Visions of heaven

I’m sure we’ve all wondered what heaven will be like. It’s odd, though, how often people talk about heaven without mentioning God. Maybe that’s why there are so many glimpses of heaven in the Bible—to remind us of whose idea it was in the first place.

Most of us can only imagine a place much like earth, but with no troubles. Even inspired writers had trouble envisioning much more than that. Isaiah’s vision contemplates people having children, planting fields, building houses, and living as long as trees. He tells us heaven will be a new creation. That means it doesn’t exist yet, but what will it be like?

There will be a new city. God put the first man in a garden, and the city was sinful man’s attempt to organize the world for himself without God. In the end, God will even redeem what we have invented in sin.

There will be a new society. It will be happy, secure, peaceful. The harmony will extend even to animals. No creature will kill or even hurt any other creature.

Most important, people will have an intimate relationship with God, surrounded by his blessings. Today, we pray and wait for the answer, sometimes painfully long. Not so in heaven. There, if anyone asks for anything, God will accomplish it while they are still speaking.

How do we get there from here? Jesus is the door. As we approach the Advent season, it is appropriate to remember that when God pronounced the death sentence in the garden, he promised that the seed of the woman would destroy the devil. After thousands of years of prophetic preparation, Jesus was born to a virgin. He lived as a man, died for us as a criminal, and rose again as Lord of the universe. Whenever people acknowledge him as Lord, his blood cleanses them from all unrighteousness. This utterly mind-boggling heaven becomes their heritage, our heritage, which we will possess at the appointed time.

Forgetting former things

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”–Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV)

Yesterday is gone. We can’t live there any more. Maybe yesterday I felt like a real winner and everything clicked. That was great, yesterday. If I am going to be a real winner today, I need to think about today. Maybe yesterday I made a huge mistake. That was terrible yesterday. If I’m going to avoid making another just like it, I need to think about today. That is one obvious application of Isaiah’s message, but there must be much more.

In context, Isaiah had just mentioned the exodus, when God made a path through the sea many generations earlier. That, in fact, is the former thing Isaiah told Israel to forget–a pivotal and definitive time in the nation’s history.

In a way, it was important for them to keep the memory alive. Isaiah preached during a time of national turmoil, when Israel, under the godly but politically weak King Hezekiah, was a vassal of the Assyrian empire and under constant threat of invasion.

The memory of God’s supernatural intervention kept faith alive in a way, but it stirred the hope that he would come back and do the same thing again. God wanted to do something new. The nation, under God’s judgment and wrath, faced a long decline and a succession of mostly Godless kings, ending in destruction and deportation–the desert in Isaiah’s prophecy.

Streams in a desert do not flow constantly. Sometimes  water rushes through them; the rest of the time they appear as parched as the rest of the ground. Godly people clinging to hope of a dry path through the sea as they pass through a desert will not be vigilant enough to notice and take advantage of the streams (grace) God wants to provide for them.

Promises in the Bible nearly always apply more to the community than to individual members. Therefore, today’s application of Isaiah’s promise applies more to the church as a whole than to any individual member. I have no prophetic word at the moment for the whole church, but the application I see for individuals and one former church probably applies in some way.

Whatever God did for me in the past is not the same as what he plans to do today. Whatever he did then was before my latest spiritual growth and before my latest sin. I don’t suppose he wants me literally to forget either yesterday’s victories or yesterday’s sin, but they both have consequences today. God expects to meet me where I am, not where I was. If I become so involved in what yesterday was like that I can’t seek God today, I will miss him.

I was once part of a church that had to dismiss its pastor for adultery and embezzlement. It was not a Methodist church, so it is not as if it could just see whom the bishop would appoint. The congregation had to call a new pastor, but it was still bound up in the hurt caused by the financial mismanagement of a pastor who had been forced out 17 years earlier. They turned down the candidate I thought God had in mind and have suffered two failed pastorates since then. They missed the stream in the desert.

The pain God allows, and doesn’t

“The steps of a man are established by the Lord, and He delights in his way. When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong, because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.”–Psalm 37:23-24 (NASB)

I went through years of struggle with doubting that God really loved me. Now that that is settled,  I’m learning so much more. And in case anyone else is struggling, God not only loves you, he delights when you walk in the way he has established for you.

God does not delight in rebellion, of course. Doubts of God’s love come to people who think they’re doing all the right things, but troubles keep crashing in upon them. One thing we all need to learn is that we’re never as yielded to God as we think we are in our most self-approving moments and never as far from God as the think we are when we are most ashamed to ourselves over something.

