What an invitation!
Revelation 4: Ascend and enter.
Having received messages for seven churches John looks upward to see an opening door providing an entrance into Heaven. He hears a voice, issuing to him a command and a word of permission. He’s been invited into Heaven and is immediately filled with a sense of deep worship as he finds himself gazing on the very Throne of God. Everything’s overwhelming and, as he tells us about it, human language fails him. There’s worship going on and we’re left with the feeling that this is business as usual at the Throne. Heavenly beings sing “Holy, holy, holy” and those with crowns of righteousness cast those crowns at the feet of the One seated on the Throne. What’s business as usual in Heaven is all too rare on this side of that door. I’ve had some wonderful moments of blessing, some too precious for me to write about. They haven’t come nearly often enough but when they have come I’ve tasted just enough to long for more. Still, I’ve received an invitation to that place. I don’t know when it is that I’ll hear “Ascend and enter” but I do know that that command and word of permission will come someday. I’m sure I won’t like the process of getting there, but once I do, it’ll be worth it all.
Take Away: We’ve received that wonderful invitation to “ascend and enter” so let’s live as invited people, preparing for that day.
Happy in Jesus
1Peter 1: You trust him, with laughter and singing.
Peter’s words are addressed to believers who are “scattered to the four winds.” These followers of Jesus don’t have it easy. They’re treated as outsiders and sometimes they suffer because of their faith. However, Peter’s writing to them isn’t heavy and grim. He doesn’t advise them to grit their teeth and hold on. Rather, he describes the victory that’s already theirs. He envisions their gatherings as joyful, celebrative events in which they sing and laugh, buoyed by the living presence of Jesus in their lives. The idea here isn’t that they pretend everything’s okay when it obviously isn’t. Instead, it’s that they see a bigger picture and weighing their current situation against “total salvation” they find that they’re the big winners. Beyond that, it’s more than just “pie in the sky” for them. Something has happened and is happening in their lives right now. These are people who just can’t get over how blessed they are. While it’s true that my life is quite easy, especially in comparison to that of these scattered Christians, I do share in their blessings. As I get together with my Christian friends, whether it’s in formal worship or relaxed fellowship, I hear lots of good singing and good natured laughter. That, my friend, is exactly as it should be.
Take Away: It’s good to remember that it’s a joy living in Jesus and that it’s fun being with his people.
Looking back and being blessed all over again
1Thessalonians 2: We wanted to give you our hearts. And we did.
Before Paul turns his attention to the primary topic of the letter he has some reminiscing to do. He well remembers arriving in Thessalonica. At that time he was a rather beaten up apostle, having just gone through the Philippian jail experience we read about in Acts 16. Some of his enemies, in fact, followed him to Thessalonica as well, resulting in a riot. Still, many believed his message and, in spite of his obvious weaknesses, they became dear friends of Paul. This relationship, he tells them, is cherished and warms his heart even as he writes them this short letter. Looking back on those events, even though there was some pain and rejection in them, fills him with thanksgiving. He remembers how he gave them his heart and to this day he has no regrets about it whatsoever. There’s something powerful about relationships like this. For one thing, they hold. Paul has moved on in his ministry but something of him has stayed with his dear friends in Thessalonica. Now, when they have questions about the Second Coming of Christ they turn to him for answers. When he hears from them, he experiences some old blessings made new. I don’t think I should live in the past, dwelling on the “good old days.” Still, there’s a time for looking back and remembering people, events, friendships, and blessings from days gone by. I can’t live in the past but it doesn’t hurt to visit there once in a while.
Take Away: Precious memories sweeten our lives today.
Paul’s thorn in the flesh
2Corinthians 12: The weaker I get the stronger I become.
