Have you ever noticed in reading through the Bible how often God shows up, not on the occasion of fanfare and praise, but on the occasion of a whimper? When all hope seems lost, and a heart is so broken it can no longer call out– when words are useless and all that is left is a dull, exhausted moaning?
God “inhabits the praise of His people” (Psalm 22:3), but He is also “close to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18). We work so hard to get close to the heart of God, but sometimes, we need to be broken to actually get there. We need to experience the God who finds us in our failures and rescues us from disasters– even those of our own making. God loves us enough to come to us in our brokenness– and He loves us too much to leave us there. God is not a “fairy godfather” who will magically make our circumstances comfortable and painless. But He is a true Father, who will provide comfort and strength to get back up and face the future with hope and courage.
Long ago, a woman named Hagar was despondent. She was a slave who was told by her mistress to sleep with the master so he could have a son. Hagar got pregnant when her mistress couldn’t, and she became proud and disdainful toward her mistress. When she was punished for her arrogance, she ran away into the desert–a foolish and impulsive act, as she had nowhere to go and no one to support her or her unborn son. An angel found her by a spring of water and told her to return and submit to her mistress. Several years later, she and her son, Ishmael, were sent into the desert because of Ishmael’s contempt for his brother. Ishmael was near death, and his mother in despair. Not being able to watch her son die, she moved a short distance away and began to sob. But another angel came and showed Hagar a well of water. He reminded her that God had seen her the first time she ran to the desert, and He had heard her crying this time, too. Hagar was not a queen; she was not a warrior princess or the daughter of a noble. She was not righteous or innocent. She was a rebellious slave; the victim of a sinful scheme, but headstrong and rash. God did not stop her from running away; He did not give her victory over her mistress. But God rescued Hagar and Ishmael. And He blessed them both– on the occasion of a whimper. (See Genesis 16 and Genesis 21)
Today, don’t be afraid to whimper. Don’t pretend that everything is under your control– it isn’t. But be willing to look and listen for the ways that God will show himself. It may be in the words of a stranger; it may be in the beauty of a sunset; it may even be that song on the radio, or a cool drink of water in the middle of a desert. God doesn’t always rescue us from sorrow and pain. Sometimes He rescues us through it.
I’ve mentioned several times on this blog how much I love the book/movie, “The Princess Bride.”
At one point in this fractured fairy tale, the title character, Buttercup– THE princess bride, is waiting to be rescued by her true love, Westley. She has supreme confidence that he will rescue her from having to marry the evil Prince Humperdink. But Humperdink is equally confident that Westley will NOT come– because he knows that the wicked Count Rugen has (supposedly) killed him! As the stuffy archbishop pronounces Buttercup and Humperdink ,”man and wife,” Buttercup is stunned. She keeps repeating, “He didn’t come for me.” She cannot imagine a future in which Westley does not show up and save the day. Her hopes are shattered, and she walks in a fog to the bridal suite, where she prepares to kill herself in despair.
I don’t want to give away everything, but Buttercup’s plans take an unexpected and miraculous turn before the end of the story.
I was reminded of “The Princess Bride” yesterday morning as I sat with my husband, trying to figure out what was happening with his blood pressure. He and I have been battling COVID, and he spent a week in the hospital. He has been home for several days now, and has been improving steadily, until early Sunday morning, when his blood pressure started rising. There were no other symptoms, and we consulted a doctor, who talked us through a course of action, but there was little to nothing they could do for him at the emergency room, unless he had chest pain, paralysis, or a splitting headache, which would indicate possible heart attack or stroke. We increased his oxygen intake level, kept his legs elevated, and his blood pressure came down.
Then, last night, it happened again. No warning; no other symptoms. We made sure he had plenty of oxygen, elevated his legs, continued doing what we had done in the morning. Slowly, the blood pressure reading came back down– still high, but not dangerously so. We’ve prayed for healing– dozens of other family and friends have prayed for healing. Everything seemed to be going fine– why this? Why now?
