“A Mighty Fortress is our God; a bulwark, never failing..” These words are known and sung (in various translations and languages) around the world. But Martin Luther wrote this song over four hundred years ago. What relevance can these words have in an age of nuclear bombs and globalized economies and climate change? What do they mean to us today?
I don’t live in a nation of many castles. There are two stone “mansions” in the small town where I live. They seem tiny compared to mansions in other parts of the U.S. and the world. And we have a small armory; home to a National Guard outpost. But a mansion (or even an armory) is not the same as a castle or a fortress. Mansions are built to be impressive; armories are built to be immediately prepared for disasters or attacks; castles are built to be impregnable and permanent. Our God is not just a fortress; one outpost among many mighty gods– He is The Mighty One–uniquely sovereign, eternally victorious, and perfectly protecting all within His power.
And this protection doesn’t depend on my might or fighting ability, or my weapons or strategies. It depends on my being inside the fortress, safe and sound. The war rages all around, but it cannot defeat me, so long as I am in the fortress.
There are mighty castles, forts, towers, citadels, and walls around the world– all built by people and victims of the ravages of war, time, weather, fire, bad management, etc. Over the years, types of fortresses have given way to new weapons designed to bring them down. Wooden forts are susceptible to fire; stone castles can be brought down by catapults, battering rams, and bombs. Underground bunkers can even be ruined by earthquakes or nuclear assault. And yet, we are still amazed at the power and legacy they represent. Many have stood for hundreds or even thousands of years. But God is eternal; His might and protection will never fail. No weapon forged or imagined can triumph over His power and sovereignty.
Prayer brings us into the safe and powerful presence of God Almighty. There is nothing of our worries, our guilt, our doubts, or the accusations of the enemy that can shake the foundations of God’s fortress. And the cornerstone is none other than Jesus Christ– unshakable, victorious, and eternally one with the Father and the Spirit.
That doesn’t mean that we won’t ever find ourselves in battle, trusting in God’s armor against the arrows of the enemy. But the war is already won– His Kingdom is forever! And ever!
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.
I’ve been following the story of Lot– a Biblical character in the book of Genesis, and the nephew of Abram/Abraham. I left off in Genesis 13, where Abram and Lot had to separate their flocks and herds. Abram offered Lot the opportunity to choose the best of the land– and Lot jumped at his opportunity. He chose the well-watered valley along the Jordan river, near the thriving cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and moved his tents just outside of Sodom.
But the author of Genesis (likely Moses, writing generations later) adds a single sentence that foreshadows events to come: “But the people of this area were extremely wicked and constantly sinned against the Lord.” (Genesis 13:13 NLT via http://www.biblegateway.com). It doesn’t take very long for this small detail to add up to a “lot” of trouble. The fertile Jordan valley may look like a paradise, but there are perils and pitfalls all around. In Genesis 14, we hear of a great war– five regional kings against four– with Sodom and Gomorrah caught in the middle. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+14%3A1-16&version=NLT) The armies and kings of Sodom and Gomorrah flee the battlefield, and straight into a series of tar pits. The opposing armies loot the cities, taking all the food and supplies. They also kidnap Lot and take all his possessions, because he was “living in Sodom.”
Notice two important details here– Lot is no longer pitching his tents outside the city; he has moved into Sodom. When we make the choice to live “on the outskirts” of evil, thinking we will remain separate and untouched, we are asking for trouble. Lot cannot live in paradise and avoid the evil and war all around him. And he isn’t prepared for the consequences. The war is happening all around him, yet he has made no plan to escape or to fortify his home or property.
Secondly, Lot wasn’t among the army or fighting with the kings– on either side! Lot stood for nothing; fought for nothing; defended nothing. Lot placed all of his hope and faith in blind chance– thinking somehow he would be spared the violence and war happening all around. He seems to have had no concern about his neighbors or their fate. He seems indifferent to their losses, and uncaring of their needs. One might argue that if the neighbors were so wicked, Lot had no obligation to help them, but his level of apathy and inactivity suggest that Lot was both self-centered and inept.
One of Lot’s men manages to escape and bring word of this disaster to Abram, who mobilizes his men, makes a daring night raid on the army of the five kings, rescues Lot and restores all of the stolen property and other kidnapped people. The king/priest of the city of Salem (meaning peace) blesses Abram. The rescued King of Sodom offers Abram all the captured loot in exchange for the people, but Abram refuses. Unlike his nephew, who is enticed by lands and goods and wealth, Abram seeks only peace and goodwill.
This might have been the end of Lot’s troubles; he might have learned a valuable lesson. But he didn’t.
Memorial Day weekend is coming up. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the American holiday, also known as Decoration Day, it is a day set aside primarily to honor soldiers who were killed in battle. In recent years, it has come under some criticism from those who feel that it celebrates a culture of war, or that it places too much focus on the past– especially a past that has been idealized at the expense of progress. Instead, it has become a time of recreation– backyard barbecues, beach parties, and bargain hunting at flea markets and yard sales.
