When it feels like the end of the world
Matthew 24: This is no sign of the end.
The “end times” information given in Matthew 24 is hard to understand. Some of it has to do with the generation Jesus is addressing in this moment. Jesus says, “I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for all of you.” Some of the stuff in this chapter has already happened. Still, we know that there’s been no trumpet blast and we haven’t seen the “one taken-one left” event take place. Part of the mix is that some events that feel as though they must be part of the end of the world are just common history. Jesus says reports of war, famine, and earthquakes aren’t signs of the “big event.” Of course, for those in the middle of a bombing, or facing starvation, or experiencing a major earthquake it may very likely be “the end.” However, when we hear of such things (and hopefully respond with Christ-like compassion to them) we’re not to panic, thinking “this is it.” Instead, God’s people are to trust him to be with us when we experience the painful side of life. We’re to stay true to the Lord even when we face opposition, and take advantage of the opportunity offered by unwelcome events to share the Good News with those who are desperate for some good news. I know it’s easy for me to sit in a comfortable chair and write this stuff and not so easy when the world feels like it’s coming apart. Still, if our faith is what we say it is and if it does for us what we say it does, it has to hold up even in the middle of the chaos the world sometimes throws our way.
Take Away: Not every horrible event is a sign that it’s the end of the world, but even in horrible events we can respond with compassion and hope as a people of God.
The way to forgiveness
Matthew 12: If Satan banishes Satan is there any Satan left?
It’s really about the Sabbath. The religious leaders have taken “Remember the Sabbath day” and turned it into a heavy burden laid on the backs of the people. Even picking a piece of fruit to eat is considered to be a transgression. Jesus responds with examples from their own law and history proving that they’re wrong. He goes on healing people, even on the Sabbath. When a demon-afflicted woman is set free the critics of Jesus sputter that he must be in cahoots with the devil. Our Lord responds that if they say that about him what do they say about their own exorcists? Beyond that, it’s a silly contention anyway. If Satan casts out Satan there wouldn’t be anything of Satan left. He then deals with the opposite side of the same coin. If the Holy Spirit is the One who forgives sins and we cast the Holy Spirit out of lives, how can we ever expect to be forgiven our sins? Its serious business isn’t it. We’re sinners in need of forgiveness. There’s one who forgives. Throw him out and we’re left without hope. Stated differently, there’s one road to forgiveness, if I refuse to travel that road, there’s no way I can ever arrive at forgiveness. The way to God is abundant and grace-filled, offering hope to the worst sinner. Still, it’s the only way. I can take it or leave it, but if I leave it, I’m left with nothing.
Take Away: We have, in Christ, hope abundant, but aside from Christ we have no hope at all.
The sweetest invitation
Matthew 11: Come to me.
There’s no sweeter invitation than what we hear from the Lord: “Come to me.” This invitation is directed to people who are weary and beaten down by life. It’s for people who’ve tried to find satisfaction in sometimes self-destructive ways and, in the end, realize that all they have is a handful of sand. Specifically, this invitation is for people who’ve tried religion and been hurt, maybe even abused, there. To all who are hurting, disappointed, tired, and empty Jesus says, “Come to me.” It’s not about church rituals and rules; although such things have been found by many to be helpful. It’s not about turning over a new leaf, making a New Year’s resolution, or simply trying harder; although there’s room here for self-improvement. Beyond all that, though, is Jesus. I respond to his sweet invitation by giving up my own claims to righteousness and reordering all other relationships to something less than number one. In response to this invitation to “come” I turn my attention to Jesus and lay all else, including myself, at his feet. From that point on, I walk with him and learn from him, how to really live.
Take Away: Jesus is the only one who can truly make this offer, and he does make it to all who will come.
The end and the beginning
Zechariah 14: What a Day that will be!
