Jun 17

The Destiny of the Servant

The Destiny of the Servant

 

My servant will be successful; he will be high and lifted up; he will be greatly exalted…. Therefore I will assign a portion among the mighty, and he will divide the spoil with the strong….      

Isaiah 52:13; 53:12a [author’s translation]

 

The fourth of the so-called “Suffering Servant Songs” begins at Isaiah 52:12 and continues on to 53:12. When we recognize that fact we discover a very interesting phenomenon. We are used to the descriptions of suffering, degradation, loss, and injustice that characterize the Servant in 53:1-11, and as a result easily overlook the surprising statement in 53:12a. But when we recognize that the poem begins in 52:13, and we see how it begins, we are prepared to realize the significance of that closing statement. In fact, the poem begins and ends on a note of triumph. This is the destiny of the Servant. In spite of all the tragedy and loss – no, because of the tragedy and loss, his mission will be totally successful. [The Heb. word has the connotations of wisdom, prudence, effectiveness (prosperity), and success.]  In the end, he will be in the place of the Victor.

How could Jesus leave heaven for a cow-stall? How could he lay aside the robes of divine glory, and wrap himself in a towel? How could he who had been ministered to by angels take the lowest place? He could do it because he knew who he was! He could do it because he knew how the story ends! On the one hand, he lost everything, and he really did. He was not merely masquerading as a limited, fragile, dying human. It was real.  But at the same time, he knew that he was the Lord, the Prince of Glory. He was armored against the temptation to feel sorry for himself because he knew the destiny of his servanthood.

You and I need that same sense of destiny. Why should we scrabble for position and power in this world, as though this is all there is? Why should we work so hard to protect ourselves and our rights, when we know the end of the story? “Blessed are you when all men revile you and persecute you for my name’s sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Believe it, and take the lowest place, knowing that the destiny of the servant is triumph.

Jun 10

What Cup?

What Cup?

 

 You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, a cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria; you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards, and tear your breasts; for I have spoken, declares the Lord GOD. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you have forgotten me and cast me behind your back, you yourself must bear the consequences of your lewdness and whoring.”                                                                         Ezekiel 23:33-35 ESV Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: “Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.

Isaiah 51:22 ESV

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and aknelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”…. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.                                                             Luke 22:41-42, 44 ESV

 

Have you ever wondered about Gethsemane? Agony? Sweating like drops of blood? What was it about what Jesus was facing that would evoke such terror and revulsion? Yes, the humiliation, the beating, the death on the cross, all the things that were facing Jesus in the next twenty-four hours were terrible to contemplate, but what about all those people down through the ages who faced equally terrible deaths with a song on their lips? Why didn’t Jesus “bear up” better?

 

The answer is in the word that is repeated in all three of the passages above, the word “cup.”

It is a word expressing the experience of consequences. This world that our heavenly Father has made is one of cause and effect. It is not possible to live in defiance of the way in which the world is made, whether physical or spiritual, and then escape the consequences of our actions. Oh, yes, we personally may escape them for a time, but there will be consequences, and someone will experience them.

 

Those consequences are pictured by the Hebrew prophets as a cup filled to the brim with the most ghastly brew: all the hatred, all the tragedy, all the loss, all the missed opportunities, all the petty nastiness stemming from our determination to have our own way. And we will drink it; those consequences can no more be escaped than can the loss of fingers when we unthinkingly reach across a running circular saw for something on the other side.

 

Yes, the “cup” must be drained. But suppose someone else – Someone else – were to drink it for us? The “cup” could be taken out of our hands, and put into his. Now all of a sudden the agony of Gethsemane makes sense. Jesus was not agonizing over the circumstances of his own death, terrible as it was. He was agonizing over the hideous thought of having to drink the devil’s brew in our cup, the cup of all humanity: all the hurt, all the grief, all the terror, all the evil of all time, and in the end, for him who is Life alone, the Death of us all. Who in their right mind would willingly do that? Only one who was motivated by a bottomless love, a love for his Father whom he lived to please, and a love for the poor, pitiful creatures whom he had made for love.

