December 2016


He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples;

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah 2: 4

 

The Prophet was certainly seeing some future time and events that were not a part of the world that he knew. Judah, the nation where Isaiah lived, was continually in a state of readiness to defend itself against attack that came from all sides and was carried out by every other nation that surrounded it. They even had been at war with the other half of the Hebrew nation, Israel. When and how this peace was to come is something that Isaiah does not clearly reveal. It just might be true that God did not tell him, as He wanted each of Isaiah’s readers to consider our personal response to this promise of peace. Otherwise it is our tendency to focus on the future, defer responsibility for the sad condition of our world to God and His timing, and become promoters of conflict as necessary for the defense of our faith.

 

It is true that strife, conflict, and war are direct results of sin. Creation, especially its people, was not intended by God to oppress, torture, rape, and kill. Yet, set free from the restraint of God’s hand, this is exactly what we have done. Over our history we have become very good at it all, too. The soil of every nation on this earth is saturated with the blood of those who we have been sacrificed to our greed and ambition. Although there have been many people who have worked for peace and numerous efforts put forth to bring about that peace in our world, they have all failed. They were and will continue to be doomed from inception. There is no peace to be found in the hearts of humans. We are a war-like band for whom killing is a sacrament. Yet, it doesn’t need to be this way.

 

Christ is the answer to the question of who is it that Isaiah is saying will cause the great restorative changes in our world that are mentioned in this verse and elsewhere in his narrative. I would submit that this is not solely a future promise. Rather, it would seem that Christ’s life depicts that He sought to live as a man for whom peace was the sacrament. He engaged peacemaking as a form of worship to the Father, and Christ brought the holy touch of the Kingdom of God as a blessing upon the lives of people. As the Spirit of Christ lives within us, so we should be people who bring His spirit of peace to all of our interactions. For each and every child of the Living God, today should be the day when we submit to Christ and lay down our weapons of war in every form that they may exist. Now is the time to seek peace with our neighbor, to reconcile with our enemy, and to demand that our nations do likewise.

You prepare a table for me

in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Psalm 23:5

 

If you wanted to select a strange place for a meal, this would be the top of the list. I think of mealtime as respite and as refuge. Being on alert and keeping my eyes focused on those around me for signs of dangerous activity is not generally good for digestion. Yet, right in the center of the antagonism and strife that is life in this world, God spreads His cloth of gathering and puts out His very best tableware. All of this effort and the care that God takes in getting the perfect food ready for us takes some time, too. This is not a situation where the Lord works some snap of the fingers magic and it all appears. There is no microwaved, instantly ready food here. Rather, the Lord puts the touch of His love and grace into each and every component of the meal.

 

It seems that there are at least two main points to this verse. The first involves recognition and thankfulness for the care and the provision that God does provide to His people. The perfect food that is God’s love, mercy, and grace is lavished upon us. He provides us with the real nourishment of His Word, and the Lord feeds our souls with the presence of His Spirit. Christ welcomes us in a manner that clearly indicates that He is delighted by our presence at His Father’s table. We are truly home regardless of situation or circumstances. Even in our times of greatest sinfulness and rebellion, Christ welcomes us with His very best. We are honored family members, and the Lord’s cup of blessing is kept full to overflowing by His own hand of service.

 

This is a wonderful, poetic picture of what it is like to live in a relationship with Christ. However, it seems that there is something more here. The fact that God does all of this in the presence of our enemies is a statement of the realities of life in a world where there are very active and aggressive forces that are opposed to Christ and to His followers. It is not possible to follow Christ by being engaged in the world and to not have enemies around us. Yet, I think that God wants us to view the mealtime that He establishes for us as a time of fellowship and of offering. Christ asks us to be open about the source of our comfort and strength. He wants His people to freely engage in the banquet and to speak plainly and boldly about our Lord and His love for all people. This feast is not exclusive, for Christ desires to see everyone seated at His table. He wants us to invite our neighbors, our acquaintances, and even our fiercest enemies to share in Christ’s meal of peace and reconciliation.

