August 31, 2015

Black or white? Listening or not?

Isaiah 63:1–64:12, Luke 23:26–24:12, Job 14:1–10

Once I told a friend that if I were an animal, it would be a zebra — black and white and totally untamable. We laughed. Now as I read Isaiah this explains why this Old Testament book is such a favorite; Isaiah is black and white also.

For instance, this prophet declares the world has only two kinds of people; those who listen to God and those who will not listen. To those who won’t listen, Isaiah tells what the Lord says, “But you who forsake the Lord, who forget my holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter, because, when I called, you did not answer; when I spoke, you did not listen, but you did what was evil in my eyes and chose what I did not delight in.”

Therefore the Lord God says: “Behold, my servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; behold, my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; behold, my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart and shall wail for breaking of spirit.” (Isaiah 65:11–14)

In the next chapter, Isaiah again proclaims God’s word: “I also will choose harsh treatment for them and bring their fears upon them, because when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, they did not listen; but they did what was evil in my eyes and chose that in which I did not delight.” (Isaiah 66:4)

However, for those who do listen to God, Isaiah offers the good news: “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.” (Isaiah 65:24)

He later adds that God will heed those who listen. He says, “All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word . . . . “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bones shall flourish like the grass; and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants, and he shall show his indignation against his enemies.” (Isaiah 66:2, 12–14)

In the reading from Job, it’s easy to see that Job also knew that God calls and wants people to listen and be redeemed. He says, “You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands. For then you would number my steps; you would not keep watch over my sin; my transgression would be sealed up in a bag, and you would cover over my iniquity.” (Job 14:15–17)

However, hearing the Lord speak is only part of what is needed before I will experience any of His promises. Israel proved that even when they heard, they could not sustain an appropriate humble obedience. They continually fell into sin and unbelief. Something more was needed and Jesus explained what it is. He begins with the hearing part . . .

Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44–49)

Hearing is important, but to respond as I should, I need my mind opened to what God is saying. Even if I see incredible works by God, I might still have a closed mind. Even the disciples saw Jesus’ death and resurrection, but until He granted understanding they could not grasp the reality of it. Not only that, until He granted His power, they could not respond in obedience to what He said.

I am like that too. I am weak and needy, unable to grasp the Word of God even as I read it. Without the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sin, all His promises mean nothing. Without the grace of God and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, the Words of God go in one ear and out the other, no matter whether those ears are black or white. 

August 30, 2015

Hate the sin; love the sinner

Isaiah 63:1–64:12, Luke 23:26–24:12, Job 14:1–10

When God is described as loving sinners but hating sin, many scoff and say that is impossible. But mothers understand. I know what it means to dearly love my children and strongly hate any rebellious or foolish behavior. Parents have no trouble understanding the love of God paired with His attitude toward sin.

Isaiah didn’t either. He quotes God’s wrath in one sentence and in the next declares His love for them: “I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.” Then Isaiah says, “I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, ‘Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.’ And he became their Savior.” (Isaiah 63:6–8)

Why are parents like this? Why is God like this? Isn’t it because both know that their children are capable of better things? Perhaps, this is true for parents. As for God, He knows the source of the sin. It comes from that sin nature that is ours in Adam and present with us from the day we were born. Job puts this very succinctly: “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.” (Job 14:1)

It seems to me that God’s answer is not that we could be so much better than our sinful nature makes us, but that sin hurts us, plus we could be so deeply forgiven and cleansed. We can pull up our boot straps to a certain extent, but God’s  forgiveness and Christ’s indwelling must happen for any genuine and lasting transformation can take place. Becoming a better person is about God’s power to change a life, not ours.

