Judgment and Hope

January 25, 2018

prophetisaiah

The prophet Isaiah lived in quite extraordinary times and penned quite the extraordinary book. It is divided into two main sections. The first is chapters 1-39. The second is the remainder of the book—chapters 40-66 (of which there is much discussion about Isaiah’s authorship). Overall Isaiah addresses two main themes—God’s judgment upon his people Israel and Judah and beyond that judgment, hope in the Immanuel.

The world of Isaiah was one of trouble and transition. The tribes of Israel in the south were in a desperate situation. Mighty Assyria (then the world power) was in the process of sweeping them away. Isaiah spoke to that from his position in Jerusalem. He identified it as God’s judgment upon them for their rejection of him. Assyria was also a threat to the tribes of Judah in the north. Like their sister nation they, too, had rebelled against their God. A godly king, however, rose up within them, begged God for mercy (37:14-20), and saved Judah from Assyrian destruction. But King Hezekiah’s actions would only delay the inevitable. “The Day of the Lord” was coming to Judah as well, Isaiah foretold. Another power would rise up—Babylon—and be used by God as his purifying agent of judgment (39). Only this time (unlike that of the tribes of Israel) there was hope beyond the judgment. A remnant of God’s people would remain; exiles would eventually return to their homeland; from among them Immanuel would be born (7:14). This “little child” (11:6) would lead and restore Zion to its rightful place among the nations. Eventually a “new Jerusalem” (65:17) would replace the old to be what God always intended for it to be.

Judgment and hope—this is the word from the Lord Isaiah speaks to his people, and now to us.

Startling Rebellion

Isaiah does not hold back. He presents a stark image of God’s people in full rebellion. Instead of being a light to other nations—corruption, injustice, idolatry, greed, violence and immorality defined Israel. Their worship was empty, meaningless, and burdensome to God. He could no longer tolerate it.

Instead of fulfilling God’s will among them, they turned to idols, practiced oppression, were corrupted by evil desires, chased after godlessness, became “brawlers and revelers,” confused good and evil, and denied justice. Isaiah phrased it like this:

They have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the works of his hand. (5:12)

This was true of both Israel and Judah and God had had enough. Isaiah proclaimed:

Therefore the Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. (5:25).

Judgment was coming. The “Day of the Lord” would take place, first for Israel and then for Judah. Isaiah leaves no doubt about it. God simply could no longer tolerate their startling rebellion. A “fire” would scorch the earth (and not just for Israel and Judah), cleansing it, but also preparing it for something better to follow.

Isaiah’s Call

To illustrate this—Isaiah is called before the presence of the Lord (chapter 6). He quickly realizes just how out of his league he is, standing before the holiness of God. He fears his own doom until being touched on the lips by a burning coal. The coal, however, was not one of judgment but one of cleansing. This represents the purpose of God’s judgment—to cleanse his people in preparation of the Immanuel; the shoot of Jesse that will rise up out of the charred stump of Judah after the Day of the Lord comes.

It was Isaiah’s mission to be sent by God in order to “Go and tell” this news to his people. This is the way, then, the entire book of Isaiah plays out—judgment followed by hope; exile and return; old Jerusalem being swept away replaced by New Jerusalem-God would not forget his people, even though they forgot him.

Isaiah’s Word to Us

The sins of Israel were many, but at their core was a failure to seek and live out the righteousness and justice of God. Without this at their center, it opened them up for the corruption, idolatry, immorality, and greed that followed. Isaiah identified it early:

Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (1:15-17; see also 1:23; 3:14-15)

Even as they worshipped God—their disregard for God’s justice and righteousness made their worship unacceptable to God. What is the word from Isaiah to us on this and from the story of his prophecy?

  • God calls upon his people to see after the oppressed, not to be the oppressors. Nothing about this has changed from Isaiah’s time—James 1:26-27. Unless we do-it will undermine our ability to be God’s people and leave our worship void of meaning and purpose.
  • God guides The Story—using people, nations, events, etc. to accomplish his divine, redemptive will. Sometimes judgment is necessary. If God could use nations/peoples to carry it out then, he can do so now. The key is—to listen! Something those in Isaiah’s day did not do.
  • Judgment is still coming (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10) but hope remains (2 Peter 3:8-9).
  • The “little child” is leading us to that New Jerusalem where the justice, mercy, and righteousness of God will define everything and everyone; where people from every nation, tribe and tongue will flow; where God will be glorified above all (Isaiah 2:1-5; 9:1-7; 11:1-12; 65:17-5; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21)

The purpose of God’s judgment is to cleanse, reset and renew hope among his people. This is the story of Isaiah within The Story.