It is so tempting to imagine our story will be smooth and predictable– even when we have a struggle or set-back– to believe that better days and easier times are just around the next corner. And when it doesn’t happen the way we hope or expect, we want to question God– “Why didn’t you come?” “Why did you delay?” “Why didn’t you send word that I would have to go through this?”
But God HAS sent word– there are dozens of examples in which God delays, or simply does not send a swift and easy rescue. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son– and then delayed 25 years! On top of that, God asked Abraham to take Isaac, the son of the Promise, to be a sacrifice! God showed up–just as Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son. God rescued Abraham and Isaac from their ordeal, but it was a nail-biter! (See Genesis 12-22)
God rescued His people from their slavery in Egypt, and led them straight into a trap! Caught between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, the Israelites seemed to be sitting ducks. How could they have imagined that God would open the sea so they could cross on dry land? Having been rescued in such a miraculous way, the Israelites should have had absolute confidence in God– but instead, they complained about food, complained about the leadership, complained about the weather–even as they could see God’s presence in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night! God rescued them over and over again in the midst of their struggle (and their lack of faith!). (See the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)
Daniel was taken into exile as a teenager– over fifty years later, after God had protected him and put him in a place of great power and prestige, Daniel was set up by his enemies and condemned to be eaten by lions. God did not rescue him by removing the lions or overturning Daniel’s sentence. Daniel had no reason to know that God would rescue him at all. But God’s ways are not our ways. God’s way was to shut the mouths of the lions– something ONLY God could do–proving to Darius, to Daniel’s enemies, and to all who heard about it that God was more powerful and more loving than even our wildest imagination. God rescued Daniel through his harrowing experience– and even brought judgment on Daniel’s enemies in the process.(See Daniel 6)
And the list goes on– Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, the prophets Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, kings like David and Hezekiah, the exiles of Israel, the Apostle Paul, Queen Esther, Simon Peter, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, the martyr Stephen. Many of these people went through famine, disease, prison, death threats, and even death itself! Yet God preserved their stories for OUR benefit. God reassures us that He is the God of the living and the dead– death cannot stop true love (another of my favorite lines from The Princess Bride)! Nothing can separate us from God’s loving and wise and perfect care!
I don’t know what today will bring for David and me. I don’t know if we will have to return to the hospital, or if they can help restore his blood pressure to “normal.” I don’t know if I will have a sudden relapse or complications from COVID. I don’t know what future changes, adjustments, or griefs we will have to bear. But I do know this– God is with us!
Sometimes, God rescues us FROM a situation; sometimes He rescues us IN a situation; and sometimes He rescues us THROUGH a situation. We don’t know how God plans to show up and work in our lives over the next weeks. But we know we can trust Him to do what only God can do, and faithfully see us through the rest of our lives.
I pray that if you are facing unexpected difficulties today, that God will cause you to be strengthened and reassured. He loves you. He sees you. He knows where you are, and, better yet, He knows the road ahead!
There is an old joke about a man whose house was in the path of a great flood. He prayed and prayed for God to rescue him from the rising waters. As the water crept closer to his front door, a man in a canoe came paddling by. He said he had room in the canoe, if the man wanted to evacuate. “No, no,” the man replied. I have faith that God will rescue me.
But the water kept rising. The man was now trapped upstairs, as the water had flooded his ground floor and continued pouring into his house. A Coast Guard rescue boat came by. It was crowded with people, but the rescue workers assured the man that there was still room for one more. “No, no,” the man replied. I’ve been praying, and I know God will rescue me.
Just before sundown, the man was forced to climb onto his roof, as the waters kept rising. A Marine rescue helicopter hovered, and a Marine was lowered with a rope to rescue the man. By this time, the man was hungry, exhausted and shivering, but he refused to accept the Marine’s help, once again claiming that God would rescue him.
As night fell, and the waters were creeping up to his perch on the roof, the man cried out to God,” Where are you, Lord? I prayed for your help, and I trusted you to rescue me. Yet here I am, clinging to the roof. I’m wet, scared, cold, hungry, and tired. Didn’t you hear me? Don’t you care?”
