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.
The Holy Spirit working through me
Romans 15: The wondrously powerful and transformingly present words and deeds of Christ in me.
Adventures, Paul’s had some! He’s pioneered the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region. He’s been at the forefront of a tidal wave of the work of the Holy Spirit and, because of that, he’s not only taken plenty of hits, he’s also seen first-hand just what God can do. Paul, though, is quite humble about all that. He doesn’t glorify himself. Rather, he gives glory to the Lord for it all. At times, even though he’s in the middle of it all he’s found himself more bystander than participant as something “wondrously powerful” happens. Paul understands that it isn’t his cleverness or winning personality that’s “triggered a believing response.” The message about Christ is actually delivered by Christ, through Paul. I wish I had a better handle on this. So often I find myself behaving as though it’s all about my performance. I let myself become so focused on how I’m doing that I forget that, actually, I’m not required to do much at all. The Lord wants me to place my full weight of trust on him and allow him to minister through me. My cooperation is required and the Lord will use my personality, education, etc. along the way, but it’s all powered by his Holy Spirit and not by me. There are times when Paul is amazed at the response to his ministry. As I cooperate with the Lord, I, too, will be surprised as lives are touched as the Lord ministers to people through me. Let’s not be guilty of underestimating the ability of the Lord to minister through us.
Take Away: As we cooperate with the Lord he does amazing things through us that surprise us as much as anyone else.
So where’s Jesus now?
Luke 5: As often as possible Jesus withdrew to out-of-the-way places for prayer.
This statement about the prayer habit of Jesus sticks out like a sore thumb in this passage. It feels as if it was just tossed in after the fact, maybe written while Luke was thinking of what to next tell us about the ministry of Jesus. We’ve just heard Jesus preach while sitting in Simon’s boat and then watched as, under the command of Jesus, Simon and partners have caught a huge haul of fish. Now Jesus is healing a man with leprosy and soon he’ll be surrounded by people seeking healing and with Pharisees seeking arguments. Right in the middle of all this action is this one liner about Jesus slipping away for prayer. Obviously, this is more than random filler from Luke. He wants me to connect the mighty acts of Jesus with his secret prayer life. As his teaches and heals God’s power flows out of him. In his secret prayer life God’s power is replenished in him. This is no chance thought of Luke’s. Rather, he’s providing me with insight into the power source of our Lord. Another devotional thought here is that in spite of the fact that Jesus is a busy man he makes time for prayer. When the last needy person has been satisfied and these new disciples find themselves and Jesus finally alone they expect to enjoy some quality time with their Lord, or at least some down time before it all starts again in the morning. James and John look around and realize Jesus isn’t there. “Where’s Jesus?” they ask. “He’s down by the lake,” Peter answers, adding, “He said something about needing some time alone.” This is to become a daily pattern that the disciples will come to expect. If it’s good for Jesus it’s good for me too.
Take Away: There’s always time, and the necessity, for prayer.
Zechariah 4: You can’t force these things. They only come about through my Spirit.
This statement to governor Zerubbabel is part of one of the most famous portions of Zechariah’s writings. Zerubbabel has already accomplished great things in leading the exiles back to Jerusalem. Now, in response to the urgings of Haggai and Zechariah he’s ready to shoulder the task of rebuilding the Temple. His heart, and the hearts of his people, is in the right place. God is pleased with them. The Lord’s words to the good man and his people are wonderfully encouraging: the Temple will be rebuilt not because of some extraordinary human effort, but by the power of God’s Spirit. This doesn’t mean that the governor and people can sit back and do nothing while a Temple rises from the ashes of destruction, but it does mean that the power for this project is coming from God. The Lord is with them, not only approving of their actions but empowering them as well. With that in mind I see here that my efforts to accomplish things in the Name of the Lord aren’t limited by my own initiative, skills, or intelligence. Every program of the church should be eligible for the label: “God powered.” If that isn’t an encouraging word I don’t know what is.
Take Away: What we accomplish in the Name of the Lord we accomplish by the power of the Lord.
The biggest fish story ever
Jonah 1: One day long ago, God’s Word came to Jonah.
As I finish my quick read of little-known Obadiah, I turn the page to find myself on very familiar ground. After all, everybody has heard of Jonah and the “whale.” This is surely one of the top five stories of the Old Testament and people who’ve never read the Bible or attended church know about this “fish story.” A few years ago I was teaching a church membership class and this story came up. The teens in the class wanted to know if Christians have to believe as literally true stories like Noah and the Ark and Jonah and the “whale.” Had the question been asked by some fine fundamentalists I’ve known I would have thought I was being set up for the old trap that sounds something like this: “If you don’t believe in a literal six day creation how can you believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus?” That question, by the way, ignores the clear teachings of the Bible which says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9). Note that Paul doesn’t add, “Also, you have to believe every statement in the Old Testament is literal.” I’m not required to believe in a literal six day Creation to be saved, but I do have to believe “God raised him from the dead.” Anyway, back to the teens in the membership class. I told them that I believe the Lord created all things and that sending a big flood or making a big fish capable of doing what the book of Jonah says it did would be a simple thing for such a Creator. However, the purpose of stores like this is to tell us something about God and ourselves and that it’s a bigger mistake to read the story, believing every word while missing the lesson than it is to read the story and “get it” while doubting that it’s literal. So, “big fish” or not, I’m supposed to come away from the Book of Jonah knowing more about God and his work in this world than I knew before. That’s still my goal as I start through this story once again.
Take Away: The Bible tells us the story of God and us. It has no interest in answering every scientific question or providing for us fodder for religious debates.
Twigs and forests
Isaiah 11: The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over him.
