Stretching Out a Withered Hand

“He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.”–Mark 3:5, NIV

Yesterday I touched on the first half of this verse. Today we’ll look at the remarkable second half.

Picture yourself as the man with the withered hand. Make a fist as a symbol of a withered hand. Now, pretend that the computer screen is Jesus and move your fist towards it. Have you stretched out your hand? No. You have stretched out your arm. The man with the withered hand could have done that easily, but that’s not what Jesus told him to do. How do you stretch forth your hand? By opening your fist. You can do that effortlessly, but for the man in the synagogue, it was impossible. That, in fact, was his trouble.

Jesus asked the man to do something that he could not do on his own. He could not stretch out his hand; it was withered. But by an act of faith, he did it anyway.The healing came to him by obeying what, from anyone else, would have been an unreasonable order. When Jesus asks us to do the impossible, we should do no less. In the doing comes the divine empowerment. In the act of faith comes the healing.

Jesus’ anger

“He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.”–Mark 3:5, NIV

We don’t like to think of Jesus being angry. We like to think of him as gentle, meek, mild. Whatever else he was, he was never mild. Perhaps one reason we find Jesus’ anger uncomfortable is that we so often find our own embarrassing. Anger feels sinful, but the Bible commands us to be angry without sin.

Much of the congregation in the synagogue waited to see if Jesus would dare heal on the sabbath. At least the leadership was looking for an excuse to accuse Jesus of law-breaking. If Jesus had been offended at their hostility, as would many of us in that situation, it could have led him into sin.

But Jesus was angry at their hardness of heart towards not only a suffering member of their synagogue, but towards God himself, who did not consider deeds of mercy a violation of the sabbath. Notice that Jesus was angry with sin. He did not direct his anger personally at anyone in the room. His distress over their stubborn hearts was for their sake, and therefore loving, not for his sake. He illustrated for us how to be angry without sin.

Who are you calling evil?

If you, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, now much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!–Matthew 7:11, NKJV

“If you, then, being evil. . .” Who today would dare address a crowd that way? And if someone did, wouldn’t everyone be too offended to listen to the rest of the message? We like to think of ourselves–and all of humanity–as basically good.

The Bible describes many occasions on which a crowd was so angry with Jesus that they argued heatedly, or even wanted to kill him. So where is the outrage here? It seems no one was offended at the offhand way Jesus called them evil.

“There is none who does good, no, not one.”–Psalm 14:3b.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”–Romans 3:23.

Jesus and those who heard his words without getting mad at him are right. Anyone who takes offense is wrong.

If we are evil by nature, shouldn’t we turn to God and seek his righteousness?

Love never fails–really?

“Love never fails.”–1 Corinthians 13:8, NIV

If love never fails, then why do half of all marriages end in divorce? For that matter, why has nearly everyone who ever marries for the first time had at least one painful breakup before marrying? Why do parents and their children often have such stormy relationships?

Perhaps love did not fail, but someone failed to love? Maybe what looked and felt like love really wasn’t?

God is love. God never fails.

Love is made in heaven. Beware of inferior imitations!

Cleansing blood

“To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”–Revelation 1:5b-6, NKJV.

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb? The very question has always made me cringe. Blood is sticky and messy. It stains things, ruins things, contaminates things. A fountain filled with blood? Yuck. Plunged beneath the cleansing flood? Sounds disgusting. And yet. . .

That’s what happens when blood gets outside the body. When it’s inside the body, cleansing is exactly what it does. Red blood cells carry nourishment and oxygen to every other cell and take away carbon dioxide and toxins. It dumps its load of poison in the kidneys, goes to the liver to be renewed, and then repeats the whole cycle again.

The church is the body of Christ. The blood of Christ cleanses the church and each individual member of the church.

Are you part of the body? Are you connected to Christ and to a definable group of other believers? If so, then just as your blood cleanses your body, the blood of Christ washes away the sin in his body, including yours.

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Welcome to Grace and Judgment

Calvin Coolidge had to go to church one day alone, because his wife was ill. When he returned, she asked him how church was. “Fine,” he said.

“Well, how was the sermon?” “Good.”

“What was it about?” “Sin.”

“Calvin, tell me what he said about it.” (Awkward pause.) “He’s against it.”

So should we all be. But how often do preachers talk about sin nowadays? Not often enough. My pastor proclaims that he’s against it, but I have heard many other preachers over the years with little acknowledgment that sin even matters. Time was when I heard and read lots of lessons about healing or prosperity. Now it seems lots of very prominent teachers concentrate on self-esteem and controlling one’s thoughts. There is nothing wrong with any of these themes. With the possible exception of self-esteem, Scripture has a lot to say about all of them. Unfortunately it is too easy to hear these topics in terms of what our faith in God can do for us and not to hear whatever the teacher has to say about God expects our faith to do for him–and sometimes that is not much at all.