From the darkness above, a voice answered: “I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want?”
This is a silly story, but it made me think– how often do I miss God’s answer to my prayers because of my own narrow focus or selfish expectations? When God sends a canoe, do I dismiss it because I want a different outcome? The story doesn’t say why this man refused to see God’s hand in the reasonable rescue attempts that came his way– perhaps he thought God would simply redirect the floodwaters away from his house, or provide a supernatural rescue. And we never find out what happens next– maybe the man gets his miracle, after all.
God’s ways are not our ways, but God often uses practical, even humble means to answer our prayers. And He rarely ever tells us what His answers will look like.
Even the Apostle Paul had to be rescued– several times. In Acts 27 and 28, we find an amazing story in which God revealed to Paul that he would be shipwrecked and rescued. Several attempts were made to save the ship, but Paul’s focus was on saving the lives of all on board. And God answered his prayer. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+27-28&version=NIV Strangely, God chose not to reveal that Paul would face a new danger as soon as he was safely on land. Paul trusted God to make sure he arrived safely in Rome– no matter WHAT crisis arose, no matter what surprising disaster loomed. When he was bitten by a poisonous viper, Paul didn’t panic. The same God who had led him safely to shore kept him from harm yet again. This same God would bring him to Rome, where he would be executed for his faith. While in jail, Paul wrote many letters, sometimes asking for basic necessities– including a warm cloak and some parchment. Paul never lived to see his letters become part of the New Testament. He never lived to see generations of martyrs and missionaries reading and sharing his words around the world. But he left a testimony of faith that God would be with him, wherever he went and whatever circumstances he faced.
Whether God sends me a canoe today, or a helicopter tomorrow, I know I can trust Him to do what is best– in His way and in His time.
One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” Based on a modern “fractured” fairy tale by William Goldman, it tells the story of a young couple whose “fairy tale” romance is complicated by his death, her kidnapping on the eve of her wedding to an evil prince, and rodents of unusual size…
One of the kidnappers is a Sicilian mercenary named Vizzini. Vizzini brags about his intellect, and claims to know more than anyone. He also claims that his plot to kidnap Princess Buttercup is perfect to the last detail. But when a mysterious stranger begins following them, and foils each of Vizzini’s efforts to shake him, Vizzini grows more and more rattled. His brilliant plan turns out to be less than perfect. In fact, the mysterious stranger (who turns out to be Princess Buttercup’s long-lost true love) succeeds in rescuing the princess and defeating Vizzini in a battle of wits.
As each of Vizzini’s efforts fails, he declares it is “inconceivable” that the stranger should win. Even in the face of clear evidence, Vizzini finds it unbelievable that his plan should have failed–and failed again! Finally, one of the other kidnappers turns to Vizzini and says, “You keep using this word; I do not think it means what you think it means”.
I often hear people scoff at faith in God– “it doesn’t make sense.” “There’s no proof that God exists.” “How can you believe all those old myths–Noah and the Ark; Moses and the Red Sea; David and Goliath–they’re impossible in ‘real life’.” “It’s inconceivable!” “Stop saying all that stuff about God!” “Stop saying you’ll pray for me.” “Prayer is nothing more than wishful thinking.”
And it can be difficult to have faith, sometimes. We don’t ‘see’ what God is doing in our lives and circumstances.” We don’t understand the bigger picture. We don’t believe that God sees or hears us in the middle of our struggles. But God tells us time and time again that nothing is impossible for Him; that He knows all that happens, and that He works all things together for the good of those who follow Him (Romans 8:28). God is able to do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think..”(Ephesians 3:20)
Those stories in the Bible; those “unbelievable” stories we hear or read about miraculous healings and lives transformed…we can choose to ignore them, or scoff at them. We can, like Vizzini, claim that they are “inconceivable,” or try to explain them away while trusting our own knowledge and experiences to get us through life. We can ignore the wise counsel of others, ignore our conscience, and laugh in the face of danger. But in the end, we are human. We are fallible. We are not all-knowing or all-powerful. And we are not immune to sin and its poisonous consequences. The only chance of escape is to be rescued by someone who is “immune” to sin– our Savior, Jesus the Lamb of God.
