Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In This World You Will Have Trouble

There’s a window into the later part of Jeremiah’s ministry in Jeremiah 37-38. Previously I have thought that pastors and spiritual leaders encounter difficulty and persecution when they are young and brash and making a lot of mistakes but that when they are older and more polished they will be loved and appreciated and honored and live largely free of hardship. Sometimes that happens. But that was not the experience of any of the apostles. Likely the least difficult end of ministry scenario for any of them was the apostle John, who was exiled to the island of Patmos. It also was not the experience of Jeremiah. Near the end of his ministry as recorded in Jeremiah 37:11–16 he is falsely accused of defecting to the Babylonians. The Babylonians had been laying siege to Jerusalem but withdrew when the Egyptians came to their aid. Jeremiah was leaving the city to take care of family business but a guard saw him and accused him of defecting. He was then arrested, flogged, and thrown in prison.

What follows in Jeremiah 37:17–38:28 are a series of troubling interactions with King Zedekiah of Judah. Zedekiah quietly asks Jeremiah if he has any message from the Lord. The king couldn’t have liked what he heard as Jeremiah tells him plainly, “you will be defeated by the king of Babylon.” Then Jeremiah appeals to the king as to why he has been thrown in prison and pleads that he may be released. Zedekiah only upgrades him to a little nicer cell, and orders that he be given fresh bread daily as long as there is bread to eat in the city. The situation was dire for everyone. Food was scarce. Jeremiah experienced that difficulty along with everyone else.

Not long after this, another group of people complain to the king that Jeremiah was demoralizing the remaining soldiers left to Judah and the king weakly replies to them. “All right, do as you like. I can’t stop you.”

Then this happens:

Jeremiah 38:6 (NLT) 6 So the officials took Jeremiah from his cell and lowered him by ropes into an empty cistern in the prison yard. It belonged to Malkijah, a member of the royal family. There was no water in the cistern, but there was a thick layer of mud at the bottom, and Jeremiah sank down into it.

He was soon befriended and rescued from the cistern, but remained in prison. Again the king wanted to question Jeremiah as if he was hoping for a better answer from the Lord. But Jeremiah told him:

Jeremiah 38:15 (NLT)  . . . “If I tell you the truth, you will kill me. And if I give you advice, you won’t listen to me anyway.”

Jeremiah further explains that there is a way for his life and especially the women in his family to be spared a horrendous fate. But in fear Zedekiah does what he believes will protect himself but not protect his family.

Throughout the reading is this picture of how Jeremiah, though faithful to God, was continually exposed to the business end of king Zedekiah’s weak character.

None of this sounds encouraging, but this too is an important part of God’s word and an illustration of the reality of Jesus’ words with which he encouraged his disciples right before his crucifixion:

John 16:33 (NLT)
33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Comparing Trash Talking With Words of Judgment

Today’s Reading:
JEREMIAH 16:1-18:23
JEREMIAH 35:1-19

People are talking this week about the Little League girls softball team from Atlee here in Richmond. They were preparing to play in a national championship game in Washington state last week. But a few of those girls took of picture of themselves flashing their middle fingers, taunting the team they were to face. They then posted the picture on Snapchat. (League officials disqualified them, but I’ll leave discussion of that to others.)

Taunting or trash talking happens in all kinds of sports. It happens in the weeks leading up to a boxing match, where boxers threaten each other. It happens in football at probably all levels, especially on the field in the midst of games. In all these cases, the one doing the trash talking very much wants to deliver on their threats. The “negative speech” aimed at the opposition, be it words or pictures, is intended to be carried out.

Reading along in the prophets, there is a lot of what we might call “negative speech.” There are severe warnings from God to the people of impending doom. For instance in today’s reading are these lines:

Jeremiah 17:5–6 (ESV)
5 Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

Or these lines from the next chapter:

Jeremiah 18:17 (ESV)
17 Like the east wind I will scatter them
before the enemy.
I will show them my back, not my face,
in the day of their calamity.”

These are actually not as strongly worded nor as long as in other places in Jeremiah. When I read such passages slowly, they are troubling, and usually, if I’m paying focused attention, they provoke me to throw myself on the mercy of God and cry out, “O God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

So what is the difference in the trash talking of athletes and the terrifying warnings of God’s judgment in the prophets and other places in scripture? The athletes very much want to deliver on their threats. But God’s warnings, even in their most severe form are aimed at repentance.

Even an expression of judgment from God is an act of grace. God’s warnings are not like the taunting of a boxer getting ready in the weeks prior to a fight saying, “I will destroy you.” The boxer is trying to intimidate. The boxer hopes to make good on his threat and pummel his opponent in the ring.

God is warning, not taunting. He did go on to fulfill these warnings. Jerusalem was destroyed, and many of the remaining people were exiled to Babylon in 587 BC. But the warnings were there in every case to call to repentance. That being so, it was the most loving thing God could do, to warn them of impending doom if they did not repent. For this reason, even some of the most difficult passages in the prophets, are still an act of the grace of God. This explains why, after a close reading of one of these passages, they don’t leave me feeling discouraged. They are bracing and they provoke a kind of trembling, but in the end, I recognize them as the loving words of the God of the universe to repent and trust him. In the end they draw me to long for God more, and to long for repentance in myself and in others.

