January 31, 2015

Purpose in life? It is not complaining!

We stopped for fuel in a tiny roadside town with a population of less than a few dozen. While I could not imagine spending my whole life in that place, I have to think that God puts people where He wants them, each with a purpose for being there.

Joseph wound up in Egypt for a purpose. His brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery. When he rescued them from famine, they were terrified, but he reassured them. Then, when their father died, they were afraid again, but Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19–21)

That was an important purpose. Jesus would be born through the line of Judah, so this brother could not die in a famine. By the grace of God and the obedience of Joseph, all were saved.

Later, the people in the lineage of Jesus would have to be saved again, this time from the Egyptians. After Joseph died, another Pharaoh came along and was not so favorable to God’s people. They would need to escape, but before that happened, Joseph told them that it would . . .

So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived 110 years. And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph’s own. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (Genesis 50:22–24)

Joseph is one of the people I look forward to meeting in heaven. He was wise and trusted God to take care of him and his family. Solomon was another wise man, perhaps with a few more foibles than most, but he did offer many words of wisdom in his proverbs and also Ecclesiastes. I particularly like the ending of this book . . .

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:11–14)

Much study is a weariness of the flesh! No kidding. I am tired of reading, tired of hearing long theological arguments that have little to do with practical life situations, and tired of trying to remember the meaning of words like fallibilism and fideism. It’s been a long day/week/month of reading, taking notes, and listening to lectures. Even the professor giving the lectures admits that some of this is tedious.

On good days, I’m thrilled with all that I’m learning, but today is not one of those. So God, in His way of knowing what to say to me and when to say it, gives me these verses in my final devotional reading . . .

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:1–4)

The sins I struggle with today are procrastination, being unthankful, skepticism, laziness, complaining, and just plain grumpiness. God shakes His head at me. What I’m called to do is nothing like the tasks He gave Joseph, and nothing like the challenges He gave Solomon, and a pittance compared to the mission of Jesus Christ. I need to confess all this, stop complaining, and be thankful, and then joyfully get back to work.

January 30, 2015

Growing old – in faith

My dad used to say that age was relative, that a two-year-old could be a horse, a man, or an egg! I’m inclined to think age is also relative to the way I feel, as in aches and pains, or fatigue, or that sense of time running out, or how many times I cannot remember the name of a person I’ve known for years OR the delight of no sore spots, feeling like I have all the time I need, and winning a game of Scrabble with more than three hundred points!

In the Old Testament, the patriarchs blessed their families before they died. Jacob was nearing that time. His son Joseph brought his two sons to receive their blessing. The right hand signified the greater blessings . . .

“And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn) . . . When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” (Genesis 48:14, 17–19)

I marvel at this aged man. He had learned to listen to God, and near the end of his life, he was still listening and willing to step outside tradition. He blessed his grandsons as the Lord indicated, not listening to custom or to Joseph. I hope I can have that kind of faithfulness the rest of my life.

The second passage in today’s reading also speaks of aging. It uses figurative language to describe deterioration as one grows old; the teeth/grinders cease because they are few and so on . . .

"Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity." (Ecclesiastes 12:1–8)

It seems like Solomon was having a bad day when he wrote Ecclesiastes. He sees mostly the negatives about life and the aging process is part of that. Perhaps he does not want to grow old, or lose his faculties. Most of us don’t. Yet much of his other writing in Proverbs, and even parts of this book, are positive. He can speak that way because of faith.

I know about that up/down, back/forth aspect of life. When I am operating apart from the Spirit of God, I am negative also. I don’t want any aches and pains and cannot see any good in growing old. But with faith, things look different!

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen . . . And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." (Hebrews 11:1, 6)

Faith is the ability to see beyond what my eyes can see. I cannot see God, but by faith I know He is not only real, but He is taking care of me. I cannot see eternity or even imagine what it will be like, but by faith I am certain that I will spend it with God because that is His promise to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

Jacob (Isaac) would not see his grandchildren grow up, but he knew by faith that God would take care of them. He also knew by faith what their lives would bring, so “By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.” (Hebrews 11:20)

Most of Hebrews 11 is known as the Hall of Faith where God’s people are commended for trusting Him. Not every name is here, but many are, along with their circumstances where faith marked their lives . . .

