2013 – Niagara Falls
Genesis 6: God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart.
Human beings have been removed from the Garden but they take their sin with them. Immediately, grace begins to flow, an unending river of good will toward these broken creatures. Sadly, the response is to reject the grace and push the Grace-Giver away. The crowning achievement of all God made has degenerated into a self-absorbed, God-ignoring shadow of what might have been. This “free-will” business isn’t working out and like radical surgery is sometimes needed to battle cancer, the Lord makes the painful decision to prune away all the foulness so that humanity will get another chance. For centuries the number of people who chose to respond to God’s grace has dwindled. Now, one righteousness man is left. If humanity is to be saved, it’ll be through him. The focus of the universe is on righteous Noah. We won’t see everything depending on just one man again until the Lord unleashes the eternal solution to the fallen condition of humanity. That will involve a willingness, not to build an ark, but to go to a cross.
Take away: The story of Noah is more about humanity getting a second chance than it is about judgment.
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.
Galatians 3: Anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure.
It’s astounding to read the writings of this once exemplary Pharisee as he takes on the failure of rule keeping. Paul was, at one time, a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was cheered for his dedication to a thousand-and-one rules; zealous for that way of life to the point that he hunted down and imprisoned any who threatened it. Now, years later, he’s making a lawyerly case against that approach, urging his friends at Galatia back from the brink of yielding to a “Jesus-and” approach to God. When a past Pharisee says rule keeping dooms a person to spiritual failure I’m wise to listen. Paul says the key to spiritual life isn’t trying harder, rather it’s trusting God more. He says this secret has always been out there, hidden in plain view. After all father Abraham is counted as righteous, not because he’s so good at always doing just what God wants (in fact, he’s notoriously bad at it) but rather because he trusts God. Rather than creating a human powered way to God the rules prove to me once and for all that that approach will never work. I’m left in a hopeless condition unless a superior way is made available to me. And that’s exactly what happens. Jesus, the Son of God, accepts my failure as his own. What rule keeping can’t do, he does. The door to righteousness is opened wide. To surrender to a “Jesus and” approach is to take a step backward to a failed system. My hope is firmly fixed on “Jesus only.”
Take Away: There’s no other way to God than through faith in Jesus.
Faith or works?
Galatians 1: I can’t believe your fickleness.
The Apostle wastes no time getting to his purpose in writing. He states his credentials, reminding his readers that he is “God-commissioned” and then challenges their recent move away from grace and to Law. This, he says, is no small thing. Rather it’s a pivot away from Christ; a rejection of his message of mercy and life transformation. During his time in their province, Paul laid a foundation of faith for them. He avoided “rule talk” and concentrated on “freedom talk.” He knows all about rules and regulations. In fact, in earlier days he was the champion of both. The biggest fans of such things cheered him on, making him their hero. After meeting Jesus, though, Paul rejected all that. Then, as a messenger for Christ, he set out to tell the Good News and in the telling he carefully avoided binding people up with the things that had bound him the first part of his life. Now he hears that many are embracing the old, failed approach and he’s writing to put a stop to it. In his mind one must decide between seeking righteousness by faith or righteousness by works. The first is achieved only in Christ. The second, well, the second is never achieved and bound for failure before it starts. As I begin reading Galatians right off I’m plunged into a discussion about one of the primary concerns of human beings across the ages: just what must I do to be righteous in the eyes of God?
Take Away: Righteousness can never be found in keeping rules.
A “me-story” or a God-story?
Romans 4: The story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story.
The Old Testament story of Abraham doesn’t start with “Abraham sought God” or “Abraham was a righteous man.” Rather, the focus is on God who approaches Abraham, makes promises to him, and calls him to follow. Obviously, without Abraham’s response there would be no story. However, it’s even truer that without God’s first call, Abraham would have had no opportunity to obey in the first place. In the book of Romans, Paul wants us to understand the route to righteousness. We don’t arrive at a certain place where the Almighty is impressed by us and decides to take us under his wing. Rather, even when we’re hopelessly lost the Lord seeks us out, calls to us, makes promises to us and then awaits our response. The greatest thing Abraham ever does is to respond to what God does. As I apply that to my life I find all the rules being rewritten. If it’s just me doing stuff, even things that impress others, it’s not worth much. However, if I respond to God’s grace in my life, and then live my life in him, things happen that would have never otherwise been accomplished. My life becomes, not a “me-story,” but becomes a God-story.
Take Away: It all starts with the grace of God. I plug into that grace by faith.
When trouble comes knocking
Acts 24: I do my best to keep a clear conscience before God and my neighbors.
