Praying in times of pain or confusion
James 1: If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help.
James writes his letter to Christians in general, scattered throughout the region. His writings might be labeled “common sense Christianity” because he covers many topics and always in a reasonable, “tell it like it is” way. For instance, he doesn’t deny that hard times have come to many of them but at the same time he tells them that such an unwelcome set of circumstances isn’t all bad. In fact, they can rejoice when, in the midst of trials they catch themselves responding as genuine people of faith. As hard times continue they can be pleased as they realize that they’re handing such times better than they would have earlier on. It isn’t fun to go through hardship, but there’s reason to rejoice when I realize I’m responding as I think Jesus would and that I’m maturing in my relationship with him. James knows this sounds like so much gibberish to many people; outsiders for sure, but also to some believers who’ve concluded that if they’re faithful to the Lord and trust in him things will always go well for them. The Apostle has some advice for that crowd too: pray about it. If I’m in a fix and can’t imagine how God can work in such a disaster, I don’t have to pretend I’m handling things just fine. Instead, I can turn to the Lord and confess that I’m having a hard time seeing him anywhere in all this mess. James is absolutely sure that the Father will hear and respond to such a prayer. I guess it would be better if my first response was the best one, but if that doesn’t happen, the next choice is a good one too as in absolute honesty I run to the Father, telling him I just don’t get it and I sure don’t like it. After all, James assures me, “God loves to help.”
Take Away: It’s encouraging to catch oneself responding to an unwelcome situation as we believe Jesus would respond.
A different kind of “street service”
Hebrews 13: God takes particular pleasure in acts of worship…that take place in kitchen and workplace and on the streets.
We’re not sure who is the writer of Hebrews, but this chapter (and not just the Timothy, Italy, and prison references) feels a whole lot like Paul’s writings. As he closes the letter, as Paul does, the writer tosses in a lot of one line instructions. As a reader, what I get out of a chapter like this depends a lot on what’s happening in my life right now. Tomorrow I might read it again and have a different “one-liner” jump out at me. Anyway, the instruction to take our faith out of the church and into the streets stands out to me. Christians are to be generous people who not only respond to needs when we’re confronted with them, but who actively go out and seek those in need that we might minister to them in Christ’s name. I tend to think of “worship” as what takes place on Sunday mornings inside the church building. In this passage I’m reminded that God really likes it when I make my “sacrifices” (an Old Testament style of worship) outside the church building and into my everyday life; at home, at work, and out in the general public. In-church worship is important, a vital part of living in Christ. Out-of-church worship is just as important as I take Jesus in practical ways to those “out there.”
Take Away: Worship inside the church and service outside the church are both vital parts of Christianity.
Hebrews 12: One last shaking, from top to bottom, stem to stern.
The old way stood for hundreds of years, sometimes with seeming success and at other times in total failure. Jesus came to usher in a new way. Those portions of the old way that were intended to survive did so, but the rest came crashing down as the superior new way was put into place on the first Easter Sunday morning. There was an earthquake at the tomb that morning but there was a much greater spiritual earthquake that day and the result was all good. All the “historical and religious junk” was replaced with the “unshakable essentials.” All that to say that the coming of Jesus was and is a very big deal: the centerpiece of human history. In a much more minor way, but still important to me personally, is the spiritual earthquake that happens when I give my heart to Jesus. The result is some big changes in my life. As it was with the Old Testament Law, some things are worth keeping. They survive the earthquake, made clean and new by Christ. A lot of stuff has to go. In the case of such things, it may be a slow motion earthquake as the Holy Spirit goes to work in my life, dealing with different things as time passes. A lot of stuff, though, simply falls right then and there. Well, one thing in particular: my own self-righteousness. It can’t survive the Christ-earthquake. From my point of view its good-riddance; self-will and some other things must yield to Jesus if he’s to be Lord of my life. Most earthquakes are unwelcome, but this one: this transformational encounter with Jesus is the best thing that could ever happen to me.
Take Away: When Jesus comes into a life it’s a very big deal.
Continuing the story
Hebrews 11: Their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole.
