Praying in catastrophes
Joel 2: And here’s why: God is kind of merciful.
The prophet sees the natural catastrophe of the locust infestation as a judgment of God. It may be that the Almighty manufactured these bugs specifically to cause the people to stop their march to wickedness. God is God and he has ability to do stuff like that. On the other hand, it may be that the locusts are just a natural phenomenon that God is using to get their attention. Either way this is all under his authority. Joel tells his people that in the face of all that’s happening it’s time for a national turn around. He calls for more than a surface makeover but a real change in which they return to God with their whole hearts. If they do that, Joel promises, they’ll find God to be kind and merciful and they might just see the Lord intervene to cancel the catastrophe that has them reeling. One response to personal disaster should be a reexamination of our lives. If things aren’t as they should be this is a good time to ask the Lord to forgive us and ask him to help us get our act together.
Take Away: One response to personal disaster should be a reexamination of our lives.
Good news for people who need a Second Chance
Ezekiel 33: None of his sins will be kept on the books.
Since Ezekiel’s mission throughout most of his ministry is to warn people of pending destruction, and since he is about as rough and tumble a guy as you’ll ever meet, his messages are generally not especially uplifting. He’s like a doctor with a poor bedside manner: he isn’t especially interested in dressing things up but for the good of his patient he tells it like it is. Still, as I journey through the book of Ezekiel, I find plenty of sunshine along with his gruffness. At one point he tells people that they can’t rely on past goodness to cover current sin. If even the most pious person turns from God’s ways to sin he or she will be judged not for their past, but their current life. However, there’s good news in flip side of that situation. If a person who’s living a sinful life hears Ezekiel’s hard message and decides to pay attention and straighten up there’s a real possibility of life. God will gladly give that individual a second chance. Now that’s a message for any day. The Lord loves it when sinners turn to him. He doesn’t hold our past against us and is more than willing to forgive sins and transform lives. That’s good news for every one of us who has made bad choices and wishes life had a rewind button. We can’t go back but by God’s grace we can go forward. If a person turns to God, Ezekiel tells us, “He’ll live.”
Take Away: We can’t go back but by the grace of the Lord we can go forward.
What pleases God?
Ezekiel 33: I take no pleasure from the death of the wicked.
I love this insight into the heart of the Lord. We Christians are sometimes guilty of making the Lord out to be angry and vengeful. Here I am, reading a book of the Bible that’s full of words of condemnation and judgment and finding as compassionate a word as I could ever find. God hates sin but he loves the sinner. For the Lord to blink at sin — to call it something less than what it is — would be for him to deny his own nature. Rather than do that, he does everything he can to call us from our sin and to remake us into a clean people. If God’s remedy for sin was to wipe out the sinners, well, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Ezekiel’s ministry is to call sinners to repentance. Today, through Jesus Christ, that same call is heard. The thing that brings pleasure to God is not punishing sinners. Instead, it’s rescuing us from death to life. With God on our side like that, we have every reason to trust him and surrender to him.
Take Away: The Lord hates sin but he loves the sinner.
Accepting fault, doing something about it
Ezekiel 18: The soul that sins is the soul that dies.
A common saying in Ezekiel’s day is that “the parents ate green apples and the children got a stomachache.” That saying describes the current plight of the people of Judah. Their nation has been defeated and many have been exiled far from home. They blame it all on their parents and consider themselves to be victims of the failure of others. Ezekiel says that isn’t so. While it’s true that their ancestors failed God, the current generation has plenty of failure of its own. Ezekiel wants them to understand that when a wicked person turns from his or her wicked ways that God is gracious and rich in forgiveness. God, he tells them, doesn’t hold a grudge. On the other hand, if a righteous person abandons that righteousness he or she stands guilty before God. Past righteousness doesn’t make a person immune from current failure and judgment. The bottom line is that the Lord will “judge each of you according to the way you live.” The spiritual principle here is that it’s our current relationship with God that really matters. Ezekiel’s advice is still good today. He says since it’s “right now” that counts, those who are living apart from God and blaming their parents (or someone else) for it need to “turn around…make a clean break” and “live!”
Take Away: It’s our current relationship with the Lord that really matters.
Looking up from the bottom
Lamentations 5: Give us a fresh start.
The prayer I find near the conclusion of this book of laments is one that has been prayed many times through the centuries. Jeremiah describes for us the devastating loss his people have suffered remarking, “Our dances have turned into dirges.” In their miserable state they exclaim, “Would that we’d never sinned!” That’s another statement that has been said many times. As some unknown preacher said, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go.” How many people have found themselves at the bottom, crushed by the consequences of their own sin? For some reason we always think we’ll be the ones to get away with it, that we’ll beat the odds. It never happens and sooner or later we add our voice to the chorus lamenting, “Would that we’d never sinned!” It’s in that place, when everything seems hopeless that we can lift our faces to the God we’ve failed and pray, “Give us a fresh start.” Our God is the God of Second Chances. Even when I’ve messed my life up to the point that all is lost he can give me a fresh start. That isn’t to say that he’ll press the rewind button on my life. What’s done is done. However, he’ll do something just as meaningful: he’ll make me into a new person. When I’m weary of my sin and crushed by my failure, I can look to the God of Second Chances and ask him to give me a fresh start. The Lord delights in answering that prayer.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Lamentations 2: They didn’t face you with your sin so that you could repent.
