Letting it go…gaining it all
Jeremiah 38: I’m telling you this for your own good.
Zedekiah’s a pitiful failure. When it comes to Jeremiah, he keeps him locked up, but can’t resist talking to him; he hates what he says, but can’t stop listening. Once again the prophet’s being held in the courtyard, and, as things continue to deteriorate, Zedekiah arranges a secret meeting with Jeremiah. However, he’s just wasting his time. At first Jeremiah refuses to answer because he knows Zedekiah won’t like what he says and will once again refuse to listen to him anyway. When Zedekiah insists, Jeremiah simply tells him what he’s told him before: the city will fall and only those who surrender to the invading army will be spared. Jeremiah is offering Zedekiah the way to life, but he knows Zedekiah will reject it once again. In the New Testament we find the story of a wealthy young man who comes to Jesus asking the way to life. When Jesus tells him that the “way” is for him to give up everything and become one of his followers the young man sadly turns and walks away. In the passage before me today I find Zedekiah, like the rich young ruler, rejecting the only hope there is. How pitiful to be so close and yet so far. Jeremiah offers Zedekiah hope and Jesus offers the rich young ruler “life.” Both decide to reject what’s offered in favor of position and wealth and power. When Jesus, himself, is faced with the same choice he willingly gives up everything and surrenders to his enemies. This leads to the ordeal of the cross, but it also leads to the resurrection. So, what are you holding on to that must be released for you to have life? Today, both Zedekiah and the rich young ruler alike would tell you it is better to let it go because holding on costs too much.
Take Away: Whatever it is that keeps us from the Lord isn’t worth it.
Death sentence reprieve
Jeremiah 31: I’ll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I’ll forget that they ever sinned.
A few years ago I developed an itching rash on the lower right side of my back. I had some other stuff going on so when I went to the doctor I asked him about it. He took one look at it and said, “You’ve got shingles.” I thought, “Shingles? Old people get that!” Honestly, at the time, I didn’t worry too much about it. I could handle the itching. However, I had no idea of the journey I was about to take. The itching gave way to sleepless nights of burning pain. For days I was homebound, unable to get dressed. Now, at the beginning, I knew something was wrong but I thought it was going to be a minor inconvenience. Only in the mid-term of the illness did I grasp just how bad things were. I’ve seriously wondered if Job was given a full body version of shingles. When the Lord tells me I’m a sinner my reaction is something like what I had at the doctor’s office. It’s too bad; I’ll have to try harder to clean up my act. What I don’t realize is that I’ve just been given a death sentence. This isn’t just bad news; it’s the worst news possible. It’s only in this light that statements like the one I’m reading from Jeremiah carry the force they’re supposed to. Otherwise, we have God just helping us along in doing what we can pretty much handle for ourselves. When I realize that being a sinner is to be broken beyond repair; to be, for all intents and purposes dead already; and when I realize that God, in his mercy is willing to “wipe the slate clean” and to “forget” it all…well, it’s then that I begin to grasp the meaning of grace.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his grace – without it, there’s no hope whatsoever.
Life after death – what a concept!
Isaiah 53: Life, life, and more life.
Isaiah prophetically sees the Suffering Servant, the man born to die for the sins of the world. He also sees, maybe not with total clarity, life after death for the Messiah. From our common point of view following death there’s deterioration. Even as Isaiah describes the terrible destruction of the Suffering Servant, he finds himself talking about abundant life. Our understanding of what happened at, and after, Calvary isn’t superior to Isaiah’s but we do have a clearer knowledge of those events. Jesus goes to the cross and there suffers and dies for the sins of the human race. His lifeless body is then placed in a tomb. Then, early on Sunday morning, the after-death process is abruptly halted. Rather than deterioration, life, new life, springs forth. Resurrection! That’s reason enough for Isaiah to conclude his mourning over the death of the Messiah with a surprising “life oriented” twist. However, there’s even more. As the suffering and death of Jesus is for us, so is his resurrection. We have hope of spiritual and physical life beyond this world because of what happens at that tomb. At one point Jesus says that he came that we might have abundant life. That promise is made sure the first Easter morning. Isaiah’s vision of “life, life, and more life” not only tells the story of the Suffering Servant, it’s our story too.
Take Away: As the suffering and death of Jesus is for us, so is his resurrection.
Such Good News!
Isaiah 42: I am God. I have called you to live right and well.
As Isaiah celebrates the ministry of the Messiah it seems that God, Himself, steps onto center stage. He, too, comes to rejoice in the promise of a “new salvation work.” This Salvation-Bringer is coming, not because people have earned it but because the Lord has “taken responsibility” for them and is going to act in their behalf. The result of that ministry will be that God’s people will “live right and well.” Today, I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t come to the world to condemn us for living poorly; instead, he came to enable us to live well in the sight of God. Jesus put it this way: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
Take Away: Jesus came to enable us to live well in the sight of the Lord.
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!”
When all is said and done…
Ecclesiastes 12: Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it.