 

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The Legacy of Choseness

January 18, 2018

chosen

Romans 9-11 is not easy treading. These chapters represent the core of the apostle Paul’s response to the struggles of integrating both Jew and non-Jews equally into the Roman churches.

In this text Paul reveals his own struggles for his people; expressing his passion for Israel, while also explaining why Israel is now about more than genetics. It is a fascinating section of Scripture, which offers us an incredible glimpse into how a sovereign God operates to accomplish his will, which includes exploring the notion of God’s choseness.

In my faith family–the churches of Christ–the idea of choseness (or election) has not historically been a topic of much consideration. We have tended to dismiss these ideas in opposing Calvinism and/or the doctrine of predestination. Yet when we read Paul in these texts it sounds like God is up to something that seems fairly similar.

All About Context

Just as a reminder—what Paul is teaching flows directly out of the situation in Rome—a situation over which the Jewish Christians there were stumbling. Paul masterfully weaves history, Scripture, and theology to present the case that it was always God’s intent to include non-Jews into his covenant of promise. If the Jews had been paying close attention to the prophets they would have known that God had long planned to take the wild olive branch and graft it onto the cultivated olive tree. He did what he had to do with whom he had to do it for all of that history to play out—so when Jesus arrived to accomplish it, all would be ready. This was no slight to Jewish people however. It was supposed to be an honor—they were actually chosen for this—to be God’s instrument to share his Good News. And even though they did stumble over this, God still has not forgotten them. Those branches that died falling off the olive tree can very well be brought to life again and grafted back. God desires for all Israel to be saved. So it is a win-win situation. God’s grace is extended to all people of every nation with that cultivated olive tree—Jewish nation leading the way. Being chosen has its privileges.

Is God Unfair by Choosing?

This was a question asked of Paul in reply to his teaching by those in the Roman church. After all, from the womb God chose Jacob over Esau. In the Genesis narrative we witness this approach repeated often. On the surface it seems quite unfair. Paul’s answer was startling. God is God and we are not! God is his sovereignty has the right to do what he wants—to show mercy upon whom he desires. None of this redemption story depends upon our efforts anyway (9:16). It is all God-originated. Everything he has and continues to do is for the express purpose of furthering this story. How he has decided to do it is not for us to question—just as the clay does not question the mastery of the potter. It is not unfair at all—it is how we got to where we are. Our call is to not stumble over this, but embrace it; to trust explicitly in God and find our place within The Story. If God has chosen us—what exactly does that mean?

We have Grace to Share

Contextually it meant that the Jewish people had the wonderful privilege of being God’s instrument to share their covenanted blessings with others. How could others hear without the preacher sharing it with them? Who better to share than those most acquainted with faith? Yet some within the Jewish community refused their calling and election—so God rejected them. But as God extended his blessings to others, he still did not forget Israel. He did what he had to do, but continues to hold the door open for their full return. It is called grace—exactly the result of everything God set out to do. Every choice; every action of kindness or sternness; everyone chosen to be involved along the way; all of it for this:

So, too at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer works, if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (11:6)

There will always be the remnant chosen by grace or else everything God accomplished is for naught.

Our Choseness

Now consider what Peter says in light of the Romans text:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9; See also Ephesians 1:3-14)

See any similarities?

We are here—a people of faith in the exact same way Israel was—because God chose us. He chose to create us a little lower than the angels; took care of our sin problem when we could not and arranged a way for us to enjoy a full relationship with him through Christ Jesus. He elevated us above our own status based only upon his desire for us—nothing we ever did or could do. Just like he chose Jacob from the womb based upon his sovereign will he chose us. We are now a part of royalty—a people made holy—for God’s special use, that is, to speak his praises into the dark world yet aware that they have been chosen too. (Which by-the-way is exactly what Paul was trying to get the Jews in the Roman context to understand.)

So what can we learn from this:

  • We are now the chosen of God
  • The promised blessings for the chosen will occur, but individual participation in them still requires a faith response
  • Being chosen does not shield from failures and difficulties
  • The chosen still are to answer a missional call
  • All of this is predicated upon the act and will of God. He alone makes it all possible—so that none of us can boast in our choseness. And the NT makes it even more abundantly clear that what motivated him to do so is his deep and abiding love for us (John 3:16; 1 John4: 7-8)
  • Like the Jews–we can reject our choseness, but God will never give up on pursuing us

We do have a legacy of choseness. It should excite and motivate us. We should rejoice in being God’s elect and get on with the serious business that involves. By faithfully living it out and sharing it with others—we give witness to  The Story among those yet aware of the grace they also have access to in Christ Jesus.

