At the end of myself and at the beginning of God
2Corinthians 1: And he’ll do it again, rescuing us as many times as we need rescuing.
Since his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul has gone though some hard times. His words remind me of some of the Psalms of complaint when David thought it was all over for him. In words similar to what David used, Paul describes how he was crushed and sure that he was at the end. In his despair he realized he was out of options and that there was nothing he could do to save himself. At that low point, he remembered his greatest Resource. When he came to the end of himself he found himself at just the beginning of God. Throwing himself on the mercy of God is the smartest thing he ever did. After all, Paul reminds us, this is the God who even raises the dead. The Lord was equal to the challenge and, for Paul, the sun rose once again in his life, giving him a new lease on life. This journey to death’s door and back, Paul says, has turned out to be a positive event in his life. These days he’s quicker to stop struggling and to start trusting in God to bring about a rescue in his life. This is a lesson I need to learn anew. I serve a God who loves me and who has the power to, when necessary, raise the dead. I may not like it when life brings me my share of uncertainty and even pain. At the same time, I can remember that the same God who has brought me through difficult times in the past can “rescue me as many times as I need rescuing.”
Take Away: In an uncertain world the Lord remains my steadfast certainty.
A courtroom scene
Zechariah 3: Get him out of those filthy clothes.
In his vision Zechariah sees the high priest, whose name is Joshua, in a courtroom scene. Joshua represents not only himself, or the priesthood of Israel, but the entire nation. Their situation is a dire one. Even though they’ve been snatched from the consequences of their sin and returned to their homeland, they remain unclean before God. And that’s what the Accuser comes to declare. However, there’s a remedy. In the vision, the Lord removes the high priest’s uncleanness and outfits him in clean clothes. Then, the prophet asks that Joshua be given a clean turban as well. Now, remember that Joshua’s the high priest. The clothes he’s given aren’t just average clothes and the turban isn’t an average turban. They’re the robes and turban of the high priest: rich garments reflecting his high position. That hat, in particular, has meaning. The turban worn by the high priest has a gold plate on it that’s inscribed with the words “Holiness unto the Lord.” This is powerful symbolism. Although the people are redeemed they remain unclean in the sight of the Lord. Through the mercy and grace of God there’s a remedy. The Lord purifies their lives and then outfits them in his holiness. Believers of today can identify with this. After I put my faith in Jesus as my Savior I come to realize that there remains a basic uncleanness in my heart. It’s when I throw himself to the mercy of God that he takes action to graciously purify my heart and fill me with his Holy Spirit that I might be holy in his sight.
Take Away: Through the mercy and grace of the Lord there’s a remedy for the stain of sin.
Jonah 4: Why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh?
Let’s see: one shade tree killed by a worm verses 120,000 poor ignorant people repenting and being saved from destruction. Which should receive the greatest response? It’s a no-brainer, right? Not for Jonah. He retreats a safe distance from Nineveh to watch the fireworks of its destruction. When the Lord provides a miraculous shade plant for him it calms him down and he feels good about things for the first time in days. Then, overnight, the plant’s dead and Jonah’s mood dies with it. At this point the Lord decides it’s time for this pitiful man to change his attitude. If the short life cycle of a shade plant can cause Jonah to go through such a mood swing doesn’t it make sense that the Almighty change his thinking about a city full of repentant people? Of course it does. Like Jonah, I tend to get all wound up about stuff that isn’t worth a hill of beans: getting my own way in some unimportant thing, or the World Series, or buying some new gadget. If my team wins, I’m in a good mood and if they don’t…well, I’m not a happy camper. Meanwhile, God is focused on people. He’s already judged sin, and he very much wants people to let him change their lives so he can change their eternity. I really need to get on the same page as God.
Take Away: The Lord is focused on people.
What pleases God?
Ezekiel 33: I take no pleasure from the death of the wicked.
I love this insight into the heart of the Lord. We Christians are sometimes guilty of making the Lord out to be angry and vengeful. Here I am, reading a book of the Bible that’s full of words of condemnation and judgment and finding as compassionate a word as I could ever find. God hates sin but he loves the sinner. For the Lord to blink at sin — to call it something less than what it is — would be for him to deny his own nature. Rather than do that, he does everything he can to call us from our sin and to remake us into a clean people. If God’s remedy for sin was to wipe out the sinners, well, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Ezekiel’s ministry is to call sinners to repentance. Today, through Jesus Christ, that same call is heard. The thing that brings pleasure to God is not punishing sinners. Instead, it’s rescuing us from death to life. With God on our side like that, we have every reason to trust him and surrender to him.
Take Away: The Lord hates sin but he loves the sinner.
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.
God’s love dominating even a bleak landscape
Lamentations 3: God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out.