The book of Ecclesiastes is about a wise man’s search for meaning. That search takes on a pessimistic flavor as he tries one thing and then another, concluding that it’s all just “smoke” that quickly vanishes. As he nears his conclusion he says that life passes quickly as the body begins to wear out. In other words, life, in general, is just so much smoke. Obviously, this book is not a Gospel. It doesn’t conclude with a resurrection and words of hope. Instead, it simply winds down with the big questions left pretty much unanswered. Well, kind of. When Solomon has considered everything from constructing impressive buildings to collecting words of wisdom, from living a pleasure-focused life to making the most of one’s youth he concludes that it’s all smoke. Basically he says that everything that people think brings meaning to life can be dismissed as failing to live up to expectations. Now, in his final words, he concludes that meaning must come from outside of all that. The book of Genesis starts with “In the beginning, God….” This book of Ecclesiastes concludes with “In the end, God….” Meaning to life only comes through the Creator of life. Really, Solomon has done the best he can do at this point in history. There’s more, in fact a whole lot more, but we have to turn ahead in time to those Gospels I mentioned for that part of the story.
Take Away: Meaning to life only comes through the Creator of life.
Delight in the light
Ecclesiastes 11: Even if you live a long time, don’t take a single day for granted.
A light reading of Ecclesiastes (if such a thing is really possible) leaves me with the feeling that the writer is a hardened pessimist who’s concluded that everything is “vanity.” While there are plenty of statements about how worthless things are, there’s also a positive, yet realistic theme here. He advises me to cherish every day. Some days, he says, are going to be dark, but there’s also plenty of light and I’m to “delight in the light.” I don’t want to be one of those people who only focuses on all that is going (or can go) wrong. God has blessed me with so much! I don’t want to take any of it for granted. True to form, the wise man adds, “most of what comes your way is smoke.” That is, most things in life are temporary, and a high percentage of those things aren’t all that important anyway. On one hand then, I don’t want to get so focused on the problems of life that I lose sight of the blessings. Those problems are pretty much “smoke” anyway and are temporary. On the other hand, I want to appreciate the little blessings while I have them. They too are smoke and will be gone before I know it and I don’t want to take them for granted.
Take Away: Cherish every day.
The purpose of life
Ecclesiastes 7: God made men and women true and upright; we’re the ones who’ve made a mess of things.
As part of his search for purpose Solomon seeks out people of wisdom. The result of his search is disappointing. He reports that not one person in a thousand measures up to that standard. Solomon is looking for people of depth, who have thought out the meaning of life and come to some conclusions. Instead, he finds that most people stay in the shallow end of the pool, never considering much beyond their next meal. The saddest thing, as far as he is concerned, is that it doesn’t have to be that way. The Creator created humans with the potential for greatness. This isn’t about the possibility of solving the mysteries of science. Instead, it’s about finding meaning to life itself. It’s of great value to consider “why I am here and where I am going.” The answer is the one we seem most intent on ignoring: “God.” It’s my connection to the divine that gives meaning to my life. He not only made me, but he made me for a purpose. When I live without recognizing that, I, in the words of Ecclesiastes, make “a mess of things.”
Take Away: It’s my connection to the divine that gives meaning to my life.
Life after death
Ecclesiastes 3: Who knows if there’s anything else to life?
One of the concerns of Solomon as he seeks meaning is what happens when life is finished. As far as he can tell animals and humans are pretty much alike; made of flesh, breathing the same air, and, upon death returning to the dust. It may be, he theorizes, that the human spirit survives death, but he really doesn’t have any proof of that. His conclusion is that since there’s uncertainty on this topic that a person ought to live life to the fullest right now because there may be no tomorrow. One thing we need to remember as we read Ecclesiastes is that we’re following Solomon on his quest for truth. He’s telling us his “in process” conclusions. To pick out a line here and there and state it as though this is Solomon’s final verdict is unfair to him. In the first part of the book he explains what he’s doing and we ought to remember that as we read his words. Another thing to remember is that he speaks from a purely Old Testament perspective. It isn’t until the first Easter and the understanding of life after death that develops from it that we have, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.” In these words of Solomon we have the opinion of the secular humanist. When Jesus tells us that those who believe in him will never die we have the authority of the Son of God. The answer to Solomon’s “who knows” is this: “Jesus knows.” For someone who doesn’t have faith in Jesus to arrive at the same conclusion as Solomon is perfectly reasonable. As a believer in Jesus, though, I have the answer: “My Lord knows and he has told me that there is life after life.”
Take Away: The only real authority on the subject has told us that there is life after death, and that how we live now has a direct bearing on what that after-life will be like.
Ecclesiastes 3: God made everything beautiful in itself and in its time — but he’s left us in the dark.
One of the famous parts of Ecclesiastes is his “a time to plant and another to reap” section in which he lists all the opposites of life and decides they all have their proper place. The writer is impressed by all God has done in the world, but frustrated that he can’t understand the meaning of it all. I played golf with a fellow who had a long pre-shot routine that he went through every time he hit the ball. He shuffled his feet a specific way, waggled the club for what seemed to be an eternity, and then stood frozen over the ball before finally hitting his horrible slice. I wanted to shout out, “Just hit the ball!” No doubt, he needed some golfing lessons, but even I could see that he was over-thinking his golf swing. He had himself tied up in knots and it created, not an athletic, fluid golf shot, but a poor shot and a frustrated golfer. Solomon is frustrated that, after all his thinking and considering, he can’t understand all God does. He decides that “there’s nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life.” That isn’t a ticket to living an immoral, God-ignoring life, but it’s a reminder that life is a gift of God and if we over-think it we, like my golfer friend, will spend way too much time out in the weeds rather than enjoying the beauty that has been freely given to us.
Take Away: Life is a gift meant to be enjoyed.