The greatest need of the believer
Romans 7: But I need something more.
In this passage the Apostle describes the frustration of many of God’s people. He’s been set free from sin’s prison and now wants to live God’s way. He understands that God’s ways are right but under the influence of sin even the purity of the Law becomes a tool of temptation and failure. He’s been freed from prison but some of that prison remains in him. He declares “I need something more.” A believer doesn’t have to attend a particular brand of church to identify with this statement. Having been forgiven of sins I set out to live a new life of righteousness in fellowship with the Lord. However, I come to the conclusion that this isn’t as easy as it appears. In fact, the harder I try to live that life of righteousness the clearer it becomes that, in Paul’s words: “I obviously need help!” Is this passage a pitiful surrender to sin? When all is said and done, is the Christian life all about grimly holding on through repeated spiritual failure? The Apostle will more fully answer these questions as he continues writing in what we call chapter eight, but he tips his hand when he says, “The answer, thank God, is…Jesus Christ.”
Take Away: Without the deeper work of God the Christian life is one of constant struggle.
The hardest work of all
Jonah 1: He was sound asleep.
We don’t know anything about Jonah’s background. It may be that he’s been a prophet for years, faithfully preaching God’s messages to his people. On the other hand, this may be Jonah’s first encounter with God. He may have been an average fellow just minding his own business who heard the Voice of God. Either way, the mission he’s given isn’t one he wants. Nineveh is the capital of the hated and feared Assyrian empire. There’s nothing Jonah or any of his fellow countrymen would like better than to see Nineveh destroyed. Just a few pages over in our Bibles we find ourselves in the book of Nahum. That short book of the Bible is all about God’s promised destruction of this same city. Now, that’s the sermon Jonah wants to preach. Instead, God calls him to call them to repent that they might be spared. Jonah doesn’t want the job so he flees Israel and, he supposes, the presence of the Lord by hopping a boat headed in the opposite direction. Once aboard, he heads for the deepest, most out-of-the-way spot he can find and falls fast asleep. I’ve only been out on rough seas one time so my experience is very limited. Still, I can say with confidence that such a time and place isn’t a good one for a nap. In fact, the only possibility of falling into a sound sleep in that circumstance is exhaustion. I think Jonah has wrestled with his call to preach to Israel’s enemies to the point that he’s not slept for days and is operating on the ragged edge of collapse. People think that doing what God wants is too hard or that it won’t satisfy their lives. To their chagrin they discover that refusing God is even harder and that whatever they do instead fails to satisfy. Running from God is hard work.
Take Away: Disobeying the Lord is hard work.
Handwriting on the wall
Daniel 5: Mene, Teqel, Peres.
Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, only makes a brief appearance on the grand stage of Biblical history and in that appearance he’s a drunken loser. In spite of the fact that his father’s story is well known Belshazzar chooses stupid arrogance and practically dares the God his father came to honor to do anything to stop him. So, God Almighty takes up his dare. Even as Belshazzar uses the items taken from the Temple as tableware for a drunken party the hand of God miraculously appears to write the three words of condemnation. As Daniel explains to him, “God has numbered your life and it just doesn’t add up! He’s weighed the value of your life and it doesn’t make weight. He’s decided to divide your kingdom and give it to others.” This unworthy man’s life is about to end in an unworthy way. It’s pitiful isn’t it! Nebuchadnezzar did all the heavy lifting for his son. Not only did he hand over to him the most powerful kingdom on earth, but Nebuchadnezzar went through the years of out-of-his-mind torment to get his head screwed on straight about the God of the Hebrews. All Belshazzar has to do was pick up where his father left off. Instead he delivers stupidity. The Lord expects him to gain from his father’s experience. When he doesn’t do it, it’s “Mene, Teqel, Peres” and a brief appearance on the world stage before going down in flames.
Take Away: While parents have the responsibility of passing on their faith to their children, children have the responsibility of taking up that faith and making it their own.
Accepting fault, doing something about it
Ezekiel 18: The soul that sins is the soul that dies.