It may seem “inconceivable” that God would part the Red Sea, or save Noah in the Ark; it may seem beyond belief that Jesus would be born as a human, live among people who denied Him, die on the cross and be resurrected on the third day, so that He could take away the power of sin and death for anyone who will trust Him. But it is precisely this Good News that has transformed the lives of millions of people throughout the centuries since he came.
It may seem “inconceivable” that God would listen to our “little” prayers and care about our every need– but He does! His Love may be beyond our ability to comprehend or explain– His power extends beyond our wildest imagination. But if we have faith– even as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20)– we can experience God’s Love, Power, Grace, and Salvation in miraculous ways.
I’ve learned a “lot” studying in Genesis, and looking at the character of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Today, I want to summarize…
Our lives depend on choices, rather than chances…Lot experienced many opportunities and some tragedies beyond his control. But even when God gave Lot some amazing opportunities– even when He offered miraculous rescue–Lot continued to make bad decisions or no decision at all. When have I done the same? Do I wait for chance and circumstance to find me? Do I drift along without making wise choices, allowing life to carry me to my next destination? Or do I seek God–His wisdom, His Word, His provision–and choose to obey Him?
Not making a choice IS making a choice…Lot chose to live outside of Sodom– but he ended up in the city. Lot spent much of his time NOT making decisions or plans. He chose inactivity, chose to be vulnerable to attack, chose to live in a city so wicked it was doomed to destruction, chose to compromise and bargain with his wicked neighbors, chose to drag his feet (literally) about leaving, chose to let his daughters control his destiny and legacy. How often do I pray for God to direct my steps and guide my life, and then sit on the couch doing nothing? Lot’s story doesn’t include a single instance of Lot taking initiative. He simple reacts to, takes advantage of, or accepts whatever opportunities or misfortunes befall him. And he doesn’t see his inactivity as a sin or rebellion against God. But he never CHOOSES to follow God; to seek Him or obey him. He assumes that not choosing active rebellion and evil is enough. Have I done the same? Do I think that because I am not actively involved in wickedness that I am honoring God with my inaction and apathy?
You cannot live surrounded by evil and not be hurt by it. Ignoring the warning signs, tolerating evil because it becomes familiar, turning a blind eye to the ways others are being hurt–if we are not part of a solution, we are part of the problem. Lot had options– he could have moved away from Sodom; he could have stayed outside the city; he could have spoken up about the evil all around him–he did none of those things. He lived a compromised life; a life in denial. What have I done to flee evil? To speak out against injustice and oppression? To stand up for what is right? When have I winked at evil, or turned a blind eye to wickedness? How often have I sat in uncomfortable silence while someone else suffered? Because “it’s not my problem.” “One voice won’t make a difference.” “It’s just the way they are.” “I don’t want to offend anyone by getting involved. It’s none of my business, anyway.” Lot and his family suffered greatly, even as they tried to “coexist” with their wicked neighbors.
That’s a lot to consider in the life of one man. But more importantly, there are a “lot” of things to learn about the character of God in this story:
God sees us. God included Lot in the larger story of Abraham– He gave an orphaned boy a family, a fortune, and a future. Lot had done nothing to “earn” God’s protection or favor. He certainly did nothing to deserve being rescued– twice– and he did nothing to show gratitude for either rescue. But God didn’t make a mistake in showing Lot mercy. God wasn’t surprised by Lot’s life choices– He didn’t “fail” Lot, and He didn’t forget about Him– even after generations.
God is a judge. We like to concentrate on God’s mercy and blessings, but God’s goodness requires that sin, wickedness, and evil be punished. God doesn’t delight in punishment, but He will not forget the cries of the oppressed. Those who practice evil and seem to “get away with it” will face judgment. If they do not seek God’s forgiveness, they will be destroyed. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by supernatural fire; Lot was destroyed by his own fears and compromises.