As Paul defends his ministry he describes a vision he experienced many years earlier. At least I think he’s describing a vision he had. His wording moves to third person, but the setting of the passage concerns visions and revelations given him by the Lord. Paul was lifted up into heaven and there heard things he was forbidden to share with others. The Apostle says that if he wanted to he could focus on such experiences and trump about anyone. Instead, though, he chooses to focus on his humiliations and, in fact has found his most troubling, humbling handicap (although he doesn’t tell us what it is) to be yet another great blessing. This handicap serves two good purposes in his life. On one hand it balances out the ecstasies he experienced in Christ, keeping him firmly grounded in the here and now. On the other hand, his weaknesses drive him to even greater dependency on the Lord. As he relies on the Lord rather than on his own experiences, as deeply spiritual as they might be, he finds strength. Blessings are, well, a blessing! However, they can also be a curse. If I think the Lord has made me a favorite because of some deep spiritual experience that experience can actually serve as a stumbling block in my life. Of course, the Lord knows this. I think he sometimes withholds some special intimacy from us for our own good. At other times, as it is in Paul’s case, the Lord works in our lives in wonderful ways but refuses to do something that would be precious to us to keep us from becoming so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good. We don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh is, but we can see it as he does: as part of God’s working in a life for the good of one he dearly loves.
Take Away: Sometimes the Lord does things for us because he loves us. Sometimes the Lord doesn’t do things for us because he loves us.
The Unknown God
Acts 17: He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him.
Paul is speaking at the Areopagus in Athens. He’s disturbed by all the shrines to all the deities worshiped there. He’s even seen one shrine dedicated to the “unknown god.” The folks there don’t want to overlook some god and unintentionally get on the bad side of him! When Paul gets a chance to be heard, he uses that shrine as his launching point. He’s there to tell them about the God they’ve missed. His argument is right out of the Old Testament. The prophets of old often called their people to worship the God not made with human hands. Paul tells them that the God he serves is good and gracious, blessing their lives even though they haven’t acknowledged him. This God reaches out to them, inviting them to live in a relationship with him. However, there comes a time when the “unknown” becomes the “known.” It’s one thing to enjoy the blessings of God in ignorance. It’s something altogether different to know of this good God and to intentionally ignore him. In fact, God intends to divide people along that very line. He’s so serious about it that he’s already appointed a Judge over the people of the earth. To make it perfectly clear to the whole world that this is his chosen Judge, God has raised him from the dead. Many of Paul’s listeners, worshipers of a variety of gods, can’t swallow this “resurrection business.” They can’t imagine their gods having that kind of power. They walk away believing that they’ve just heard an impossible myth. Others, though, are drawn to this good God and his resurrected, appointed Judge. They want to know more. I know where I stand on this issue. Where do you stand?
Take Away: This “Unknown God” can, and wants to be known by all.
Living in the present
Matthew 6: Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with anticipation. Part of the joy of Christmas is the “longing with hope” aspect of it that we highlight on the first Sunday of Advent each year. Still, there’s a danger of so looking forward to something in the future that we forget to live in the present. Life isn’t all about tomorrow, for good or bad. Life is lived in the present. It has no rewind or fast forward buttons. In this passage Jesus reminds us that God is with us “right now.” We remember wonderful blessings in the past and appreciate what the Lord did for us then. We also look to the future with confidence in faith that the same good, gracious God will be with us in that day. Still, it’s right now that’s most under my control. Not that I control the circumstances of right now, but I have some say about how I will live in those circumstances. So, one thing I gain from this passage is the reminder to live in this present moment; to appreciate the good things and to trust God with the not-so-good things. The other thing that comes to mind is the calm, certain assurance that God is, indeed, doing something “right now.” I may be praying for a great revival to come to my church, longing for that day to come. I may be looking forward to some major life event like the birth of a grandchild or some special anniversary. However, Jesus tells me that God is also doing things right here and right now. He’s working in my life, walking with me in these ordinary days of life. After all, the great mystery of Christmas is the incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us.
Take Away: I need to be more aware of the blessings of life right now and not always focusing on some future blessing.
Do it again, Lord
Habakkuk 3: Do among us what you did among them.
The prophet of God has the heart of a psalmist. As I started reading Habakkuk and saw his reverent complaint to God I was reminded of the Psalms of complaint in which the writer pours his heart out before the Lord. Now, as Habakkuk experiences God in a fresh way, his words remind me of the Psalms again. He pens a psalm of his own in which he recounts God’s past deliverance and looks to a day of restoration. His opening lines: “Do among us what you did among them. Work among us as you worked among them” is the prayer of many of God’s people through the ages. In this case, Habakkuk is specifically thinking of the deliverance of his ancestors from Egyptian bondage. However, through the centuries, many have looked back to great movements of God: revivals, healings, and other times of special blessing and prayed this prayer. In my life there have been times of extraordinary blessing, some so private and precious that I seldom speak of them. However, I mention them to the Lord, thanking him for what he did and marveling at his grace to me and, in the spirit of Habakkuk, ask the Lord to “do it again.” It’s unhealthy to spend our lives talking about the “good old days” but we should allow those times of special blessing to remind us of what God can do and to encourage us to seek his best for in our lives in this day and in these circumstances.
