2013 – Smoky Mountains and vicinity – White Water Falls
Jacob’s stairway vision
Genesis 28: God was in this place – truly. And I didn’t even know it.
Jacob – that “heel grasper” has lived down to his name. He, with this help of his mother, fooled his father, Isaac, into granting him the precious blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother. Now, he’s paying for it by having to get out of the country before Esau can get his hands on him. Alone in the night he has an unexpected encounter with God. In spite of his failure and lack of character God graciously renews to Jacob the promise he made to his grandfather, Abraham. Jacob awakes from his dream and says, “God was here, in this place – far from home, when I have done nothing but wrong, and when I am not thinking of him at all – he was here all the time.” Jacob is not only on a long journey in distance, he’s at the first step of a spiritual journey that will take decades. This “heel” has heard from God and while there’s still more wrong than right about him this “stairway vision” marks the beginning of that spiritual journey. The story of Jacob’s spiritual journey is more entertaining than most, but it does remind us of our own stories. I am glad today for God’s grace – his unexpected, unearned, promising, and patient grace.
Take away: Thank God for grace.
When God’s had enough
Revelation 18: The Strong God who judges her has had enough.
The actual God has had enough. It takes a lot to arrive at this place. A lot of God’s grace has to be rejected. A lot of his patience has to be wasted. As we’re reminded by the writer of Hebrews, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” All heaven cheers this act of Judgment, not because of vengeance, but because of righteousness. For a righteous, pure, holy God to be who he is, ultimately, the end of all that is unrighteous, impure, and unholy must come. It’s not as though there haven’t been opportunities to turn around. I can say with confidence that there’s been at least 2000 years. At some point the patience of God will be exhausted. I want to be standing on the right side of things when God has “had enough.”
Take Away: For the Lord to be righteous, pure, and holy, sooner or later all that is unrighteous, impure, and unholy must be defeated.
Why it’s taking so long for Jesus to come back
2Peter 3: So what’s happened to the promise of his Coming?
The Apostle tells his readers that as the time for the return of Christ gets closer that people will be more outspoken in their doubt that it will happen. One of their reasons for doubting is that it’s been so long since the promise was made. Common sense, they think, dictates abandoning belief. People will think, “Nothing like that has ever happened since the beginning of time, now so long after the promise, things have continued as they have always been. It’s time to move on and forget about the promise.” Peter gives a three point response to that kind of thinking. First, there’s precedence for God stepping in and changing everything. After all, for eons the universe existed without this planet. Then, God stepped in, bringing about the creation of this very world. Later on, in Noah’s day, God changed everything again by bringing to pass a great flood. Here are two prime examples of God intervening in Creation to do a new thing. Second, time matters a lot more to us than it does to the Eternal One. A thousand years is a lot of time for humanity, but it’s a blink of the eye for the Ancient of Days. Third, God has reason to wait. That reason is that he wants to give more generations opportunity to be redeemed. The Lord wants to save people; all the people he can save. Therefore, he’s patient, taking all the time necessary to get as many in as he can. The Day of Judgment is definitely coming. Jesus will return and that will set the whole End of Time in motion. Meanwhile, we wait with the understanding that God knows exactly what he’s doing and at just the right time Jesus will come back. My job is to get ready, to stay ready, and to help all who will to prepare for that certain upheaval of history.
Take Away: No doubt about it, Jesus is coming back.
Not a warm and fuzzy conclusion
2Corinthians 13: I want to get on with it, and not have to spend time on reprimands.
The final portion of this second letter to the church at Corinth isn’t just a warm, friendly closing. Paul writes with apostolic authority to the church there. He lays it on the line, telling them that he’s soon to make his third trip their city and that he’s already warned them that if habitual sinners don’t clean up their act that in the name of Jesus he’ll clean up the church there. He tells those who’ve been demanding proof that he speaks for the Lord that, unless things improve, they’ll get more proof than they want. This is pretty strong stuff and it’s not just a bluff. Some years earlier, for instance, on the island of Paphos a sorcerer named Elymas opposed Paul’s preaching of the gospel. The Apostle turned to him, and without laying a hand on him struck him blind. When Paul tells those who oppose his gospel at Corinth that if they don’t straighten up they’ll get plenty of reason to believe he speaks with the authority of the Lord he’s not just making a lot of noise. However, that isn’t how Paul wants it to be. His job is to bring people to the Lord so he can make them complete, not to strike people blind or worse. Paul’s approach here reminds me that spiritual things are serious and need to be handled carefully. It’s dangerous to be flip and irreverent. It may seem that people get away with stuff like that, but Paul warns them (and us) that it’s possible to go too far for too long and that to do so has real consequences. At the same time I’m reminded that that’s not what Christian leadership is all about. Paul has shown a great deal of patience in this situation. He’s prayed and pleaded and appealed to them as a father dealing with loved children. He’d much rather help broken people find restoration in Christ and, in fact, the only reason he warns them as he does in this case is that his mission of reconciliation is being threatened by some insiders who oppose this ministry.
Take Away: Be carefully reverent about the things of God.
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.
Malachi 3: Return to me so I can return to you.