 


Why Be Wretched?

January 11, 2018

wretched

First, let’s set the context—without it the story is difficult to discern. The Roman church of the apostle Paul’s day had some complications. Jewish and non-Jewish Christians did not play well together. Outside forces factored in (Jew’s banishment from the city of Rome by Emperor Claudius around 49 A.D. for approximately five years), but inside factors were driving the tension. The Jewish church wanted the non-Jewish church to honor and keep the Law (as in the Torah, Law of Moses). For them it still held substantial meaning even as they followed Christ. It was their heritage and embedded securely within their identity. No way they could worship God without it being somehow a part of the process. Circumcision, the Jewish calendar, dietary practices, etc. were simply too deeply ingrained to abandon. Paul understood. He was Jewish. It was not an issue as long as Christ was honored and followed above it all. One small item however—the non-Jews were exempt. The Law and those cherished practices were basically meaningless to them. They did not come to Christ through it. It did not enhance their relationship to Christ. In fact it actually got in the way. They were not expected to honor it. But this irritated many Jewish Christians. They wanted church done their way and so the struggle of which Paul’s divine correspondence addresses. Numerous lessons for us to learn in this letter, but for now let’s consider Romans 7-8.

The Law’s Failure

Or more precisely stated—our human failure. In this text Paul expertly affirms the purpose, strength and significance of the Law while at the same time detailing its weakness.

The Law itself was good—God’s covenant to us for generations. It was his marriage contract, but it expired. A death—Christ’s—annulled it and his resurrection ushered in a new contract/covenant, one vastly superior. The Law’s failure was that it could not release us from condemnation. It only served to remind us of our weaknesses. The Law was not at fault for this—we were. Sin used the Law to exploit our weaknesses and remind us of how truly wretched we are. Just like Paul, it left us conflicted and guilty—never able to extract ourselves from the consequences of sin regardless of how diligently we tried. So while we may want to be right, we end up wrong—evil always right there with us as Paul described it. That is not a good position in which to remain and just a quick glimpse at the Jew’s historical relationship with God demonstrates it. So, why desire that status quo? Why force that on other unsuspecting folks? Why be wretched when there is another option?

That option, of course, is Christ. In him there is absolutely no condemnation. He did what we could not; what the Law could not—set us free from the life of sin and death. Through him and God’s Spirit our sinful nature can be defeated. No more living in constant conflict! Instead we develop the mind of the Spirit. He empowers us. Our obligations are met as we live as more than conquerors. That is the story of the text! Incredible!

But let’s be honest—are we actually living this story?

Still Clinging to the Superficial?

The message is clear. Christ has done the job for us. In him we are set free. Our sinful nature no longer has to hold us captive. Life in the Spirit is something altogether more and wonderful. So why do we continue to find ourselves stuck in the middle of the wretched disconnect of knowing what is right and actually doing right?

Could it be that we have never really moved beyond the superficial to fully embrace the Spirit-led life? Could it be that we continue the worn out practice of attempting to measure our faith by our own merit? In our hearts do we find some comfort in measuring our Christian performance by some standard other than the grace of God? Actually we are prewired to do this. It is not the Law or the same situation of our text, but it is the exact same tendencies. And as long as we go here—we lose. We will never be able to develop a deeper relationship with God or fully develop within us the Spirit-led life. And we will forever be failing even as we redouble our efforts to work harder to take up the slack. The story here is—it is not up to us to tackle our sin problem. We are unable to take up the slack. Christ has already done that. What is up to us—is to follow him.

Now this may come across as too fine a nuance, but it is actually much more than that. Following him does not become about what we do, but who we are. The Spirit resides within totally remaking us from the inside out. It is not about a law, it is about a life—a discipled life fueled by faith. God’s nature becomes our nature instead of our sinful nature. His will becomes our natural default, not merely a set of facts to remember. Our relationship with him empowered by and through his Spirit supersedes all else. The Spirit enables us to realize a deeper level of commitment—not based upon performance, but upon what Christ has delivered: no condemnation; sonship; adoption; the inheritance of the Father. This reconstructs our very makeup. We begin to yearn—not for things of this world—but for what is to come in Christ. Apart from Christ we cannot even begin to define our life. It makes no sense without him. We cannot even fathom being separated from the Father.