God is merciful. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, but He was willing to save the cities for the sake of as few as ten “righteous” people. We know that “There is no one righteous, not even one..” (Romans 3:10), but God thoughtfully listened to Abraham, and promised to seek for anyone who could be considered worthy of saving. That He saved only Lot and his small family was for Abraham’s sake, not Lot’s– yet save them He did. God doesn’t save the “deserving”– He saves the lost!
God’s plans are perfect, detailed, and eternal. God saved the unworthy Lot, and even when his family repaid God’s mercy with incest, violence, and wickedness against Israel, God orchestrated the story of Ruth– a story of love, faithfulness, and redemption pulled from the ashes of this tragic story in Genesis. God has a plan for each of us– He already knows if we will participate eagerly in a story of beauty and blessing, or be dragged through a story of compromise and tragedy. But ultimately, our story will be woven into a tapestry of God’s faithfulness, righteousness, and restoration. How we respond will change our life, and potentially, the lives of generations to come. And God will give us opportunities to choose lives of obedience, wisdom, and faith. No matter if we live in Sodom, or wasted earlier chances, we can choose rescue and redemption because of God’s great love and mercy!
The Bible never records a prayer by Lot– whether he DID pray is a matter of speculation. But it seems clear that Lot did not seek God in any meaningful way– he didn’t obey God, he didn’t honor God, he didn’t walk with God as his uncle did. Abraham’s life wasn’t perfect– he lied about his wife, became impatient for God’s promised son and took matters into his own hands– but Abraham learned from his mistakes. He humbled himself, looked to God for wisdom, and trusted Him for the next step. He honored God, built altars, and called on the Name of the Lord. May we call out to the same God of Abraham for guidance and wisdom today.
I’m continuing to explore the life of Lot in the Biblical story of Genesis. Lot, the nephew of the Biblical patriarch, Abraham, chose to live near, and then in, the wicked city of Sodom. His circumstances have made him wealthy, but they have also made him a pawn and a victim of greed and war all around.
When we left Lot (see Friday’s entry), he had been rescued by his uncle Abram (later renamed Abraham), along with all his possessions, after being kidnapped from Sodom. This might have been a good time for him to move on with his life, make a fresh start, and get away from the wars and wickedness surrounding him. But he didn’t. Nor does he seem to have had any kind of positive impact on his neighbors and friends. The Bible doesn’t mention whether or not Lot joined in any of the wicked behavior of his fellow Sodomites, but he seems to have turned a (mostly) blind eye to it.
The Biblical narrative leaves Lot for a few chapters, to concentrate on the life of Abraham, the changing of Abram’s name to Abraham, the birth of his son, Ishmael, and the promised coming of Isaac. But at the end of chapter 18, the LORD speaks to Abraham about the impending destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah:
17 The LORD said, shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20 Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” 22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find ththirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
The Bible is not explicit in describing the evil that occurred in Sodom and Gomorrah. But two things stand out in this passage. The LORD speaks of “the outcry” against these two cities and the gravity of their “sin.” Some people have suggested that there is a single egregious sin– “sodomy”– that roused God’s especial judgment. Certainly, in chapter 19 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+19&version=NIV) the men of the city demand that Lot’s “guests” be brought out so they can have sex with them. Lot offers his virgin daughters, but the men refuse and become so violent that the “guests” have to intervene. However, a parallel story is reported later in the Old Testament, this time in the city of Gibeah in the region of Benjamin. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Judges+19&version=NIV) And, while judgment is delivered to the city, it is not singled out for especial judgment by fire from heaven.
Whatever the evil in Sodom, it included rape, sodomy, and likely human trafficking and human sacrifice (see the end of Genesis 14, where the king of Sodom offers Abram all the material spoils of war, in exchange for all the people). It was not just the evil of sexual promiscuity or occasional violent practices, but something that caused an enormous “outcry” from victims, and possibly even angelic messengers reporting on the level of depravity, destruction, and oppression involved. Yet Lot lived there for years, raising his family, going about his business, and ignoring or excusing the evil all around him. There is no record of him making any positive difference, any positive contribution; no record of Lot doing anything to stand out from among his neighbors.