But much of the real focus of Memorial Day has been lost. Memorials should not be used to idolize or idealize the past; but they serve a purpose in reminding us of hard lessons and the need to keep learning from them. Memorial Day is not about being thrilled or puffed up by our past– it is to be reminded of both the good and the bad, and the need to see the larger picture. We have inherited both freedoms and frustrations; triumphs that came at the expense of others, and trials that will impact future generations. It is right and good that we take time to reflect on such things.
The Bible gives us several examples of memorials– signs and altars and ceremonies that are meant to call things to memory. Some of the memorials involve battles, but many more involve both promises and prophecy. We are to remember God’s faithfulness; His power to rescue, redeem, and restore.
Our greatest memorial as Christians, is not a soldier’s tomb– it is the Empty Tomb! It is the reminder that our greatest battle has already been won, and the one who died to bring us the victory has conquered both Sin and Death.
For God so Loved the world, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life. (John 3:16 KJV)
Memorial Day is also a good time to remember others in prayer– pray for those who have lost loved ones in the service of our nation; but also those who sacrifice daily for their families, communities, and around the world. Pray for wisdom and opportunity to serve others around us better. Pray for healing and grace– for those who fight internal battles with unforgiveness, betrayal, guilt, vengeance, and more. And don’t forget praise– thank God for His redemptive plan; for the victory won; for the sufficiency of His grace. Thank others around you for their services and sacrifices. Finally, as we honor the sacrifices of others, let’s look for ways we can serve one another better.
*Please note: I will not be posting for the next couple of days due to the holiday. I will return on Tuesday of next week.
I love baseball, and I love word-play, so it’s probably no surprise that I really love the Abbot and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?” (watch here)
The idea behind the famous routine is that Abbot is trying to explain the positions on the baseball team, but the players’ names lead to all sorts of needless confusion. You don’t really have to know a lot about baseball to be entertained by the comedy routine, but the more you do know, the funnier it gets. Baseball depends on coordinated team effort– knowing who is playing where can make the difference between spectacular plays and disasters– both offensively and defensively. But as much as I would love to talk about both baseball and comedy today, I really want to use baseball as a metaphor for prayer.
Prayer is very personal, especially confessional prayer (see yesterday’s post), but often it is also communal and a coordinated team effort. Every player (pray-er) wants to play our best, and we are gifted for certain positions on the “team.” Some of us are great at pop-ups– catching people “in the moment” and praying with them, sharing their burdens and joys with concise sentence prayers. Some are sluggers– prayer warriors who “knock it out of the park.” Some are outfielders, patiently persistent in praying for the lost, and ready to chase down a line drive or jump up to make the save. Some are basemen– praying to keep the enemy from gaining ground, or catchers, defending home base from all attempts to score. Some are good at bunting–providing the necessary support and sacrifice so that someone else can advance. And some are master pitchers–crafting prayers that strike out or even shut-out the enemy. Our coach, our mascot, our general manager and MVP? The Almighty, Triune God! He knows our strengths, weaknesses, and how we can improve our performance and standing. He also wants to help our team become closer and stronger. After all, baseball is wonderful, but Christian living is even better– it has eternal consequences!
When we ask, in relation to prayer, “Who’s on First,” we need to remember a few things:
Always listen to the coach!
Remember you are not alone.
PRAY to win!
Look out for and support your teammates.
Each inning is a new beginning– don’t live in the last inning.
Don’t let the current score determine your play.
Don’t let the other team’s players or their fans take you “off your game.”
(Spoiler alert)– We are the champions!
Let’s get suited up and ready to take the field for today’s game…after all, you or I may be on first!
Have you ever watched a sporting event–a real nail-biter–and prayed for your team to win? Do you wonder if God is concerned about Little League or High School Basketball, or which team wins the Superbowl? And what about the parents and coaches on both teams praying to him–one side has to “lose”–how does God answer such prayers? DOES he answer such prayers?
While the Bible doesn’t give us a specific answer, I think there are some general principles that apply. When teams prepare for a big game, they may talk about their desire to win, they may study their opponents, assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and give themselves pep-talks about winning, but they don’t practice winning– they practice playing their best, improving those areas where they are weakest, and working to bring their best on game day. They don’t pray to win by default or by bad sportsmanship.
The apostle Paul uses athletic analogies for the Christian life– he talks about running the good race, fighting the good fight, and working to be worthy of the prize. But he doesn’t direct Christians to pray that God gives us a victory. Instead, he points out that the greatest victory– that over sin and death– has already been won! We don’t fight the battles wondering if our victory or loss will turn the tide of the war. We fight in the hope of strengthening our fellow warriors and bringing our victorious Savior more glory and honor.
This holds true in other areas as well. In politics, we fight to win, but not in desperation or despair, knowing that if we lose this battle, God is not defeated or even surprised by the outcome. Even in situations of corruption, despotism, and chaos, God can raise up leaders, topple evil powers, and bring renewal and revival. In war, we fight to win, we fight to defend what we know to be right; but even if we lose the battles, we don’t lose faith.