I would certainly not advocate going back to a time when evangelical preachers assumed that most members of their congregations were going to hell and kept urging them to get saved, but without careful attention to the reality and enormity of sin, that may be the reality in our society more than ever before. The fact is that God will not tolerate sin. He intends to destroy it and destroy its effects. He gives us a stark choice: we can have our sin or we can have fellowship with him, but not both. He extends grace to give us a means of choosing him instead of sin, which is hardwired into every single one of us. By grace, Jesus paid the price for our sin, and therefore God can judge our sin without destroying us in the process.

The Old Testament prophets found the balance between grace and judgment. Micah, for example, pronounced judgment against the capitals of both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms in the first two chapters (judgment), but then 2:12-13 promise deliverance (grace). The third chapter rebukes the leaders and false prophets, ending with the promise that Jerusalem will become a trash heap (judgment), but the fourth chapter promises that all nations will stream to God’s temple in the last days so they could live in righteousness under his rule (grace). The fifth chapter promises a ruler from Bethlehem (grace), destruction of Israel by Assyria (judgment), and ultimate deliverance (grace). The sixth and seventh chapters lay out God’s case against Israel and promise misery (judgment), but further promise that Israel will rise, forgiven, and that all nations will turn to God (grace). All the rest of the Old Testament likewise juxtaposes punishment for sin and deliverance from punishment by a loving God who seeks to restore his creation to himself.

In Matthew 23-25 , Jesus pronounces seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees, warns the disciples that persecution will rise against them, and tells the parables of the Ten Virgins, the Talents, and the Sheep and Goats. He promises weeping and gnashing of teeth for anyone who is not prepared for his return–severe judgment indeed, but those who are prepared will be welcomed into glory.

People who are ignorant of Scripture often say that Jesus preached a simple gospel explaining how to live a life acceptable to God, but then that nasty Paul came along and introduced a bunch of rules and scared everyone with hell. Paul never in his life preached anything as scary as those three chapters in Matthew, although there is plenty more of the same in other gospel passages. Paul preached on how people can only be justified by grace through faith, not by keeping a bunch of rules. He so strongly insisted that being right with God could only come by grace that he had to mount a vigorous defense against the charge that he condoned sin so that grace could abound (Romans 6).

I have transferred all the devotionals from TheAll-Purpose Guru to this blog. At the end of each, I have added the original publication date. They started out as meditations at Vespers services, before I had any thought of blogging, and certainly before I decided on a name for this blog. But read them. I think the theme of grace and judgment can be found in all of them.

Please comment. Blogs seem to be much more successful as a dialogue than as one person’s thoughts.

A Shelter from the Storm—Really!

Have you ever noticed that nothing threatens holy people for long? Have you ever noticed that when you run into trouble, all you have to do is pray and the problems are solved? You haven’t? Hmm.

At first glance, that’s what Isaiah 25:1-12 seems to say: God has just done something wonderful in destroying the enemy’s stronghold and is promising more wonderful things in the future. Isaiah praises God as a refuge, a shelter from the storm. It certainly didn’t look like that to his audience.

The historical background for this passage is the military threat from Assyria. When the Assyrian army wasn’t at the gates, its ambassadors were breathing threats. When Isaiah first preached this chapter, everyone knew that Nineveh, the enemy’s stronghold, was intact and sending out hordes of bullies. Where could anyone go for refuge?

Look at all the dismal news in our own country. I once had to study six months of newspapers from 1893.  I almost stopped reading the current papers, because I was reading the same news from a hundred years earlier.

Look at your own circumstances. Personally, I have lived and worked in a number of different places. When I move, a lot of the same troubles follow me, and sometimes new ones turn up.

What’s going on here? We read the Scripture and see some great promises, but then we look around us. What we read and what we see don’t correspond very closely.

But headlines and circumstances are not legitimate grounds for doubting God. In order to see fuller truth, we have to read Scripture more closely and look around us more carefully. In my Bible the previous chapter is headed “The Lord’s Devastation of the Earth.” God reveals his wrath against sin. Isaiah 24:6 says, “Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left.”

Yet for every expression of God’s wrath, nearby there is an expression of his love and his intention to restore his people to his covenant. That’s what the 25th chapter is.

In Isaiah’s time, people could hear his words of hope and encouragement, and look around and ask, “Yes, but what about Nineveh?” We can look around and ask, “Where is Nineveh?” Well, archeologists know where it used to be.

Neither Isaiah nor anyone who heard this oracle lived to see the fulfillment of his promise, but they could look back on other times of crisis and see that God had done exactly what he said he would.

