Breaking the “me centered” way of life
1Peter 4: Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way.
Peter’s target audience is Christians who are isolated and suffering for their faith. He doesn’t suggest to them that suffering in itself is good but he does tell them that their suffering for the right reason gives them reason to rejoice. If the same people who hate Jesus hate us because they see Jesus in our lives their poor treatment of us may be unwelcome but in it we can see a compliment. He also tells his readers that suffering tends to wean us from the idea that we’re always supposed to get our own way. As infants, we all start off there, caring not at all about the needs of those around us, but instead, totally focused on what we want and having it right now. To some extent we never outgrow that. Peter says that suffering (something no one wants) helps break that “me centered” way of life. This, in turn, sets the table for allowing the One who knows and loves us best to have his way in our lives. Again, the suffering isn’t a good thing, but the result can be a good one. My earnest desire is that I’ll learn these lessons early and well as the Lord uses the ups and downs of my life to benefit me and his kingdom.
Take Away: If we’ll allow it the Lord will use both the ups and downs of our lives to our benefit.
The “rest” for the people of God
Hebrews 4: The promise of “arrival” and “rest” are still there for God’s people.
In the Old Testament story of the people of God we read of their deliverance from Egyptian slavery. By God’s hand they triumph at the Red Sea and not long after that come to the Jordan River with the promise that this is to be their land of rest. Once they possess Canaan they’ll be home at last. However it doesn’t work out. The people refuse to trust God and, because of that, are sentenced to a lifetime of wilderness wandering. The writer of Hebrews uses that sad story to tell his readers that the Lord calls his people to a “rest experience” in their relationship with him. After deliverance from sin, there’s a “Jordan River” crisis in which believers are to trust God to give them rest from the inner struggle and freedom to love him with all their heart and soul and mind. The failure of the people of Israel is a real possibility for the believer: to doubt the extent to which the Lord can deliver his people from the bondage of sin. To fail here is to turn back to the wilderness and to experience the spiritual journey as a constant struggle with failure and sin. To believe God and trust him with all of one’s life is to cross the Jordan and enter into a deeper spiritual life of freedom and liberty. “The promise of ‘arrival’ and ‘rest’ are still there for God’s people.”
Take Away: The Lord not only forgives our sins – he also delivers us from that sin.
God’s answer to sin-in-me
Romans 8: With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved.
What’s the answer to a failure filled Christianity? Am I destined to a defense oriented spiritual life? Is my constant excuse, “the spirit is willing but the body is weak”? The gloom of Romans 7 is blown away by the opening words of Romans 8. Before Christ, Romans 7 was the norm, but it’s the norm no more. In Christ “a new power is in operation” and everything’s changed. When I cry out to God for relief from sin he responds in Christ to defeat sin-in-me once and for all. The blood of Christ is applied to my life to bring about a “deep healing” and sin-as-a-condition is defeated. Now, a new day dawns in my spiritual life. I’m led “out into the open, into a spacious, free life.” I’ve been “delivered from that dead life” and the Spirit is now living in me. As a child of God who struggles with sin, I cry out to my Heavenly Father for help. He responds by doing a work in me as “God’s Spirit touches” my spirit resulting in a deeper relationship with God and a level of spiritual living I never before dreamed possible.
Take Away: In God, there’s wonderful freedom from self and sin.
Yielding center stage to Jesus
John 3: This is the assigned moment for him to move into the center, while I slip off to the sidelines.
John the Baptist blazed to prominence in the land like a shooting star that, seemingly out of nowhere, lights the sky and draws the attention of everyone. Now, like a shooting star, he’s just as quickly fading from the scene as all attention is focused on a new “Sun” rising, shedding light, not just for a passing moment but for all time. John’s disciples are defensive about this. They believe in and support him and they don’t like it that his role is diminishing as Jesus is drawing more and more attention. For John, though, this is exactly how it should be. As he said when he introduced Jesus, Jesus is vastly superior to himself. As Jesus moves into the limelight John happily stands off on the sidelines cheering him on. I think there’s a spiritual parallel to this in the lives of those on the Christian journey. Once I acknowledge Jesus as the Savior of the world and as my personal Savior, it quickly becomes apparent that this Savior is also King of kings and Lord of lords. I understand that I need to stop being the center of my universe so that he can move to his rightful place as Lord of my life. I must decrease that he might increase.
