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.
Can’t we all just get along?
1Corinthians 1: You must get along with each other.
As I understand it, Corinth is a lot like the Old West of American movies. It’s a rough and tough place with lots of immorality. Paul comes preaching the Gospel of Jesus and many of these rowdy people become believers. For a year and a half (a long time for him) Paul stays, establishing them in the faith, teaching them what it means to be Christians. Now, he’s moved on, but has received word that things aren’t going very well in Corinth. One of the big problems is lack of unity. The Church of Corinth is splitting, not into two parts, but into several. In fact, if there’s an opportunity for discord, they’ve found it. Paul writes to them, saying, “You must get along with each other” and then both reasons with them and shames them into unity. As I consider this passage the call of Jesus to his followers to be one even as he and his Father are one feels quite distant. I share the Apostle’s concern as I look at the state of Christianity today. Sometimes “oneness” seems out of reach and I wonder if Paul was writing to the Church today what he would say. There is, though, a silver lining in these opening words of 1 Corinthians. It’s Paul’s sunny, optimistic approach to all this. He describes the church as “cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God filled life” and reminds them that Jesus “will never give up on you.” The Lord has already done a lot in their lives and Paul assures them that he’s going to keep right on working. So, as I read these words today I confess that the state of Christianity today concerns me. At the same time I’m infected by Paul’s optimistic view of the Church. It’s good to remember that God’s still at work today.
Take Away: The Lord is working inside the Church to make us one, and, as we cooperate with him, that’s just what he’s going to do.
The God who never fails
Habakkuk 3: Counting on God’s Rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength.
The little book of Habakkuk is all about the prophet’s concern with how God works in the world. How can a holy God use such an unrighteousness people as those of Babylon to accomplish his purposes? The Lord answers his question, first, by assuring Habakkuk that he’s aware of sin and rebellion and that it will be judged. The second answer, I think, is when the prophet sees God, in his holiness, enter his Temple. Such a vision of God produces an awed silence and an undeniable assurance that God is God. Because of that, whatever happens will be the right thing. Habakkuk breaks out in praise, writing what might be called a “displaced psalm.” The final chorus, in particular, states an unshakable trust in the Lord. “Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen…I’m singing joyful praise to God…counting on God’s Rule to prevail.” This hymn is a powerful expression of trust in God. Even when the enemy attacks, even when life takes an unwelcome turn, even when all else fails…even then I rejoice in the One who never fails.
Take Away: Even when live is confusing and painful…even then, God is God and God never fails.
About as low as you can go
Jonah 2: My prayer got through to you.
When he’s thrown into the stormy sea he’s sure he’s a gonner. Then this huge fish shows up, mouth open wide, and Jonah thinks this is certainly the end. Now, in the darkness, trying to get the sea weed off of his face he realizes he’s still alive. This isn’t Star Trek and he didn’t go “boldly” but Jonah finds himself “where no man has gone before.” In this predicament Jonah wonders if prayers from the inside of a fish at the bottom of the sea can possibly reach heaven. Since he has no other choice he begins to cry out to the God he fled. Years earlier the suffering Job heard the Lord promise that he visited the “springs of the sea.” Now Jonah becomes the first human being to put that statement to a literal test. Later he reports, “My prayer got through….” Now, I’ve never been deep under water in the belly of a fish. I tried scuba once but I stayed pretty close to the surface so I’ll just have to take Jonah’s testimony at face value. However, I’ve been in some situations in which I felt distant from God and I wondered if my prayers could ever get through – but they did! In this passage I find hope for every person who thinks they’re so far from God and have messed up so many times that they’re gonners. Today I see that the Lord hears prayers, even from the depths of the sea.
Take Away: There’s hope for every person who thinks they’re so far from the Lord that there’s no hope for them.
It isn’t over till it’s over
Hosea 12: What are you waiting for? Return to your God!
Hosea is unique in the Old Testament in his understanding of God. The opening “living parable” of his enduring love of his unfaithful wife flavors the entire book. Now, it isn’t all romantic love. There’s some strong medicine here, what could be called “tough love.” Still, it’s love. The Almighty is so in love with these people that he can’t let them go. The God who could wipe them out in a second instead calls to them and reasons with them and, yes, uses some tough love in dealing with them. In this passage the Lord illustrates his intentions by appealing to history. He reminds them that Jacob started out as a “heel” who even tried to manipulate his Creator. The Lord says that, in the end, he won and Jacob was changed into a new person. Now, this same God turns his attention to the current sorry state of things. He tells this rebellious nation that he loves them too much to cast them away. He says that in his love, he won’t give up and he won’t give in. They might as well surrender to it now because, ultimately, he’ll win. Today, I’m reminded that God doesn’t give up on people and I shouldn’t give up on them either. The person who seems the most lost; who has burned his bridges and declared his abandonment of the Lord is still on God’s radar screen. Really, it isn’t over till God says it’s over!
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t give up on people and I shouldn’t give up on them either.
God has ways of getting our attention
Daniel 2: If it please your majesty, tell us the dream.