A common saying in Ezekiel’s day is that “the parents ate green apples and the children got a stomachache.” That saying describes the current plight of the people of Judah. Their nation has been defeated and many have been exiled far from home. They blame it all on their parents and consider themselves to be victims of the failure of others. Ezekiel says that isn’t so. While it’s true that their ancestors failed God, the current generation has plenty of failure of its own. Ezekiel wants them to understand that when a wicked person turns from his or her wicked ways that God is gracious and rich in forgiveness. God, he tells them, doesn’t hold a grudge. On the other hand, if a righteous person abandons that righteousness he or she stands guilty before God. Past righteousness doesn’t make a person immune from current failure and judgment. The bottom line is that the Lord will “judge each of you according to the way you live.” The spiritual principle here is that it’s our current relationship with God that really matters. Ezekiel’s advice is still good today. He says since it’s “right now” that counts, those who are living apart from God and blaming their parents (or someone else) for it need to “turn around…make a clean break” and “live!”
Take Away: It’s our current relationship with the Lord that really matters.
A sad love story
Ezekiel 16: Your beauty went to your head.
This section of Ezekiel isn’t uplifting. It’s graphic and weighty. The sin of Israel is described as adultery. The prophet is a rough and tough guy and his language is hard and attention getting. Ezekiel describes Israel as a baby abandoned at birth, destined to die without ever having a chance at life. Instead, the Lord rescues this pitiful infant and lavishes his love on it. Then the imagery changes as he describes this rescued one as a grown woman, beautiful and loved by the Lord as a devoted husband loves his wife. Ezekiel says that Israel, who should have never even existed, has become vain and disinterested in the God to whom she owes everything. Instead of being faithful to the Lord, though, she’s become an unfaithful harlot. Anyone hearing Ezekiel’s words should be disgusted with such betrayal and sin. None of this is intended to be a pretty picture. Instead, Ezekiel wants us to recoil at what he describes. Today, I’m reminded that my nation is a blessed nation too. In the early days our chances of survival were small, yet we survived by the grace of God. Now we’re a nation many others watch, and many watch with envy. And even as Israel began to take God for granted and rebel against him, so have we. This section of Ezekiel isn’t fun to read but it needs to be allowed to speak to us in this day.
Take Away: It’s a dangerous thing to forget the blessings of the Lord and take them for granted.
Looking up from the bottom
Lamentations 5: Give us a fresh start.
The prayer I find near the conclusion of this book of laments is one that has been prayed many times through the centuries. Jeremiah describes for us the devastating loss his people have suffered remarking, “Our dances have turned into dirges.” In their miserable state they exclaim, “Would that we’d never sinned!” That’s another statement that has been said many times. As some unknown preacher said, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go.” How many people have found themselves at the bottom, crushed by the consequences of their own sin? For some reason we always think we’ll be the ones to get away with it, that we’ll beat the odds. It never happens and sooner or later we add our voice to the chorus lamenting, “Would that we’d never sinned!” It’s in that place, when everything seems hopeless that we can lift our faces to the God we’ve failed and pray, “Give us a fresh start.” Our God is the God of Second Chances. Even when I’ve messed my life up to the point that all is lost he can give me a fresh start. That isn’t to say that he’ll press the rewind button on my life. What’s done is done. However, he’ll do something just as meaningful: he’ll make me into a new person. When I’m weary of my sin and crushed by my failure, I can look to the God of Second Chances and ask him to give me a fresh start. The Lord delights in answering that prayer.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Lamentations 2: They didn’t face you with your sin so that you could repent.
As Jeremiah deconstructs the fall of Judah for us he describes the failure of the preachers of his day. Even as Jeremiah faithfully proclaimed God’s word of condemnation on the nation, his competition described coming divine rescue. Jeremiah’s message called for a radical change of attitude and lifestyle. Their message was that everything was going to be just fine, that they were children of Abraham, and therefore, God had to keep his promises to him no matter what they did. Because of their success in convincing people of their mistaken theology, Jeremiah’s message was rejected and those who needed to repent never did so. I’m not writing today to put down some radio or TV preacher. To tell the truth I don’t listen to any of them enough to even know their core message. I do believe this, though: we preachers have a responsibility before God to call sinners to repentance. If all we do is share principles for a happy marriage, or tell parents how to raise well-adjusted kids, or outline how to get along with the boss we’re failing people. I’m not saying that there’s never a time and place for such sermons, but Jeremiah says the preachers of his day didn’t confront people with their sin and therefore, they never realized their need for repentance. Does this translate over to today?