Take Away: The only proper place for Jesus is sitting on the throne of my life.
Church camp commitment
Matthew 26: I’m ready. Do it your way.
When I was growing up a high point of my summers was attending church camp. I loved playing ball and taking hikes and all the other things associated with camp. The ministry at children’s camp focused on the plan of salvation. Many children first gave their hearts to Jesus at camp. At teen camp, though, the focus was more on full surrender, sanctification, accepting a call to the ministry. Teens, more than any other group, grasp the idea of radical commitment. Still, there was a sort of insider’s secret shared by “old timers” like me who had been going to camp through our childhood years. It worked something like this: the Lord will ask you if you’re willing to be a missionary or a pastor but it’s just a test. Once you say “yes” and mean it with all your heart, he won’t actually call you. With that tidbit of information buried in one’s mind, even a sincere seeker had a little bit easier time making a full surrender. When I work with teens I still see in them a willingness to go all out in their commitment to the Lord. Adults carry baggage (jobs, bills to pay, family responsibilities) that has to be sorted through so it’s a more thoughtful process for them. However, adults also have a more realistic attitude concerning what it means to sign on the dotted line. If I commit myself to making monthly mortgage payments I’m really going to have to pay them; there’s nothing theoretical about it! When I see Jesus praying in the Garden I hear him making a full commitment to do his Father’s will. No doubt, Jesus is emotional at this point but there’s more. He knows that this “yes” is the real deal. With his eyes wide open Jesus commits to go to the cross. His full commitment to do the Father’s will both challenges and instructs me as I live the Christian life.
Take Away: The call to full surrender is a real call and needs to be taken seriously.
A courtroom scene
Zechariah 3: Get him out of those filthy clothes.
In his vision Zechariah sees the high priest, whose name is Joshua, in a courtroom scene. Joshua represents not only himself, or the priesthood of Israel, but the entire nation. Their situation is a dire one. Even though they’ve been snatched from the consequences of their sin and returned to their homeland, they remain unclean before God. And that’s what the Accuser comes to declare. However, there’s a remedy. In the vision, the Lord removes the high priest’s uncleanness and outfits him in clean clothes. Then, the prophet asks that Joshua be given a clean turban as well. Now, remember that Joshua’s the high priest. The clothes he’s given aren’t just average clothes and the turban isn’t an average turban. They’re the robes and turban of the high priest: rich garments reflecting his high position. That hat, in particular, has meaning. The turban worn by the high priest has a gold plate on it that’s inscribed with the words “Holiness unto the Lord.” This is powerful symbolism. Although the people are redeemed they remain unclean in the sight of the Lord. Through the mercy and grace of God there’s a remedy. The Lord purifies their lives and then outfits them in his holiness. Believers of today can identify with this. After I put my faith in Jesus as my Savior I come to realize that there remains a basic uncleanness in my heart. It’s when I throw himself to the mercy of God that he takes action to graciously purify my heart and fill me with his Holy Spirit that I might be holy in his sight.
Take Away: Through the mercy and grace of the Lord there’s a remedy for the stain of sin.
God’s in the heart transforming business
Ezekiel 36: I’ll…replace it with a heart that’s God-willed, not self-willed.