Nebuchadnezzar is having some repeating, vivid dreams and he’s sure they’re a message from some god. He has an entire division of wise men who are supposed to be experts in such things but he suspects that they’re all just carnival fortune tellers. He knows that if he tells them his dream that they’ll make up an interpretation so he decides to really put them to the test. Not only are they to interpret his dream, they’re to first tell him the dream, itself. If they can do that he’ll know something supernatural is going on. Nebuchadnezzar also has decided on an incentive plan for his wise men. If they can’t tell him his dream he’ll kill them and their families. If they do tell him, he’ll make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. I can’t help but feel sorry for the fortunetellers who are in over their heads. If the king told them his dream some would, no doubt, take it quite seriously and try to figure it out for him. I’m also a bit frustrated with Nebuchadnezzar. Here’s a man arrogant in his power. The lives of all these men and their loved ones (including Daniel and his friends) are, in his eyes, disposable. However, the Lord knows all of this and is using it for his own purposes. Nebuchadnezzar has already been impressed with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah as individuals. Now, he’s going to find out about the God they serve.
Take Away: The Lord has ways of getting our attention.
God is still God even when everything’s falling apart
Daniel 1: The Master handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him.
My devotional journey moves now to the book of Daniel. I’m glad to arrive here. For several months I’ve spent time in some of the hard scrabble writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. I’m ready to enjoy some devotional reading of some of the greatest stories of the Bible. Daniel isn’t above giving us visions and prophecies. In fact, his book is divided almost equally between stories of God’s deliverance and prophecies of God’s sovereignty. For now, though, I’m looking forward to Daniel’s rise to prominence in Babylon, the story of the fiery furnace, and, of course, the lion’s den! The events of Daniel take place around 600 years before Christ. When King Jehoiakim of Judah rebels against his master Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon Jerusalem is attacked and brought to her knees. The Temple is ransacked and many of its citizens are taken captive. Among the captives are members of the royal line. Nebuchadnezzar’s policy is to pick of the best of the people of this defeated nation and indoctrinate them into the ways of his nation. Daniel is one of those chosen for this. Off he goes to Babylon, apparently, under the control of a king and government that has no interest in his Hebrew heritage. In this dark hour of uncertainty it may seem to Daniel and friends that God had lost interest in them, but it isn’t so. Things are just getting interesting!
Take Away: When it seems all is lost the Lord is just getting started!
Gog and Magog
Ezekiel 39: I’ll use them to demonstrate my holiness with all the nations watching.
The prophet has encouraging words for the broken people of God. The Lord will breathe life back into their dry bones and the nation will be brought back from the destruction that has come. It’s at this point that Ezekiel turns his attention to the “distant future” and the mysterious “Gog and Magog.” From what I can tell, the more down to earth commentators think that Ezekiel’s original audience knew just who he was talking about and that this prophecy is much like those given against Egypt, Tyre, Sidon, and other nations in the region. Taken at face value, then, Ezekiel is prophesying that in a more distant future, after the restoration of Israel, another regional power will come against God’s people. When that happens, the Lord will move to defend them and will destroy the invaders. However, there are two things that get the attention of many. First, this nation from “the north” isn’t clearly identified in history. Second, “Magog” is mentioned in a similarly vague way in Genesis and then Gog and Magog make a major appearance in the book of Revelation as part of the wind up of history. If we conclude that the “distant future” Ezekiel’s talking about is still in our future we find ourselves swimming in the deeper waters of prophecy. I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not ready to go there. I think it’s more likely that Ezekiel is talking about a nation well known to him and his listeners and that the distant future isn’t “book of Revelation distant.” I think that when John writes Revelation he’s reminded of Ezekiel’s words: an attack on God’s people by a coalition of enemy forces. He uses that reference to describe the scene of the final battle. To me, the key to the whole passage is God’s promise to defend his people and to “demonstrate his holiness” to the world. That concept plugs into both the Ezekiel and the Revelation prophecies. It also plugs into my life: when everything seems to be against me the Lord knows how to rescue me as one of his people. Rather than getting all mystic about this passage, I’d rather find here yet another promise of God’s faithfulness even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Take Away: Even when it seems everything is falling apart God is still God and God is always faithful to those who trust in him.
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.
The story continues
Ezekiel 1: God’s hand came upon him that day.
Jeremiah’s story leads up to the fall of Israel to Babylon. We leave Jeremiah in Egypt with the handful of survivors who fled there after the destruction of Jerusalem. Now, as I turn the page, I find myself in the company of the majority who are exiled in Babylon. The clock has been turned back a bit as I join those taken in the first stage of the exile. The destruction of Jerusalem is still ten years away. This particular group of refugees has been settled along the Kebar River, southwest of city of Babylon. Their beloved Jerusalem is now a distant memory; they’ll never return. It seems to them that their connection to the God of Abraham is severed. Simply put, they’ve failed the Almighty and the Almighty has kicked them out. Their religion has focused on the Temple and now they’ll never see it again. It’s time to move on. Interestingly, they aren’t very far from the place where God first spoke to their ancestor, Abraham in the town of Ur, just to the east of them. They’re about to find out that God isn’t limited by location and he doesn’t need a Temple as a headquarters. This God who spoke to Abraham promising their very existence, is about to speak to them. A young priest named Ezekiel will take up where Jeremiah left off as God’s spokesman to his people.
Take Away: The Lord isn’t limited by location and he doesn’t need a Temple as a headquarters.