thoughts and actions to those we know Jesus took during His time on earth. Would Jesus be angry about injustice– of course! Would He want us to have empathy for others– undoubtedly! But what would He actually DO? There are some pretty clear examples in the Bible– both examples of what Jesus DID, and what He DID NOT do:
Jesus drank wine; He visited and ate with known sinners; healed on the Sabbath (in direct violation of the church leaders of His day); interacted with the Romans (soldiers and leaders, etc.)who were oppressing the Jews– without protesting their rule or joining rebel groups; healed and performed miracles for some, but not for others; forgave sins for some, but not for others; paid His taxes without complaint; challenged religious leaders and spoke harshly against their practices; refused to get drawn into condemning and stoning a guilty adultress….
Jesus prayed. He want to temple regularly; read and studied God’s word; He rested, meditated, and spent time alone; He listened to strangers and treated those He met with compassion and respect; He honored His mother, but did not put her above His work; He loved his friends, even those who did not understand Him and the one who betrayed Him; He did not flatter those in power or disdain those in lowly positions; He cared deeply, wept unashamedly, and laughed heartily…
Jesus did not own a home. He didn’t have a “regular” job; He had no savings account or retirement fund; He had no donkey or horse for transportation; He wasn’t a member of a particular congregation or church council, like the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t have a university education; He didn’t run for public office; He never got “employee of the month;” He never married or had kids; We have no evidence that He ever gave to a particular charity, or joined any activist group. Jesus never hosted a barbecue, or led an evangelistic gathering, like His cousin, John the Baptist…
Jesus never addressed many of the issues we deal with today– civil rights, gay rights, abortion, health care, income inequality, democracy/socialism, smoking, drug use, pornography, violence in the media, global climate change, speed limits on highways, income tax structure, campaign finance reform, gender dysphoria, unisex bathrooms, vegans vs. meat eaters…
But the point of Jesus’ ministry on earth was to preach the coming of the “Kingdom of God,” and to fulfill His promise to go to the cross, die for our sins, and to rise again on the third day. He spent time teaching and discipling twelve very different individuals, who saw and did things very differently from each other, and differently from Jesus himself. Peter was fiery, John was a quiet observer, James was stern and concerned about actions, Matthew was concerned with history and prophecy. And all of them were loved by and commissioned by Jesus to spread the Gospel.
In these days of COVID-19, faced with fear and panic, many Christians (myself included) are struggling with the “right” response–we all want to show the love of God, and honor Him above all. In doing so, however, I find myself spending a lot of time justifying my own actions, and condemning the words and actions of others. And I find myself getting hurt and angry when someone I know and love reacts differently, uses different words or tones, or gets caught up in arguments about what “we must do.”
We MUST seek God’s wisdom in these times. And we MUST listen to and obey His word. But beyond that, I believe that God wants us to be very different “parts of the body” (see 1 Corinthians 12) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+12&version=ESV And I believe that God wants us to work together, honoring the various gifts and personalities that we have been given. Some of us are going to be fiery in our defense of health care workers, and advocating for the best and fastest medical care and treatments available. Some of us are going to be spreading small words and acts of encouragement wherever we see the opportunity. Some of us are going to be standing up against threats of corruption and injustice lurking among the actions of those in power. Some of us are going to speak boldly about our Hope in Christ, evangelizing and calling people to repentance. Some are going to be “standing in the gap” in prayer and counseling. Some are going to be providing money, food, PPE (personal protective equipment), and other services. And we must honor the other members of the body– in whatever role they take on– and seek unity, rather than division.
Instead of blasting each other on Facebook or angry e-mails, we need to bring our initial reactions– anger, disappointment, hurt, confusion– to God. HE is the one who will judge our actions and motives in the end. Unless we see Christians who are flagrantly violating God’s laws– looting, cheating, spreading malicious lies and causing division, cursing God and/or misrepresenting Him in heretical fashion–we should ask, not just what Jesus would/might do in my situation, but what DID Jesus do in my place.
Because He died for me when I was still a sinner. He sacrificed His life. Not because I had done anything “right,” or “good enough.” He didn’t keep a list of all the things I got “wrong.” He did not bring condemnation– He brought forgiveness, mercy, and hope! And His mercies are new every morning. If I “get it wrong,” if I do something, or don’t do something–because I am still human and I don’t know everything about COVID-19 or the global economy or what tomorrow will bring–God will still love me. God will forgive me.
My prayer is that I will do the same for others– that I will extend Grace, and true encouragement (rather than flattery or mutual congratulation), and Love, because I know without a shadow of doubt or speculation, that this is What Jesus Would Do.
We’re getting ready to enter the Lenten season–six and a half weeks of reflection and preparation before Easter. Lent is not a celebration in the traditional sense– it is solemn and reflective, personal and, sometimes, painful. It is a time of getting “real” about our sinful condition. The Bible says we have all fallen short of the Glory and Holiness of God (Romans 3:10) and deserve God’s wrath. The natural consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and permanent separation from the goodness of God.
There are many ways we can react to this reality. I know many people who resent God’s Holiness and His laws. They do not want to face God’s righteous judgment; they believe that God’s laws are cruel and unjust, and that they do not have to answer to anyone greater then themselves.
Others want to bargain with God. They feel that if they relent– if they set a goal to do more good than harm, if they strive to be better than “the next guy”–God will weigh their good deeds in the balance and judge them in comparison with how bad they “might have been.”
But God doesn’t judge on a curve– He doesn’t judge us by our measure, but by His. And none of us “make the grade.”
If that were the final word– the end of the story– there would be no reason to relent, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we were resentful. But God, from the very beginning, designed a different outcome. His judgement is just, but it is not without hope or remedy. God Himself has given us the chance to change– to repent. Repentance is agreeing with (not resenting) God’s judgment, and responding (not bargaining) with changed behavior and a changed attitude.
Lent begins when we confront the great gulf between God’s Holiness and our sinfulness. It stretches through the realization that sin and its consequences surround us, hem us in, and poison our world. It is a time of sadness and gaping loss, when we long for healing, for hope, and for a home we’ve never seen. It is a time for reflecting on the cost involved–not just in human suffering, but in God’s suffering as a human. God, who could have, in His righteousness, destroyed even the memory of mankind, chose to share our sufferings– hunger, cold, exhaustion, rejection, heartbreak, betrayal, death– to that we could be delivered into everlasting life.
Lent ends as we remember Jesus’ death and burial– His ultimate sacrifice for our debt. It ends with a shattering trumpet-blast of hope and joy on Easter Morning. Our sadness and loss is NOT the end– Sin’s power and poison are illusory. They have no power over our Great God.
It can be tempting to respond to our present circumstances with resentment. It can be tempting to relent in our rebellion– trying to bargain with God, and minimize the cost He had to pay, trying to pay the price ourselves with a show of good behavior and a superficial devotion.
But God’s great Love and Mercy should draw us to worship and true devotion. As we reflect on the great gulf between sin and holiness, it should cause us to gladly repent– to lay on the altar all the substitutes and lesser things that keep us from full communion with the Lover of Our Souls.
Our prayers during this season may be difficult. They may be filled with grief, loss, and pain. But they may also be filled with hope and joy as we anticipate the gift of Grace. And they should be filled with praise. After all, Lent is a season; a season to reflect, a season to repent, a season to mourn, but a season with a beginning and an end; a season that gives way to celebration and a sure hope of resurrection!