Wandering in the wilderness
Ephesians 2: You’re no longer wandering exiles.
We know the story of how under the leadership of Moses the children of Israel refuse to enter the Promised Land and end up wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years. In this passage, Paul describes the Gentiles as also wandering out in the wilderness, separated from God. Now, thanks to Jesus, the way into the Promised Land, the “kingdom of faith,” has been provided. Everyone is invited, both Jews and Gentiles, to make the crossing into that place of peace, at home with God. The reason, of course, that the children of Israel even make that long detour in the first place is that they didn’t trust God. Having rejected him, they turned away to the misery of the desert. For the Gentiles, the situation’s a bit different. Because of Jesus they’re experiencing their first opportunity to come to God and they’re taking full advantage of it, coming in by the thousands and tens of thousands. For those who respond, the wandering days are ended and the days of spiritual abundance have begun. On a personal level I’ve seen more than one respond to what Jesus has done. They’re rewarded with new, everlasting life for their decision. Sad to say, I’ve seen a few who have opted for the wilderness instead. Decisions have been made, priorities have been set, and they’ve followed the road out into the desert. Happily, God is the God of Second Chances. At some point, I hope and pray that they’ll find themselves once again at the point of decision. I sincerely pray that at that time their wandering days will end.
Take Away: Jesus provides us all the way to God.
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.
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.
There’s a great day coming
Zechariah 12: I’ll pour a spirit of grace and prayer over them.
The prophet with a name similar to Zechariah is best known for his “Judgment Day” sermons. Zephaniah’s three chapters focus on that topic. Now Zechariah turns his prophetic gaze to “that day” (which is paraphrased in the Message “the Big Day”). Jerusalem, that city of peace, is going to be ground zero for a battle to end all battles. When it appears there’s no hope, God will take over its defense. He’ll not only destroy the attackers, but he’ll move on the hearts of his people, pouring a “spirit of grace and prayer” over them. In a moment of clarity, they’ll realize their Messiah came centuries earlier. They’ll weep as they realize that they rejected him. They’ll mourn as they remember how his life was taken, a spear thrust to the side being the final act of violence done to his body. This national act of repentance will result in God’s “washing away their sins.” As history winds down Israel will be restored as God’s chosen people. We Christians, according to the New Testament, have a place in all this. Paul says we’re like a branch from a wild olive tree that is grafted into the cultured one that has been lovingly cared for by the husbandman. Because of that, I have a stake in this promise and like Zechariah and Zephaniah I anticipate “the Big Day” promised in this passage.
Take Away: There’s a Great Day coming, a Great Day coming by and bye.
Do it again, Lord
Habakkuk 3: Do among us what you did among them.
The prophet of God has the heart of a psalmist. As I started reading Habakkuk and saw his reverent complaint to God I was reminded of the Psalms of complaint in which the writer pours his heart out before the Lord. Now, as Habakkuk experiences God in a fresh way, his words remind me of the Psalms again. He pens a psalm of his own in which he recounts God’s past deliverance and looks to a day of restoration. His opening lines: “Do among us what you did among them. Work among us as you worked among them” is the prayer of many of God’s people through the ages. In this case, Habakkuk is specifically thinking of the deliverance of his ancestors from Egyptian bondage. However, through the centuries, many have looked back to great movements of God: revivals, healings, and other times of special blessing and prayed this prayer. In my life there have been times of extraordinary blessing, some so private and precious that I seldom speak of them. However, I mention them to the Lord, thanking him for what he did and marveling at his grace to me and, in the spirit of Habakkuk, ask the Lord to “do it again.” It’s unhealthy to spend our lives talking about the “good old days” but we should allow those times of special blessing to remind us of what God can do and to encourage us to seek his best for in our lives in this day and in these circumstances.
Take Away: There are times when we do well to revisit past blessings and allow those blessings to encourage us to expect renewed blessings of God in our lives.
Living in the day of the Spirit
Joel 2: I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people.
