2013 – Natchez Trace Thousand Trails, Hohenwald, TN
You’ve got to be kidding!
Genesis 44: God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives.
“God was behind it”?? Joseph, you’ve got to be kidding! This was a bad series of events. You’ve been sold into slavery, lied about, imprisoned, forgotten – and God was behind it? What school of theology did you attend anyway? Do you really believe God would send you into such difficult circumstances? God only sends nice things into our lives – you know, “God is love,” “Name it and claim it,” “Health and wealth” — that sort of thing.
Uh, what’s that I see? It’s a shadow that looks a lot like a cross. The cross…God was behind it…saving lives.
Never mind…I get it.
Take away: God will do whatever is necessary to bring grace into the world and into our lives.
2013 – The tower at Edgar Evins State Park, TN
Jacob reaps what he has sown
Genesis 29: Why did you cheat me?
If not for poor Leah being caught in the middle this situation’s quite funny. Jacob, that “heel grasper” who cheated his rather dim witted brother and lied to his nearly blind father, has met his match in his uncle Laban. After working for seven years for the hand of the beautiful Rachel he ends up with her sister Leah instead. He doesn’t even realize what’s happening until, if you catch my drift, “after the fact.” Again, poor Leah is caught in the middle and I can’t help but feel sorry for her. Still, there’s a feeling that Jacob’s getting what’s coming to him. Finally, the cheater experiences what it’s like to be cheated. He ends up with both sisters as wives, and when their maids are added in, he has a small harem. Anyone who reads about the rivalry and competition that develops out of this arraignment can never come to the conclusion that polygamy is a good idea. Their lives are a real mess. However, even as this silliness plays out I see God’s hand at work. The Lord takes the cheating and scheming and ill-advised multiple marriages situation and turns it on its head, working through human failings to keep the promise he made to Abraham. Even as I read this story and shake my head at its folly, I see God’s grace at work.
Take away: God can work through even silly things to accomplish his will.
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.
2013 – Niagara Falls
Genesis 6: God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart.
Human beings have been removed from the Garden but they take their sin with them. Immediately, grace begins to flow, an unending river of good will toward these broken creatures. Sadly, the response is to reject the grace and push the Grace-Giver away. The crowning achievement of all God made has degenerated into a self-absorbed, God-ignoring shadow of what might have been. This “free-will” business isn’t working out and like radical surgery is sometimes needed to battle cancer, the Lord makes the painful decision to prune away all the foulness so that humanity will get another chance. For centuries the number of people who chose to respond to God’s grace has dwindled. Now, one righteousness man is left. If humanity is to be saved, it’ll be through him. The focus of the universe is on righteous Noah. We won’t see everything depending on just one man again until the Lord unleashes the eternal solution to the fallen condition of humanity. That will involve a willingness, not to build an ark, but to go to a cross.
Take away: The story of Noah is more about humanity getting a second chance than it is about judgment.
2013 – Watkins Glen State Park, NY
Genesis 3: God put a mark on Cain to protect him.
The murderer has been confronted and has confessed. The sentence is banishment to a hostile world. From now on he’ll be an outsider, apart from the family (it’s not a nation yet) God claims as his own. Cain is crushed by this sentence and already feels the icy grip of loneliness on his life. Not only that, but he knows he’s getting off with a sentence lighter than he deserves. He senses that the proper penalty for murder is death. In addition, he realizes that other people know it too. God may be banishing him, but he imagines other men hunting him down and taking his life that justice might be done. What the Lord does in response is, at the same time, one of the great mysteries of the Bible and also one of many great acts of mercy. Cain’s marked in some way that says to all he encounters “This man is under God’s protection, leave him alone.” I have no idea of what that mark is, in fact, I can’t imagine how it works. However, I do know it’s a mark of mercy and I have a very good idea of what mercy looks like. It looks like the Lord forgiving me of my sins rather than condemning me as I deserve. It looks like hope instead of fear. It looks like Jesus on the cross of Calvary.
Take away: Thank God for the “mark of mercy!”
Life in the middle
Titus 3: Stay away from mindless, pointless quarreling over genealogies and fine print about the law code.
Since Paul’s somewhat critical of the average resident of Crete I assume that his warning to Titus here isn’t based on some natural tendency of Titus to get caught up in trivial matters. It seems to me that Paul thinks that the people of that island do share this tendency and if he isn’t careful Titus will get bound up in it too. Paul wants Titus, and all believers, to focus on the big picture. The Lord has graciously and in mercy reached out to us in our sinful state to establish us in a new relationship with him. He stepped into this world and knowing full well that we don’t deserve it, loved us anyway and went to work transforming our lives. Now, we’re made new, cleaned up by Jesus, recipients of God’s gift of himself to us. These are the things we’re to think and tell about. We’re to let others, outsiders, have the corner on worrying about the minutia of the law. They’re welcome to it. After all, if such things provide salvation, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have been Jesus’ best friends. Paul tells Titus to “put his foot down” and insist that the business of the Church is declaring Jesus and to provide evidence of what he does in people’s lives by being “bighearted and courteous,” law-abiding citizens. On one side of us are those who are “ordered every which way by their glands.” On the other side are those who focus on debating the finer points of the Law. Here in the middle, we just live for Jesus, telling our story to all who will listen.
Take Away: It’s easy to major on the minors – but to do so is to fail to live the life to which the Lord calls us.
The secret to evangelism
Colossians 4: Make the most of every opportunity.
