2014 -Along California 101 – smoke from forest fire
Road to ruin
Genesis 19: God was so merciful to them!
I really dislike the story of the destruction of the wicked cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. There’s almost nothing uplifting in it. Years earlier, Lot and his family had taken up residence in the vicinity of Sodom. Now, in spite of its reputation for sexual wickedness, we find him at home there. When the messengers of God warn him to take his family and flee he doesn’t want to go. His wife can’t bear leaving and his daughters have a warped view of morality. Even when he’s convinced to run he can’t bring himself to leave the area and, even though he later changes his mind about it, strikes a bargain to move to a smaller town in the area. I squirm a bit as I read all this and then, even though I’ve read the story many times, I want to turn my head as the fire and brimstone falls in judgment. I come away from this passage thinking I’d better be careful about the choices I make…that they may have more impact on me and those I love than I realize. I’m also reminded that I must never underestimate the seriousness of sin. As does Abraham, once in a while I need to glance out over the plain and see the smoke rising from the destruction and remember that Judgment is real and sure and serious. And, as I see Lot and his family being ushered away prior to that Judgment, I had better be reminded of God’s mercy. That was their only hope and it’s also my only hope.
Take away: I’d better be careful about the choices I make.
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!”
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.
Muddling my way through, holding fast
Revelation 16: Keep watch! I come unannounced, like a thief. You’re blessed if, awake and dressed, you’re ready for me.
The seven bowls of God’s wrath bring untold misery to the earth. Some of the miseries remind us of what happened in the limited region of Egypt during the ten plagues. In this case, though, the suffering is worldwide. When God’s attention specifically turns to the Beast and his unholy trinity they rally the nations of the earth to fight back. Armageddon is at hand. There’s so much here that I don’t understand that I’m ashamed of myself. Here I am in the book called “Revelation” and I’m constantly reminded that I’m missing whatever it is I’m supposed to grasp. Still, once in a while I’m graciously given something to which I can cling. Even if I don’t get it, I’m advised to “Keep watch!” and to be “ready.” Jesus said the same thing during his earthly ministry and now he repeats it. Even as I muddle through these pictures of judgment filled with symbolism that I’m missing more than understanding, I’m encouraged to simply hang in there. I may not understand Armageddon but I understand what it means to stand fast in my relationship with the Lord. Ultimately, it’s that that matters much more than my poor grasp on the precise meaning of passages like this.
Take Away: Even when you don’t understand what’s going on stand fast in the faith. Ultimately, that’s what matters the most anyway.
Revelation 15: One of the Four Animals handed the Seven Angels seven gold bowls, brimming with the wrath of God.
The revelator hears a song performed by a huge number of overcomers. It’s a song of praise and worship. It’s also a song of fear and judgment. “God is holy,” they proclaim, “all nations will come and worship you, because they see your judgments are right.” That song ushers in the final set of the Lord’s judgments on the earth. Angels are given the task of delivering those judgments. They’re given gold bowls, filled to the brim with the wrath of God. Any view of God that ignores his blazing hatred of sin is an incomplete view. He’s merciful and kind and loving and has overflowing grace. He wants nothing more than to save people and his goal is to save every human being. That’s all proven at Calvary. Some though, refuse his offer of salvation, an offer that cost him everything. Now, as time draws to an end we find ourselves face to face with the wrath of God. How dare people spit on his mercy? How dare they treat the crucifixion with distain? Now, in this vision, we’re given a preview of the wrath of God. John sees smoke from God’s glory and power pouring out of the heavenly Temple. It’s a fearful thing to be even this close to the wrath of God.
Take Away: Any view of the Lord that fails to take into account his hatred of sin is an incomplete view.
A good time to turn to God
Revelation 9: There wasn’t a sign of a change of heart.
The final three trumpets are called by some “woe-trumpets” because each one ushers in a period of suffering on earth. John is seeing future events, the end of time. He sees spiritual beings through his limited point of view so his descriptions are of strange, terrifying beings. The “locusts” are beings freed from the Abyss. They sweep across the earth like a huge plague of locusts, inflicting pain on a third of humanity. Angels that have been chained are set free to lead a destroying army that kills another third of humanity. Rather than fearfully turning to God those who survive continue as before: focused on material possessions, promiscuous lifestyles, and worshiping evil rather than God. Even as time draws to a violent end and the judgment of God is obvious they persist in their self-indulgent, God-ignoring ways. It hardly seems possible that it could be this way. Still, I’ve seen just a hint of it. I’ve seen people who’ve rejected the goodness of God and then, in the face of the hardship of life responded by hardening their hearts. In their case, their personal “woe-trumpet” didn’t result in their facing the spiritual facts of life. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. First of all, God’s love; his mercy and grace: these things should cause us to turn to him in sweet surrender. Second, when hardship does come, it doesn’t have to drive us away from God. Instead, it can cause us to run to him even as a hurt child runs to his or her Father for protection and comfort. It’s not smart to wait for such a time before turning to God, but if one hasn’t done it yet, days of trials and hardship, pain and suffering, are good days to turn to the one who offers us hope even as our world crumbles around us.