The Hebrew prophets were, in general, positive people. Sometimes they had negative messages to give and sometimes they spoke harshly but they always found a place to promise a better day. In the face of the natural disaster that has befallen his people, Joel calls for them to take stock of their lives and repent of their sin. Then he describes a coming better day. He sees a day when God will “make up for the years of the locust,” restoring what has been destroyed. He pictures tables full of food and people filled with words of praise and thanksgiving. Then Joel says, “If you think that stuff sounds good wait till you hear what else is coming!” He then describes a day of wonderful blessing in which God pours his Spirit out upon, not just one nation, but upon all the nations of the world. He says that in that day their sons and daughters will prophecy and people from all nations and stations of life will be blessed. This event, Joel says, will happen before the “Judgment Day of God.” Years later Peter will quote these words on the Day of Pentecost. Peter will tell people that they’re literally seeing this “Spirit pouring” promise being fulfilled before their very eyes. Even today, we live in that “in between” period of history. We’re between the outpouring of the Spirit and the Judgment Day of God. What a wonderful time in which to live! We’re in the “day of the Spirit.” This is the time when, according to Joel, “Whoever calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.”
Take Away: What a wonderful thing it is to live in the “day of the Spirit.”
Sacrificing, stubborn love
Hosea 3: Love her the way I, God, love the Israelite people.
Gomer has messed up big time. She’s left the man and children who love her. Her story will end with her in bondage physically, emotionally, and legally if not for Hosea. Under the Lord’s direction, he moves to rescue her from the stupid mess that binds her. Hosea acts under God’s command but he also acts out of love. In spite of Gomer’s rejection of him he can’t move past his love for her. She’s brought disgrace to Hosea, possibly making him a laughingstock in the community. She’s broken his heart and turned away from his love without even a word of apology. Still, Hosea can’t let go. This is no simple picture of romantic love. Here I see love that demands sacrifice. I see a stubborn love that persists even when the object of that love is unworthy. God says he loves his people like this. On one hand, he can’t ignore their sin and rebellion. On the other, he can’t just walk away. Because God is who he is, he loves. This is the hope of every human being. I’m fallen, unlovely, and condemned. My only hope is God’s love: his sacrificing, stubborn love. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
Take Away: Because the Lord is who he is, he loves.
The second time around
Hosea 3: God ordered me, “Start all over: Love your wife again.”
It isn’t hard to read between the lines here. Hosea married a prostitute, they had children, but she left him to return to her previous life. That sounds pretty cut and dried but I don’t think it was that way at all. What started off as Hosea’s obedience to a surprising command of God became a series of intense emotional experiences for the prophet. Without choosing to, Hosea fell in love and for a time it seemed things were going to work out. His wife, however, had a hard time settling down into a family routine. The day came when she turned her back on her husband and children to return to her previous life. Hosea’s heart was broken. Sadly, I know too many people who can identify with the story of broken promises and marriages. No one walks away unscarred by such a tragedy. Hosea, trying to cope, throws himself into his work. That helps him cover the pain. One day at a time, he begins to get over it. If the Lord’s first communication was surprising, his second must have left Hosea in shock. God tells him to love her again. That must have seemed like an impossible command. In the time since their divorce Hosea has carefully crafted a shell about himself, insulating him from the pain she’s caused even as he hears what she’s returned to. Now, God says Hosea is to emerge from that shell and open himself up to her again; not because she’s reformed, she hasn’t, but to reflect what God has done in his relationship with humanity. Hosea’s wife will get another chance, not because she deserves it, but because Hosea loves her too much to give up on her.
Take Away: The Lord loves us and reaches out to us even though we don’t deserve it.
The kind of stuff God does
Ezekiel 36: I, God, rebuild ruins and replant empty waste places.
In this “new heart” passage Ezekiel envisions God’s people repenting of their rebellion and mourning over the results of it. He sees them walking through a devastated Jerusalem and confessing it was their sins that brought it all to pass. In the face of such repentance, Ezekiel has an encouraging word: God specializes in taking messed up things and restoring them to “better than new” condition. Once the Lord’s given a chance, he’ll turn these weed patches into a “Garden of Eden.” No doubt, these are encouraging words to the people of Ezekiel’s day. They’re uplifting words for us too. In a more literal sense, we look forward to a “new heaven and a new earth” that has been promised by God. What sin has destroyed the Lord will redeem — and that redeemed world will be vastly superior to what we see now. In a spiritual sense, this passage describes what the Lord accomplishes in the human heart. Sin destroys lives, making a wreck out of what was once wonderfully promising. When I cooperate with God, opening my life up to him he goes to work. In my life he “rebuilds ruins and replants empty waste places.” He’s God, and he does stuff like that. As Ezekiel puts it, “I, God, said so, and I’ll do it.”
Take Away: The Lord specializes in taking messed up things and restoring them to “better than new” condition.
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.