 

Here at the Lord’s table is where these differences that divide and the animosities that fear spawns can be set aside for an hour or so. Around a table that is set with grace and furnished with the soul-deep safety that comes to us in Christ, we can enter into the sort of peace-making that is only truly possible through the reconciling love and sacrificial intent of Christ. It seems quite deliberate on God’s part to set out this place of respite, comfort, and replenishment in the shadow of the very death that humanity’s sinfulness brings about. In this rocky and troubled place, Christ smoothes out a corner where peace can dwell if even for only a short time. He calls to us to lay down our weapons and set aside our concerns and reluctance so that we can greet those who are different and with whom we believe we are in conflict and offer the bounty of the Lord’s table of blessing to them. Here we can look face to face into their hearts and perhaps, in that miraculous way that the Lord works, we can begin to reconcile differences as we share the love of Christ that frees all people from our bondage to sin with its violence and death.

For when I have brought them (the Israelites) into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and have grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise Me and break My covenant.

Deuteronomy 31: 20

 

This is strong language that comes from the mouth of the aged Moses as he faced into his own death. God has granted to him a view into the future that is thrilling in the way that God will fulfill His promises to provide a dwelling place that is bountiful in all areas of human need. However, Moses also is made aware of the fact that these people who have been so hard for him to lead have not changed all that much. They will enter into the riches of God’s blessing, and they will become complacent and bored with it all. They will go off searching for something better, and they will abandon the hard discipline that righteous living demands.

 

It seems that there may very well be a cautionary tale in all of this for people today. For the most part we have it all a lot easier than the people that Moses was leading. Yet we still live in a hostile land where the only true and reliable provider of what we need is God. We live today in the shadow of constant peril. There are evil giants roaming our landscape, there are false gods calling to us with their winsome voices, and our culture makes it easy to ignore active involvement with God’s Word and in Christian fellowship. So the words of Moses are speaking loudly to me, and they cry out a challenge and a warning, “You are growing fat; you are acting like you no longer fear God and desire to serve Him with all of your heart.”

 

The righteous life is not a sedentary one. It requires that we remain active and highly vigilant. In order to avoid becoming fat in our spirits and complacent in our minds we need to continually seek out God. He desires for His people to turn to Him in prayer with worship, praise, and thanksgiving on our lips. Our Lord wants for us to stay lean and light on our feet through the constant practice of reading His Word and discussing its content, meaning and application. Christ implores us to join Him in the daily battle for the souls of people and for the healing of our sin ravaged lands. Regardless of age or physical condition, in Christ we can all remain hungry, stay lean, and be fit for the contest as we passionately serve the King.

As the deer pants for the streams of water, so my soul pants for You, O God.

Psalm 42: 1

 

Think about the various and even contradictory images that water can form in your mind. For me there is the very peaceful one of the smooth surface of a mountain lake at dawn, the sense of refreshment that I find in a fast moving stream, the ribbon of beauty and activity that surrounds a river running through the heart of a city, and the perfect thirst relief that is found in a glass of cool water on a hot day. In contrast my mind can quickly recall images of the power, swiftness, and destruction that water shaped into the form of rain storm, hurricane, or typhoon can bring. Yet water is one of the most elementary and primary needs that we all have. It is something that the very cells of our bodies seek after with a sort of fundamental drive.

 

This same sort of deep seated and fundamental drive is found in all people in regards to our need for God. However, this drive to enter into a relationship with God seems to be one of the areas in the hearts and minds of people where Satan works most diligently and consistently to twist and to pervert. We humans can come up with so many answers to this need that they defy imagination. The reasons that people give for rejecting God, for delaying a decision about Him, and for finding him in various alternative forms are all false ways that they have found to answer this basic calling of their hearts. God speaks to everyone, but only some recognize truth and answer by drinking deeply from His spring of life, the living water who is Jesus.

 

When my soul is feeling the thirst that comes from eating the dust that is kicked up during the contest and the hard work of the day, I need to turn to the refreshing stream of life that is found readily at hand in the presence of the Lord. He invites all to drink deeply and be filled. There is no reason to worry about depleting this reservoir, for it is deeper and wider than all of Creation. Then, when I am filled, I should turn to my neighbor and offer to share the drink. There is no other beverage that satisfies, and there is nothing else that answers this soul-deep need that all people have. So, as we know Jesus, we know the answer to our neighbor’s thirst.

 

Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!