David here tells us that God establishes our steps. Another psalm says that God’s word is a light to our feet and a light to our paths. Yet another scripture promises that God will speak to us about our path when we depart from it to the right or to the left. God cares very much about our steps, and it delights him when we move in the right direction.

Because of our participation in original sin, we can’t walk very well and it’s easy to stray from the path. Think of a toddler. I have no children, but I have taken enough delight in watching nieces, nephews, and children of friends learning to walk that I can well imagine the joy that their parents constantly experience.

I have also seen that delight disappear when toddlers get into something they know they are  not allowed to have. God, after all, is our Father, and the coming and going of an earthly parent’s delight reflects God’s.

David makes another important point when he says that a man will not be hurled headlong when he falls. That’s when he falls, not if he falls. It always takes me by surprise when I fall. I have no idea why, but I suspect I’m not alone. Particularly unpleasant consequences of falling offer plenty of opportunity to doubt God’s love.

“If God really loved me, he wouldn’t have allowed. . .” But David says that man trying to walk in the path God established will fall. A little reflection will remind us that we fall not because of anything God does or doesn’t do, but because of sin.

David also says that when a person falls, God holds his hand. That is, whatever pain God allows pales to insignificance in comparison to the pain he does not allow. When we fall, we will not be hurled headlong. Our pain is probably limited to the equivalent of scraping our knees on the path or our shoulder hurting as our Father breaks the fall. It’s a sign of his love, not a negation of it.

Present protection and future victory

“I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love forever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will  hope, for your name is good. I will praise you in the presence of your saints.”–Psalm 52:8-9 (NIV)

David was running for his life from Saul and stopped to see the priest Ahimelech. An Edomite named Doeg saw him there and told Saul, who ordered death for Ahimilech and all the other priests who served with him. No Israelite would obey the order, so Doeg was happy to slaughter them.

What does that have to do with today’s verses? They come from a psalm David wrote when he heard about Doeg’s evil deed. Most of it concerns Doeg and his sort of people: folks who seek positions of power, the patronage of people more powerful than they, and who trust only in themselves, their perceptions, and their possessions.

After seven verses of stern condemnation, David abruptly turns to his own testimony. The olive tree is one of the longest living trees, as close to immortal as David could imagine. There is no evidence that priests ever grew olive trees within the confines of the tabernacle, but that’s not what David means.

The house of God, the secret place of the most high, is the presence of God himself. As cultivated trees, olive trees were valued, well cared for, and fruitful. David declared himself all of that, plus personally loved and protected.

So exactly what has God done that David praises him for? The narrative of David’s life at the time he heard about the slaughter of the priests gives no clue of any recent or current praiseworthy deliverance. Saul still threatened David’s life, and David had not yet raised an army of supporters.

God had taken care of his people, including David, in the past, and it must be for past deeds that David gave thanks. In fact, the next thought, David’s expression of  hope, fairly well demonstrates that he had not yet seen God’s deliverance. Who hopes for what he already possesses?

David’s word of praise distinguishes him from Doeg and his  ilk more than he could know. While Doeg trusted in Saul, whom he could see and from whom he could expect an  immediate and tangible reward, David trusted in the invisible God, who rewards the faithful in ways they cannot see during the time of their suffering.

Love of money, or contentment?

“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'” Hebrews 13:5–NIV

We need to trust God with all our heart, mind, and body. That, alas, means to trust him with our money. That’s what the tithe and savings accounts are for. We should all live on 80% of our income. 10% belongs to God, payable to a local church congregation or some other ministry that is doing his work. 10% belongs in savings or investments so that when hard times come (and they will to everyone at one time or another) we have resources to see us through.

The borrower is servant to the lender, and we cannot serve two masters. For tithers with credit card debts, it is a constant struggle to keep serving God and not be overwhelmed with the debts. And how can they save for the time of trouble? They’re already in trouble. For people who run up debts and do not tithe or save, for people trying to live on more than 100% of their income, isn’t it clear that they are serving their own appetites and whatever companies they owe money to more than they can possibly serve God?

Whatever choices we have made in the past are not irrevocable. That should comfort those who have made bad choices and warn those who have made good ones.

Roundabout to Victory–part 5

While it still looked to the Egyptians like they had time to make it safely to shore, God  told Moses to stretch his hand over the sea. The sea flowed back to its rightful place, covering all the chariots, men, and horses.

Remember, it was daybreak. In Romans 13:12, Paul reminds Christians that the night is almost gone and the day is at hand. Two thousand years later, that is still true and will remain so until Jesus returns. The night is a time for sleep. Paul warns us to wake up, be alert, and put on the armor of light even though it is still night.

Late night, just before daybreak, is when enemies attack. If God’s people are alert, they will get out of danger. The devil, who loves the darkness because his deeds are evil, will pursue prey that is no longer where he expects and become vulnerable to God.