Everlasting change is possible only because Jesus was willing to take our sin on Himself. When He died on the cross, He fully demonstrated the hate-sin, love-sinner heart of God . . . “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” (Luke 23:33–34)

Not everyone understands this great love-hate quality of God, or if they understand it, they will not accept it. One of the criminals crucified with Him said, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

In love, Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43)

Paying our penalty is only part of the good news about God’s love. Jesus died for us, but He also lives for us. Those who came to the grave were astounded that His tomb was empty. Then angels appeared and said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”

They remembered. They left that place of death to tell this good news to His disciples and “all the rest” (Luke 24:5–9) Jesus hated their sin yet loved them so much that He was willing to let it all sin and guilt be put on Him. Yet love won; He did not remain dead, but revealed the power of God’s love by conquering death. The power of His death deals with the sin, but the power of His life is available to sinners because He loves us.

August 29, 2015

Faith knows the outcome

Isaiah 60:1–62:12, Luke 22:63–23:25, Job 13:13–28

When I became a Christian, one of the first truths God showed me was that He uses all things for good in my life (Romans 8:28-29) to make me more like Jesus. But, I still need reminding. Some days I take a close look at myself and say, “Yea, right” wondering if this will ever happen.

I’m sure the Israelites felt the same way in many points of their history. When Isaiah wrote his book, they were in moral and spiritual decline. Soon they would be exiled to Babylon, yet God would bring them back to their land and restore them. He continually reminded them that He would use this captivity for their good.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1–2)

These words remind me also that God will eventually turn away all my struggles and problems. He will cause His glory to be seen in me, even if the rest of the world is in darkness.

Isaiah also says, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” (Isaiah 62:1–3)

They may not have believed this at the time, but they needed to hear it. The Word of God would give them hope, just as it does the same for me.

Job was in a worse pickle. At least the Israelites had some inkling that their sins brought God’s chastening, but Job had no idea why God allowed all the trials he was experiencing. However, throughout his story, there are glimpses that he had hope. He knew God would eventually make things right. Early in his story, he declared that hope: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. Keep listening to my words, and let my declaration be in your ears. Behold, I have prepared my case; I know that I shall be in the right.” (Job 13:15–18)

Job never did find out the reason for his trials, but his hope sustained him, even though he contended with God about the mystery of his suffering. God never chastened him for that, perhaps because He knew that down in the very depths of Job’s heart was genuine faith. His trust wavered and rose and fell, but it did not disappear.

In my experiences with God, I know this reality. When in trial after trial, or temptation after temptation, faith might appear to take wings, but it never disappears. Faith is a gift from God and He keeps sending it back. I know deep down in my heart that God can be trusted. All else might fail, but He never fails and nothing is too hard for Him.

Jesus knew it too. “When day came (the day of His crucifixion), the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes. And they led him away to their council, and they said, ‘If you are the Christ, tell us.’”

Jesus was not in despair. He said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” (Luke 22:66–69)

Because of His faith, Jesus knew that the most awful thing would work out for good — and it did.

This is the same faith that God gives me. When I am tempted to give up, that still small voice whispers, “I am right here” and I know that He is. His plans are perfect, even for my good, and He will never leave me or forsake me. The faith of Jesus Christ knows the outcome — light, glory, full righteousness, a crown of glory, His dominion over all, godlessness vanquished and Jesus seated at the right hand of God! Faith is confident in God for the outcome.

August 28, 2015

Manna for each day, for each situation

Isaiah 58:1–59:21, Luke 22:24–62, Job 13:1–12

Devotional time with God includes learning His will for my life’s situations. What He tells me in the realm of application might not be the same as what the Holy Spirit reveals to others, even those reading the same Scriptures. This is not about interpretation, but what I do with that interpretation.

Applications can vary. This means when someone is in a similar situation to something I’ve experienced, I can share what helped me and how I applied it, but it is far better to encourage them to seek the face of God for His direction for them.

For instance, today’s passage in Isaiah suggests two things I need to apply in my life. One is in a list of personal sacrifices God expects from His people rather than a self-centered fast that might look pious but is really not. That list includes sharing food with the hungry and bringing the homeless into my house, but one that jumped into my face. It was the phrase telling readers to “not hide” from their own flesh. I hear the Holy Spirit saying that instead of doing my own thing, I must spend more time with my children and grandchildren. The Spirit might give another application to someone else, but that is what He says to me.