"And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect." (Hebrews 11:39–40)

Faith is not so much about getting what I believe God will give me, but just believing God will provide, take care of me. I can pray with assurance, perhaps not seeing answers in my lifetime here, but I know that God is faithful and His plan is perfect. He will do whatever He says He will do!

January 29, 2015

Shadows, Reality, and Forgiveness

These past few days, two of our adult children have been with us on our vacation. We like to play cards and board games. These two have not seen each other for nearly three years, so with the games and their antics, laughter fills our space. I cannot imagine what a long separation would be like, never mind the one that happened between Joseph and his brothers who sold him into slavery.

That story always makes me weep. After several years apart and his brothers and father thinking he was dead, Joseph faced them without being recognized. With some strategy, he arranged that his brother Benjamin was with him in Egypt along with the others. Finally it was time for the reveal . . .

“And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, please.’ And they came near. And he said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.’” (Genesis 45:3—8)

I wept reading this, particularly that Joseph understood the plan of God in all his suffering. He was where he was so that he could save those who put him there. This is a picture of what Jesus did. He went to the cross because of our sin; we put Him there so He could pay our penalty for sin and set us free from eternal damnation. He was where He was so that He could save sinners who put Him there.

I am deeply touched by Joseph’s understanding. He was not angry or vengeful toward his brothers. He may not have known the plan of God at the time, but as it unfolded he could see what God was doing. This happened because Joseph put his faith in God, even during his struggles and hardship.

Later Solomon wrote about the value of this trust: “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5–6)

I cannot fully understand the plan of God, just as I cannot understand how life comes to an unborn child. I cannot predict the outcome of those tomatoes we planted  in the spring or the devotional posts I put on this blog. I have no idea what God will use or do with anything I do, but He is faithful. He knows the end from the beginning. He just asks me to trust and obey Him.

Seeing Jesus in the life of Joseph is not far-fetched. The Bible says that the Scriptures point to Him, just as the law is but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities. However, a shadow such as those sacrifices that were continually offered every year, cannot make perfect those who drew near to God in that way. If a shadow could do it, once the worshipers were cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sins. Yet the shadows are not the reality. Those sacrifices reminded the people of their sins and they knew that it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away those sins. (Hebrews 10:1–4)

Then God sent His Son, and like Joseph, He had a special role. He was not saving His people from death by famine but from death as a result of their sin. Joseph was the shadow; Jesus is the reality . . .

“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,’ then he adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’”

Joseph forgave his brothers because he loved them. Jesus forgave sin because He also loves us, but His love was not enough. The Bible says that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness from God. Sin must be punished and sin’s reward is death. That is why Jesus died – and His death was enough.

“Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:14–22)

The story of Joseph makes me weep with joy. However, the Gospel story fills my heart with indescribable emotions, including gladness, humility, sorrow, relief, and even outrage at myself for putting Jesus on the Cross to die for me.

January 28, 2015

Substitutes, Wise Sayings, and God’s Promises

Mothers and fathers are known to want to do it. Sometimes a friend will offer to do it. I’m talking about people who are willing to take someone’s place to spare that person or keep them from harm or danger. It is a loving thing, not done thoughtlessly, yet sometimes offered spontaneously.

In the story of Joseph who is a type of Christ, another person also demonstrates the character of Jesus Christ. This time it is Judah, the older brother. He finds out that the person in charge of the grain in Egypt (Joseph, but none of the brothers know it at this time) wants to keep Benjamin, his little brother while they take the grain back to their home. Judah pleads with the man. Instead of leaving the boy and risk breaking the heart of their father, he offers himself as a substitute. “Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers.” (Genesis 44:33)

This points to Jesus who did that for us. The ‘enemy’ of death put its claim on us, and sin gave him had good reason, but the Lord offered to take our place. Jesus died for sinners so that we might return to our Father and live forever. Praise His amazing willingness to be our substitute.