As Jeremiah deconstructs the fall of Judah for us he describes the failure of the preachers of his day. Even as Jeremiah faithfully proclaimed God’s word of condemnation on the nation, his competition described coming divine rescue. Jeremiah’s message called for a radical change of attitude and lifestyle. Their message was that everything was going to be just fine, that they were children of Abraham, and therefore, God had to keep his promises to him no matter what they did. Because of their success in convincing people of their mistaken theology, Jeremiah’s message was rejected and those who needed to repent never did so. I’m not writing today to put down some radio or TV preacher. To tell the truth I don’t listen to any of them enough to even know their core message. I do believe this, though: we preachers have a responsibility before God to call sinners to repentance. If all we do is share principles for a happy marriage, or tell parents how to raise well-adjusted kids, or outline how to get along with the boss we’re failing people. I’m not saying that there’s never a time and place for such sermons, but Jeremiah says the preachers of his day didn’t confront people with their sin and therefore, they never realized their need for repentance. Does this translate over to today?
Take Away: We have a responsibility before God to call sinners to repentance.
The Lord, reaching out
Jeremiah 31: Everything in me cries out for him. Softly and tenderly I wait for him.
In this passage the tribe of Ephraim represents the people of Israel. Jeremiah imagines Israel humbly coming to the Lord, asking if it’s too late and wondering if the Lord can ever embrace her again. God’s answer is immediate and compassionate. The Lord says that that’s all he’s wanted to hear all along and that the strong medicine was administered not because he had stopped loving Israel but preciously because of his love. This great God of love has longed for his people to return to him and with great tenderness he waits to receive them back to himself. I can’t help but respond to this passage in a personal way. I’m moved by God’s compassion on, not only ancient Israel, but on the lost people of my day. When I’m in rebellion against God he longs for my return; reaching out to me, crying out in love. Today, I stand in awe of the mercy, grace, and compassion of God for a lost human race.
Take Away: God is love.
Which church would you attend?
Jeremiah 23: They preach…their “Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen to You” sermon.
Jeremiah isn’t the only preacher of his generation. In fact, he has plenty of competition from preachers who enjoy large followings and enthusiastic support. Folks love their positive, uplifting, and encouraging sermons. No doubt, these preachers find some really good texts that proclaim God’s love for and protection of his people. The problem is that their sermons are, in Jeremiah’s words, just so much “hot air.” The people in their congregations need to repent and return to God. The truth is that everything’s not going to turn out fine and bad things are coming, whether or not these preachers will admit it. Can’t you imagine a family getting ready to go to worship services? “Where are we going to church today, dear?” the wife asks. “I don’t know. Jeremiah’s preaching nearby, but you know he specializes in telling it like it is. I hear that the ‘Things are Great and Getting Better’ church has big things planned for today and they have a terrific praise band. Shall we go there?” So, where would I go to church? How entertainment oriented am I when it comes to worship? I’m not suggesting that “gloom and doom” is always God’s message while “happiness and security” is always just hot air. Still, I see here a reminder that there’s more to worship than a main course of an entertaining sermon with large helping of great music on the side.
Take Away: Sometimes God-directed preaching isn’t all that fun to hear.
Hope of restoration
Isaiah 57: I live in the high and holy places, but also with the low-spirited, the spirit crushed.
God is the Almighty and I’d better never forget it. His ways are higher than mine and he’s right at home in Eternity. This awesome God is a demanding God. He calls me to live in fellowship with himself and his standard for me is nothing short of holiness. If I rebel it’s not his purpose that is broken, but me. However, this God is not untouched by that brokenness. He not only sits on his throne way up in Heaven, but he also inhabits the world he created. When my sins have divorced me from the Lord and I begin to realize the awfulness of those sins I find that he’s been there, reaching out to me all the time. The same God, this high and towering Being, cares for me even in my ruined state. He longs to transform my “spirit-crushed” life into something wonderful and new. His language to me is filled with powerful and welcome words: healing, leading, comforting. As I reach up from the bottom, I realize that God has been there all the time, reaching down from the top.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
The journey home begins with this first step
Isaiah 50: It’s your sins that put you here, your wrongs that got you shipped out.
The Lord tells Israel that he didn’t “divorce” them and he didn’t just kick them out. They’re where they are because of their intentional rejection of him. Even when he reached out to them, they ignored him. The disaster didn’t come because he changed the rules or backed out of his promises to them. It’s their doing. Because of that, the road back, as it does for the prodigal son, starts with their coming to their senses and acknowledging their sin. There’s hope here, because there is, indeed, a way back; the possibility of restoration even after sin. It starts with admitting, “I’m a sinner.” If I think I’ll return to God on my terms I’m only fooling myself. In this passage the Lord proclaims, “I’m as powerful as ever.” Things don’t have to stay the same because God has the power to make things right. It’s a long road home for these who’ve been exiled to distant lands and that road starts with their repentance. That’s true for them, it’s true for the prodigal, and it’s true for me when my sins have separated me from God.
Take Away: Things don’t have to stay the same because he Lord has the power to make things right.