By the way, don’t miss Jeremiah 17 and 18. You will recognize some of what you read there and they are a little easier to follow on first reading than some other passages in the book.  There are echoes of Psalm 1 in chapter 17 along with these lines:

Jeremiah 17:9–10 (ESV)
9 The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
10 “I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.”

Chapter 18 includes a stunning image of God as a Potter along with a remarkable prayer of Jeremiah.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Almost a Silver Bullet

Today’s reading: JEREMIAH 8:4-11:23

This morning I tried something different in my morning disciplines of listening to and talking to God. Yesterday morning didn’t go well because I felt like I needed to hurry, so today I began prayerfully and slowly writing out today’s reading, listening and mediating, allowing the words and the message to sink in. I remembered that it’s not how much I accomplish, that I get through my prayer list in my time in the morning, or to get through some predetermined formula for prayer. I thought, “Maybe if I just literally listen to God and pray as I’m moved to pray, today will go better.” Almost immediately I could sense that I was absorbing what I was reading with much greater benefit to my soul.

However, today’s reading may seem a strange place from which to do this. The text contains strong words of judgment. I wondered, “Do I/we normally read this material and seek to apply it to our lives, to say to ourselves, ‘this is for me, these challenges, these warnings are meant for me, as well as for the first hearers?’”
Here is how the text began:

Jeremiah 8:4–6 (ESV)
4 “You shall say to them, Thus says the Lord:
When men fall, do they not rise again?
If one turns away, does he not return?
5 Why then has this people turned away
in perpetual backsliding?
They hold fast to deceit;
they refuse to return.
6 I have paid attention and listened,
but they have not spoken rightly;
no man relents of his evil,
saying, ‘What have I done?’
Everyone turns to his own course,
like a horse plunging headlong into battle.

Verse 8, is a great warning to people like me who teach,

Jeremiah 8:8 (ESV)
8 “How can you say, ‘We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us’?
But behold, the lying pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie.

People were listening to teachers supposedly speaking for God and it was making them feel wise. They felt that the word of God was on their side, that it backed up their lifestyles, but the scribes were distorting God’s word in a way that “made it into a lie.” And so they were definitely not wise.
Verse 11 further describes the work of these false teachers:

Jeremiah 8:11 (ESV)
11 They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.

Because of all this, the prophet grieves. The following are the passages that have led people for centuries to call Jeremiah the weeping prophet. He not so much weeps but rather he longs that he could weep, because that is the appropriate response to such a lack of repentance that dishonors God and wounds the people:

Jeremiah 8:18–9:1 (ESV)
18 My joy is gone; grief is upon me;
my heart is sick within me.
19 Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people
from the length and breadth of the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
“Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images
and with their foreign idols?”
20 “The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
21 For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.
22 Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
not been restored?
9  Oh that my head were waters,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
for the slain of the daughter of my people!

I suspect that one way of looking at all this would conclude that this is all very depressing and to think “I’d rather read something more encouraging from the Psalms or maybe the gospel of John.” But the affect on my soul was far from depressing. After an hour of writing through these words and allowing God to speak to me, I have an almost tangible sense that I have been listening to God. And I have been reminded that this is what I was made for, to be richly connected to God. I am not discouraged or depressed by what I’ve read. I actually have a great sense of peace and hope. Yesterday, morning was so different. I was harried and rushed and though I read, and though I prayed, I didn’t connect. The writing slowed me down so that I could actually hear from God.

It almost seems like a silver bullet. Almost. I’m tempted to think, “if I will just get alone with God for an hour each morning and write through my Bible reading like this and if I can get everyone else who will listen to me to do the same, our spiritual progress would skyrocket and it would bring in the kingdom.”  Experience has taught me it’s nowhere near that simple. But I do recommend this slow writing as something to try from time to time to enable you to hear God well. In the end, it’s an act of God’s grace that we might be granted our spiritual eyes opened, that we might hear from him.

And what I find myself thinking this morning after such a challenging passage is of a hymn written based on part of this text. It speaks from a N.T. perspective, that there is one who stepped in our place and absorbed the wrath of God for us. That news is far sweeter after listening to these strong passages of judgment.

Here are the lyrics.

There Is a Balm in Gilead
By: African American Spiritual

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,

But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,

You can tell the love of Jesus and say, "He died for all."

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend;

And if you lack for knowledge, He’ll never refuse to lend.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

You won’t be sorry if you follow this link and watch and listen to this rendition of the song:

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Some Passages I Use to Preach The Gospel to Myself

There are many more passages that could be added. This is just a beginning. I'm making this available to go with the sermon preached at Bethany Place on 8/6/17 on Colossians 1:1-8.

Micah 7:19 He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

Hebrews 8:12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

Hebrews 10:17–18 then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”  18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is  no longer any offering for sin.

Isaiah 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 

Isaiah 43:25 “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” 

Psalm 130:3–4 (ESV) If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.

Isaiah 1:18 (ESV) “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 38:17 (ESV) Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.

