On the brink and not realizing it
Malachi 3: It doesn’t pay to serve God. What do we ever get out of it?
The message of Malachi is for people who are living in the broad middle, somewhere between the best and the worst days of life. They’re comfortable and secure, just going about the business of living. However, there’s hidden danger in that. When I’m living in the middle I’m tempted to take things for granted. Blessings that would have thrilled those who went before me are lost to me. God feels distant and that makes it easier for me to take spiritual shortcuts which make him feel even more distant. If I’m not careful, one day I look around and God is nowhere to be found. I think to myself, “Do I really need the hassle of religion? I don’t think it’s worth the effort I put into it. People who live as non-religious individualists seem to get along okay. Maybe that’s for me.” That’s where Malachi’s congregation is. Without a sense of desperation for God they’ve drifted away from him. Now, they’re on the verge of stepping off the cliff into the canyon of unbelief. The Lord responds that he’s well aware of what’s going on and that the day’s coming when they’ll be abruptly moved from the broad middle to the hard side of life. With all else ripped from their grasp, their faith will be all there is left to hold on to. There’s unseen danger for those of us living in the broad middle of life.
Take Away: We have to pay attention to spiritual things or they slip from our grasp.
A pastoral visit to the hospital
Ezekiel 13: They’ve said, “No problem, everything’s just fine,” when things are not at all fine.
Several years ago I was at the hospital visiting a friend who was having surgery the next morning. When someone came into the room to go through a pre-surgery checklist, I excused myself and was about to leave. However, my friend asked me to stay. I reluctantly did so (by the way, I still don’t recommend that the pastor be present for such an interview). As they went through the checklist I was amazed at how blunt it was. Every possible problem was explained. There was a 3% chance of this and a 5% chance of that. Really, it was enough to scare a person! As I reflected on that experience I made a decision to deal with spiritual realities with people in the hospital with the same frankness. Rather than only focusing on praying for them that everything will be okay, I decided that, when the situation was right, I’d find a way to ask them how it is between them and God and offer to help them pray. I’m not pretending that I always get that done. For one thing, so many surgeries are now outpatient surgeries and the opportunity for such a conversation isn’t there. Still, I’m reminded that we Christians aren’t to always tell people “everything’s going to be just fine” when there’s a real chance that it isn’t going to be fine. I don’t have to scare people to death to offer to pray with them about spiritual needs in their life. In fact, it may be the most comforting encounter of all.
Take Away: When the time is right Christians should be ready to have spiritual conversations with people they care about.
How wonderful to have a message of hope
Isaiah 61: The Spirit of God, the Master, is on me because God anointed me.
Through the years of his ministry Isaiah brings a variety of messages to his people. Often, his words are those of warning and condemnation. At other times, his sermons contain wonderful words of hope and comfort. That’s the kind of message we hear from him in this passage. Isaiah considers it an honor to be commissioned and empowered to preach good news to a people who are living as captives in Babylon. His message is one of encouragement to the poor and heartbroken; to those who mourn and wilt under the burden they carry. This message is so powerful that hundreds of years later Jesus selects Isaiah’s words to describe his own ministry. The message of hope is Isaiah’s and then it’s Jesus’ and now, well, now it’s mine. The proclamation of God’s favor, his healing mercy and grace, isn’t just Isaiah’s and, while it uniquely belongs to Jesus, I can lay claim on it too. For those in Babylonian captivity and for those today that are bound by sin, this is good news.
Take Away: In Christ, we have Good News for people desperately in need of some Good News.
Looking to the distant mountains
Isaiah 40: Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God.
An illustration of how the prophets view the future is of looking from the plains up to a towering mountain range. As I look to the mountains I see one mountain in the “front range,” but at the greater distance is yet another taller and even more majestic peak. Coloradoans call the really big ones, “fourteeners,” that is, they’re over 14,000 feet in height. From my vantage point I can’t tell how far it is between the two mountains. It’s only as I actually travel through the mountains that I realize there’s a deep valley between the first and the second mountain range. As the prophets are given a vision of God’s intentions they sometimes see an act of God that’s close at hand and at the same time see a similar but even greater event more distant than they can imagine. Here in Isaiah 40 the focus of Isaiah’s prophecies is on comfort and hope. These words will become a life line for his people in a few years. All the terrible things he’s warned them of will come to pass, and in distant lands the next generation will turn to these words to find comfort in their sorrow. When I read this passage at the level of the “front range” I see that God’s broken people have hope of restoration. The Lord’s going to return to their lives as a powerful king might return to his kingdom. Isaiah’s command to them is to start preparing for this sure event by making a smooth and straight road into their lives. However, beyond that “front range” is a gigantic “fourteener,” the coming of the King of Kings to this world. Hundreds of years later this prophecy will become John the Baptist’s text and it’ll be fulfilled in a much greater way by King Jesus. As a Christian I can identify with the dual nature of this passage. That “front range” view is when I receive Jesus as King in my own heart. The “fourteener” view is when Jesus comes to this world the second time as King and Judge of all.