Paul’s first formal hearing is before the governor, Felix. In spite of the compliments paid him by Tertullus, the lawyer for the Jewish leaders, Felix is a corrupt official who isn’t above receiving bribes. However, as Paul points out, Felix is in some ways best suited to hear the case. He, himself, has a connection to the beliefs of the Jews because he’s married to a Jewish wife named Drusilla. He’ll have a better grasp on some of the finer points of this case than others. Tertullus contends that Paul is a ringleader of a group of Nazarene troublemakers. Paul responds that this simply isn’t true. He hasn’t even been in the country for several years and, at the Temple, he was minding his own business when others started the riot. He adds that he makes it his practice to get along with both God and man. Paul may have been at the center of a riot, but it wasn’t his intention. In fact, if he has it his way, he makes friends with everyone and focuses his energies on doing the right thing in all circumstances. This leads me to a couple of thoughts. First, Paul’s goal should be my goal. I’m to “do my best to keep a clear conscience before God and my neighbors.” Christians aren’t to be trouble makers. Rather, we’re to be good citizens and good neighbors. Second, sometimes my best isn’t going to be good enough. Like Paul, I don’t have to make trouble to get into trouble. Sometimes trouble finds me. When that happens to Paul, he stands his ground, shows proper respect, and trusts God to see him through the unwanted trouble. His example is a pretty good example for me and for all those who live for the Lord.
Take Away: Paul’s the same guy who says, “If possible live at peace with all men.”
We don’t clean house to punish dust
Zephaniah 3: I’ll leave a core of people among you.
The prophet first turns his attention to other nations surrounding Judah. They’re not the chosen people, but they’ve refused the light they’ve been given. Because of that, the Day of Judgment that is such a driving force in Zephaniah’s preaching is coming to them too. When I read of Judgment in the Old Testament I sometimes come away thinking of God as punishing those who reject him. However, this passage takes me in a different direction. Zephaniah says that when God’s finished, he’ll leave a core of people who “will not do wrong.” If a person cleans house, wiping everything clean, they aren’t punishing the dust. Instead, they’re just cleaning things up like they ought to be. Through his prophets, the Lord cautions, warns, and pleads with people to repent and align themselves with his purpose for their lives. In the end, the Judgment that falls on those who refuse this patient call of the Lord is the result of their own refusal to connect to their Creator. I know that there’s a place to think about an angry God but I’m reminded today that a God who loves righteousness is bound by his own nature to take action when his creatures reject his righteousness. When the Lord’s finished, things will be drastically different and one of those changes will be that we’ll see core of previously unnoticed people still standing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Take Away: A God who loves righteous must, ultimately, deal decisively with sin.
Standing alone if necessary
Zephaniah 2: Seek God, all you quietly disciplined people.
The nation the prophet addresses is filled with sinful, guilty people. However, there’s another, much smaller group. Zephaniah knows that there’s a minority that has humbled themselves before the Lord. They’ve been meek when chastised by God and have quietly accepted his discipline. They’ve been an oasis of justice in an unjust land. Now, Zephaniah says, the Lord is about to bring an end to all the rebellion. God’s man advises those who have swam against the tide to focus their attention on the Lord and center their lives on doing the right thing even if they’re alone in doing it. In this day, I can’t force everyone to do the right thing but that doesn’t stop me from righteous living. I want to influence everyone I can for Christ, but whether or not I’m successful in that, I can commit myself to walk in the ways of the Lord. Zephaniah is certain that the “Day of God’s anger” is coming but he’s also convinced that there is a way of living that prepares us for that sure day.
Take Away: As Joshua of old says: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
We need to make up our minds
Zephaniah 2: You’re a nation without a clue about what it wants.
The prophet describes a coming day of God’s Judgment. The Lord’s about to demand an accounting from them and it’s clear that they aren’t ready for such a confrontation. Zephaniah tells people that they need to get their act together. They need to stop letting other nations be their primary influence and they need to start living as people who are going to face God. They’ve lost their bearings and are now at the mercy of whatever fad happens to come along. For a little known, mostly ignored, minor book of the Bible, Zephaniah has pretty much nailed my society. My nation has lost its bearings. It doesn’t want all those “Christian hang ups” but it can’t decide what values are worth pursuing. Instead, we’ve become a shallow people, more concerned about being politically correct than we are with being morally righteous. Zephaniah’s warning of Judgment Day needs to be heard here and now. Otherwise, our story is likely to end like that of clueless Judah.
Take Away: Zephaniah’s warning needs to be heard here and now.
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.