Take Away: We have a responsibility before God to call sinners to repentance.
Letting it go…gaining it all
Jeremiah 38: I’m telling you this for your own good.
Zedekiah’s a pitiful failure. When it comes to Jeremiah, he keeps him locked up, but can’t resist talking to him; he hates what he says, but can’t stop listening. Once again the prophet’s being held in the courtyard, and, as things continue to deteriorate, Zedekiah arranges a secret meeting with Jeremiah. However, he’s just wasting his time. At first Jeremiah refuses to answer because he knows Zedekiah won’t like what he says and will once again refuse to listen to him anyway. When Zedekiah insists, Jeremiah simply tells him what he’s told him before: the city will fall and only those who surrender to the invading army will be spared. Jeremiah is offering Zedekiah the way to life, but he knows Zedekiah will reject it once again. In the New Testament we find the story of a wealthy young man who comes to Jesus asking the way to life. When Jesus tells him that the “way” is for him to give up everything and become one of his followers the young man sadly turns and walks away. In the passage before me today I find Zedekiah, like the rich young ruler, rejecting the only hope there is. How pitiful to be so close and yet so far. Jeremiah offers Zedekiah hope and Jesus offers the rich young ruler “life.” Both decide to reject what’s offered in favor of position and wealth and power. When Jesus, himself, is faced with the same choice he willingly gives up everything and surrenders to his enemies. This leads to the ordeal of the cross, but it also leads to the resurrection. So, what are you holding on to that must be released for you to have life? Today, both Zedekiah and the rich young ruler alike would tell you it is better to let it go because holding on costs too much.
Take Away: Whatever it is that keeps us from the Lord isn’t worth it.
On the solid Rock I stand
Isaiah 40: God doesn’t come and go. God lasts.
Sooner or later everything fails us. Some failures come on purpose and can be considered betrayal. Others come by accident but are painful none-the-less. Still others come with great reluctance; such as the death of a loved one who promised to be with us always. Sometimes I make something that was never intended to be permanent into a centerpiece in my life. When the time comes for it to be taken away it becomes, spiritually speaking, a surgery rather than a simple letting go. Because of the temporary nature of this life, I must remember the truth of Isaiah’s words here. There’s only one place of absolute firm footing and that’s on the solid rock of God. He’s the only One who never fails. As I take my stand on the rock of his faithfulness everything else falls into its proper place. I can weather betrayal because One vastly greater has not betrayed me. I can survive some thoughtless, accidental failure and I can find hope even in genuine personal disasters because my hope isn’t focused there in the first place. Everything else comes and goes. If I’ve pinned my hopes and dreams on anything or anyone else, I’ll become a sad, broken man. The only stability I really have (and need) is in the Lord.
Take Away: There’s only one place of absolute firm footing and that’s on the solid rock of the Lord.
Beginnings and conclusions
Proverbs 20: A bonanza at the beginning is no guarantee of blessing at the end.
Last year we had a new restaurant open in our community. It seemed the whole town decided to try it out. The place was packed out and it looked as though the owners had a real winner on their hands. However, things didn’t work out that way. After that first couple of weeks things really dropped off for them. Finally, the doors closed. The promising start didn’t guarantee a continued success. I’ve seen that happen in people’s spiritual lives too. At the beginning I think that they’re going to be a productive, consistent disciple of Christ. But it simply doesn’t work out. The promise of their lives gets derailed and, in the end not only are we disappointed, but so are they. The tragedy here is that such failure never has to happen. That restaurant might have been doomed from the start. It might be that anyone who knows about such things could have predicted that it won’t work out. However, when it comes to living for Jesus there’s every reason for success. Sometimes it seems that the one who simply decides for Christ and just starts living for him has a better chance of seeing it through than the one who makes a big splash at the beginning. That’s not only the lesson in this proverb, but Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed makes the same point.
Take Away: When it comes to living for Jesus there’s every reason for success.