2013 – Shenandoah National Park, VA – Skyline Drive
That’s just the way I am
Genesis 25: The children tumbled and kicked inside her.
If there has ever been a set of fraternal twins it’s Jacob and Esau. These boys don’t look anything alike and their personalities are clearly different one from one another. It’s no surprise that their mother Rebekah knows something’s wrong. And no wonder: her body is a sort of war zone! Her babies don’t get along and they’re yet to see the light of day! Their story is, to say the least, a thought provoking one. Here are two babies being born to the same parents, sharing a womb, and sibling rivalry is already full blown. We’ve all said, at one time or another, “That’s just the way I am.” Most often that’s an excuse for failing to practice self-discipline in some area. However, I’m reminded in this passage that there’s truth to that statement. We aren’t born as blank slates ready to be shaped by the events of our lives. Some stuff about us is hard wired from the start. In this case, Jacob and his brother are hard wired for conflict. Their parents, who will play favorites with their sons, won’t help matters any. So what, if anything, can be done about the undesirable tendencies with which we’re born? To some extent, parents can teach their children self-discipline and thus help them learn to deal with their natural dispositions. I’m glad, though, to report that there’s a greater remedy. As we read this story we see God at work, especially in Jacob’s life. As God’s grace unfolds, we see a man who’s changed as only God can change him.
Take away: God can do for us that which we could never do for ourselves.
Hebrews 12: One last shaking, from top to bottom, stem to stern.
The old way stood for hundreds of years, sometimes with seeming success and at other times in total failure. Jesus came to usher in a new way. Those portions of the old way that were intended to survive did so, but the rest came crashing down as the superior new way was put into place on the first Easter Sunday morning. There was an earthquake at the tomb that morning but there was a much greater spiritual earthquake that day and the result was all good. All the “historical and religious junk” was replaced with the “unshakable essentials.” All that to say that the coming of Jesus was and is a very big deal: the centerpiece of human history. In a much more minor way, but still important to me personally, is the spiritual earthquake that happens when I give my heart to Jesus. The result is some big changes in my life. As it was with the Old Testament Law, some things are worth keeping. They survive the earthquake, made clean and new by Christ. A lot of stuff has to go. In the case of such things, it may be a slow motion earthquake as the Holy Spirit goes to work in my life, dealing with different things as time passes. A lot of stuff, though, simply falls right then and there. Well, one thing in particular: my own self-righteousness. It can’t survive the Christ-earthquake. From my point of view its good-riddance; self-will and some other things must yield to Jesus if he’s to be Lord of my life. Most earthquakes are unwelcome, but this one: this transformational encounter with Jesus is the best thing that could ever happen to me.
Take Away: When Jesus comes into a life it’s a very big deal.
I’ve been changed
1Thessalonians 1: Something happened in you.
The Apostle writes two letters to the church at Thessalonica, a city of Greece that still exists today: Thessaloniki. Bible scholars tell us that these letters are some of the earliest writings of the New Testament, penned a mere 20 years or so after the ascension of Christ. Jesus promised that he’ll come back and it’s that promise that drives these letters. When the gospel was preached at Thessalonica a few years earlier it was wonderfully received. People believed and in believing their lives were changed right then. As our Lord put it, they were born again and thus made new. Not only were they changed in the present, but their view of the future was changed too. Now, every day contains in it a sense of anticipation as they “expectantly…await the arrival of…Jesus.” That expectancy drives them, flavoring their lives in positive ways. No life situation is forever and a better day will begin any moment now. This has made these made new people into optimists who are admittedly curious as to exactly how it will all come about. Today, I’m 2000 years distant from these believers. Still, I have this in common with them: I too look forward to that day with both optimism and a certain measure of curiosity as to how it will all play out in the end.
Take Away: Christians anticipate the Second Coming even though we admit we don’t know exactly how it will all play out.
My close, personal Friend
2Corinthians 3: God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone.