Colossians 2:13–15 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.  15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. monthly

Ephesians 2:8–9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Almost Too Sweet To Imagine

Today’s reading: 
HABAKKUK 1:1-3:19

Because reading from the prophets in the O.T. can be so challenging, I recommend  getting a good study Bible. I use the ESV Study Bible but there are several others. I hear good things about the new CSV Study Bible that recently came out. As some of you know, I recently preached through Habakkuk from today’s reading and if  interested you could get some help on those passages by listening to the audio of those messages here and here. (The third and final message has not yet posted.) But before I read Zephaniah this morning, I reviewed the intro to the book in my ESV Study Bible. Though I’ve read the book many times over the years and have taught it in Sunday School classes in the past, I have never preached from it that I can remember. So the book is a bit obscure to me as well. It was a great help before reading it to review the brief intro. That way as I began to read, my brain was already warmed up a bit so that my mind and my heart might be stirred by the actual text of God’s word. The other way a good study Bible can help is that it will usually define obscure references in the text. For instance the note in my study Bible on Zeph. 1:1 briefly introduces each one of the persons mentioned in that verse.

At the end of Zephaniah is a stunningly encouraging verse. However, it’s not wise to lift it out of context. Most of the book contains very challenging prophecies that if read closely should provoke us to repentance: Here is a good example:

Zephaniah 1:4–6 (ESV)
4  “I will stretch out my hand against Judah 
and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; 
and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal 
and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests, 
5  those who bow down on the roofs 
to the host of the heavens, 
those who bow down and swear to the Lord 
and yet swear by Milcom, 
6  those who have turned back from following the Lord, 
who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.”

Carefully reading through and praying through these passages and having them provoke confession of sin and repentance makes this verse incredibly sweet in the final chapter. 

Zephaniah 3:17 (ESV)
17  The Lord your God is in your midst, 
a mighty one who will save; 
he will rejoice over you with gladness; 
he will quiet you by his love; 
he will exult over you with loud singing.

To jump to this verse without its context is spiritually dangerous. It would be possible to do this without being reminded of the holiness of God and of his just wrath toward our sin. But to be stunningly reminded of the glory and the power and the holiness of God and to be driven to our knees through that, and then to hear these words, he will “quiet you by his love; and that “he will exult over you with loud singing,” is almost too glorious and too sweet to imagine.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ironic Encouragement

Today’s Reading:

ISAIAH 63:15-66:24
2 KINGS 20:20-21
2 CHRONICLES 32:32-33

I suspect that at first glance Isaiah 64 does not seem to be a place to find encouragement. I’ve thought this week about the kinds of verses  posted on social media. Typically, they sound encouraging on their face. But I posted Isaiah 64:1-2 on my Facebook page this morning because the prayer it expresses caught my eye while reading. I’m not sure that it seems very encouraging at first glance. But after reading the rest of the days reading, I came back to Isaiah 64 where I discovered God had a rich feast prepared for me. Once again, for how many times only God knows, I awakened discouraged but after praying through a passage of scripture, left greatly encouraged. 

This whole chapter is a prayer. The beginning is a prayer that God would intervene in the world in a way that would generate repentance and humility. Specifically he prays that the nations (or the peoples) of the world  might tremble at the presence of God. We don’t talk about this enough. If we come to God’s word or arrive at church simply hoping for a sweet word, I think we often leave disappointed.  But when we encounter the greatness of God in a way that provokes us to tremble in God’s presence, this ironically results in fresh hope and comfort. I think this is because we see God as big once again. Then whatever grieves us, in light of the glory of God, shrinks. 

Verses 3 and 4 point out the reality that God acts and has acted in ways that we tend to miss. But then the prophet speaks of a God who acts for those who wait for him, and a God who meets with those who joyfully work righteousness, and those who remember God in their ways. But he doesn’t count himself among those who respond to God in that way. Rather, he confesses his sin and the sin of God’s people. “You were angry and we sinned, in our sins we have been a long time and shall we be saved?”

This on the surface sounds discouraging”, perhaps even hopeless. But praying along with the prophet has the opposite effect. V. 6  is somewhat well known, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. V. 7 again sounds discouraging as well, “there is no one who calls on your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you. But he is not pointing the finger toward others. He is still confessing his own as well as the peoples sin. 

But look at the humility and the repentant prayer this all generates in v. 8. “But now O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” This is just the right tone for confession of sin and a plea for forgiveness. “Be not so terribly angry O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.” These verses can be just as helpful in our praying and specifically confession as more well known passages like Psalm 51 or 1 John 1:9-11. 

As the prayer goes on the prophet acknowledges that they are suffering because of their own sin. The chapter ends with a humble request for God to restore. So over the course of this one chapter we are provided with just what we often need when we meet God in prayer. We need a vivid reminder of the greatness of God that provokes in us humility, confession, repentance, and a humble plea for Gods restoration. From a N.T. perspective, praying through this passage provides a reminder of what Tim Keller describes when he says, “through the gospel we learn that we are more wicked than we feared, but more deeply loved than we ever dreamed.”

Teaching Elder
Bethany Place Baptist Church