Victory in Jesus
1John 2: He solved the sin problem for good.
An old preacher’s line is when asked the topic of his or her sermon is to reply “I’ve decided to preach about sin…I’m going to take a stand against it.” In this passage we find John doing just that. He tells his readers that he’s writing “to guide you out of sin.” Then, if a believer falls back into sin, he points us to the remedy, our “Priest-Friend” Jesus. Beyond that, as I consider the broader problem of sin, I’m told that Jesus has already dealt with sin at that level too. Sin, which breaks our relationship with our Heavenly Father, has been decisively dealt with through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. “He solved the sin problem for good.” When sin is an issue in my life there’s a remedy and his name is Jesus. From this passage I learn, then, that Christians can live in victory over intentional spiritual failure. I learn that if that failure comes anyway that Christ’s victory can yet be mine. I learn that, even as I’m dismayed by rampant, destructive sin in the world that there’s hope, a way out through the Lord. Because of him I’m set free from the domination of sin. That opens the way to abundant life. For every person who struggles with some old sinful habit; for everyone who sometimes feels the tug of some especially powerful temptation; for everyone who wants to live freely in Christ – for everyone – this is a wonderful, hope-filled Word from the Lord.
Take Away: At the cross Jesus defeated sin and death once and for all.
Competition for the title “Number One Sinner”
1Timothy 1: I’m so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work.
The letters to Timothy and Titus are all about pastoral leadership. Paul has entrusted congregations to these men and now he writes them letters of encouragement and instruction. The Apostle writes, not always as an overseer, but sometimes as a fellow pastor, a man called by God to proclaim the gospel and shepherd the Church. He pictures himself as one of Jesus’ favorite trophies of grace. That is, he, of all people should be declared too bad, too lost, too committed to sin to ever be saved. In his grace and mercy though, the Lord has done just that. He not only saved Paul but he called him to proclaim the gospel message. Every time he preaches his life is speaking more loudly and eloquently than his words. He sees himself as example number one of just how gracious, forgiving, and merciful God is. If that’s true, then even as I read these words 2000 years after they were written, the very fact that they were written by this “Public Sinner Number One” speaks as loudly as what he actually writes. Still, having said all that, I’m compelled to add that any minister worth his or her salt shares Paul’s confession of unworthiness. To some extent, no one can properly proclaim the gospel, or even get saved in the first place, unless they read Paul’s words and think, “not so fast on that ‘Sinner Number One’ stuff Paul, let me tell you my story.” The bottom line is that if not for Jesus none of us would have a chance. Those called to the ministry, of all people, can join Paul in his thanksgiving to Jesus for making us “adequate to do his work.”
Take Away: Anything “adequate” about us is evidence of the Lord’s grace at work in our lives.
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.
God is the God of Second Chances
2Corinthians 2: Getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church.
This is likely a reference to the situation described in the first letter. Apparently, one of the members of the congregation at Corinth was living in an immoral relationship with his stepmother. Now, Paul has received word that the church took action on this. There has been, first: discipline, and then, second: repentance, and now, forgiveness. Paul tells them that that’s good enough for him. He stands by their handling of things and now counsels them to add a double portion of love for the one who had been involved in the immorality. Otherwise, he cautions, the enemy of their souls will use the situation to work against them, doing more harm than good. It seems to me that the church generally errs on the extremes of issues like this. Sometimes, we’re so open minded that we just go with the flow. People behave in immoral ways and “we just love them anyway” never getting around to pointing out that their behavior will destroy their lives and damn their souls. In other situations, the church is so intent on “telling it like it is” that we drive away the very people for whom Christ died. We think we’re being spiritual, but really we’re just being hateful. In the middle there’s loving people enough to tell them the truth in such a way that they know we love them. God is a God of Second Chances and the church should be a Church of Second Chances.
Take Away: We need the help of the Lord to find the middle ground when dealing with sinners who are loved by Christ.
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.
Living with our decisions
Matthew 19: Moses provided for divorce as a concession to your hardheartedness, but it is not part of God’s original plan.