There are two kinds of prophecies in the Bible: those that have been fulfilled and those that have not been fulfilled–yet. As Habakkuk wrote, “though the vision tarry, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.”

God’s timing can be very frustrating, but we ought to look past the momentary disappointments. Our passage gives us grounds for tremendous hope.  Now, if we have something, if we can see it, we can’t hope for it. Hope means we have nothing but a promise, but that we are waiting patiently to receive the fulfillment.

Generations of God’s people have lived and died without seeing the fullness of his promises. Whatever God does for us in this lifetime is merely a down payment. But one day we will stand before God and recognize that we have been conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. That is the day about which Isaiah said, “In that day they will say, surely this is our God. We trusted in him and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him. Let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation (25:9). ” There is no reason to wait until then to make that our confession.

Originally published in The All-Purpose Guru on September 15, 2009.

Trusting God

Sometimes it’s hard to trust God. I don’t just mean times when everything in life seems to be going wrong. Sometimes we just get into the habit of occupying our thoughts with all kinds of things that are none of our business. Psalm 131 is a good picture of childlike trust. David compares himself to a weaned child: a child no longer a baby, no longer considering the mother’s breast her most important attribute. A weaned child is a content child, enjoying mother’s company. Here is one of a number of passages where God is compared not to a father, but to a mother.

But if the second verse provides the image of trusting God, the first verse points the way to the substance of trust. What are the great matters or things that David says are too lofty or profound for him?

When I meditate on all my troubles or all the troubles I see around me and feel sorry for myself, when I feel like God doesn’t love me or isn’t doing what I need, when I am so consumed by what is wrong that I can see nothing good, I am judging God. I can’t trust God if I’m viewing myself as judge and him as defendant. Anxiety and cynicism are too profound for me.

When I meditate on what’s wrong with other people or whom to blame for what’s wrong in the world, I put myself in the role of judge. No one else would ever put me there! God is the judge. I can’t trust him to be the judge if I am trying to take on his rightful role for myself. Faultfinding and criticism are too profound for me.

When I try to figure things out for myself and neglect prayer, I will surely fail. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:28-29, NKJV). Seeking anything apart from revelation is too profound for me.

So what can I meditate on? The revealed things. What God has spoken through Scripture. What God has spoken to my heart. Or at least I can meditate on God’s word when I can stop my heart from being haughty long enough to listen for his voice. The majesty and wonder of God are not to profound for me.

Sometimes it’s hard to trust God, because sometimes I let my mind follow after anxiety, cynicism, faultfinding, and criticism. When I can turn all of that off and think on God and what he has accomplished through Jesus Christ, then I can enter into trust and contentment.

Originally published in The All-Purpose Guru on September 1, 2009

Patience and suffering–and joy

When my dad was in graduate school in the early 1950s, he needed very sophisticated calculations. He arranged to have them done on a computer, and if I recall the story correctly, he got his results back in about a week.

Computers almost immediately started getting faster and more powerful. He got in the habit of describing his project to computer experts and asking how long it would take newer computers to finish it. Each time he asked, the estimate of time diminished, to days, then hours, then minutes. He stopped asking when he found that computers could spit out the answer in less than a second.

At the same time that was going on, the time it takes to connect a long-distance telephone call or get news from all over the world has decreased to the vanishing point. Speed limits on highways have increased. We expect everything to be faster, faster, faster. Maybe now, more than ever, we need James’ wise counsel on patience.

It is interesting that he starts by pointing to the farmer. One modern farmer can grow vastly more food than one in his day. And yet, what farmers actually do hasn’t changed all that much. Our technology has transformed everything about farming except for one thing: first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear, and the plants don’t do their thing any faster now than they did at the beginning of the world. Now as then, the farmer might as well be patient, because nothing is going to hurry.

When Jesus left the world, he promised to come back. James said to be patient for that reason. 2000 years later, Jesus still hasn’t returned. We can’t do anything more to make God move faster than we can with the plants.

But then James leaves off teaching and starts in meddling. He tells us not to complain about each other. The Message puts that verse this way: “Friends, don’t complain about each other. A far greater complaint could be lodged against you. The Judge is standing just around the corner.” Hmm. “To live above with saints we love, oh that will be glory. To live below with saints we know, now that’s a different story.”

We can’t actually do anything more about our spouses, neighbors, coworkers, or anyone else than we can about gardens or God. People are going to be whatever they’re going to be no matter how much we get upset about it. There’s nothing to be gained from getting upset. We might even wind up making matters worse and get them upset at us!!.

But it gets even worse. James goes on to mention the prophets. As an example of patience? No! Suffering and patience! We don’t want to hear about suffering. We want to put an end to suffering—especially our own. When we look at the prophets, we see men that we respect tremendously. We study their writings in order to understand more about God, more about the world we live in, and more about how we’re supposed to live. But if we look closer, we see men who were hardly respected at all in their own times. They were ignored, mocked, scolded, persecuted.