Jun 04

Find Us Faithful

Find Us Faithful

 

See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.                            Isaiah 40:10 NIV

 

The LORD has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.’ ”                                                                                Isaiah 62:11 NIV

These words, some of them duplicates, were probably intended for the Judean exiles in Babylon (40:10) and then for those who returned from exile (62:11). But they raise questions. “Reward” for what? “Recompense” for what? Are they being rewarded and repaid for having gone into exile? But they richly deserved that. Moses had told them more than 800 years earlier that this is what would happen to them if they broke the covenant, yet they had done it repeatedly throughout that whole time. God had been incredibly patient in deferring justice that long. So reward for what?

I suggest two things are in play here. On the one hand, although the Assyrians and Babylonians were Yahweh’s instruments of discipline, they did not see themselves in that way. They arrogantly assumed they were able to do these things simply because they were bigger and tougher, and they carried out their attacks with no mercy and no sense of responsibility for their actions. So the day of recompense came: the great cities of Assyria and Babylon got their due, and they are no more, while Jerusalem has existed, and sometimes even flourished, for all the intervening years.

But I think there is another matter. Not all the Israelites and Judeans who suffered the terrible tragedies of conquest and exile deserved what happened to them. They were genuinely righteous and faithful, and yet they were swept away in the maelstrom too. Nevertheless, they and their children were those who refused to say, “Oh well,” and with others of their people consent to become good Assyrians and Babylonians (the purpose of exile, after all). No, they smuggled out the Scriptures; they refused to give up on Yahweh (Daniel?); and they dared to believe the unbelievable, that God would deliver them from the grip of great Babylon. These are the ones, many of whom never lived to see their beloved land again, for whom the reward came to another generation. These are the ones who were being repaid for a faith that would not stop.

 

What about us? The song says, “Let all who come behind us find us faithful.” Will another generation be rewarded and recompensed for our faithfulness? May it be.

May 27

I Know You By Name

I Know You By Name

 Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, 1Ch 3:7

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” Exodus 33:17 NIV

 

I was recently reading devotionally in 1 Chronicles. In my reading each day, I look for something in the chapter that particularly speaks to me. The chapter for that day was nothing but names, and very strange names, at that. As I came to the end, I thought to myself, “Well, so much for that! There’s nothing in there that says a thing.” I understood why those names were important to the Chronicler. He was establishing the continuity between those desperate people who had come back from captivity in Babylon with their whole history back to Abraham, and beyond him to Adam. Yes, he is saying, despite that awful tragedy, we can still know ourselves to be the people of God.

 

But, I thought, why does it matter to God? Why put those interminable lists into the canon of Scripture for all the rest of us to read down through the ages? Then I heard a whisper, “I know you by name,” and it dawned on me that God likes rehearsing all those names. They were people whom he knew, and knows. We are not just momentary bubbles on the surface of an endless ocean, here for a moment and then gone without a trace. No, each one of us is, I was going to say, cataloged, but better than that, known, in the fathomless mind of God. There will never be another Nogah, or Nepheg, or Japhia, and God delights in knowing each of them with everything that makes them who they are, talents and foibles alike. Do you feel like a cog in a machine, or a cipher on a page? Don’t; God delights to know you by name, and will do so through all eternity. He can never forget you; your name is written on his heart.

May 22

When Tragedy Strikes

When Tragedy Strikes

 

I create the light and make the darkness. I send good times and bad times. I, the LORD, am the one who does these things.                                                                                                                  Isaiah 45:7 NLT

 

The verse above, especially as translated in the King James Version (“I make peace, and create evil”), has created a great deal of concern for many people. Does God really cause moral evil in the world? No, he does not. The rest of the Bible is very clear on that issue. Moral evil is in the world because of our first mother and father’s choice, and it continues to be because all of their children choose to do it. But, the possibility of making a choice for evil is in the world solely because Yahweh permits it. We must never say that evil is caused by Satan. To do that is to set Satan up as the equal of Yahweh. That is never the case. There is one God alone, and all things exist as they are because of him alone. Satan may tempt us to do evil, but he can only do that because God permits him to do so.

So what is this verse actually saying? When tragedy strikes, we have to avoid two extremes. On the one hand God never chooses a family, for instance, and says, “Those folks have had it too good for too long. I believe I’ll send them a tragedy just to even things out.” Never! But on the other hand, neither does he say, “Oh, I wish I could prevent Satan from putting that tragedy on those good people, but this time he is just too strong for me. I’ll get you next time, Satan!” Again, never! Whatever happens to us comes through the hand of God alone.