Take Away: There are times when we do well to revisit past blessings and allow those blessings to encourage us to expect renewed blessings of God in our lives.
Living in the day of the Spirit
Joel 2: I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people.
The Hebrew prophets were, in general, positive people. Sometimes they had negative messages to give and sometimes they spoke harshly but they always found a place to promise a better day. In the face of the natural disaster that has befallen his people, Joel calls for them to take stock of their lives and repent of their sin. Then he describes a coming better day. He sees a day when God will “make up for the years of the locust,” restoring what has been destroyed. He pictures tables full of food and people filled with words of praise and thanksgiving. Then Joel says, “If you think that stuff sounds good wait till you hear what else is coming!” He then describes a day of wonderful blessing in which God pours his Spirit out upon, not just one nation, but upon all the nations of the world. He says that in that day their sons and daughters will prophecy and people from all nations and stations of life will be blessed. This event, Joel says, will happen before the “Judgment Day of God.” Years later Peter will quote these words on the Day of Pentecost. Peter will tell people that they’re literally seeing this “Spirit pouring” promise being fulfilled before their very eyes. Even today, we live in that “in between” period of history. We’re between the outpouring of the Spirit and the Judgment Day of God. What a wonderful time in which to live! We’re in the “day of the Spirit.” This is the time when, according to Joel, “Whoever calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.”
Take Away: What a wonderful thing it is to live in the “day of the Spirit.”
The Lord is much more than a Friend
Ezekiel 22: They can’t tell the difference between sacred and secular.
It’s a horrible time for the people of Jerusalem. There’s threatening war, a devastating drought, and a collapse of civil authority. Down at the Temple the priests continue in a God-ignoring pattern, treating sacred things as common. The Almighty complains that they profane him by trying to “pull me down to their level.” I like to sing “What a Friend we have in Jesus” and feel humbled and honored at the thought that the Lord is willing to be my Friend. However, I can’t help but think that the “friendship” model only works at one level. This Friend is the King of Kings. He’s holy and eternal. My relationship with him starts with my bowing before him. It’s he who takes my hand and gives me permission to stand in his presence. If I call him “Friend” it’s only because he allows me to. The priests of Ezekiel’s day treat the holy as common. Today, in my blessings and comfort, I don’t want to make the same mistake.
Take Away: I call the Lord my friend only because he has graciously allowed me to.
God’s good plans for us
Jeremiah 29: I have it all planned out — plans to take care of you…to give you the future you hope for.
This may be the most quoted portion of Jeremiah’s prophecy. We like thinking about God’s plans to prosper us and bless us. We pull this verse out and rejoice in it because it’s such a wonderful promise. Of course, we’re using it out of context. At issue is the fall of Judah, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of God’s people. The promise being made here won’t even kick in for seventy years. The people hearing this sermon from Jeremiah will be dead and gone when its promise is fulfilled. The “you” in the passage isn’t individuals, but the entire body of exiles, especially their descendants. The actual message here is that they aren’t supposed to sit around thinking about “pie in the sky by and by.” The Lord says that they’re to settle down in the new land they’ve been moved to. They’re to build houses, have families, and make themselves at home. They’re to be good citizens of their new land and pray for its leaders because they’re going to be there the rest of their lives. However, (and here’s the big part) they must never forget that they are, before all else, God’s people. The day of their exile is going to end and they (meaning their descendants) will return home where God will pour his blessing out upon them. Really, if I’m going to apply this passage to my life, I need to avoid using it to tell me how the Lord’s going to prosper me. The “prospering” part for Christians is heaven. Meanwhile, we need to live our lives here and now as a people of God, giving our best to today without forgetting the promise of a better day coming for all God’s people.
Take Away: We need to live our lives here and now as the people of the Lord.