Take Away: When life is especially hard it is, as is always true, a good time to turn to the Lord.
Not the most encouraging chapter in the Bible
2Peter 2: Their evil will boomerang on them.
If you’re looking for some comforting, uplifting, encouraging words from the Bible, I suggest you skip 2Peter Chapter 2! This is full blown “hell, fire, brimstone” preaching. Peter is writing to scattered believers who are under considerable pressure from outsiders who don’t understand their faith. Now, to top that off, there are so-called “teachers” traveling here and there pretending to be Christians but are actually hucksters trying to get out of gullible believers anything they can. Peter warns his readers about such people and then he lowers the boom on these unprincipled predators. He takes us back to some of the Old Testament stories of God’s judgment: Sodom and Gomorrah and the Great Flood. He describes the false teachers in the worst of terms: insolent, brutes, loudmouths who are headed for “a black hole in hell.” Peter’s words are so heated that you can practically warm your hands above the page! The thing that has him so riled up is that these predators are preying on God’s people. Peter is good and mad and, according to him, so is God. Apparently, God takes it personally when individuals take unfair advantage of his people. Directly stated, he’s not going to put up with it. On one hand, there’s an encouragement here for believers to be prudent in who they allow to influence them in spiritual matters. On the other hand, there’s a warning for any who try it. Even though Peter uses every description he can think of in describing what’s coming for such people I can’t help but come away thinking that the actual judgment of God will be even worse.
Take Away: Be careful who you allow to influence you in spiritual matters.
Hebrews 6: The basic foundational truths are in place.
There are lots of important things for Christians to know but what are the most important ones? Before moving on to the deeper things of God what are the basics that must be first mastered. Using the lingo of the university, what courses are included in Christianity 101? The writer of Hebrews lists 5 “courses” that must be passed before the believer is ready to deal with more advanced topics. First is trust in God. For me to even be a Christian in the first place I must stop trusting in myself as a source of salvation and start trusting in the Lord. Second is baptism. This entry sacrament is an important part of my becoming a participant in the grace of God and shouldn’t be overlooked. Third is “laying on of hands.” This may be the most challenging of the five, but I think it’s an understanding that God calls people to the ministry and that the church is to recognize that they are called and then to ordain them as set apart for service and leadership by the Lord. Perhaps this needs to be understood early in the Christian life because the Lord often calls people to a life of ministry early on, or even as a part of, their salvation experience. Fourth is “resurrection of the dead.” Believers are, well, believers. We believe Jesus was resurrected from the grave on that first Easter morning. We believe that because of his resurrection all who trust in him share in that same resurrection hope. Fifth is “eternal judgment.” New Christians are to understand that eternity is at stake in their lives and in the lives of all people who will stand before the Lord in final judgment. These five things aren’t all there is to faith. In fact, they aren’t even all there is at the core, but the writer of Hebrews highlights them as a good starting point. Once these things are settled, it’s time to move on. He says, “Let’s get on with it!”
Take Away: We don’t want to camp out just inside the gate. At the same time we need to master the basics before we can move on.
Ultimately only one thing matters
2Timothy 4: But you – keep your eye on what you’re doing.
The Apostle has been around and he knows the score. He’s had people he counted on let him down. Some couldn’t help it. Sickness and other circumstances beyond their control have thrown a monkey wrench into their commitment to him. Others could help it but failed anyway, getting caught up in some religious fad or simply finding the going too hard. Timothy needs to be aware of all this. At times, people who should know better will want him to ease up on proclaiming the “take up your cross daily” aspect of the gospel message. Something else will catch their eye and they’ll want him to focus on that instead. Paul, who knows what he’s talking about urges this young pastor to “keep your eye on what you’re doing.” More than being a pastor who wants to get along with people, he’s “God’s servant.” Ultimately, what the congregation thinks is secondary to what God thinks. Even as Paul looks forward to receiving the Lord’s approval he wants Timothy, and all of us, to keep this ultimate truth in mind. From my point of view, I want to please those who call me “pastor.” I don’t want to disappoint them or to bore them with sermons that are somewhat less than timely. However, in the end, there’s only one word of approval that matters. I know you know that this is true for pastors and for everyone else too.
Take Away: We have only one Master and pleasing him is, ultimately, the only thing that really matters.
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.