In this regard it is important to think about levels of causation. Yahweh is the ultimate cause of all things; so if bad things are in the world it is because of God (“bad” is a better English equivalent of the Hebrew word, since that word covers everything from moral evil to misfortune). But, God is not the immediate cause of bad things. That is, he does not choose to bring bad things into our lives.

So this is what we may know. Yahweh is Sovereign in the world, and if tragedy comes my way as a result of the fallen-ness of the world, it will not come without his knowledge or his permission. He did not send it, but he did permit it. That means that since he allowed it, he is Lord over it, and can work through it – or because of it – or in spite of it – for my greater good. He is Lord!  In that confidence we can face whatever comes, not somehow, but triumphantly.

May 14

Repentance

Repentance

 

Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to relent and not punish.                                                                                                                Joel 2:13 NLT

 

The words translated “repent” or “repentance” in the two testaments are very significant. In the Old Testament the idea is “to turn around,” or “turn back to.” In the New Testament the root idea is “to agree with.” That is, we agree with God’s evaluation of our thoughts and behaviors, namely that they are wrong, and we actively turn away from them and turn back to God.

This is a long way from simply feeling bad about what we have done. That is remorse, not repentance. That is what happened to Judas Iscariot. He felt bad about what he had done, very bad, but he did not “repent.” Perhaps you say, “Well then, why did he hang himself?” He hanged himself because he did not repent! If he had repented, he would have gone back to Jesus, thrown himself at the foot of the Cross, believing the very things that Joel knew about God were true, and like Peter, would have been forgiven.

Don’t just feel bad about what you have done; don’t just feel bad about yourself because of what you have done. Rather, turn around. Agree that it was wrong, and then consciously, willfully, turn away from it and back to God, intending to live a new life, and receive the life-giving grace he longs to give.

Perhaps you say, “But I keep doing it!” Alright, then keep on repenting. It is the Devil who says to you, “Well, you might as well just stay where you are, his patience has limits.” No it does not! I don’t say this to encourage you to take advantage of that patience. God does want to empower us to be transformed. But I do say that at whatever point you are in life, “Repent, and believe!”

May 07

Clean and Unclean

Clean and Unclean

 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

                                                                                                                                                                Isaiah 64:6 NRSV

Perhaps the most significant consequence of sin, as they recognize, is that it makes us unclean (v. 6) in the presence of the One who is absolutely clean. This powerful metaphor runs through the Bible. Clean and unclean are opposites; the one cannot exist in the presence of the other. If there are two surgeons operating on a patient, and one is thoroughly clean, while the other has not taken the time to scrub, the patient’s wound will become contaminated. Long before anyone understood the necessity for sterility in the operating room the Biblical writers understood the contaminating power of sin. For the pagans, “clean” and “unclean” was a matter of exorcising evil powers so that rituals would be effective. Not so in the Bible. It is the damning power of self that makes it impossible for us creatures to co-exist with God. This explains that profound statement in v. 6. How can doing what is right make us filthy? Very simply, it is when we do those right things for the wrong motives and purposes. We may give a large sum of money to our church. That is certainly the “right” thing to do. But why have we done it? Is it because we unselfishly love God and others? Or is it because selfishly we want to be known to ourselves (and probably to others) as very generous persons?

Apr 29

The Fear of the Lord

The Fear of the Lord

 

Come, my children, and listen to me, and I will teach you to fear the LORD. 12 Does anyone want to live a life that is long and prosperous? 13 Then keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies! 14 Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it. 15 The eyes of the LORD watch over those who do right; his ears are open to their cries for help. 16 But the LORD turns his face against those who do evil; he will erase their memory from the earth.

Psalm 34:10-16 NLT

 

Many Christians struggle with the concept of “the fear of the Lord.” We think of a Scripture like 1 John 4:18 that tells us there is no fear in love, and we wonder if “the fear of the Lord” is really some outmoded Old Testament context.   After all, God is love.

But no, the fear of the Lord is not just an Old Testament idea. Remember that it was Jesus who said, “Don’t fear him who can kill the body; fear him [God] who can cast both soul and body into hell” (Matt 10:28).