And when judgment comes, it is swift and terrible. The Angelic messengers must drag Lot and his family away from their home and possessions. They urge him to flee into the mountains, but he balks and asks to be allowed to flee to the small town at the edge of the destruction. (More about this at a later time…) Lot has lost almost everything of value– he ends up bankrupt; materially, and spiritually. Lot is a vacant shell of a man–fearful and snivelling, weak and empty.
What evil occurs in our neighborhoods today? What are we doing to alleviate it? Combat it? Excuse it? Enable it? If God were to bring judgment to our city or country, would He have to send angels to drag us out of the fire? Would he find even 10 righteous people on our block? In our apartment complex? God didn’t find 10 righteous people in Sodom…In fact, the Bible doesn’t say that he found ANY! Lot and his daughters were spared, but the stench of Sodom and Gomorrah lingered in this family to their ruin.
Lot’s legacy is one of emptiness, loss, and depravity. But there is one bright spot, which we’ll look at next time. God is slow to anger, and rich in mercy. His redemptive plan will include even Lot with all his flaws and weakness. And it extends to each of us, regardless of where we’ve lived, or what we’ve experienced. God didn’t find any righteous people in Sodom; He knew He wouldn’t! More than once the Bible tells us “there is no one righteous; not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12; Psalms 14:1-3, others…) God’s plan is not to find people who are already righteous– His plan is to rescue people like Lot; people like US! And His plan is to include us in the rescue effort, too.
I’m learning a “lot” from Lot. There are a couple more things I want to explore in the coming days. I hope you will join me.
1 I love you, Lord, my strength. 2 The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 3 I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies. 4 The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. 5 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. 6 In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. 7 The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. 8 Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. 9 He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. 10 He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him— the dark rain clouds of the sky. 12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced, with hailstones and bolts of lightning. 13 The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. 14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. 15 The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. 16He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. 17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. 18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. 19 He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.
Psalm 18:1-19 NIV (taken from biblegateway.com)
I grew up hearing hymns– lots of them. My mother and grandmother and aunt all played the piano or organ for church, and often practiced during the week. My father led the congregational singing sometimes, and my grandfather taught himself to play many musical instruments, and used hymns to become familiar with the chords, notes, and fingerings of the instrument du jour. The congregation at our small church sang with more gusto than musical talent, but we sang during the Sunday morning service, the Sunday evening service, the Wednesday evening service, and at any special occasion.
Two things happened as a result of this: one not-so-good, and one very good thing. The not-so-good thing was that I became somewhat inured to the songs and lyrics– I knew what the songs said, but I didn’t really understand or internalize the truths they contained. However, the very good thing was that the hymns stuck in my memory– years later they came back like the best of friends to comfort me, challenge me, and remind me of sacred realities in the midst of mundane frustrations and worldly confusions.
This old hymn, neglected, out-dated, and seldom sung in our current services, was my lullaby growing up. My mother would sing it over and over as she rocked me to sleep, often running out of verses and words and just humming or filling in with “la, la la, la,” until she reached the chorus. “Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”
As a young child, I experienced the loving arms of my dear mother lifting me to her lap and rocking me for what seemed like hours until I drifted off to sleep. As a teen, I scoffed at the lyrics a bit–what need had I to be lifted and helped, when I was invincible and young and ready to conquer the world. As an adult, this old hymn came back with power and comfort when my own efforts and life’s stormy circumstances left me with little hope and lots of confusion, doubt, and regret. It reminds me that help and hope can be found even in the raging storms of grief, depression, oppression, and pain. “When nothing else could help…” God could, and did! He can and will!
