Dual level preaching
Isaiah 9: For a child has been born — for us! The gift of a son — for us!
Sometimes the prophet does exactly what we generally think of a prophet doing: he speaks of the future. Isaiah says that even when oppressors come and seem to destroy everything that God will have the last word. That Word, Isaiah says, will be in the person of a Child who can rightly be called names like “Strong God” and “Eternal Father.” Have you ever wondered about the state of mind of men like Isaiah when they speak words like this? Does Isaiah see it all: manger, shepherds, and wise men? Or does he scratch his head and wonder why he just said that? I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. I can give a very minor personal example of what I mean. A few weeks ago I was delivering my Sunday morning sermon and found myself emphasizing something that had originally been only a minor part of my sermon. Such an event is hard to describe to people who haven’t preached, but I think most everyone who has carried on spiritual conversations have, at times, experienced something similar. Honestly, as I thought about that sermon and remembered who was in the congregation I had the idea that maybe the Lord wanted to encourage a good person who was going through some challenges in their life. Still it never crossed my mind to “aim” that portion of the sermon at anyone. I was surprised that I had pursued that point as far as I did. A few days later, with no thought of that sermon, I was praying and dealing with what I thought was a totally unrelated issue. Suddenly, the words that I had said on Sunday morning came back to me and I realized that on an entirely different level they were meant for me! At that moment, the “deeper meaning” of what I had said became real to me. I think that prophets like Isaiah operate at that level when they speak of things like those in Isaiah 9. Had you had a frank conversation with Isaiah about his promise of the “gift of a son” I think he would have plugged it into some current situation in his nation. That isn’t to say he was ignorant of there being more than he could grasp, but that, for him, these words applied right then and there. Only as God’s plan is played out does the greater meaning of the old prophet’s words come to light.
Take Away: Even when we think we know what’s going on we’re often surprised to later realize that the Lord was working at levels beyond our grasp.
Free will and accountability
Isaiah 8: No, we’re going to study the Scriptures.
While telling of future events wasn’t the major job of most prophets, it’s the one we immediately think of when we think of the work of the prophets. Actually, these men of God mostly “forth-told” rather than “fore-told.” Even when they speak of the future it’s often spoken of in a conditional way: “If you do this, then that will happen; if you do that, then this will happen.” In fact, a major theme of these men of God is to remind the people of their free will. That doesn’t mean God is helpless, but it does mean, at least in this context, that the Lord allows people the freedom to decide, and then makes them accountable for their decisions. As Isaiah goes about proclaiming what’s coming if these people stay on the road they’re on, people say to him, “When I want to know what’s coming, I’ll go to a fortune teller or hold a séance.” Isaiah says, “If you want to know what’s coming, take a look in the Scriptures.” He isn’t saying that the Scriptures contain some kind of secret road map to the future. Instead, he’s saying that there’s plenty of evidence in the Scriptures that God won’t forever put up with their foolishness. Repeatedly, in the Scriptures, the Lord has warned them and it doesn’t take some supernatural experience to see what’s coming. Talk about a timeless truth, this is one! Today, I don’t need a fortune teller. There’s plenty of information already available to me in the Bible about how God responds to sin and rebellion. If I insist on ignoring God I don’t need a crystal ball to know what’s coming.
Take Away: The Bible is quite clear as to the intentions of the Lord.
Grabbing the gusto, looking to eternity
Proverbs 1: When you grab all you can get, that’s when it happens: the more you get, the less you have.
As I read this passage I can’t help but think of the beer commercial that tells us we only go ’round once in life so we’d better grab all the gusto we can. I actually think there’s some truth to that. Life is a gift of God filled with many wonderful opportunities and blessings. I can’t sit around talking about “pie in the sky” and get the most out of my life. There’s a lot of living to do right now. The wise man of the Proverbs, though, gives me the other side of that coin. If I make my life completely about living in the here and now, ignoring all that is yet to come, well, I’m setting myself up for a great fall. Life is more than “right now.” This life might be considered to be a warm up for eternity. So, grabbing the gusto can make sense, but that approach must be kept on a leash and not allowed to just run wild because there’s much more to our existence than just going ’round once. Or, as Jesus says in Matthew 6:20, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Take Away: One way to live the best life possible in the here and now is to live with an eye on eternity.