Paul’s ancestors placed the weight of their hope in God on the Law given through Moses. And not just his ancestors, Paul, himself, starts off here. Then, out in the wilderness on the road to Damascus he has a personal, transforming encounter with the Lord that forever changes his life. Never again will he base his relationship with God on what was written on stone tablets hundreds of years earlier. Now, his relationship with the Lord is just that: a relationship. He doesn’t have to check a rulebook to know how things are between him and God. Rather, he enjoys a personal, intimate relationship with his Creator. This “face to face” level of faith is what the Apostle wants for his friends at Corinth and it’s what the Lord wants to have with you and me. Listen, don’t ever settle for a book of rules when you can personally know God. That’s the offer he makes to us in Christ, who not only came to die for us, but also came to live with and in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit. For Christians, the Bible isn’t a book of rules to be followed. Rather, it’s a map that leads us to God and then helps us live in his personal presence.
Take Away: Don’t settle for rules when the reality of God in your heart is abundantly available in Christ.
One tough man
Luke 3: The main character in this drama…will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you.
John the Baptist storms onto the world stage as “Thunder in the desert.” This is one tough man. He preaches a radical repentance. He calls some of his congregation “snakes” and tells everyone to straighten out their lives. When people begin to speculate that he might be the Messiah of God he points to the precious Lamb of God who’s soon to be revealed. John says that water baptism is the best he can offer. The coming Messiah, he declares, will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit, changing people from the inside out. John’s approach to life change is to take a hard line against sin. Those who claim a righteousness of their own he calls “snakes.” It’s a hard message, one intended to draw attention, and of course it’s true. However, John’s message is of only limited value. The tax collector who repents and commits himself to do the right thing is still the same person he was before. The real need of his life will never be met in this manner. The need is for him to be changed, transformed into a new person. John’s method creates skin deep believers. Jesus’ method creates saints of God. Any time I’m tempted to come down hard on people, challenging them to straighten up and fly right I need to remember that the finest, most anointed practitioner of that kind of preaching ever says that he’s a mere stage hand compared to the real Star, Jesus. His method isn’t to “tell it like it is.” Rather, it’s to be a loving, humble servant of God and man. Lord, make me more like your Son, Jesus.
Take Away: More than reformation people need transformation.
At the tomb
Mark 16: He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer.
The resurrection account in Mark is brief, to the point. The women go to the tomb to finish the burial tradition, find the tomb open and encounter a messenger of God who tells them “He’s been raised up.” It is thought provoking to realize that a message with such a huge impact can be stated so succinctly. This message reshapes the world and eternity. The horrible death of Jesus on the cross wasn’t a meaningless act of inhumanity. The resurrection transforms that awful event into the greatest good ever done. Rather than it being just another example of the inhumanity of humans it becomes the watershed event of history. The angel nails it all with “He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer.” Today, this event is both old and new. It’s old because it’s the old story I know so well. It’s new because, right now, even as I type these words, it’s real to me. My life – my forever – is changed because of it. The resurrection transforms the crucifixion and the crucifixion is the instrument used to transform me. And it’s all summed up with: “He’s been raised up.”
Take Away: My hope is founded in the resurrection of Jesus.
The Water Baptizer and the Spirit Baptizer
Mark 1: His baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out.
Mark’s gospel is a high speed, breath taking race through the life of Jesus. No “Song of Mary” here and no manger scene. In this story Jesus explodes onto the world scene out in the wilderness at one of John the Baptist’s riverside revival meetings. The “water Baptizer” instantly recognizes Jesus as the Lamb of God, and willingly steps aside for this “Spirit baptizer.” Jesus changes people, John says, “from the inside out.” The Gospel writer believes that the promise of real, heart-based change will draw spiritually hungry people like me into his story. No more playing at religion and hungering for transformation that’s forever beyond my reach. The one I read about here is the real deal. Every person who wants something more than what’s found by following the rules and trying to find God is drawn to the promise of change — real change — from the inside out. This Jesus is worthy of my allegiance.