The flow from current events to spiritual events of the future makes some passages hard to read. Isaiah has declared that the army of their enemy, Assyria, was used of God to purge his people, but went too far. He pictures Assyria as a great forest filled with huge trees. However, for all its majesty, that forest will be leveled because of the anger of God. Then, with no real segue Isaiah continues with his “forest” illustration, proclaiming that out of the remains of Judah just one small twig will spring up. Compared to the great “forest” that is Assyria, this green twig might seem insignificant. That “twig,” though, will be overshadowed by the Spirit of God. It will grow to such a size that all the forests of the world will seem small in comparison and that “twig” will reach out in wisdom, understanding, direction, strength, and knowledge. I don’t know what Isaiah or his contemporaries thought of the unexpected direction of this prophecy, but to a Christian reader it makes perfect sense. The army of Assyria is long gone, only of interest to historians and archeologists. However, that “twig” — the one who sprang up as a helpless baby in Bethlehem so long ago — well, his Kingdom continues to flourish to this very day.
Take Away: “And he shall reign for ever and ever more. Hallelujah!”
The God of Elijah
2Kings2: Now where is the God of Elijah?
I’ve had the privilege of knowing some spiritual giants in my lifetime. These people walked close to God and, like a motor boat crossing a calm lake, leave a broad, expanding wake that influences people far beyond their experience and even their lifetimes. They’ve influenced me. If not for them I wouldn’t be the man I am today. In fact, it would be easy for me to just focus on them and let them be my example and inspiration. If I do that that I’ll be a better person. However, as potentially positive as that might be, I’d be mistaken to do it. Elisha has known a great man, a man overflowing with the power of God. Now, though, that man is gone. Elijah’s disciples want to form a search party to try to find their master. Elisha, though, doesn’t seek Elijah. Instead, he seeks the God of Elijah. He knows that every good thing about Elijah was because of the God he served. He knows that the great need of his life isn’t more of Elijah. Instead, it’s more of the God of Elijah. Today, I thank God for those spiritual giants of my life. Their influence isn’t taken for granted. However, it’s not them that I need as I pursue spiritual excellence. No, it’s not them; it’s the God they served.
Take Away: Seek, not an “Elijah” but, rather, the God of Elijah.
Swing down sweet chariot stop, and let me ride
2Kings2: Elijah went up in a whirlwind to heaven.
As I study the Scriptures I find two accounts of people who leave this world without tasting death. One is Enoch who, the Bible says, is “taken away” by God. The second is Elijah, who’s taken up by a whirlwind into heaven, accompanied by a chariot and horses of fire. I’ve read some interesting explanations of what’s happening on that day including one effort to somehow make this into an alien abduction! While I don’t have the credentials to take this event on from a scholarly point of view it’s clear to me that this entire passage is intended to convince me of the uniqueness and spiritual power of this man of God. On this day Elijah is overflowing with God’s power. Nothing like this has been seen on earth. Any understanding of this passage has to start with my recognizing that the intention of the writer is to convince me of the greatness of Elijah, the man of God. Ultimately though, this, and all Scripture, has to be read as a “God story.” God has done something in Elijah’s life. Earlier, I’m given a sobering picture of his humanity. In that account he’s a discouraged, exhausted, and fear-filled man. Now I see what the Lord has done for him and in him. He’s been transformed into the spiritual dynamo I see in this passage. Now, as Elijah disappears into the sky, I don’t find myself at the end of anything. Instantly God’s power begins to flow through Elisha. This story continues because God continues to work.
Take Away: The Lord uses some people in wonderful, amazing ways but the story of his work continues long after their story has ended.
God won’t be manipulated
1 Samuel 4: When the Chest of the Covenant of God was brought into the camp, everyone gave a huge cheer.
There’s war between the Israelites and the Philistines and the Philistines have the upper hand. In one battle 4,000 men of Israel are killed. What can they do to turn the tide? Someone has the idea of bringing the sacred Ark of the Covenant to the battle lines. Like the fictional German officers in the Indiana Jones movie these ancient Israelites think the Ark has power of its own that can be controlled by whoever possesses it. As the Chest arrives at the camp everyone cheers. Now they have the Power of God at their disposal and nothing will stop them. However, it doesn’t work out that way. On one hand, the Almighty clearly has an interest in the Ark of the Covenant. As the story continues that becomes abundantly clear. On the other hand, God is in authority over the Ark rather than the other way around. Bringing the Ark to battle doesn’t guarantee victory. They need God much more than they need the Chest. Today, as I read this story I’m reminded that in spite of the Indiana Jones movie, the Ark hasn’t been located and even if it was there’s not much chance that it could be used as a secret weapon now any more than it was in this story from the Bible. In my life, the key to spiritual power isn’t in my waving my Bible around or in my wearing a cross on a string around my neck or in my being anointed with oil. As it was with the Ark, those things may have value, but they’re nothing in and of themselves. It’s God who I need and I’m wise to remember that no matter how many props I come up with he won’t be manipulated.
Take Away: The Lord is real and he insists I treat him as something other than some unseen force to manipulate to get my own way.
Hair today, gone tomorrow
Judges 16: Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me, dear, the secret of your great strength.”
Samson is a one-man army. Other Israelite liberators inspire people to follow them and rally armies to action. Samson does it all by himself. It’s just Samson and God. Well, really it’s just God. Samson’s unshaved head is the symbol of his connection to God and cutting his hair will break that relationship. Subtract God from his life and Samson is a zero. When Samson stupidly tells Delilah his story he breaks that relationship with God. Soon, the wheels came off and all is lost. I’m tempted to say, “Without his hair Samson’s just an ordinary man.” Actually, though, it’s, “Without his God, Samson’s just an ordinary man.” Subtract the unique features of this story and we’re left with the truth Jesus stated in John 15:5: “apart from me you can do nothing.”
Take Away: Every good thing I accomplish is because of the Lord’s presence in my life.