The second is about Sabbath-keeping. I’ve already shared that the NT takes the Sabbath beyond a one-day-a-week rest from work and applies it to salvation. A true Sabbath rest means ceasing from our own efforts to be saved and instead resting in the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Isaiah speaks of the blessings God wants for His people and contrasts them with the things we do that block those blessings. One of them is about the Sabbath . . .

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth . . . .” (Isaiah 58:13–14)

For me, the application is this: resting in Christ and God’s salvation does not mean that I can do whatever I wish. I am not to seek my own pleasure or even make idle conversation, but give myself entirely to the will of God, doing and saying what the Holy Spirit gives me. This is a sacrificial approach, not to earn or deserve eternal life, but to live out my days in demonstration of the grace of God in all I do and say.

Job understood. As his ‘comforters’ offered advice, he knew what they were saying, but he also knew that they were making assumptions and their ‘applications’ were not his applications. They spoke true things but with answers that did not fit Job’s need. He said to them . . .

“Behold, my eye has seen all this, my ear has heard and understood it. What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you. But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God. As for you, you whitewash with lies; worthless physicians are you all. Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:1–5) He sounds annoyed, and I don’t blame him. I’ve been given worthless advice too. It just adds to the suffering.

Reading the passage in Luke sharpens the contrast between the way the Lord thinks and the ways we think. Jesus says the greatest are those who serve, that I will deny Him no matter how sincerely I claim otherwise. He sends me without resources at times, and at other times with resources, which makes no sense. He tells me to pray that I will not be tempted, but I often think the solution to temptation is to distract myself with a different activity. He advocates submission when I feel like fighting. When I put myself in dangerous situations, I find out that He is correct when He says I will not always rely on Him.

Learning to apply the Word of God is a great challenge. Not only that, each day brings new challenges, but also variations on solutions. What He said yesterday will not be my manna for today. I must gather fresh and listen carefully.

One lovely statement to Peter gives me instruction for this day: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31–32)

Surely the enemy would also sift me, but Jesus prays for my faith and bids me to help other Christians stand firm in their faith. My prayer is that He can use what I say and do, even these daily devotions, to do just that.

August 27, 2015

His Word gives great joy

Isaiah 55:1–57:21, Luke 21:25–22:23, Job 12:13–25

Much of today’s three chapters from Isaiah are underlined in my Bible. God enriches me each time I read them and today is no exception. He invites me to come, to remember His covenant, to remember that His thoughts are higher than mine, and that His Word is powerful: “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)

He declares His plans for the future, plans that give me peace, joy, and delight in trusting Him. He also speaks of the Sabbath. According to the New Testament, this rest goes beyond not working one day a week. It refers to resting in the salvation of God rather than working to justify or save myself. He explains that the righteous sometimes die early because they are “taken away from calamity” and enter into peace. He promises that He will not contend forever with His people but will lead them and give them comfort.

All of these thoughts have an effect; they give me assurance, a deep sense of His presence, and a soft, willing submission. He promises renewed blessing besides . . .  

“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” (Isaiah 57:15) There is nothing like the presence of God to give me renewal and joy!

Job also knew the greatness of God and gave good reasons for being contrite before Him: “With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding. If he tears down, none can rebuild; if he shuts a man in, none can open. If he withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land. With him are strength and sound wisdom; the deceived and the deceiver are his.” (Job 12:13–16) God and only God can do whatever He pleases. Any feistiness in me is futile and a waste of energy, but trusting Him brings contentment.

In the NT reading for today, Jesus tells me how to use my energies. Rather than trying to do my own thing (sin) or trying to justify myself (self-righteousness), I am to watch for His return and stay away from those things that are contrary to His will.

“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 

And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:25–36)

The promises of God are clear. By believing them, He gives me grace to do what He says with a humble and meek heart. His blessing protects and preserves me now and into eternity. Admitting sin and needing Jesus might be humiliating for some, but for me, His gifts — lowliness of spirit and a continual sense of His presence — fill me with overwhelming joy.