2 Corinthians 9: 15

 

We receive many gifts from God. He grants them to us out of His great love and in response to our enormous neediness. There is no end to God’s generosity and awareness of our condition. The essential needs, wants, and aspirations of our lives are met through the Lord’s open-handed giving. This world where we live was designed and created with us in mind. I believe that each step in that great creative process involved the addition of another layer, an additional component and quality, to this life sustaining environment that we call Earth. It was into this perfect place that the Creator inserted His image-bearing masterworks and provided us with purpose and meaning for our lives in the responsibility that we were given for taking care of all of this world.

 

Yet, that is not enough. This large and all-encompassing responsibility is totally insufficient for us to have a true and abiding place and significance in this life. As we live in the brokenness of sin and the lostness of our separation from God our very best efforts at management, control, and real dominion over this earth will be frustrated and defeated in the end. Death will always have the last laugh, and people are faced with the prospect of an empty eternity to reflect on all that was lost. This is where God’s singular greatest gift matters. Although the rest of what God gives to us is amazing, fabulous, and near perfection; it is Christ alone that makes a real and a lasting difference.

 

In Christ, God gives us Himself. When we enter into a relationship with Jesus, we gain back that intimate and unceasing communion with God that the first people enjoyed before their disastrous disobedience. This is a gift that God determined to grant to us out of His gracious love and relentless desire to draw us into His presence. The gift of life that is found only in and through Christ is worthy of our most abundant expressions of thanksgiving and praise. In Christ all of the purpose and meaning that God granted to us in His design of our world is given its eternal focus and its true worth. Christ brings to us God’s gifts of reconciliation, justice, and peace and asks only that we give Him our thanks through focused worship, faithful obedience, and devoted service.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Romans 15: 13

 

I wonder what hope would look like if it could be packaged in a bottle so that it was available for purchase? It might be bright and shiny with some sparkles and glitter mixed in, or perhaps in would be frothy and foamy and swirl about like ocean waves inside of the glass. The packaging itself should be very special. It needs to speak of the importance and the rarity of the contents. I think that it would probably command a steep price, and it would be hard to keep on the shelves of the shops that were fortunate enough to secure the rights to sell it. Everyone desires to be hopeful, and most of us seek out its comfort and its courage in our own ways. Still, in these days and in this world it is becoming scarce and may even be on its way to that list where things facing extinction are enshrined.

 

Yet, this lost cause, this rare gem of the human spirit is as readily available as is the air that we breathe. It has existed from a place in the past that precedes the creation of this world, and hopefulness is a quality that is granted without cost to anyone who has the faith to believe in its giver. Hope is as simple as the wants and needs of a newborn baby, and it is an expression of the complexity of the nature of God, Himself. As humans we are often challenged by the fact that nothing that we do, plan, or design can bring true and lasting hope. It eludes our grasp, and the harder we try to hold onto it, the more slippery it becomes. However, when we let loose our grip so that it rests gently and peacefully in the fingers of our hearts, hope swells and grows in ways that are magical in their capacity to meet the needs that we personally possess.

 

This desirable state of mind that is called hopefulness is produced through the faith that leads to deep trust in Christ. As Paul tells us it is granted to us and it is maintained through the infinite and unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit. It comes about within us as we immerse our lives in the reality that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ wherein all who believe are made right in the eyes of the only one who actually matters, that is God. The real hope that comes from knowing Christ is not conditional upon earthly situations, people, or events. It was birthed among us in the miracle of Advent, it gained a fleshly telling in Jesus’ life, was brought to culminating victory on a cross with its empty tomb, and dwells among us today in the lives of people who are filled with Christ’s Spirit. Hope is here. It is more magnificent than any jewel or work of art. Hope is gained through knowing Christ deeply, and its joy and peace are tangible signs of the presence of Christ within the hearts and the minds of His people.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

Colossians 2: 9, 10

 

To be clear, Paul is talking about Christ here, and he is discussing the remarkable and mystical way in which he in fills followers of Christ with attributes that come from Christ’s deity. In this instance he is speaking about Christ’s authority to rule and over all rule or governance. This is more obviously true regarding the heavenly realms, but it is also equally true within our earthly context. God reigns supreme over all of creation, and Christ is the One who has been placed upon the throne as final authority and judge. He is the singular supreme court justice and more than that, for He also speaks the rule of law into existence. Truth, justice, and God’s way are the basis for all the He decides and decrees.