Happily ever after
Ruth 4: Boaz married Ruth.
It’s a happy ending. The sadness of loss is replaced by a new, glorious day. Ruth, who lost so much, is now experiencing God at work in her life. In Boaz, Lord has a good husband for her. The Lord’s working in ways no one could have imagined. The result is, well, a match made in heaven. God is the God of Second Chances. For Ruth it’s another chance for a happy life. For Naomi, it’s a grandchild, the continuation of her family. Then, one more thing: you see there is more going on here than anyone knows. We finish the story with the future family tree. Boaz and Ruth’s great-great grandson will be a fellow named David who’ll be King of Israel and one of David’s descendants will be Jesus, our Savior. Oh yes, God is at work here.
Take Away: The Lord works at multiple levels providing for things we may never live to see.
Here’s what’s next
Joshua 13: This is the land that remains.
The book of Joshua fast forwards through many years and many battles. That’s okay with me. As I’ve said before, I’m rather uncomfortable with all the blood and death involved in this march across Canaan. We’re given a list of defeated kings, starting with the first battle at Jericho. In all, thirty-one are listed. These battles continued for years, even decades, and after I see this list of battles won I’m told that Joshua’s now a senior citizen. All in all, Joshua and all of the Israelites should feel good about what they’ve accomplished. However, even as the Lord speaks to Joshua in complimentary terms, he also reminds him that there’s more for Israel to do. In fact, the Lord has a list of places that are yet to be occupied. He assures Joshua that this task isn’t his, God, himself, will handle the clearing of the land in preparation for the continued expansion of their territory. Even though Joshua’s day is winding down, the Lord is looking ahead to the next step, the continuation of his grand plan. It’s reasonable to be reminded here that God not only works in my life, walking with me day by day but he also sees the big picture that I don’t see. I serve him, cooperating with his purposes in all my life, but when my day is done, the Lord doesn’t close up shop and call it a day. He continues right on into the next chapter, and the next. As I read this passage I find that truth to be somewhat humbling.
Take Away: The Lord sees a bigger picture than we see.
The blood of the martyrs
Revelation 6: I saw the souls of those killed because they had held firm in their witness to the Word of God.
The seals unveil future events, although readers though the centuries have been all over the place in their understanding of just what it is John is seeing. Perhaps the broad view is the best one. History is marching to a climax and as that climax draws near the world’s going to experience powerful and disturbing events. As the fifth seal is removed we see those martyred for their faithfulness to the Lord. In John’s day people are already suffering for their faith. John, himself, in fact, is exiled from the church. However, things are going to get worse. Many will die on the floor of the Coliseum in Rome. History, in fact, will see many faithful Christians die as martyrs. Sad to say, it continues to this day. John hears their voices as they cry out for justice. They’re told that the day of justice is coming. As I think about these who’ve followed Jesus even into death I feel small and insignificant. I confess that I’m hardly worthy to share the name “Christian” with them. I don’t want to forget that my heritage of faith has been a costly one. I don’t want to forget those who, even as I write these words, are paying a dear price for standing firm in their faith. At the same time, the promise of this passage speaks to my heart today. These have already been given “white robes” – honored in heaven. The day will come when the books will be balanced and justice will prevail. It doesn’t take my feeling any sense of vengeance at all for me to say, if God is just, then he’ll “avenge their murders.”
Take Away: The justice of the Lord demands that things be set right, and that day is, indeed, coming.
Planning for tomorrow with an eye toward God
James 4: You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow.