The beautiful state of Colorado boasts over 50 “fourteeners.” These are mountain peaks that rise to heights of 14,000 feet or more. Likely the most famous of all the fourteeners is Pikes Peak. That mountain isn’t the tallest of the big ones of Colorado but it’s special because it stands alone on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Some say that on a clear day it can be seen from as far away as the Colorado-Kansas state line many miles distant. Pikes Peak comes to mind as I read the central part of Lamentations 3. Not only is it a beautiful hymn of God’s mercy and love, it rises out of the lowlands of pain and loss that dominate all else in the book. Even as Jeremiah recounts for us the devastation of the fall of Judah; even as he describes God’s anger as his judgment falls on a backslidden nation; even there, Jeremiah finds the loyal and merciful love of God. He encourages us with a vision of God’s love being recreated every morning. I’m encouraged today that right in the middle of the saddest book of the Bible, even as I walk through the desert of loss, pain, and destruction, I can look up and see a fourteener of God’s love and mercy. Even in Lamentations it isn’t “lament” that dominates the landscape: it’s God’s love.
Take Away: The love of the Lord dominates all else.
God’s last word
Jeremiah 33: The last word is, I will have mercy on them.
This phrase is the conclusion of another of Jeremiah’s “prison epistles.” King Zedekiah feels he can’t have Jeremiah preaching defeat even as their enemies have their city under siege so he’s thrown Jeremiah into jail. It’s interesting that the prophet’s focus turns away from “right now” to looking to a much brighter day. In the future the people of Israel and Judah will return to this land. At that time the Lord will do “marvelous and wondrous things” for them (that is, their descendants). God has made some specific promises to this nation and even though, right now, it seems that everything’s falling apart, God has never lost sight of those promises. It’ll all start with the return of the people of Israel to this land. Every promise the Lord has given them will be fulfilled. While it’s true that things are going to get worse before they get better, it is just as true that things will get better; in fact, better than they can imagine. Right now it seems that God’s anger and dismissal of them will be their epitaph, but it isn’t so. Jeremiah says that in the end, when everything’s being summed up that the conclusion to it all will be that God has had mercy on them. Getting from where they are to that wonderful conclusion isn’t going to be easy, but in the end, when all’s said and done, it’ll be clear that everything that happened was an act of divine mercy. It’s hard to see the big picture when I’m in the middle of things that aren’t going to suit me. At times like that I have to simply trust the character of God: that he’s a good and merciful God who loves me. The last word concerning God’s dealings with me will be: “mercy.”
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his unfathomable mercy.
Better think twice before mocking bald men
2Kings 2: Elisha turned, took one look at them, and cursed them.
This story makes me uncomfortable. Some children mock Elisha, the man of God, so he curses them resulting in two bears coming out of the woods and killing 42 of them. What’s this all about anyway? Some Bible scholars I’ve read say that “children” is not the only meaning of the Hebrew word used. It can mean “servants” and can refer, not to 7-year-olds, but to young people and even young adults. However, reading that a group of 20-year-old servants mock Elisha and he curses them doesn’t do much to solve my discomfort with this incident. So what do I do with this passage? I think I have to just read it and go on, believing that there’s something happening here that I don’t get. I have to conclude that I’m missing some vital bit of information that would help me make sense of the passage. It isn’t unusual to have to deal with life issues that way. For instance, someone tells me that a person for whom I have great respect has done something totally out of character. I can’t defend what they’ve done but I can conclude that I don’t know the whole story. Perhaps, if I did, it would make sense to me. So, as I come to this passage I read something that doesn’t fit in with what I know about God: that “God is love,” holy and righteous. I can’t explain it, but instead of making me doubt God, it just reminds me that I don’t know the whole story about this or about another million or so issues of life.
Take Away: Sometimes I have to admit I don’t understand things and rely on the character of the Lord.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
1 Samuel 27: The best thing I can do is escape to Philistine country.
One thing about the narrative of the Bible is that we’re told the whole story, both good and bad. I think that David’s time in Philistine country is, for him personally, what the book of Judges is for the Israelite people as a whole. David does it and we’re told about it, but none of it’s to his credit. Right off, David says that he thinks sooner or later that Saul’s going to capture him, so he needs to escape the country. Where’s his faith in God who’s proven faithful to him across the years? Has he forgotten the incidents at the cave in En Gedi and at Hakilah Hill? Then we see him go to the enemies of Israel and of God, the Philistines, for refuge. King Achish foolishly thinks to himself that, “An enemy of Saul is a friend of mine.” That’s a major mistake on his part but David’s decision stinks to high heaven. It’s unworthy of one anointed of God. Once he settles in Ziklag, David starts raiding small towns. When Achish asks him where he’s been he lies and says he’s been raiding his own people, Judah. Instead, he raids Philistine towns and hides it by killing everyone living in them. When I read of mass killing during the occupation of Canaan I’m uncomfortable, but at least that they felt they were doing God’s will. In David’s case, he’s just making a living off of raiding villages and killing people. The writer of the Scripture just tells us what happened, but I come away from this passage thinking that this isn’t of David’s proudest moment. Later on, when David wants to build the Temple he’s told he has too much blood on his hands. I think this incident is an example of that. I understand that David was living in different times and that beyond that I’m not David’s judge. I also remember here that even biblical heroes (not to mention me) stand in great need of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
Take Away: Even heroes of the Bible need God’s mercy.