The prophet started out encouraging the returned exiles as they tackled the rebuilding of the Temple. He finishes his writing by looking to the future and reporting on the end of history. When things appear hopeless the Almighty will come to the rescue in what will be the final battle. The Lord will set foot on the historic Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem. Years after this prophecy Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives at the Garden of Gethsemane, and later, following his resurrection he ascends to heaven from the Mount of Olives. As he disappears into the sky angels deliver God’s message that Jesus will return in “like manner.” Like pieces of a puzzle revealed as the centuries pass, things fall into place. Zechariah says that when the Lord comes he’ll defeat the final enemy and when he sets foot on the Mount of Olives that it will split in half. His coming will bring all things to an end. At the same time it will begin all things anew. Then, as the disciples stand on that very same spot, angels tell them Jesus is coming back even as he has just left them. Oh yeah, Zechariah has it right: “what a Day that will be!”
Take Away: God’s people look forward to the glorious return of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
There is a fountain…
Zechariah 13: A fountain will be opened…for washing away their sins.
God’s prophet describes a wonderful day of hope when the last battle has been fought and the last foothold of sin has been purged from the people the Lord claims as his own. Zechariah envisions a cleansing fountain where people can come to have their sins washed away, their lives made clean. It was in 1772 that William Cowper penned a poem based on Zechariah’s words. Cowper had not enjoyed an easy life. He suffered severe depression and had at one time attempted suicide. Even after coming to Christ he struggled with depression. At the same time, he wrote the words to many songs of faith. His hymn based on the passage before us today is his best known. Cowper realizes that the fountain Zechariah describes flows, not with cleansing water, but with the blood of Christ. The fountain that makes “soiled lives clean” was opened at Calvary and the blood spilled there continues to wash away sins to this day. “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”
Take Away: Thank the Lord for that cleansing fountain.
Sorting out a passage and finding at its core: grace
Haggai 2: From now on you can count on a blessing.
“Temple fever” is sweeping the nation as governor Zerubbabel and his people give themselves to the rebuilding project. One group that’s especially energized is the priests who’ve served without a Temple. They’re sure things are going to be much better once the Temple is restored. Haggai comes teach them a core spiritual truth and he does so by asking two questions. Question number one has to do with imparted holiness. If meat from a sacrifice is put into some priest’s pocket, it will make his robe holy, but what about other foods then touched by the robe? The priests respond that there’s no ripple effect concerning what other foods the robe might touch. Therefore, those foods remain unholy. The second question concerns the flip side of things. If a person touches a corpse, becoming ceremonially unclean and then touches various foods, do they also become unclean? The answer is “yes” – the “uncleanness” is imparted to whatever that person touches. Haggai then tells them that the sacrifices they’ve been making haven’t been proper because of their spiritual failure. The sin of not rebuilding the Temple has impacted all they’ve done, making them all worthless. Even as a person who touches a corpse makes all they touch unclean, so has their disobedience concerning the rebuilding of the Temple had a negative impact on all their religious practices. The flip side, which I wish Haggai had more clearly stated, is just as disturbing. Just offering proper sacrifices in the rebuilt Temple isn’t going to have the hoped for ripple effect of making the entire nation holy. It’s like the robe touched by the sanctified meat. It’s made holy but that’s as far as it goes. Touching other things with that robe won’t make them also holy. In other words, rebuilding the Temple isn’t a cure-all. Still, the prophet has some wonderful, and educational, news. From the moment they returned to God he began to bless them. His blessings weren’t a result of their making the right kind of sacrifices; in fact, they weren’t the right kind. Rather the blessings were the result of his grace. As I read this especially confusing little passage I come away with a better grasp of this truth: sin has contaminated our entire lives, making us exempt from any hope of self-manufactured holiness. Even when I return to God, my renewed commitment to him will still come up short because of the contamination of sin that has ruled my life. However, I’m not without hope because of God’s grace. He blesses me, not because I’ve managed to restore all that was broken but because he chooses to respond to my surrender to him with wonderful grace.
Take Away: The blessings of the Lord are the result of his grace.
A heaping helping of judgment with a little hope on the side
Zephaniah 1: This is the Day of God’s Judgment.