The religious leaders want to know Jesus’ views on marriage and divorce and the answer he gives is stricter than they think it should be. He declares that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and that their union is to be both physical and spiritual. No one has the authority to rip apart that union. Jesus, speaking in the manner of a rabbi and with the authority of the Son of God, adds that in the case of adultery he allows (but, note, he doesn’t “require”) an exception to this permanent man/woman union. The leaders, then, want to know why Moses includes a broader divorce procedure in the Law. Is Jesus claiming authority beyond that of Moses? His answer is eye-opening. Moses, Jesus says, finds it necessary to provide for the destruction of a marriage because of people’s hard hearts. God didn’t plan for this to be necessary, but Moses sees the need and God allows it. This interpretation is fascinating. On one level, I’m interested in this situation in which God doesn’t get his way and in which he allows Moses to adjust things. If God has his own way there will never be a divorce. However, since people have hard hearts the Lord allows the Law to accommodate it. This is an interesting application of the Lord’s commitment to our free-will. The other thing that gets my attention is the strong possibility that I can, because of my hardheartedness insist on something that the Lord reluctantly allows, leaving me in a permanent sub-par situation. I’m glad we serve a God of Second Chances and I know that in him, life is good. Still, I see that the Lord won’t stop me from doing that which will bring a lifetime of pain, or at the very best, a lifetime of knowing that if not for my stubbornness things could be better for me than what they are. I’m thankful for the grace of God, but I’m also aware that I have a real responsibility to live carefully and to remain in harmony with the Lord each step of the way.
Take Away: Even though the Lord will allow it, I must be careful to not overrule God’s will in my life.
God, golf, and grace
Zechariah 10: They’ll get a fresh start, as if nothing had ever happened.
I’m not a golf historian, so I may not have the story right, but I understand that in days of old a golfer who had not had the opportunity to warm up on the driving range was allowed to declare his first shot off the tee to be a “mulligan.” That meant it was going to be a practice shot and wouldn’t count. The “mulligan” morphed into an after-the-fact point of grace, first, for the opening shot only and then to any one tee shot during the round. I’ve even played golf with some folks who took however many “mulligans” they wanted. My response has always been, “You can take as many second shots as you want as long as you don’t brag about your score!” I’m reminded that out in real life we don’t get many mulligans. Once in a while we do, for instance, when the traffic cop lets us off with a warning. However, if my poor driving has resulted in a car wreck the clock can’t be turned back and there’s no mulligan for me. God’s man Zechariah has good news for Israel. The Lord’s going to give them another chance. He’s going to gather this scattered nation from all the places where it’s landed and give it a fresh start. We serve a God who graciously gives nations and individuals second chances. When I confess my sin and failure and return to the Lord, I find that he delights in forgiving me and restoring me to his family. In golf, the mulligan is just an unofficial part of a game. With God, it’s the real deal and it happens only because of his grace.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
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.
The God of grace
Nahum 1: He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.
Even as the prophet prepares to deliver his sermon of condemnation on the mighty nation of Assyria he can’t help but rejoice in the grace and mercy of God. This same God who declares his judgment on those who reject his claim on their lives has nothing but good news for those who turn to him for help. In fact, the Lord is drawn to such people. I love the fact that even in these portions of the Old Testament that appear to be focused on God as Judge of the World that there are these beautiful word pictures of him as the God of Grace. Nahum declares that “no matter how desperate the trouble” that God is more than willing to “recognize and welcome” all who come to him. In an uncertain world I need such a Savior. I’m reminded in this passage that I don’t have to come to God and convince him that I’m worthy of his help in my life. Instead, I see that he stands ready to extend his mercy to me. In the parable of the prodigal son, the returning son expects to have to make concessions, to take a lowly role if he wants to, once again, have a place in the Father’s household. Instead, the Father runs to him, embraces him, and immediately begins celebrating his return. Hundreds of years before Jesus ever tells this story, Nahum understands this about God, declaring, “He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.”
Take Away: The Lord stands ready to extend his mercy to us.
About as low as you can go
Jonah 2: My prayer got through to you.
When he’s thrown into the stormy sea he’s sure he’s a gonner. Then this huge fish shows up, mouth open wide, and Jonah thinks this is certainly the end. Now, in the darkness, trying to get the sea weed off of his face he realizes he’s still alive. This isn’t Star Trek and he didn’t go “boldly” but Jonah finds himself “where no man has gone before.” In this predicament Jonah wonders if prayers from the inside of a fish at the bottom of the sea can possibly reach heaven. Since he has no other choice he begins to cry out to the God he fled. Years earlier the suffering Job heard the Lord promise that he visited the “springs of the sea.” Now Jonah becomes the first human being to put that statement to a literal test. Later he reports, “My prayer got through….” Now, I’ve never been deep under water in the belly of a fish. I tried scuba once but I stayed pretty close to the surface so I’ll just have to take Jonah’s testimony at face value. However, I’ve been in some situations in which I felt distant from God and I wondered if my prayers could ever get through – but they did! In this passage I find hope for every person who thinks they’re so far from God and have messed up so many times that they’re gonners. Today I see that the Lord hears prayers, even from the depths of the sea.
Take Away: There’s hope for every person who thinks they’re so far from the Lord that there’s no hope for them.