Living in the present
Matthew 6: Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with anticipation. Part of the joy of Christmas is the “longing with hope” aspect of it that we highlight on the first Sunday of Advent each year. Still, there’s a danger of so looking forward to something in the future that we forget to live in the present. Life isn’t all about tomorrow, for good or bad. Life is lived in the present. It has no rewind or fast forward buttons. In this passage Jesus reminds us that God is with us “right now.” We remember wonderful blessings in the past and appreciate what the Lord did for us then. We also look to the future with confidence in faith that the same good, gracious God will be with us in that day. Still, it’s right now that’s most under my control. Not that I control the circumstances of right now, but I have some say about how I will live in those circumstances. So, one thing I gain from this passage is the reminder to live in this present moment; to appreciate the good things and to trust God with the not-so-good things. The other thing that comes to mind is the calm, certain assurance that God is, indeed, doing something “right now.” I may be praying for a great revival to come to my church, longing for that day to come. I may be looking forward to some major life event like the birth of a grandchild or some special anniversary. However, Jesus tells me that God is also doing things right here and right now. He’s working in my life, walking with me in these ordinary days of life. After all, the great mystery of Christmas is the incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us.
Take Away: I need to be more aware of the blessings of life right now and not always focusing on some future blessing.
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.
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.
He’s still in the fire
Daniel 3: I see four men, walking around freely in the fire.
A “theophany” is the appearance of God in human forum, specifically in the Old Testament. Abraham and Jacob and Moses have such encounters and then there’s this incident: three men are tossed into the fire, but the king sees four. I understand that there are theological reasons to hesitate here, but I’m glad to hide behind the “devotional” aspect of my writing and leap wholeheartedly into this fire! The Hebrews are being executed because of their faithfulness to the Lord. Then, in the fire there’s a fourth man who, even the pagan king, can tell is “God-like.” On this day Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego experience a “theophany.” They meet the Lord in that furnace and he protects them from the fire! The furnaces of life might scare me to death, but it’s in those places that I find one who’s not only unafraid, but is in complete authority. Since he’s God he can appear in whatever form he wants, and because he’s God there’s nothing that’s going to happen to me there that he does not allow and can’t see me through.
Take Away: There’s nothing that can happen to us that the Lord doesn’t allow and that he can’t see me through.
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!
Living in the city of “God-is-There”
Ezekiel 48: The name of the city will be Yahweh-Shammah: “God-is-There.”
In his vision Ezekiel continues measuring the Temple and the land surrounding it. He sees a stream flowing out of the Temple that increases in size, giving life to all it touches. The prophet measures out divisions in the land and finds that there’s a place for all the people of Israel; no one is excluded. Ezekiel sees that there are gates named after each tribe, providing abundant entrance to all who will come. He then concludes that the Holy City will be christened with a new name: “Yahweh-Shammah.” In that, he understands that people far and near will conclude the same thing, that heaven has come to earth and that God is now with us. After journeying through Ezekiel for some time now and hearing his pain-filled sermons I find this passage to be a welcoming place to land: a flowing river, green trees, and the Holy City with space for all who will come to the Presence of God. That’s God’s intent for Israel and it’s his intent for all Creation. If you think about it, the book of Revelation follows the same pattern: war, suffering, hard times giving way to eternity as the Lord intended it in the first place. For Ezekiel a vision of God’s intentions is all about the restoration of Israel and the Temple. The Revelator paints a broader picture, but that River is still there and his rebuilt Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. For both, the end result is “Yahweh-Shammah.” I join both of these godly men in looking forward to that day.
Take Away: Ultimately, the Lord will redeem his people and will dwell among them.
A visit to God’s throne
Ezekiel 10: Court and Temple were both filled with the blazing presence of the Glory of God.
Ezekiel encounters those “wheels within wheels” once again, this time as part of a glorious vision of God. Most of what I’d call the “personal” side of Ezekiel isn’t attractive to me. Under God’s direction he does some pretty strange stuff and some of it must have been downright painful. On the other side of the coin, though, are encounters like this one with the Glory of God. I’m not saying I can read his words and come away with an accurate understanding of it all. These are complex events and I’m sure I wouldn’t have done as good a job as he does in his attempt to describe his famous “wheels within wheels” or the sound of cherubim wings or the Voice like thunder or a sky-blue, sapphire colored throne. I can’t grasp it all and I can’t help but feel a little jealous (is it okay to be jealous of another man’s vision?) of Ezekiel’s moment in the presence of God. Still, I appreciate his allowing me to tag along as he encounters the Lord Almighty. Even though I know I’m like a blind man in the presence of a rainbow, I still get just a faint sense of it all. In this place I’m fearfully reverent and I know that there are depths to the Glory of God that I can’t hope to comprehend. I still can’t grasp it all but thanks to Ezekiel I know more than I would otherwise.
Take Away: There are depths to the Glory of the Lord that I can’t hope to comprehend.
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.
Isaiah 41: Who did this? … I did. God. I’m first on the scene. I’m also the last to leave.
At the conclusion of the movie “The Langoliers” the adventurers travel “back to the future” and find themselves just a few minutes ahead of the present. They stand along the wall, out of the way, and wait for time to catch up to them. When the “present” arrives, they’re already in place, waiting for it. Now, I’m not ready to build a “Langoliers theology” and I’m not ready (or qualified) to come up with some “God in time” observation. However, Isaiah’s statement about God’s presence brings that scene to mind. I arrive at some moment in my life and suddenly find myself dealing with something for which I’m totally unprepared. In spite of that, Isaiah reminds me that there’s one who is there before me, not surprised at all and ready to help me work my way through this unexpected circumstance. No matter what happens I need to remember that God got there first and can handle things just fine.
Take Away: It doesn’t take much for me to be in over my head so I’d best trust in the Lord in such situations.
Playing hide and seek with God
Psalm 139: Your reassuring presence, coming and going.
It’s no surprise that this is a favorite psalm for many of God’s people across the years. It’s a celebration of God’s connection to our lives. The writer doesn’t have any concept of an absentee God who spun the world up to speed and then moved on to other things. He doesn’t think of God as aloof and disinterested. His God is an involved God, deeply connected to his life. The psalmist can see the hand of this involved God when he looks back on the events of his life. He has no doubt that the Lord will continue to be connected to him. David imagines his playing a game of “hide and seek” with God, not that he wants to be hidden from God for a moment, but that he wants to be sure of God’s knowledge of his life no matter where he might be. In this imaginary game, David goes mountain climbing, and then spelunking in the depths. As he arrives at those remote, hidden places it’s no surprise to him that God is already there waiting on him. The psalmist finds that God always finds him in both the extremes of life and the common places as well. This psalm speaks to all of us who love the Lord and don’t want to live for even one moment outside his grace and mercy.
Take Away: Where ever I am, God is there first.