“Love lifted me”–such a simple phrase, and by itself not a solid foundation for hope and victory. In fact, there are many popular songs that speak of love lifting a person up, making one feel buoyant and hopeful, joyful or young. But this song speaks of a different and everlasting, all-powerful love– the Love of Christ. And it doesn’t just lift us up from one pleasant place to another. It reaches down into the depths of sin, despair, and even death to lift us up beyond all hope, beyond any strength or effort we could generate or receive from any other source. And this great Love reaches down to lift me–even me! It does not belong only to the elite, the wealthy, the beautiful people, the gifted or the powerful. In fact, this love is especially close and available to those who have done nothing to deserve it; those who have been bypassed and ignored and left to drown in their own shame and sorrow.
Love. Lifted. Me! My prayer is that this same Love will surround you today, lifting you up, and helping you, just as it helps me and brings me life and hope, to the Glory of Christ our Savior.
One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.
There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.
Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.
These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.
God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.” Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow! Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel. Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure. But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth! And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.
Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths. They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death! As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!
The Biblical figure of Daniel is mostly remembered for being thrown into a den of lions as a punishment for praying to the God of Heaven in defiance of a new law (proposed by his enemies, who hoped to set him up). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+6&version=NIV The story is a familiar one– so familiar that we sometimes pass over the context and details. I don’t want to retell the entire story, but I want to put it in context. There is a lot more than just a den of lions and a miraculous rescue.
First, the Book of Daniel is filled with loosely tied stories in the life of Daniel, an Israelite captured by the Babylonians, and living in exile over the course of over seventy years. By the time we get to chapter six, Daniel is likely in his late eighties or early nineties! He has served under at least five monarchs in two empires, and has seen the utter collapse of two major capital cities (Jerusalem and Babylon). Because of the episodic nature of the first half of this book, we have very few details of Daniel’s everyday life– we never learn if he was married or had children; if he was ever allowed to return to the land of Judah; or if he was able to use his position and influence to help other Jewish families or speak out against the idol worship and human sacrifice practiced by his captors. In the story of Belshazzar, it seems that Daniel had been relegated to a lower position within the palace during the years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death– Belshazzar did not know of him; only because the Queen remembered his ability to interpret dreams was Daniel summoned and brought back to court. The events of chapter six are unique and shocking to us, but not in the context of Daniel’s life.
There is a pattern that gets repeated throughout Daniel’s story– it is the confrontation of two great powers– Daniel’s faithful service to God puts him in opposition to the powers of his captors. He is a captive and a foreigner, but that is not what makes him (and his three friends) a target of powerful enemies. It is his prayer life and his obedient devotion to God that causes him to be singled out. In seven decades, that devotion has never wavered, and Daniel’s life of prayer has been consistent, both in private and in public. Daniel doesn’t have to argue, protest, or announce his devotion. When he is praised for his abilities, he quietly gives the glory and credit to God. When he is vilified and betrayed, he quietly waits for his vindication to come from the God he has trusted through the years.
Darius, (like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and others before him) is impressed by Daniel– enough that he appoints Daniel to a position of great power and authority within the kingdom. Daniel, because of his humility and integrity, is not threat to the rule of Darius–but he does pose a threat to those under him who are hungry for power and prestige. There will always be people in this world who will try to destroy what they do not understand or respect. Darius is not the author of Daniel’s dilemma, but a tool in the hands of corrupt officials. Daniel could have been hurt, enraged, or defeated by this decree from Darius– but he recognized that the real enemy wasn’t Darius, or the crooked satraps who put him up to it (or the hungry lions he faced)– the real enemy was the opposition to Almighty God and the refusal to acknowledge His authority. Darius is quick to learn that God’s power is real and absolute, and that God is gracious in his power, and loving toward his servants. The wicked satraps did not learn this lesson, and they perished.
Notice that, just as in the story of the fiery furnace, God did not remove the danger. Daniel’s friends had to go into the fiery furnace…Daniel had to go into the den of lions. And these were not just overgrown kittens. They would have been captive lions– just as Daniel was held in captivity! They were trapped in this den, unable to hunt for their food; dependent on the whims of their captors. They were kept in a state of uncertainty, fear, and hunger. They were desperate, and hurt, and angry. When Daniel is brought out of the den, and Darius orders the conspirators to be thrown in (with their families), the lions pounce with terrifying ferocity, not even letting the bodies hit the bottom of the den! God may allow us to face some terrifying “lions”– scoffers and rebels and desperate people who will try to take their anger and hurt out on us. Will we trust that God can stop their mouths while we wait for deliverance?