This chapter of the Bible is called the “faith chapter” because of its almost poetic description of the power of faith. Now, it’s not just faith in faith. The focus of this powerful faith is clearly identified as “trust in God.” If I place my faith elsewhere, no matter now sincere that faith might be; it will be an act of foolishness that will take me down the path of disappointment and maybe even destruction. The heroes of faith described in this passage didn’t believe in belief. Rather they believed in, and trusted in, God. These people weren’t disappointed as the Lord came through for them in wonderful ways. The writer takes us on a faith tour, stopping before each exhibit just long enough to remind us of their victorious stories. Before we’re ready, he tells us time is up and we get just a glance down the hall of “current events” where we see people making great sacrifices for their faith, believing whatever it is they’re facing is worth the reward they’re earning. As we prepare to move on, our host says something quite surprising. As wonderful as their examples of faith is, it’s incomplete. We’re not on this tour just to look back. Rather, we’re here to be inspired to join in; to add our stories to theirs. Their looking-forward-to-God’s-better-plan-faith is to be balanced and completed by our embracing-the-better-plan-that’s-now-available-faith. As we live in this new salvation plan we prove the validity of their faith years ago. They carried the torch of faith as far as they could; now it’s been passed on to us. What an honor, what a privilege, and what a responsibility is ours.
Take Away: We don’t just remember great faith of years gone by – we embrace it and advance it to our day and age.
Hebrews 10: Not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on.
All the heavy lifting to provide my salvation has already been done by Jesus. It’s his obedience to the cross that’s opened a new, living way to God. It’s his blood that’s been shed, providing the final, ultimate sacrifice. Now, the way to God is opened and I have sure, absolute promises upon which to take my stand. So, that’s what I do. I respond in belief and then do all I can to nurture that hope I’ve been so graciously given. One of the ways I do that, according to the writer of Hebrews, is to worship with fellow believers. In spite of the fact that some folks don’t think it is necessary or worth the time, I’m to see it as a valuable component of the life of faith. As part of a worshiping community my connection to Jesus is strengthened, my understanding of the things of God is deepened, and opportunities for serving the Lord are provided. Some may think they know better or that they have bigger fish to fry. I see it as one of several ways in which I more firmly grasp my hold on the things of God. After all, Jesus has already done the heavy lifting here. My being faithful to his Church and all the other disciplines of the Christian life is nothing in comparison to his bleeding and dying on the cross.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ.
No more blood needed
Hebrews 9: He brought together God and his people in this new way.
It was a bloody religion. Even the giving of the Law was accompanied by the sheading of the blood of innocent animals. Through the centuries the blood continues to flow and on one day each year, in particular, the blood is taken behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the High Priest and all the people. Then, Jesus, the Son of God, comes to make the ultimate blood sacrifice: his own. This High Priest gives himself, and in so doing, finishes the old bloody system once and for good. No more blood and no more curtain. These things that stood as a barrier between God and man are abolished for good, belonging in history books and museums rather than in real life. Jesus creates a new connection between God and man, the curtain removed and no more blood necessary. Today, we follow the Lord’s command to “remember” by receiving the Lord’s Supper. In the cup though, we don’t need blood. The absence of blood is, in itself, a lesson. Because Christ’s blood was shed long ago, just a bit of wine (in my church tradition, its “new wine”) is all that’s needed.
Take Away: Christ’s sacrifice was what was needed all along and it never needs to be made again.
What God wanted all along
Hebrews 8: God put the old plan on the shelf.
Prior to Christ, the old plan was the only plan. It included laws written on stone, rules and regulations. It was characterized by failure, repentance, and trying harder. It actually never had a chance of setting people right with God and had more to do with letting people who wanted to “do it themselves” find out just how dissatisfying that kind of religion is. All along, the Lord had a superior way in mind. That better way started, not with rules and regulations, but with the Lord taking charge of salvation. His plan all along was to change people’s hearts so that their religion would be less religion and more relationship. There were plenty of hints that this was coming. The revered prophets of old were much more relationship oriented than they were rules oriented. Jeremiah, who’s quoted in this passage, longed for a day when God’s Law would be written inside a person rather than written on stone tablets. Their greatest king, David, was remembered, not as a man of rules but, instead, as a man after God’s heart. The rules had their place, but now they’ve been replaced by grace through Jesus Christ. Now, the old way is a museum exhibit. The new way is life, itself.