 

So, as people commit ourselves to following Christ, His Spirit fills us. This literal presence of God within us is transformative as He works within us to change the ways that we think and act into ones that more and more closely reflect God’s word of truth. Yet, this process of change is neither forced nor coerced, as Christ requires for us to submit ourselves to Him. In this regard He is radically different from earthly governors and kings. The Kingdom of God is populated by people who desire to dwell there, and this wildly diverse population is unified under one anthem and pledge that we often call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, we live, breath, and operate within a new set of rules and a transformed economy of grace which is entirely ordered under the authority and the rule of Christ. This kingdom is ordered by God’s creation design that is an order of justice, peace-making, and loving grace.

 

As followers of Christ, these principles need to govern our interaction with our world at large. This extends far beyond the walls of our churches and to all people regardless of our familial or faith connections to them. Whenever our world and its rulers speak and act in ways that contradict those of Christ, we who know Him are mandated by our relationship to the One who is true rule and authority to speak out in opposition and with words of corrective redirection and even rebuke, as it is needed. I say this with a cautionary note about submission of ourselves to Christ and to His Word. In all matters, we are to think, speak, and act in ways and with language that is directed toward expressing the Gospel message of redemption, restoration, and transformation. Yet, with that in mind, we are to speak out. There is no voice that we can trust to utter God’s truth and to care about His justice other than that of Christ. When our rulers are acting wrongly from the perspective of the Gospel, we who are filled with Christ’s Spirit should be compelled to stand in opposition to that ungodly rule while pointing directly to the one true Ruler and King.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:3-4

 

There is an admission that I feel I need to make. I am actually a lot more distractible than I would ever like to think that I am. I lose sight of what matters, what is most important, too often and much too easily. Thoughts and ideas come along, and I go off in pursuit of them in a matter of moments. Issues arise, and I engage with them full on and go chasing after understanding and resolution before taking a moment to breathe and to listen to the Spirit’s direction. When these things happen, I can find myself miles from home, winded from the chase, and wandering defenselessly in a foreign land. Frequently this strange place is one where my actions and my manner of treating other people are not reflective of Christ. This is the territory where anger, incivility, and bitterness dwell, and none of these are the air that a follower of Christ should be breathing in to inform my heart and my mind.

 

So, I repent of this distractedness of mind and of the lack of faithfulness of heart that establishes it. I know the fundamental truths of the Gospel of Christ that Paul states here, but I don’t always take hold of them with such focus that they are truly “of first importance.” That is the key element in what the Apostle is saying. He was writing about the divisions that were happening in the church in his days, and in response to them, Paul directed the people of Christ’s body to look closely at what brought them together in the first place. This point of gathering in was Christ in the fullness of His sacrifice, which entailed the surrender of His position of power and majesty, the acceptance of mockery and death, and then in its aftermath, the resurrection to life that demonstrated God’s utter superiority over all else on earth and in the heavens. Jesus, the Christ, with His message of the Gospel is the center of all that we believe as Christians.

 

So, it must be the center of all that I think and do, as well. In placing the eyes of my heart squarely and singularly on Christ, I am looking outside of myself and away from my fears and concerns so that God’s truth overcomes the mental and the emotional clutter that our culture and my own mind create. With my eyes on Christ, it is much harder to see the differences that divide us inside of Christ’s family of faith, and these other people start to look more like the brothers and sisters that they are in fact. We live in times where truth and faithfulness to the Gospel are being challenged routinely. The air that surrounds us is polluted by fear based and defensive expressions of disunity and distrust, and I find that I do buy into spreading that sort of fouled air. So, I am committing here to turn my eyes and my heart toward Christ with my primary expression being that of the truth of His Gospel. Then, my wandering heart will be grounded in what is truly “of first importance.”

This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

Acts 19: 10

 

Paul must have been a stubborn soul. He just didn’t get the message when people were growing tired of his persistent telling of the story of a new life that was to be gained through Jesus, the Christ. At this point in the account of Paul’s life of service to Christ he had been traveling from city to city in Asia Minor for a number of years. Generally he would stay in one place and preach, teach, and enter into relationships with the people there until his truth telling caused antagonism and hostility to rise up against him to a level that required Paul to move along to another place. It seems that the world where he lived wasn’t always very accepting of or even open to hearing the accounts of this new way of knowing God. You see, the Gospel of Christ is subversive; it changes people who, in turn, start living differently. This new way of engaging with life, which is foundational in creation, causes people to challenge the systems and the practices of the culture, and it impels them into becoming workers for that change.