Take Away: Jesus is the answer to the great hunger in people’s lives.
The undressed guest
Matthew 22: How dare you come in here looking like that!
I pretty much get the story of the wedding feast. Those who are invited but make excuses are the “insiders” to the Kingdom, in the case of the parable, it’s the religious leaders and the Jewish people in general who are the intended guests. They turn away, each more interested in doing their own thing than coming to the banquet prepared by the Lord. Upon their refusal to come the invitation list is broadened to what might be thought of as a “second tier.” Then, when even these don’t come, the king opens the doors for all who will come. That’s good news for the “outsiders” like me. The one part I’ve never grasped is the part about the “undressed guest.” That part of the story feels like an afterthought and I’ve generally breezed on past it to the next event. Now, though, I’ve done a bit of reading and I think I have a better handle on the “clothes problem.” A king, like the one in the story, would be well aware that people off the street wouldn’t have the customary white robes to wear to a formal feast like this one. Common people of that day likely had only one set of clothing and even if they did have something more fancy whatever it was would come up far short of the dress code for big formal wedding feast at the palace. However, the king had a large supply of white robes for just such an occasion. As each guest arrived the servants would dress them for the feast. When the king looks at the crowd and spots one man who sticks out like a sore thumb it means that he refused to wear the robe that was supplied to him. With this in mind, I realize that the “undressed guest” part of the story is crucial to the parable. Not only has the Lord, in Jesus, invited outsiders to come, he also makes us worthy to come. Here I see that the Lord’s invitation to me really is “Just as I am” but that when I do respond, he doesn’t leave me as he finds me. Instantly, he goes to work remaking me into the person he calls me to be. If I refuse his work in my life, I’m like the “undressed guest” who gets “uninvited” to the wedding feast.
Take Away: The Lord not only forgives sins; he also transforms sinners.
The sweetest invitation
Matthew 11: Come to me.
There’s no sweeter invitation than what we hear from the Lord: “Come to me.” This invitation is directed to people who are weary and beaten down by life. It’s for people who’ve tried to find satisfaction in sometimes self-destructive ways and, in the end, realize that all they have is a handful of sand. Specifically, this invitation is for people who’ve tried religion and been hurt, maybe even abused, there. To all who are hurting, disappointed, tired, and empty Jesus says, “Come to me.” It’s not about church rituals and rules; although such things have been found by many to be helpful. It’s not about turning over a new leaf, making a New Year’s resolution, or simply trying harder; although there’s room here for self-improvement. Beyond all that, though, is Jesus. I respond to his sweet invitation by giving up my own claims to righteousness and reordering all other relationships to something less than number one. In response to this invitation to “come” I turn my attention to Jesus and lay all else, including myself, at his feet. From that point on, I walk with him and learn from him, how to really live.
Take Away: Jesus is the only one who can truly make this offer, and he does make it to all who will come.
Unreservedly in love with God
Hosea 6: I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.
The prophet has fallen head over heals in love with his deeply flawed wife. She’s left him but he isn’t over her and wants her to come back. However, he knows that just getting her back won’t be enough. For her to return yet remain unchanged will only start this whole destructive sequence over again. Something in her has to change if there’s any hope for their future together. That, Hosea says, is how it is between God and his people. The Lord loves them and wants them to turn from their idol worshiping ways and return to him. However, what he wants from them isn’t just a polished approach to doing worship. Instead, he wants them to love him with the abandon and passion that he has for them. He says to them, “I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.” As old as this concept is, and as reasonable as it is, people to this very day fail to grasp this. God doesn’t want me to go to church; to “practice religion,” or to attend Bible studies. He wants me to passionately love him. He wants me to throw myself into that relationship without reservation. When that happens, no one has to tell me I ought to worship and pray and study my Bible. The only reason for me to go to church and study my Bible is that in doing these things I better experience the Object of my strongest attraction: God, Himself. That’s the kind of relationship God wants to have with me and with you.
Take Away: The Lord wants us to passionately love him.