James challenges Christians in how they talk about the future. He advises us to not state with an attitude of certainty what will happen tomorrow. Instead, we’re to be humble about it, saying things like, “If it’s the Lord’s will we’ll do this or that tomorrow.” Now, he’s not giving us some formula to say as much as he’s describing an attitude we’re to have. He’s opposed to Christians living self-willed, God-ignoring lives in which we imagine ourselves to be self-sufficient and operating independent of the Lord. He’s not against my making plans and having dreams. At the same time, he’s in favor of my planning and dreaming with an eye toward God. The Lord, himself is a planner, operating on a scale far beyond my comprehension. As an individual created in his image I too plan, thinking about a desirable future and working now to bring it to pass. However, unlike my Heavenly Father, my view is limited and because of that, my expectations are flawed. I remember that I’m to pray for my “daily bread” trusting the Lord to supply the need of the day. To plan for the future while ignoring God isn’t only foolish. According to James it “is evil.”
Take Away: Ultimately, my future – my life – is in God’s hands and not my own.
Minding my own business
John 21: Master, what’s going to happen to him?
John finishes his story of Jesus with the account of an early morning, and private, encounter with the resurrected Savior. Our Lord and his disciples have breakfast together and then Jesus and Peter go for a walk. Peter, who denied the Lord three times, is now asked three times if he loves Jesus. Each time, as a result of his declaration of love, he’s given responsibility in the Kingdom. By the third time, though, Peter is burdened with the repeated question. Jesus responds by explaining to Peter that his love will be his source of strength in difficult days ahead. He’ll be a prisoner and will be led to places he doesn’t want to go. In the midst of such a trial, Peter will find strength in his love for the Lord. Meanwhile, following along is the disciple John. Everyone knows John is Jesus’ favorite and Peter wants to know what’s coming for him. Jesus, though, isn’t going there with Peter. Peter needs to worry about Peter and not about the beloved disciple. I think we tend to concern ourselves with what God is doing in the lives of others too much. We forget that we aren’t called to make Christian clones of ourselves but are to “feed the sheep” and let the Master handle the rest of it. That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned when I see someone struggling or has even lost their way. Of course I’m concerned. Still, I need to be careful to love them and encourage them to follow Jesus and not be too focused on exactly how the Lord might want that to happen in their life.
Take Away: I love others and want to see them allow the Lord to lead their lives, but my main concern is to keep things clear between myself and the Lord.
Luke 21: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too.
Jesus’ description of future events is sobering. He describes false teachers, betrayal, wars, earthquakes, persecution, destruction, and other huge events. Since I know that some of this already happened I’m tempted to think I’m clear of at least some of the things our Lord describes. Then I run head long into Jesus’ declaration that these words are for all of his followers. He says that coming big events are obvious to those who pay attention even as the coming of summer is forecast by the budding of the trees. Our Lord wants his followers to pay attention, not so much to specific things, like the rise of a false Messiah, but to the general flow of things. After all, a person who watches just one tree as a predictor of summer might or might not see new leaves. However, one who watches an entire forest will see proof abundant that things are changing. On one hand, I think it’s a mistake to list a few “signs” and focus in on just them. After all, one might have misread the meaning of the passage in the first place. However, if I pay attention I might just see that big things are brewing. At that time, I don’t have to be afraid, according to Jesus, but I do want to be sure I’m ready for what I believe is coming.
Take Away: Even if I miss some of the signs I’ll be okay if I stay ready.
The curtain falls, but Act II is about to begin
Malachi 4: Remember and keep the revelation I gave through my servant Moses.
Did Malachi understand that these words were to become, for Christians across the ages, the closing words of the Old Testament? It’s highly unlikely. However, I believe God, the Holy Spirit knew it. The last two paragraphs of Malachi are an excellent ending for the Old Testament. For those of that day, still living under the Law, one of the last words is “remember.” They’re to keep the “rules and procedures for right living” given them by Moses. If they do that they’ll have done what the Lord requires of them. However, there’s another last word. It’s, “also look ahead.” The Lord isn’t finished working out redemption for them and all that has happened thus far has prepared the way for the really big deal that’s yet to come. As the curtain’s falling on this, the first act we’re told that the next act is going to be both interesting and surprising. They’ll know it’s starting when Elijah shows up to usher it in. For the people of Israel, that’s a long 400 years distant in the future. As for me, all I have to do is turn the page to see what has, up to now, been the black and white picture of God’s salvation plan displayed in living color.
Take Away: Even to this day we are wise to obediently remember what the Lord has told us while at the same time look forward to what he has promised us.