We must always remember that we have no human enemies. Pharaoh and his army were not the enemy, but merely Satan’s pawns. Satan intends for people to obey him. He will use soft tactics when he can and rough tactics where he must. If he seems more formidable than God, it’s because Satan runs roughshod over people’s will, motivated by hatred.

Whatever his tactics, God knows all about them. He seeks to reform a person’s will, motivated by love. Satan has no understanding of love (although he certainly understands the counterfeits he has made), and so cannot predict God’s tactics.

Romans 13:12 reminds us that deliverance comes at daybreak, which in the broad sweep of world history has not happened yet. We need to put off the deeds of darkness (not only slumber, but sin) while it is still dark. The parting of the sea is a biblical milestone, but not a complete victory. Satan corrupted all but two of the adults that experienced that victory; no one else lived to enter the Promised Land.

So here’s our unending challenge: to be more alert than the Israelites were. As they crossed the sea on dry land, looking over their shoulders in fear of Egyptian chariots, they had no faith. As they watched the sea go back to its place, they still had no faith. It was only when they saw corpses on the shore that they began to trust God and Moses. They spontaneously poured out their praise in the song in the fifteenth chapter. Their trust did not last very long.

When we see any kind of victory, we, too, ought to praise God with a spontaneous outpouring of joy and relief, but it’s not enough. At that time, God has broken one of Satan’s weapons, but not  his whole arsenal. Until we see Jesus face to face, we must resist the temptation to sink into complacency at the time of victory. In the midst of celebration, we must remain on guard. It helps greatly to remember to maintain an attitude of praise and trust when it is difficult–when we feel the full force of the enemy at our heels. We ought to be just as sure of victory then as when we can actually see some evidence.

Roundabout to Victory–part 4

Moses boldly promised that God would fight while the people kept silent, but it appears that he was not as confident in God’s revelation as he wanted to appear. God asked  him why he was crying out.  The verse is ambiguous in  modern translations, but in the King James, God asks Moses “Wherefore criest thou unto me.” That is, “thou” (singular) and not “ye” (plural). God did not ask Moses about the people’s frantic unbelief, but his own. We, too, need to be so sensitive to God’s voice that he can interrupt our prayers if necessary. Prayer is a dialog, not a monolog. We must listen, not just talk. Moses could have prayed himself into an unbelief as suffocating as anyone else’s, but God told him to order the people forward.

Since the Egyptians were attacking from all sides by land, “forward” could only mean into the sea, which looked like an insurmountable barrier. It also meant towards the cloud that showed God’s presence. But Moses was responsible only for leading Israel; God was responsible for controlling the sea and defeating Egypt. Moses stretched out his rod over the water. God parted the sea so the Israelites could walk across. The presence of God moved from the head of the line to the rear.

If the sea was shallow, the wall of water on each side did not need to be tall, but it limited both the width of the path the Israelites walked on and the ability of the Egyptians to attack their flank. Once everyone was at least in the sea and  most were on the other side, the cloud of God’s presence must have shifted again.

Night was over, and at daybreak, the Egyptians stormed into the sea. The seabed was dry enough for people to walk over, but not enough to support horses and chariot wheels. Charging chariots must have collided with the bogged down, broken chariots ahead of them. The sea wall made it impossible to maneuver. As the Egyptians attempted to turn from following Israel to the safety of land,

The mood of the Israelites probably moved from panic to complacency, as it appeared that the Lord would get them across safely while he held back the Egyptians. I cannot generalize that the way forward is always toward the greatest obstacle, but it is always toward God, and God will always get between the Christian and the full power of the enemy–no matter how close it feels.

Roundabout to Victory–part 3

After the ten plagues, Pharaoh had not only let the people go, he expelled them. Later it dawned on him: his entire economy depended on slave labor and he had driven all the slaves out. He had to get them back. They had obeyed the Egyptians for as long as anyone remembered. Surely he could make them return. Thus he forgot that it was God’s supernatural power, not the slaves, that had defeated

Likewise, the entire human race, and each individual in it, starts out subject to Satan. He is the god of this world and the world does his bidding. Jesus came to rescue the world and defeated Satan at every turn. Every time someone turns to Jesus for salvation, Satan loses a slave, a loss he refuses to accept. He cannot undo what Jesus has done, but he can make us forget it or neglect it. When we do, he can make us obey him again.

