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.
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.
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.
Jeremiah 23: This is the name they’ll give him: “God-Who-Puts-Everything-Right.”
The religious leaders are a disappointment to God. They could have done a better job; treated people the way good and dedicated shepherds treat the sheep under their care. They haven’t done that and the Lord’s not only angry with them but he has another approach in mind. This plan will provide quality leadership to his people. David is considered the prototype king for Israel and the coming Leader will be cut from the same cloth as was David. He’ll be a descendant of David. He’ll also be strong, wise, and dedicated to God. That kind of man will take care of God’s people. In Jeremiah’s future and in my past that Leader makes his appearance. He does everything Jeremiah says he will. He’s a righteous man of justice and he goes to work fixing all that sin has broken. He’s worthy of the name Jeremiah gives him: “God-Who-Puts-Everything-Right.” The process started by this Leader isn’t yet complete, but we already see that everything he touches is changed for the better. Well, better put, “everyone he touches.” In fact, I can say that I not only believe in this Leader’s ability to transform lives — my own life is an example of his work. I’m not all I’m going to be, but by his grace, I’m not what I would have been.
Take Away: In Christ we find restoration and transformation.
God doing something new
Isaiah 65: I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.
This is an interesting passage. Later on, the Revelator will remember these words when the Lord describes to him what’s coming at the end of time. In fact, some think that Isaiah is having a vision of the same thing John sees in Revelation. However, left in context Isaiah’s describing the end of the exile of his people; the return to their beloved Jerusalem. The language is that of poetry: God’s doing something new and is, therefore changing everything. Life’s going to be much better than it has been. Wonderful blessings are in store. I think this is another dual prophecy. Isaiah’s speaking to current events, describing things in a big way but unaware that his words will literally come true in his (and our) distant future. If I leave things there, I still find the transformational language of Isaiah quite interesting. The Lord is bringing salvation to his people and as a result, everything’s going to change for the better. However, at an entirely different level than Isaiah speaking to his contemporaries or John writing about the New Jerusalem I find myself thinking of the change Christ makes when he bring salvation to an individual’s life. When I’m forgiven of my sins and become a child of God “all things become new.” If Isaiah’s view of the restoration of Israel brings to mind visions of “new heavens and a new earth” I don’t think that it’s off base to find a parallel to the radical transformation being “born again” brings to each life.
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t just forgive us our sins – he also goes to work in us, transforming our lives, remaking us in wonderful ways.
Two prophecies for the price of one
Isaiah 52: He didn’t even look human.
I think this is another of those “dual prophecies” in which the prophet speaks of something close at hand, but, maybe without realizing it, speaks words that resonate into the future. On one hand, he’s talking about the restoration of his people. They’re broken, almost to the point of extinction. If their condition is described as though they are one person, we would say that individual has been beaten to the point that he or she is unrecognizable. God’s salvation is coming but at this point things don’t look very good. It makes perfect sense to us that the writers of the New Testament are reminded of this passage as they see what happens to Jesus. The Jews are God’s people and Jesus is God’s Man. Its sin that nearly destroys the Jews and it’s the burden of our sins that takes Jesus to Calvary. Physically, God’s people are practically destroyed and the same can be said of Jesus. Yes, it’s easy enough for us to see the connection. However, we don’t have to walk away from this passage with a vision of “a ruined face, disfigured past recognition” on our minds. We do need to spend time gazing at that face, absorbing the full impact of what happens at the cross. Then, we can move on. Isaiah describes an amazing transformation saying, “Just watch my servant blossom!” That’s exactly what we see at the garden tomb that first Easter morning. Israel is to be restored by the grace of God. Jesus rises from the grave, victor over sin and death. Praise His Name!
Take Away: The story of salvation doesn’t end at the cross.