So what are we talking about? First of all it is not some nameless dread, that unclean terror of an arbitrary tyrant who is going to step on me if I get out of line. That is the kind of fear John is talking about. He is saying that if we have come to know the love of God living in us and shining out of us, we know we belong to God, and don’t have to live in dread that God is just waiting for a chance to “get us.”

Ok, we know what it isn’t, but what is it? The passage above is very helpful. The fear of the Lord is a way of living, a way that is shaped by wholesome awe of the One, Living God. It is to shape your life in the knowledge that the Creator has made us to live in certain ways, ways that if we follow will result in whole, productive, secure lives.  By the same token it is to know that if we don’t live in those ways, we are headed straight for a brick wall – the brick wall of God’s unchanging truth.  This is why Proverbs 1:7 says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” To live as if there was no God, and that you are not accountable for what you do with your life is really, really dumb.

So the fear of the Lord is a bit like looking up into a clear night sky.  It is that awe-filled understanding that He is God and I am His creature, and that all that I do is finally judged in terms of the way he has made the world to function. The fear of the Lord is a way of life which takes into account the fact that He is God and it is he with whom I finally have to do.

Now, two more things. Before the verses printed above Psalm 34:4 says, “I sought the Lord, and he delivered me from all my fears.” Isn’t that great? Shape your life according to the fear of the Lord, and you need fear nothing else! Then Psalm 25:14 says something fascinating: “The friendship of the Lord is for them that fear Him.”  If we will relate to him in the reality of our Creator/creature relationship, living as we were designed to live, he will take us into the secrets of his heart.  To know Him rightly is to be ushered into His sanctuary.

Apr 22

The Final Surrender

The Final Surrender

8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”  9 And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate;

Isaiah 6:8-11

 

Isaiah’s vision was finally one of surrender, and that surrender was of his own success. What a temptation it must have been to preach a smooth, palatable message, to which some might have turned in a superficial way. But if he had, the truth that needed to be inscripturated would never have gotten preached. And two hundred years later, when people were crying out to God in an agony of repentance, they would never have had that truth to turn to and say, “Ah, there is hope for even people like us.”

The call to Isaiah in his own lifetime was to preach a compassionate, whole, burning word, but one which God knew would not turn that generation to himself. The call of the servant of God is not to be successful but to be faithful. That does not mean that you and I have the right to preach harsh, mean, little words and when people don’t respond, to say, “Well, they are just turning their backs on God.”  No, it does not give us that right, but neither does it give us the right to try to wash away the power of His truth by making it more palatable to a generation that, because of its previous choices, will not hear.

What is the antidote for our rebellion, yours and mine? It is a vision of our need, a vision of the Holy God, a vision of our ruined, unclean selves, a vision of redemption, a vision of obedience, and most of all, since rebellion is the problem, a vision of surrender, surrender of our own success.

Apr 15

Joy

Joy

 

 You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips.

For you meet him with rich blessings; you set a crown of fine gold on his head.

He asked you for life; you gave it to him — length of days forever and ever.

His glory is great through your help; splendor and majesty you bestow on him.

You bestow on him blessings forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.

For [he] trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.                                                                 Psalm 21:2-7 NRSV

 

I am thinking today of one of the two most formative people in my life, one who has recently passed from this life, and of some of the things he taught me. Of all the hundreds of things, it is difficult to isolate one, but at this moment at least, I do think I can. He taught me that living God’s life is not one of unremitting effort, but one of joy. It is not meant to be an attempt to climb up a slippery slope to get to God. Rather it is to walk through a succession of doors into ever wider vistas. Holiness is not a series of impossible demands, but an incredible invitation into all we were ever meant to be.

Is effort involved? Of course, nothing worth doing is ever easy. But it is not a grim, teeth-gritting slog. It is the wondering “yes” when he tells you to raise your sails in a dead calm. It is the daring “yes” when you are marooned on a cliff and he shows you that tiny crack in the cliff above your head that is just big enough for you to jam your fingers into and pull yourself up. It is the reluctant “yes” when he says “That way there  be dragons.” It is to know that if at some point you say “no,” he is not done with you, but will open up another way. It is to live in wondering joy that in the arms of God you have found yourself. It is to live life as an expression of joy and gratitude and wonder. For holiness is nothing other than to be set free in a wholesome awe of God, a sincere love of God and others, and a glad self-forgetfulness.

 

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