The book of Zephaniah is all about Judgment day. Zephaniah is focused especially on Judah but he broadens his view to include the surrounding nations and he lays a foundation for the doctrine of a future Day of Judgment of the human race. As the prophet looks around he sees a nation that’s not only committed to sin but feels secure in that sin. He, along with other prophets of God, challenges that security. He knows that people can’t ignore God and get away with it. Any comfort they have now will, in God’s time, be washed away when they’re called to give an account of themselves to the Almighty. He warns them that God says, “I care about sin with fiery passion.” Zephaniah’s message carries with it a sense of God’s anger but it also offers some hope to those who “shape up.” There’s hope in this little book, but it comes with a main course of respectful awe of just Who it is we’re dealing with and what’s sure to come to those who ignore its warning.
Take Away: Those who ignore the Lord will, sooner or later, have to give an accounting of themselves to the one they have ignored.
The God who never fails
Habakkuk 3: Counting on God’s Rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength.
The little book of Habakkuk is all about the prophet’s concern with how God works in the world. How can a holy God use such an unrighteousness people as those of Babylon to accomplish his purposes? The Lord answers his question, first, by assuring Habakkuk that he’s aware of sin and rebellion and that it will be judged. The second answer, I think, is when the prophet sees God, in his holiness, enter his Temple. Such a vision of God produces an awed silence and an undeniable assurance that God is God. Because of that, whatever happens will be the right thing. Habakkuk breaks out in praise, writing what might be called a “displaced psalm.” The final chorus, in particular, states an unshakable trust in the Lord. “Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen…I’m singing joyful praise to God…counting on God’s Rule to prevail.” This hymn is a powerful expression of trust in God. Even when the enemy attacks, even when life takes an unwelcome turn, even when all else fails…even then I rejoice in the One who never fails.
Take Away: Even when live is confusing and painful…even then, God is God and God never fails.
Why Nahum preaches to the wrong congregation
Nahum 3: You’re past the point of no return.
One hundred years earlier the reluctant prophet Jonah had been ordered to go and preach destruction in Nineveh. The result was repentance and God changing his mind about destroying them. Nahum isn’t instructed to go to Nineveh but he’s given a similar message of destruction. His sermons appear to be directed to Nineveh but his audience is Judah. One reason for these anti-Nineveh sermons being preached in Judah is that the people of God are more concerned about what Assyria and its capitol Nineveh is doing than they are with trusting the Lord. They need to be reminded that, even though they see Assyria as a mountain of power that God sees it as just another anthill. The second reason for this seeming “preaching to the wrong crowd” is what’s said in this verse. In Jonah’s day the Lord hoped to spare Nineveh. They were great sinners even then, but, according to the Lord, they were more ignorant than rebellious. Because of that, the Lord was more than willing to change his mind and spare them if they would but turn to him in repentance. Here in Nahum’s day that has changed. He preaches about a nation that has pushed God too far and, for them, judgment has come. Nahum preaches sermons against Nineveh for the sake of Judah. He doesn’t preach them in Nineveh because it’s too late for them to repent. I guess the lesson for today is that as long as God speaks to our hearts, even if what he says is guilt producing condemnation, there’s still hope for us. It’s when we no longer hear from him that it’s too late. Isaiah put it this way: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6 )
Take Away: As long as God speaks to our hearts there’s still hope.
At just the right time God will speak
Nahum 1: And God has something to say about all this.
Things don’t look good for God’s purposes in the world. A wicked nation is doing very well. Their capitol city sits at the heart of incredible power and evil. God’s people are small in number and spirit. Is this the end of it all? Will sin and evil win the day? Nahum calls for calm as he declares good news for all those who love that which is good. Nineveh appears to be on top of the world, but “God has something to say about all this.” The “top of the world” position of that wicked city is a mere anthill in the eyes of God and when the Almighty acts, even that anthill will be “mowed down flat.” Through the centuries there have been many times when it seemed this world was out of God’s control and that the cause of righteousness was lost. There have been times when God’s people were speechless in the face of overwhelming sin. That’s okay. You see, even when we’re at a loss as to what to do or say, at just the right time, God will speak. What appears to us to be overwhelming circumstances is a mere anthill to the Lord. My mission in such times is, first, to keep trusting in him even when it seems evil has the upper hand and second, if he can use me, to be a part of God’s remedy for a sin-sick world.
Take Away: At just the right time the Lord will speak.