Take Away: Through Christ’s death we have abundant life – something rule keeping could never accomplish.
The mystery priest of the Bible
Hebrews 7: God intervened and called this new, permanent priesthood into being.
The writer of Hebrews spends a great deal of time talking about a little known person named Melchizedek from the Old Testament book of Genesis. Abraham goes out to fight a great battle which he wins by the help of God. As he returns with the people he’s rescued and the spoils of the battle this “king of Salem” greets him. Abraham, the man with the promise of God, treats him as a priest, giving him a tithe of the spoils and receives a blessing from him. It will be centuries before Abraham’s descendants will have a formal priesthood and the case could be made that if anyone’s positioned as a priest it would be Abraham, not this otherwise unknown man. The Hebrews writer concludes that Melchizedek was ordained to the priesthood by none other than the Lord and that in him we have a priesthood that operates completely outside the Levitical priesthood of Israel. Then, many centuries later, another priest who’s outside the Levitical tradition appears. In a much greater way, he serves in the priestly role. This great priest makes the ultimate sacrifice for sins and thus blesses all people. The writer of Hebrews connects the dots for us that here’s another priest ordained, not because of lineage and not by man, but by God’s own decree. In Jesus we have a never ending, absolutely effective, God-ordained priest.
Take Away: Jesus is our high priest. We need no other.
Hebrews 6: The basic foundational truths are in place.
There are lots of important things for Christians to know but what are the most important ones? Before moving on to the deeper things of God what are the basics that must be first mastered. Using the lingo of the university, what courses are included in Christianity 101? The writer of Hebrews lists 5 “courses” that must be passed before the believer is ready to deal with more advanced topics. First is trust in God. For me to even be a Christian in the first place I must stop trusting in myself as a source of salvation and start trusting in the Lord. Second is baptism. This entry sacrament is an important part of my becoming a participant in the grace of God and shouldn’t be overlooked. Third is “laying on of hands.” This may be the most challenging of the five, but I think it’s an understanding that God calls people to the ministry and that the church is to recognize that they are called and then to ordain them as set apart for service and leadership by the Lord. Perhaps this needs to be understood early in the Christian life because the Lord often calls people to a life of ministry early on, or even as a part of, their salvation experience. Fourth is “resurrection of the dead.” Believers are, well, believers. We believe Jesus was resurrected from the grave on that first Easter morning. We believe that because of his resurrection all who trust in him share in that same resurrection hope. Fifth is “eternal judgment.” New Christians are to understand that eternity is at stake in their lives and in the lives of all people who will stand before the Lord in final judgment. These five things aren’t all there is to faith. In fact, they aren’t even all there is at the core, but the writer of Hebrews highlights them as a good starting point. Once these things are settled, it’s time to move on. He says, “Let’s get on with it!”
Take Away: We don’t want to camp out just inside the gate. At the same time we need to master the basics before we can move on.
The importance of the journey
Hebrews 5: Milk is for beginners…solid food is for the mature.
The book of Hebrews, like the book of Romans, contains some challenging material. Both are intended to be not only read, but studied. The writer of Hebrews tells his readers that he’s about to take them out into some deep waters, at least that’s his desire. The problem, he says, is that some aren’t ready for that journey. It would be understandable if they were fresh, new believers. However, he’s focusing on those who’ve been around awhile; who, by now, should be ready to move on in their understanding of spiritual things. There are, I see, various stages in our lives in Christ. Spiritual babes need to focus on the basics. Once those are mastered, it’s time to move on, not leaving those things behind, but, instead, building on them as we move forward. On one hand, it’s dangerous for people to “camp out” just inside the gate. On the other hand, it’s dangerous for people to jump into the deeper water without first learning to swim. The church should be a place for people at the various stages of spiritual life. People should find their way in, become established, move into the deeper things of God and then begin helping others who are just finding their way in. Personally, I’m somewhere on that journey, farther along than others are but not as advanced as the rest. I think that in our eyes the destination is most important while in God’s eyes the journey is more important than the destination.
Take Away: Spiritual growth is necessary in the Christian life – but it’s not automatic.