If my relationship with God is strained or even broken today there’s a remedy. When, like the Prodigal Son, I come to my senses, rise, and return to my Father I find that he’s been waiting for me all along. What a relief it is to know that the Lord doesn’t hold a grudge against me. Rather, he patiently reaches out to me, calling me to himself. When Malachi states this spiritual fact of life to his congregation, someone asks for more information on this “returning” business. Exactly how do they do that? The prophet has an answer ready. A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part. In Jesus’ parable, the Prodigal is honest with himself and with his father. He’s messed up and he wants to make things right. He knows he doesn’t deserve re-admittance into his father’s household as a son, so he’ll take what he can get. That, my friend, is honesty. In this passage, Malachi points out that they’ve been dishonest with God in the stewardship of their possessions. He tells them that, for them, honesty with God means admitting their failure in this matter. This business of bringing sick and blind animals for sacrifice has to be stopped, confessed, and made right. Their practice of shortchanging God with their tithes has to end and be corrected. That’s what repentance is all about: confession and change. Through his prophet, the Lord says, “If you’ll return to me in repentance, I’ll return to you and bless your life in wonderful ways.” When a nation as a whole makes things right with God, Malachi says, it’ll be voted “Happiest Nation” and be known as a “country of grace.” That’s a good place to live.
Take Away: A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part.
Don’t push God too far
Ezekiel 24: I wanted to clean you up, but you wouldn’t let me.
I don’t like this portion of Ezekiel. He graphically describes people’s betrayal of God as adultery. The picture is ugly and the images are “R” rated. Not only that, but Ezekiel offers them no hope. God, he says, is done with them. Even if the sexual content of this passage didn’t earn an “R” the violence Ezekiel says is coming would. Again, this isn’t a warm, fuzzy passage! The Lord doesn’t want it to be this way. Even after his people committed spiritual adultery with other gods and nations he reached out to them. The problem was that they wanted none of it. No matter what God did or said, they refused to respond. They turned their backs on God and acted in ways intended to send him the message that they didn’t want anything to do with him. It could have been different. His plan was to clean them up, to make them into a holy people, his very own. In fact, that’s still his plan. However, that will come in a different generation. For now, he’s finished with them and he’s going to clean the place up by getting rid of them. Their children and grandchildren will get another chance, not them. The Lord won’t force us to come to him. We can break his heart and we can make him angry but he’ll never force us to do the right thing even when it’s for our own good. I may not be able to solve the needs of my life but I do have the final say as to whether or not God is allowed to do so. If I agree, he’ll go to work, cleaning up the mess I’ve made. If I refuse, there’s a very real danger that he’ll let me continue down the path I insist on traveling and in so doing, will arrive at the destination I’ve persisted in reaching.
Take Away: We may not be able to solve the needs of our lives but we have been granted the responsibility and ability to allow the Lord to do so.
Better pay attention
Isaiah 65: I reached out day after day to a people who turned their backs on me.
Sometimes I think we read passages about the merciful patience of God and conclude that we can get away with about anything; that in the end, God will still be there, willing to forgive and forget our sins. Isaiah’s picture of the Lord isn’t quite as comforting. Things start off that way though. God says, “I’m available, ready to be found and reaching out day after day to even those who turn their backs and walk away.” Know what? We’d better keep reading. In that same message the Lord says he’s sick of them and their home made religion. Even while God has been waiting he’s been watching and as he watches he takes note of all the rebellion that’s going on. It may be that the most important words in this message aren’t that God has continued to reach out to them even in their sin. Rather, the words that arrest our attention ought to be, “I’m not putting up with this any longer.” It’s one thing for a person to have honest doubts and even honest misconceptions about the Lord and how he works in this world. It is something else to take the patience of mercy of God for granted.
Take Away: Don’t take for granted the mercy and patience of the Lord.
Grace as far as the eye can see
Isaiah 30: Cry for help and you’ll find it’s grace and more grace.
Things are a mess for the people of God. They’re living apart from the God who gave them life. Their nation is under considerable threat and they’re looking for help from everywhere but from the Lord. Things look hopeless and, if they continue as they are, that is just the way it is. Still, through Isaiah, the Almighty reaches out to them. Isaiah says “He’s waiting around to be gracious to you.” This is as powerful a vision of God’s grace as you’ll ever find apart from the cross. If the Lord is waiting for me to mess up so he can “get me” the wait would be long over. Instead, I see here a picture of God Almighty patiently waiting for me to look his way. When I do that, he doesn’t tell me I’ve been bad and that I deserve what I’m about to get. Rather, he tells me he loves me and wants to transform my life in wonderful ways. The only thing that stands between me and the grace of God is, well, me! When I bring my messed up life to him he begins to pour grace out: bucketfuls of it! How about you? Have you been afraid to come to God because you think he’s just waiting to send you to hell? If so, this passage contains some of the best news you’ll ever find. When you turn to the Lord you find an ocean sized portion of grace just for you.
Take Away: The only thing standing between you and grace is you.
I’d rather do it myself
Isaiah 30: Your salvation requires you to turn back to me and stop your silly efforts to save yourselves.
The salvation being spoken of in this passage isn’t “getting religion.” Instead, it’s salvation from an enemy that’s threatening to destroy them. Their effort to save themselves includes preparing for war and forming an alliance with a powerful nation that they might defend themselves. Still, there’s a spiritual element here. Their nation’s existence has always been improbable, a seeming fluke of history. Their ancestors were slaves who never had a chance of calling any land their own. Had it not been for God Almighty acting on their behalf they would have, by now, been one of thousands of forgotten people groups, a mere footnote in history. To forget just who they are how they came to be is a recipe for disaster. However, that’s exactly what they’ve done. They’ve removed from their lives the One who gave them existence in the first place. Now, when everything starts coming apart they’re looking for a “reasonable” solution; a solution that excludes God. Through Isaiah the God they’ve ignored tells them that they have only one chance and that chance is in him. What’s true of nations is also true of individuals. I owe my very life to him. The next breath I take is a gift of the God who has loved me and patiently worked in my life. To turn my back on him and fool myself into thinking I can handle life on my own will result in disaster. In Isaiah’s words: my “strength will come from settling down in complete dependence” on the Lord. There’s plenty of hope here, but also there’s plenty of warning.
Take Away: The Lord is our hope – our only hope.