Daniel’s calm response to this entrapment was not the result of Daniel being “holier” than someone else, or more clever; God did not send him a vision of assurance that he would live to see another day. Daniel must have been terrified of facing several starving lions! At his age, he would not have had the strength to fight them. But Daniel’s obedience and trust won the respect of yet another ruler from a very different culture. And God’s miraculous rescue won the awe of Darius– so much so that he issued a decree throughout his realm to all peoples of every language in the kingdom to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel! Faithfulness, humility, and obedience always open up opportunities for God to display His Glory.
Just as Daniel was thrown alone into a lion’s den and sealed inside by a large stone, one day Jesus would be thrown into a tomb to face death and hell. He was sealed in with a large stone, but no one came to his rescue. He stood and faced our enemies– Sin and Death. His flesh was torn and crushed and His blood poured out, and He bore the wrath and punishment that we deserved, so that Sin and Death were defeated. And when He was finished, the stone was removed, and Jesus emerged victorious! His faithfulness, humility, and obedience let to Glory and Life. We may never face a literal den of lions– we may not be tested with persecution, but Jesus has already won the battle; He has permanently closed the mouth of our greatest enemy, and set us free!
Daniel’s prayer life is not marked by spectacular prayers of rhetorical magnificence. He isn’t known for fervent fasting and wailing prayers for the rescue of his nation (though he probably said many). Daniel is noted for his consistent practice of praying– good days, bad days; days of glory or ignominy; days of ease and days of uncertainty; days spent serving wise rulers, and days spent serving madmen and spoiled brats– Daniel quietly and faithfully went to God in prayer. He didn’t make a public spectacle, but he didn’t hide, either. Will we be faithful to seek God’s face throughout the day– in little matters and times of crisis; in praise and in pain; for our daily bread, our neighbor’s health, our nations’ revival, and our world’s salvation and healing?
The hymn is a contrast of weary longing and hopeful prophecy. The promised Messiah has not yet arrived, but his coming is sure, and cause for great rejoicing.
The hymn is also a prayer– pleading for the coming of Messiah, even as it comforts with the reminder that he WILL come. And it reminds us of the power of prayer– not just the power of approaching Almighty God, but the power of acknowledging our longings, our needs, and our dependence on God. Even in our darkest hours, even in captivity and oppression, we can have hope in God’s timing and wisdom. He DOES see our struggle; he DOES care, and he WILL send hope and rescue.
But the song also points out a pitfall–in the first verse, the prayer is for Emmanuel to rescue Israel from Roman Occupation; to end its immediate plight of being politically and economically oppressed. There were many people who saw Messiah, heard him speak, even felt his touch, who rejected him because he did not do what they were expecting. There are many today who cannot believe in Jesus Christ because he doesn’t take away their current circumstances of pain and suffering.
In their narrow focus, people miss the greater miracle of what Messiah is all about. Jesus did not come to free us from temporary troubles and trials; to make us comfortably apathetic or arrogantly victorious over personal poverty or sickness. He came to free us to be able to overcome our circumstances to offer hope where there seems to be no hope. He came to show us that our circumstances don’t define us or cut us off from God’s love; that our past is not more powerful than His forgiveness and power to heal; that even suffering and oppression can be endured with joy, even as we work together to overcome them.
This season, as we sing this hymn, I pray that we would see the continuation of this prayer. Emmanuel HAS come– Jesus not only came and won the victory over sin and death on Calvary; he has commissioned US to be the bearers of the Good News. There are dark places in the world praying for hope and rescue to COME. Will we share the love of Christ in our own neighborhoods? When we bear the name of Christ, we should be on mission to rescue those who are captives, not of Rome, but of Sin and the tyranny of Death. So that we all can know the reason to Rejoice! Rejoice!