Believers aren’t supposed to create closed communities of the faithful. Rather, we’re to live right out in the open, rubbing shoulders with those outside the faith, making friends, sharing in their lives. I don’t think this means that believers are never to “retreat.” After all, Jesus at least attempted to get the disciples away from the crowds sometimes. Still, he always went back to them, loving them, and, apparently, liking those who weren’t his followers. Paul urges the Colossian Christians to not only stay involved in their community but to make the most of that involvement. Interestingly, his directions for them aren’t as evangelistic as you might think. He describes “making the most” as being “gracious in your speech” and tells them that their “goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation.” Apparently, our influencing others for Christ doesn’t necessarily start with a “spiritual conversation” at all. Instead, it starts with friendship, respect, genuine interest. In fact, Paul specifically warns them not to “put them down” or “cut them out.” In light of these instructions, becoming a “friend” to someone just so we can tell them about Jesus is off the table. My seizing the moment starts, instead, with my making some genuine friends outside the body of believers. Then, I make sure I’m always gracious in my conversations with them, wanting the best for them. Real friendships are the secret to evangelism.
Take Away: For church people it’s a big challenge to make good friends who are outside the church. Still, it’s a key component to evangelism.
Galatians 5: Love others as you love yourself.
Freedom isn’t free. For one thing, it’s expensive to obtain. That’s true on national levels. Wars are fought and lives are lost for the cause of freedom. It’s also true on the spiritual level. Jesus goes to the cross, giving his all to set us free from the dominion of sin. Freedom is also difficult to retain. Again, on national levels, once freedom is gained it’s often under attack from without and within. Vigilance is necessary if freedom is to be retained. Otherwise, it will gradually erode and be ultimately lost. Paul warns his readers that spiritual freedom must be guarded and allowed to mature. In his case, some are urging the Christians at Galatia to exchange some of their freedom in Christ for Jewish rules and regulations. He tells them that if they do that they’ll be “cut off from Christ” and “fall out of grace.” He also explains that freedom will actually destroy itself unless it’s harnessed. Otherwise, freedom becomes destructive and, in the name of freedom, people tend to “bite and ravage each other…annihilating each other.” If freedom is to survive it must be harnessed, placed under some controlling principle and authority. The Apostle doesn’t leave us to figure this out for ourselves, but plainly states that authority: “love others as you love yourself.” Spiritual freedom, then, might be thought of as rather fragile. On one side, it can be choked off by rules and regulations that seem to draw us like moths to a flame. On the other side, it can, itself, become a negative, destructive force that causes pain and ultimately consumes itself. The only hope is for our freedom to be placed under submission to love. It’s no wonder that Jesus, who paid the ultimate price to obtain our freedom insisted that his followers love one another. Otherwise, what he obtained for us is ultimately lost by us.
Take Away: Even freedom as great as it is must be made a servant to love.
Rules and regs
Galatians 2: If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
Years earlier the council at Jerusalem came to a momentous decision. While it was okay for Jewish Christians to continue to observe the Jewish rules and regulations the burden of keeping those rules wouldn’t be placed on the Gentile believers. That was a very big deal, but it wasn’t the end of the subject. Some of the “rule keeping” Jewish Christians refused to accept that decision. Off they went to the Gentile churches to “re-educate” the new Christians. Their brand of Christianity was quite Jewish. Beyond that, even Jewish believers like Peter tended to walk on both sides of the road on this one. Around Jews they were very Jewish, but when they were with non-Jews, they relaxed and conducted themselves as though it is, indeed, faith in Jesus that alone makes a person right with God. Paul and Peter had a bit of a falling out about it when Peter, who had been getting along just fine with the Gentile Christians, quietly withdrew from them when a group of rule keeping Jewish Christians showed up. Clearly, in spite of the fact that there had been an official ruling on the matter, in practice, things were still up in the air. Paul, in this case, doesn’t appeal to the Jerusalem ruling, but, instead goes straight to the cross of Christ. He reminds his readers that if rules did the job, then the Jews, of all people, would be happily satisfied with their situation. He also tells them, that, if that was possible, then Jesus would have never gone to the cross. After all, his message to us isn’t “try harder and you’ll be fine.” Rather, his message is that he is the “way, the truth, and the life.”
Take Away: Even if we somehow managed to keep all the rules we’d still be unsaved outside of Christ.
You aren’t down for the count
Romans 11: Are they down for the count…the answer is a clear-cut no.
The people of Israel, Paul says, have, in general, messed up royally. They had an inside track to God but rejected him. Because of their disobedience and unbelief they’ve been cut off and are no longer connected to the “root” of God’s love and faithfulness. The Lord, who specializes in taking bad situations and turning them into good ones, has used their rejection as a way to open the door for all peoples of the world to come in. When an “outsider” believes in Jesus that person is grafted into the “vine” of God’s grace. In this the outsider becomes an insider. Now, what of those people of Israel who became dead to God because of their unbelief? Is it too late for them? Is their permanent loss a sad necessity that the way to God be opened for the non-Jews? Paul answers, “No way!” He serves a God of Second Chances and even now the Lord’s working out a restoration for those who’ve been cut off. In his plan it’s never been “Jews verses Gentiles.” The Lord’s working right now to bring salvation to all, grafting in all who will come, making them part of his family. Isn’t this good news! The Gentiles have never known God, but now a way has been made for them to connect to him. The people of Israel have a long history with God but blew it. Still, God works to bring them back home. Maybe you were raised in church and knew the Lord as Savior at one time but now all that’s past tense in your life. I have Good News for you. As it was for the people of Israel who messed up royally there remains hope. Right now the Lord invites you to return and be reattached to the vine of his mercy, love, and grace. Even if everyone else has given up on you, God hasn’t.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.