I’ve always felt that this is the mountain top of the book of Ezekiel. Things are going to change in a glorious day to come. Through the centuries the Lord has sent gifted leaders to Israel. He’s given them the Law upon which to build their civilization and a beautiful Temple in which to worship. He he’s given them a land of their own and has been with them through their many ups and downs. Still, failure has dominated them. They’ve tossed all their advantages aside and have paid a terrible price for doing so. Ezekiel says that things are going to change. The change won’t come because some new national leader leads them back to God. It won’t come by God’s restating his laws to them, and it won’t come simply because they try harder to please the Lord. The change will be at the core of their lives. The Lord says he’s going to give them a new heart. Under this new arraignment self-centered living will give way to God-centered living. Their very affections will be transformed. The result will be a people fully connected to God. I love this portion of scripture because I believe the message is not only for these ancient Israelites, but for God’s people today. For every Christian who battles inner battles, who struggles with living wholly for God, this is a wonderful word of hope. The Lord’s not only in the sin forgiving business — he’s in the heart transforming business as well. We find hope for a deeper, heart changing work of God in this passage. Throughout the years Christians have read this message and come away with a prayer on their lips: “Lord, do that for me – do it in me – today.”
Take Away: The Lord not only forgives sins: he transforms lives as well.
The cry of God’s people
Ezekiel 11: I’ll give you a new heart. I’ll put a new spirit in you.
Judah’s problem isn’t poor leadership or powerful enemies. They aren’t ignorant of God’s desires for them and they aren’t the unwitting victims of circumstance. They are where they are because they’ve rebelled against God. Through their history, time and time again, they’ve followed a cycle of failure, judgment, repentance, and restoration — only to have it all start again. Now many of them have been exiled from the land God gave them. Back in Jerusalem sin reigns and soon the result of that sin will be the total destruction of their beloved city. The Lord says he’s going to break the cycle by changing their hearts. The result will be a people who love God and love his ways. Many Christians can identify with the cycle of failure we see when we journey with these ancient Israelites. We too have been trapped in a cycle of failure, judgment, repentance, and restoration. As we read the promise of a “new heart” our spirits respond with longing for that kind of relationship with God. These words stir us and challenge us to let God have his way in our lives even if that means we need a spiritual “heart transplant.” The result is a healthy spiritual life: “You’ll be my people! I’ll be your God!”
Take Away: Only the Lord can do what must be done in us and he’ll only do it as we allow him to and cooperate with him in that work.
God’s Law in my heart
Jeremiah 31: I will put my law within them — write it on their hearts!
I love this statement. Jeremiah sees the sin and rebellion of his people, not as a cultural or educational or behavioral problem, but as a heart problem. Their failure isn’t the result of misunderstanding and it isn’t a mistake. They sin because they’re sinners at heart. The great need of their lives isn’t that they straighten up and act right. They need heart surgery; a change at the very foundation of their being. In this passage the Lord describes this change. On the first level, it’s a change that will take place following the Babylonian exile but on a larger scale it’s a change Jesus, the Son of God, will bring. In fact, the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews returns to this passage to describe the new spiritual reality Christ has brought into the world. God’s Law is no longer written on stone tablets. Rather, it’s written on the hearts of those who receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Jeremiah sees the need and he has the promise from God that the need will be met, but he can’t imagine how it will all be brought about.
Take Away: We need more than to change our behavior – we need for our hearts to be transformed by the grace of the Lord.
Jeremiah 24: I’ll give them a heart to know me, God.
In a vision Jeremiah sees two baskets of figs. One basket has good fruit and the other has bad fruit. The Lord tells Jeremiah that the good figs represent people who’ll obey God’s call to surrender to the Babylonians and be relocated to other lands by them. The bad figs represent the leaders and others who are ignoring God’s demand that they surrender and accept the Lord’s judgment on the nation. Even the “good fig” population, though, is in need of a divine heart transplant. God says he’s going to do just that. Those who trust and obey him, placing their lives in his hands, aren’t considered complete until the Lord makes some basic changes in their hearts. I think this illustrates the work of the Lord in our individual lives. On one hand, I surrender my life to the Lord, committing myself to live for him, no matter what might come. On the other hand, God does in me what I can’t do for myself. He changes my very heart, enabling me to love him with all my being. It is then, Jeremiah tells me, that I’m one of God’s people, and he is Lord of my life.
Take Away: The Lord does in me what I can’t do for myself.