 

The presence of these transformed people with their different perspectives on how life is to be conducted under the authority of God and within His grace, love, and mercy is upsetting enough for those who are in power. Yet, I think that there was more than this behind the antagonism that Paul encountered. His message of Christ was essential truth expressed in terms that moved beyond the abstraction of religious ritual and entered into the arena of real everyday life. This was both convicting and frightening to those hearers who were unwilling to accept the surrender of self that Christ demands of His followers. So, people who felt threatened or who were disturbed by this confrontation of truth pushed back and fought against the message of the Gospel by speaking and acting in opposition to the person who was delivering it. Most of this push back was expressed in words or in acts of rejection, but some of it was also carried out by means of physical violence. Paul’s mind, heart, and body were at risk.

 

Yet, he did not stop doing what Christ had called him to do. When required to do so, he would move along to another city, find a new corner to preach on, and start building relationships with more people whose eternal souls needed to hear the truth of the Gospel of Christ that Paul so diligently and joyfully served. This is a great story about the character and the calling of one of the people who we hold to be a foundational writer for our understanding of the Gospel that he served. However, like almost everything that is contained within God’s Word, the point here is not really historic in nature. I grant that Paul was a very special person with a particular calling from God; yet, I think of these aspects of his life as serving more by way of example and as a form of encouragement for each of us than as mere recitation of the past. We too live in a world that pushes back aggressively against the truth of the Gospel. Like Paul, we reside in cities, counties, and a world where the only real hope lies in the transformative presence of Christ in the hearts and the minds of people.

 

As followers of the same Christ as was Paul, we should also not be quiet and certainly not be satisfied until every one of the people who resides in our sphere of contact has heard the truth of the new life that is gained in and through Christ. We cannot allow the voices of disagreement and of opposition the momentary victory of our silence. We may need to follow Paul’s example and move from a place of overwhelming contention to a similar one where Christ’s words of love and reason can be heard, but this is not silence, and it certainly is not defeat. The Gospel of Christ is life, it brings hope, and it answers all of the fears, violence, anger, and oppression in our world. This truth must be heard, and you and I are the ones that God has called to speak it out loudly and clearly so that the glory of Christ lights these dark days with its compelling radiance of new life in Christ.

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

John 14: 18

 

When we hear about orphans, some powerful images usually come to mind. In the world today, we don’t have to go very far for those images to have real faces and stories attached to them. We see their dazed and disoriented gazes and hear about the families that disappeared in a furious instant with such regularity that it almost seems like this sort of news is normal or routine like the recitation of the outside temperature. Yet, this is not how the world was intended to work, for it all comes about because of the predatory nature of evil and in response to a form of godlessness that is running rampant in our streets. This brutal violence is intended to crush the hope and the spirit out of people as it portrays this world as a place where God has gone away to find a quieter or a safer place to dwell. Again, the voices that speak of such a distant and disengaged God are deliberately deceptive and are wrong.

 

As He was preparing His followers for the realities of His death, Jesus clearly informed them of two fundamental aspects of the times to come. One was that as Jesus was put to death and so left them, He would send another, the Holy Spirit, who would continuously dwell with them. The other aspect of this new order that was soon to exist in creation was that even after the brutal death of the cross, Jesus was still alive. Jesus overcame the greatest power that evil could utilize for its purposes and returned to be visibly and tangibly present in the lives of these same people who had journeyed with Him for the previous days and years. This was all great and reassuring for the first disciples, but what does it do for me and how does it all apply to the victims of our world’s crushing hatred and anger?

 

Jesus did come to them, and He did not leave. He is alive and present in this world to this day. The Holy Spirit lives within each of us who believe in Jesus as our Savior, Lord, and risen king, and He is unrelentingly the victor over evil in our times. The Kingdom of God is present here and now. People who know Christ are never alone in our journeys through life; we are not orphans; rather, we are beloved children of the Great King. This all sounds good, but what does it actually mean? For me it says that even as I face the world’s death and the destruction that are screaming their taunts in my face, I can respond with the truth and the love of Christ while knowing that this is the only effective answer. In the presence of Christ I can confidently hold fast to the kingdom principle of peace in which bigger weapons and greater force of arms are never the solution to evil’s aggression. I can take in and care for the damaged, the broken, and the oppressed of this world while knowing that the opinions of others do not matter, for in so doing, I am demonstrating the care of those people’s loving and very present Father.

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