The next reading reminded me of an artist who taught me a great deal about plein air painting, that is, painting outdoors where the light is constantly changing and sometimes the weather raises havoc with your work. The verse says, “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” (Ecclesiastes 11:4)
My art teacher said, “If I let the weather keep me in, soon I will not go out at all.” He painted summer and winter, wind or rain, and when it was -40, he painted in his car until the paint became too stiff to use. His name was Paul Braid, and although he has died, his work is still available because he never let anything stop him from doing what he did best. 

The Lord put this same wisdom in His Word and I need to hear it over and over. When confronted with anything I don’t want to do, it is easy to find an excuse to keep me from doing it. My father called anyone with excuses a “can’t-man” and for him, that was the worst kind of worker. God often uses His Word, Paul’s reasoning, and my dad’s value system to keep me from giving in to procrastination.

The third reading today gave two promises from God. The first is one He made to Israel as they struggled to be the children of God and failed so many times. How precious are these words: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:10–12)

Instead of struggling to remember and do the will of God, God Himself comes into the hearts of those who will believe in Him and welcome Him into their lives. He brings with Him new life, rebirth, a new creation. I am new because Jesus lives in me. When He is joyful, I feel His joy. When He grieves, I feel His sorrow. When He says ‘do this’ I know what He wants.

The second promise is that Jesus will return. The first time He came to die for my sin. The second time will be different: “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)

Most of the times that I yearn for the second coming are times of pain and struggle, but there are days that I think of Jesus and just want to be with Him, to enjoy His smile, to feel His touch, and to celebrate the fact of no more sin, ever. Because He said He would come, I know it is true and eagerly look forward to that day.

January 27, 2015

God’s gracious blessings

Last night I brought an item to the till in a store, but it didn’t have a tag. I told the clerk what I remembered about the price ($1.99), but since he was the only clerk with a line of people, I offered to go back for a price check. My memory fell short; it was $2.99 and I told him the higher price. In the meantime, he called someone because he didn’t know how to ring it in without a barcode. The store manager heard me say the higher price and he asked if $1.99 would be okay. I said that was fine with me . . .  and I thought of grace.

When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy grain during the famine, Joseph recognized them, but they did not know who he was. After the transaction, they went home only to discover that the money they paid for the grain was back in their possession. They were terrified but didn’t know what to do.

The famine continued so they had to return to Egypt for more grain. The story had much more to it, but this detail touched my heart. When they told Joseph that his payment was still in their bags, he replied, “Peace to you, do not be afraid. Your God and the God of your father has put treasure in your sacks for you. I received your money.” (Genesis 43:23)

This is an excellent illustration of God’s grace. We come to Him looking for what we need to live, to live eternally. He gives us what we need and when we try to pay Him for it, He does the same to us as Joseph did to his brothers. Everything we try to offer God comes back to us. He says, “I have given you all this, because Jesus Christ paid the price, your payment has already been received.”

Joseph is referred to as a type or shadow of Christ. This is one reason why. No matter what I try to offer God, I cannot out-give Him. His generosity is overwhelming.

God rewards His people because of His grace. I can do nothing to earn or deserve His blessings, yet at the same time, there are blessed consequences for doing His will, for living as He directs. This simple verse also caught my eye today: “The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him.” (Ecclesiastes 10:12)

When I talk like a fool, my words eat me up and spit me out. When I listen to God and speak as He directs, I’m blessed, often by the people around me because they like what they are hearing. Even though obedience brings good results, this too is grace. God blesses me because He loves to bless me, not because I deserve it.

Two NT verses catch my eye also. The first one reminds me of a sermon we heard nearly a month ago. It tells how those who practice obedience as a habit are far more discerning than those who do not. “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14)

Such practice trains God’s people and builds our understanding. As that happens, we become more mature (like Jesus) and in that maturity, we are better able to distinguish good from evil. Again, grace is free yet obedience brings good results.

The same author who wrote that verse also wrote this passage: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (Hebrews 6:10–12)

Even though many of God’s promises are unconditional, He does call me to obedience. He will not forget the work I do in His name, nor will my diligence go unnoticed. I cannot earn my salvation yet grace is always free and not earned. Just knowing that He gives me that freedom is grace, and His grace increases my desire to obey Him. Praise His name!