God doesn’t always give us “wins.” He doesn’t guarantee that we will never face setbacks or disappointments. In fact, sometimes we need to “lose.” We need to lose our selfish ambition, our pride, our drive to compare ourselves with others, our envy and greed, and our failure to submit to God’s best plan.
We pray for victory, but more than victory at any cost, we pray for God’s will to be victorious– for his strength to be shown even in and through our own weakness. We pray for victory on God’s terms– which may mean a painful loss today, and grieving for the night, but joy that comes in the morning. Great teams, great nations, great leaders– are not forged in continuous expectation of easy victory. Sometimes we learn more and become greater by learning from our failures.
Let’s not just pray to win– let’s pray to be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37)!
A few years ago, I was introduced to a man from South Sudan, who had come to the U.S. for a missions conference. Earlier in the evening, he had shared a report on conditions in his region– all the horrible details you dread hearing–displaced families, homeless refugees, orphaned children, shortages of food, clothing, shelter, blankets, and medicine, constant fear of being attacked by one side or another in the ongoing conflict. Throughout his report, he emphasized the sovereignty of God, and his hope that he and his team could continue to help those most in need. As I got a chance to speak directly to “Robert” *, I told him that I would pray for peace to come to his region. I was shocked when he stopped me. “Please don’t pray for peace,” he told me. “Pray instead that God would give us the resources and the strength to be faithful and to keep helping.”
Then he explained. It wasn’t that he didn’t want peace to come, but he wanted me to pray for whatever God willed for his region. The Kingdom of God, not earthly peace, was his highest priority and his greatest urgency. Because of the circumstances of war, people were desperate. Their world had been turned upside-down, and they were in great need. But war had also opened up opportunities– not only opportunities to help those in need, but opportunities to show the Love of Christ as it had never been known to the people there. The people who were coming to refugee camps were meeting, sometimes for the very first time, people from other villages, other cultures, and other faiths– people they had considered enemies. Suddenly, they were seeing these enemies as fellow sufferers, fellow human beings with the same injuries and losses, needs and longings as themselves. They were also “seeing through” some of the lies they had believed about “the others” in their midst. Their circumstances were desperate, but their biggest need was for hope and help. Help was coming from around the world– United Nations’ agencies, The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and several Christian relief and medical organizations. These groups had been kept out during peacetime and even in the early stages of fighting. Not only were they able to help with immediate relief; they were able to provide medical care for victims of AIDS, and childhood diseases, care that had long been denied. Along with practical help, though, these groups were providing hope– hope to rebuild, hope in the midst of despair and chaos, hope of eternal life and a relationship with God.
“Robert” was not saying that he didn’t long for peace, or that peace would be a bad thing for the people of South Sudan. Of course not. But the greatest need was not for an immediate end to fighting– it was for the kind of peace that only God can bring. As far as I know “Robert” is still working with refugees and displaced families in South Sudan. The work is difficult and often heartbreaking. Resources are stretched, and chaos still haunts the land. But progress is coming– slowly, but surely. Lives are being changed, reclaimed, and renewed. And I pray that he and his team are being strengthened and encouraged even as their circumstances continue to be desperate.
I share this story because I am still learning that Prayer isn’t about what I want or think is best; it isn’t about getting my way, or asking for the easy “fix” or the happy ending. It’s about seeking God’s will, His way, His answer, His timing, and His grace. Suffering, whether we are experiencing it or hearing about it, reminds us that we live in a fallen and dying world. We long for peace. We long for healing. We long for rest and comfort and happiness. But in this world, there will be trouble and injustice, death and disease, pain, suffering, betrayal, and unanswered questions. We don’t understand God’s timing, his plan in allowing innocent people to suffer the cruelties of war or poverty. And if we are living in peace and comfort, it makes us feel guilty and even fearful– why them and not us? When might we face unexpected hardship? So we ask God to remove all the discomforts, the struggles, the pain. It is not wrong to want healing and peace and all the other good things– we should seek justice and mercy and peace and joy. But we also need to recognize that God may choose to bless us in unexpected ways through our hardships and agonies. And he may be calling some of us to take action– to be His hands and feet– to reach out with the resources he has given us to help others. He doesn’t love those others less; he doesn’t love us more– he loves to see us love each other in His name!
God’s ways are not my ways; his timing isn’t the same as mine– it is better. It is perfect. In the end, there will be peace in South Sudan. There will be Peace on Earth. There will be healing and justice, and peace and joy. There will be answers for all the questions, and happy endings. But in the meantime, may God give all of us the strength and resources to help those in need, the faith and discipline to keep going in the midst of chaos, and the wisdom to make peace and spread love wherever and whenever we can.
*Because “Robert” is a Christian worker in an area of intense persecution, his true identity is being protected. Please pray for all those who are risking their lives and livelihoods to live, work, and worship as Christians throughout the world. And be thankful if you live in an area where you risk little or nothing to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.