And where was God in all that? Telling them to do weird stuff like giving their children hideous names, shaving their beard with a sword, wandering around Jerusalem buck naked for three years. And then James mentions Job, who lost everything dear to him just so God could win a bet with the devil. And then God sent him three friends to comfort him. Devout church people that they were, they concluded that Job must have done something very bad to deserve all that and piously insisted that he come clean.

But that’s not the end of the story, not for Job, and not for anyone else in the world. The farmer works hard and waits through months of uncertainty, but in the end, he reaps his harvest. Jesus hasn’t returned triumphantly to usher in the end of the age yet, but he has returned to dwell within us, and believers of all generations have rejoiced in the strength and comfort he brings. The prophets put up with abuse and never quit. They honored God all the time and had the satisfaction of knowing that he honored them. Job encountered God in all his majesty. God pronounced him blameless and gave him back more than he lost.

No matter how bad things look or feel, it’s always too early to give up. Even Jesus had to go to the cross and descend into hell before he could rise victoriously. The fellowship we enjoy with our risen Lord is only a down payment on the rewards he has promised. Meanwhile, we have to wait. We have to endure all the annoyances, pain, and humiliation that life dishes out to us, and we might as well endure it patiently. After all, when we are raised with Christ, none of what causes us to suffer will be raised with us.

Originally published in The All-Purpose Guru on August 22, 2009

The true prophetic word, or, why things often feel so wrong

You’ve all heard the jokes that start out, “I have some good news and some bad news for you.” That could also serve as an introduction to the message of the Bible. The trouble is, no one wants to hear the bad news, but the good news doesn’t seem like much without it.

There’s no shortage of bad news in our mass media. We all know that the national economy is getting pretty soundly thumped. Some of us are getting pretty soundly thumped in our personal life, too. I’m going through a really serious thumping right now. Maybe some of you are, too. Maybe some of you are not going through it at the moment, but you have been thumped at some time in the past. And we all know that whatever is happening now, we’re likely to get thumped some time in the future.

The bad news of the Bible is that we deserve it. We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sin is not merely failing to be good enough. It is an out and out rebellion against the divine majesty. God takes that very seriously. He told Moses that he is gracious, merciful, and slow to anger, but in the same breath he said he would not let the guilty go unpunished. That’s why we all get thumped from time to time. God himself thumps us.

The good news is that we don’t get what we really deserve. God is not in the business of punishing sin. Oh, he punishes sin all right, but that’s not what he is about. His ultimate intention is not punishment, but restoration. He wants to have fellowship with us, but he wants us to be perfect. All that thumping is part of the process of causing us to become perfect.

Not long ago, I got an email from someone asking me to prepare a devotional on restoration, based on a passage in Jeremiah. I reached for my Bible and opened it to Jeremiah, but before I could read anything, I got interrupted. When I got back to my desk and saw the open Bible there, I found Jeremiah 37:7-10 and wondered, did that have to do with restoration?

I looked at the email again. Oops. Wrong chapter. It was supposed to be Jeremiah 31:7-10 . There is a real connection between the right passage and the one I read by mistake.

The Bible is full of passages like the first one I read—denunciations of sin and stern warnings about the consequences of continuing in it. We often think of the prophets delivering them with their teeth and fists clenched in indignation, but in fact they were more likely to speak with tears of sorrow streaming down their faces. We especially see it in Jeremiah and in Jesus.

Today, we come to the church hoping to hear the prophetic word. It seems to be rare in our day. The true prophetic word never omits denunciations of sin and stern warnings about the consequences of continuing in it. But it never stops there, either. The true prophetic word always holds out the promise of restoration and reconciliation. It always presents the love of God while not neglecting the wrath of God.

I heard about a church where the pastor was so unpopular that the congregation finally forced him to leave. They really liked the new pastor. One member told a visitor that he was lucky he hadn’t come while the former pastor was preaching. He was really bad news.

“Oh?” said the visitor, “why is that?” ”

“That other preacher constantly preached against sin and told us we would all go to hell if we didn’t change our ways.”

“Well, it sounds to me like that’s exactly what this fellow was saying.”

“Well, yes, but there’s a big difference. It seemed to make the other guy happy to think about it. This one’s sad about it and doesn’t want any of us to go.”

God doesn’t want anyone to go there, either. He is busy thumping us to let us know that he is serious about not accepting our sin. But beyond that, there is the promise that after he bruises us, he will heal us. After he scatters us he will gather us together. We might be weeping as we return, but our weeping will eventually turn to joy. No matter what we feel now, we can look to the future God has promised with eager expectation.

(Originally published in The All-Purpose Guru on August 11, 2009