Take Away: Sometimes the words of the prophets of the Lord cause us to look both to the past and to the future.
This prescription works for both the farsighted and the nearsighted
Isaiah 25: And God will wipe the tears from every face.
Isaiah’s words contain a great deal of condemnation and his target is not only the enemies of Israel, but Israel, herself. I get lost in it all and am not sure whether the prophet is talking to specific people at a specific moment in history or if he’s slipped into “prophetic perfect tense” in which he speaks of the future as though it has already happened. It may be that he’s speaking on multiple levels of a near future and a distant future with the same words. At times like this, I take the easy way out and focus on my devotional reading, asking, “What’s this saying to me right now?” As I read this part of Isaiah I can’t help but think of the book of Revelation which contains almost the exact same words. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Revelator is reminded of these words even as he promises the glorious “no tears” day. My conclusion is that whether we’re thinking about the broken people of Isaiah’s day or persecuted Christians of John’s day or hurting people today that God’s message is one of comfort and hope. Some of that hope is contemporary hope: what God is about to do. At the same time some of that hope is out there in the uncertain future when the Lord wraps up history and brings a new reality into existence. I’m not sure about just who it is Isaiah is thinking about in this passage, but I do see here a wonderful theme of God’s mercy and grace.
Take Away: Yesterday, today, and forever the Lord remains merciful and gracious to his people.
Better to say nothing
Job 16: What a bunch of miserable comforters!
When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, arrive at his side they’re overwhelmed with what they find. They cry out and rip their clothes in mourning. Then for seven days they sit with him, speechless at the horror of it all. It appears that it’s during these days that they come to a decision to go with the status quo because once they start talking they merely state and restate the “folk wisdom” of the day. As they do that, Job turns his fevered face toward them and denounces them as “miserable comforters.” I think they are better comforters sitting there for a week, broken and speechless at what they see than when they start reasoning with Job about all of this. There’s a lesson to be learned here. People who are suffering pain and grief don’t really need our platitudes or our so-called wisdom. Even when we don’t know “why” things are as they are our presence matters. The scriptures tell us to “mourn with those who mourn.” We aren’t called to explain it all but we are told to care and help the broken-hearted by sharing in their sorrow.
Take Away: When we don’t know what to say or do we don’t need to say or do anything – just be there, sharing in the moment.
Genesis 12: God told Abram, “Leave your country, your family, and your father’s home for a land that I will show you.
When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than taking a trip and our young family often hopped in the car to go and see something new. Then, I ended up traveling for a living, sometimes being gone weeks at a time. That, for me, cured my wander-lust and when that period of my life ended I emotionally overcompensated and became a homebody for several years. These days, I like to think I’ve found the middle ground in this, but I confess that I still like to be comfortably at home. Not long ago we took a 2900 mile road trip, and while it was fun to go, it was sure nice to get home: my bed, my chair, my patio – yep, it is good to be home. I’ve come to realize that it’s possible to be too comfortable. Sometimes, God has things he wants to do in my life: transitions he wants to take me through. He has something better for me, yet I hesitate. “Lord, it isn’t all that bad right here – if it is all the same to you, I think I’ll just settle down here in this place of comfort.” It makes perfect sense to me – but to fail here is to miss something much better he has for me. When Abraham obeys the Lord in the call to begin a journey into the unknown, he’s about to leave the comfort of home and set out on a decades-long journey. There are going to be some big bumps in the road but the destination the Lord has in mind for him is going to make it all worthwhile. What’s true for this, the first Patriarch, is true for you and me too: God initiated trips are always worth taking.
Take away: Don’t get too comfortable and miss out on something better the Lord might have in store.