Everything else—not our approach to Christ—becomes superficial. No more hesitation on selling completely out to him. If not, then it goes back to this—“O wretched man that I am”— that is, either always guilty and hopeless on one hand or self-righteous and sanctimonious on the other.

What does that accomplish? Nothing healthy. The Romans are evidence of that. Is this who we really want to be? Why stay here when there is amazingly more to experience in Christ?

Wretchedness?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.


The Curse of the Tree

January 4, 2018

At Levy we are reading the Bible together in 2018. My lessons will flow out from the reading texts. Here is the first one from the first few chapters in Genesis. 

tree-of-knowledge-of-good-and-evil

The creation narrative of the Bible is fascinating on numerous levels. Just the thought of God in six days (or even six eons) bringing about the incredible world in which we live simply by speaking it demonstrates his unfathomable power. The intricacies; the details; how the creation is held together and works is a wonderful topic all its own. The earth and its economy, ecology, and sustaining ability all are a part of the awesome creation story.

So are humans. Central to the narrative of Genesis is God’s relationship with those he created in his own image—man and woman—starting, of course, with Adam and Eve. God created us to have dominion over the rest of his creation (created just a little lower than the angels according to the Psalmist in 8:4-6; also Hebrews 2:6-8). From the beginning God’s ideal was to have a special relationship with us. Adam and Eve experienced the idyllic garden life—innocent and carefree. The garden was fashioned to sustain them and for their enjoyment. It offered them the perfect situation in which to commune closely with the Creator. No one should have asked for more, but they did. Of course, they did. And this then—the consequence of them wanting more—becomes the central narrative of the entire Bible. It is all about the fall and redemption of man. It is the curse of the tree.

Become like a god

This story is just the first of many in human history that demonstrate our tendency to grasp for more and how we can be manipulated and deceived into selling out to possess it. Satan (himself one of God’s creations who fell due to likely wanting more—Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 28:11-19) exploits human weakness in the garden for the first, but certainly not last time. Who doesn’t want to become like a god? Once Eve submitted and then Adam by eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil everything immediately changed forever.

In fact, they did become like a god in some ways (Genesis 3:22). By eating the fruit they entered into the tension between good and evil, but unlike God were not adequately prepared to handle it. And since that moment we remain securely within that tension doing battle with the same “devil’s schemes” as we wrestle “not against flesh and blood,” but “against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:11-12). The same desire that was within first Eve and then Adam to become like a god resides in us. After all this time, we still want more, which allows Satan to exploit and manipulate us just as he did them. Sin still is “crouching” at our door, “desiring to have” us (Genesis 4:7) It is the curse of the tree, which remains ever with us.

The Curse’s Effects

Immediately the world felt the effects of Adam and Eve’s actions. Immediately they felt the shame of their nakedness. Innocence was lost. They became fearful, hiding from God. Pain entered the world for the first time. These three alone—shame, fear and pain—continue to do great damage to God’s creation, but there was more.

All of creation was specifically cursed—animals, man, woman and the earth itself. Women were put in a submissive role to man—a consequence that continues to create conflict. Men were sentenced to sweat and hard labor. And the ground itself was cursed—from the beauty of Eden to thorns and thistles (which was still being acknowledged in Noah’s day—Genesis 5:29; and which is still being felt by the creation to this day—Romans 8:18-23).

And then there is death—the ultimate, horrible result of Adam and Eve’s decision. Death came by murder after the garden and death continues to come in all shapes and forms to claim us. The curse of the tree! We wanted more and we got it, but it was more than we ever needed; more than we ever bargained for; and much more than we could ever handle. We were not initially created for this.

The Genesis story quickly reveals it—jealousy, murder, and evil of all sorts followed man’s banishment from the garden. Eventually it reached critical mass, in that, all we thought about continuously was evil. The desire for more totally consumed. The earth went from calling “on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26) to being destroyed by a flood due to completely forgetting the Lord. God had to reset. The effects of the curse were overwhelming.

God’s Covenants

It would not be the last time God reset. That same deceptive serpent would eventually be crushed (as foretold very early—Genesis 3:15) by a God who became like a man on another tree. He lifted the curse with death the last enemy still to be eradicated when he returns to take us back to the beginning—as God will once again dwell with us (Revelation 21:1-4).

Even with the direction of this story showing man moving away from God, he never moved away from us. His covenant with Noah simply foreshadowed the one he made with Abraham, which itself foreshadowed the one we enjoy now in Christ Jesus. This is The Story within the story.