God was not surprised when Pharaoh sent all those chariots, but the Israelites did not expect to see them. It was a test. Would they remember the Passover and all of the other miracles each of them had personally experienced or observed? They did not. They were armed, but not well enough. They could not flee, both because of the geography and the inability for such a large group of people to move quickly enough. It would have been a good time for prayer, but fear overruled faith. They blamed the leadership and started criticizing Moses. Moses reminded them not of past miracles, but God’s recent promise of deliverance.

So it is with the church. Satan wants his slaves back. He can rage, threaten, intimidate (or soothe and tempt to unwatchfulness), but he cannot win. When we seem the most helpless against him, God is ready to show himself strong. Too many people start to panic, grumble, and speak out against the human leadership, as if trouble were their fault and stronger than God. Thank God he will always see to it that some people will speak a genuine word of faith over the situation.

If God doesn’t assign work for people to do, it means that he intends to win the battle on his own. The promise of God is that if we can’t do anything to help ourselves, then we don’t need to.

This passage rather clearly demonstrates that God can and will help those whose faith has vanished–so long as at least one among them, like Moses, will speak the word of faith. I would rather be that one that be among the clueless multitude that forgets God in a crisis.

Roundabout to Victory–part 2

Not only did the Lord lead the people the long way to where they were going, he told them to backtrack. He told Moses why: he wanted to provoke Pharaoh and work one more miracle at his expense. He led them to a very vulnerable place.
It looked to Pharaoh like the Israelites were lost and easy to recapture. Where they camped was surrounded by sea and desert. He would sweep in for the kill, right into the trap the Lord set for him.

If we just look at Pharaoh as a man, it seems that God was cruel, toying with him like that, but if we look at him as a thyme of Satan, a different picture emerges. Satan will never do anything righteous. He vigorously opposes God and intends to do every kind of harm to God’s plans, no matter how spectacularly he comes out second best in their encounters. He actually thinks he is strong enough an crafty enough to succeed. He is too stubborn to recognize defeat and too utterly predictable to gain more than short-term advantage.

Satan cannot thwart God’s plans, but he must be destroyed before they can be completed. And so God puts himself, as well as his people, in positions that look weak and defenseless, knowing that Satan will overplay his hand (as he did in forcing the crucifixion of Jesus).

For a while, it will look like all hope is lost, that the leaders are incompetent, and that the enemy is too powerful to withstand. Actually, from any viewpoint but God’s, that exactly describes the human condition in everything from the struggles of any given individual to, say, American foreign policy.

Back then, God was visibly present with his people. He spoke directly to Moses. We no longer have a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The church has multiple leaders, not just Moses. Some of them have direct revelation of some part of what God is up to, but no means of communicating it to the whole church. It appears that Moses didn’t, either.

It almost looks like God wanted most of the people to be essentially clueless so that they would feel and act as helpless as they looked to the enemy. We at least have Scripture, which sets out the general plan for ultimate victory. We have no idea where we are in the working out of that plan.

When we don’t know where we are or where we’re going and all hell breaks loose, maybe we’re exactly where God wants us, and deliverance from the immediate troubles is just around the corner.

Of course, even the miracle that ends this story left Israel in the wilderness and subject to more attacks. Victories in this life seem like near misses, and the next problem awaits us. In fact, despite relentless Satanic attack, a few faithful people always remained in Israel, even in the most backslidden of times. The church, too, has survived multiple crises both in times of stress and complacency and continues to grow. As individuals, we need to wait for God to do what he planned for us from the beginning. Eventually (if only in the next life), everything will be set right.

Roundabout to Victory–part 1

“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt. So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.” — Exodus 13:17-18.

I always try to find the most direct route to where I want to go. When I’m driving somewhere, I get there quickly. When I’ve tried to reach life goals that way, it hasn’t worked out so well. Maybe if I had known how to listen to God years ago, I would have found a roundabout path that would have actually gotten me where I wanted to go.

The ancient Israelites were leaving Egypt to go to the Promised Land. These people had never known freedom from oppression. Neither had the grandparents of the oldest among them. In a perverse way, slavery is a protection from making hard decisions. Freedom is difficult for people who haven’t known it. Of course, they thought they were ready. They were all armed for battle, but not trained.

We, like them, are fleeing from oppression to freedom. The god of this world (a title Satan stole from Adam in Eden) has held the whole human race in bondage to sin and does not want to let anyone go. He will make sure that we meet conflict and opposition. God will determine where the battle takes place.

Israel would see war in any case, but God saw to it that they met and overcame an old enemy before they ever met a new one. He also saw to it that their encounter would be so terrifying and so beyond their ability that only he could bring victory.

Only when we truly break free from old bondages are we ready to face new challenges. Satan will always stand in our way. We are no match for him, but if we follow God, then no matter how roundabout the way seems and no matter how terrifying the opposition seems, he will see to it that we prevail.