Israelites

Now We Know

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NRSV)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.


The prophet Jeremiah lived in the midst of the collapse of the kingdom of Judah. He watched and warned while what remained of the people of Israel fell away from God and into the hands of their conquerors.

It was of course a painful time. The prophet’s tone was so consistent that a loud complaint  is sometimes called a “jeremiad” even today. And yet, Jeremiah also declared a hopeful promise from God. We as Christians see ourselves as beneficiaries of that promise.

Depending on how much time you’ve spent in church, you may or may not know what a covenant represents. We practice a faith built on covenants, holy agreements offered to us by God.

In these covenants, God makes an opening offer to humans through the people of Israel: I love you already, I’m reaching out to you, and if you’ll do certain things, we can be in relationship, despite your sinfulness.

When Jeremiah, speaking on God’s behalf, spoke of a broken covenant, he was referencing God’s attempt to relate to the Israelites through the law. By accepting the law transmitted through Moses, the people were supposed to grow in their understanding of who God is and what God expects. They were to learn to approach God with respect and obedience, in the process also experiencing his great love and mercy.

Sometimes the relationship worked, and the Israelites found themselves greatly blessed. Sometimes the Israelites turned to other gods or let worldly concerns overwhelm them, and they would suffer. Once the Old Testament becomes the story of the Israelites in Exodus, it also becomes cyclical. When the people followed the covenant, times were good; when the people ignored the covenant, metaphorically cheating on the husband, times could be quite terrible.

The cycle had to be broken. From the moment sin first damaged the union between God and humans, God had one goal—full restoration of the relationship, but without violating the free will he gave us to make us special. At a low point in the cycle, Jeremiah was given a glimpse of that time to come.

The poetic language used to describe that day is more bloody than we might initially think. The first covenant was chiseled in stone. The second covenant would be written on human hearts, evoking a picture of an iron stylus going to work on flesh. This image is aligned with similar promises found in other Old Testament writings, where we’re told a heart needs to be  “circumcised” to be holy.

Fortunately, these images are not literal. Blood was required to establish a new, cycle-breaking covenant, but we understand that Jesus Christ shed his blood so we would not have to do so. He died on the cross to break the cyclical power sin had over us. Again, God initiates covenants; God first shows us he loves us.

God’s law—that is, an understanding of his will—is actually written on our hearts in a most special and even pleasurable way in this new covenant. We believe in the bloody work on the cross, and then wonderful things begin to happen.

God rushes in, this time in the form of the Holy Spirit. Even after believing, we can resist this deeply personal incursion, either out of ignorance or fear. But knowledge should overcome ignorance, and what is there to fear from a loving God who offers us eternity?

We are changed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I cannot explain why the experiences are different from person to person, except again to point to free will and varying levels of resistance rooted in our personalities. But God does go to work in us, and that always changes us for the better, as painful as change sometimes can be.

To the unconverted: You cannot even begin to imagine what is in store for you once you come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Take that first step to opening yourselves to the experience of God that truly can remake you.

To the converted: Let the Holy Spirit work! Engage with God directly. And never forget to rejoice in each new stage of spiritual growth God gives you.


The featured image is Michelangelo’s “Jeremiah,” depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Advertisements

God Is Faithful

Romans 3:1-8 (NLT)

Then what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Is there any value in the ceremony of circumcision? Yes, there are great benefits! First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the whole revelation of God.

True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him,

“You will be proved right in what you say,
   and you will win your case in court.”


“But,” some might say, “our sinfulness serves a good purpose, for it helps people see how righteous God is. Isn’t it unfair, then, for him to punish us?” (This is merely a human point of view.) Of course not! If God were not entirely fair, how would he be qualified to judge the world? “But,” someone might still argue, “how can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?” And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, “The more we sin, the better it is!” Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.


Paul continues to speak about the Jews. They are a special people, he tells us, chosen by God to be the revealers of his true nature. God has made many promises to them as a people, and those promises will be fulfilled.

For several centuries, people calling themselves Christians have conveniently forgotten this truth about the Jews’ special place in God’s great plan. These people have dared to go so far as to persecute and kill Jews. Their faulty logic and failure to heed Scripture don’t need rehashing here.

As Methodists, our biblically rooted first rule for living, “Do no harm,” should tell us all we need to know about persecution. We don’t persecute others, regardless of their beliefs. We don’t persecute Jews, we don’t persecute Muslims, we don’t persecute Hindus, we don’t persecute anyone. When in a part of the world blessed with freedom, we preach and teach biblical truths to anyone who will listen, but we live peaceably with others regardless of how they receive that preaching and teaching.

As Paul discusses the special role of the Jews, he also reveals something about God’s nature that’s worth focusing on today.

We of course know we are supposed to be faithful to God, to be true to God. But lo and behold, it’s a two-way street, one God drove down first! God remains faithful to the Jews, even though many have turned away from him. And in revealing himself in full through Jesus, who is Messiah first to the Jews and then to the world, God showed his faithfulness to all of humanity.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that God’s faithfulness toward us is the driving force behind history. If God were not faithful toward his creation, there would be no history.

We have no reason to expect such positive treatment from our creator. There are a lot of indications in the Bible that God feels what we would call “pain” when humans sin.

Genesis 6:5-8, the beginning of the Great Flood story, is a good example:

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the Lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” But Noah found favor with the Lord.

In the Great Flood story, death and chaos did follow. The surprising part is it was not complete. God left an escape clause for humanity, a way to continue. Noah found favor with the Lord.

It’s not that Noah was perfect or sinless. As best we can tell, he simply craved a relationship with God. He wanted to be right with God, to be aligned with God. And for God, that was enough to keep trying to heal that broken relationship with humanity, despite our sinful nature causing him pain.

Apparently, the merest turning of our eyes toward God is enough to warrant a response. God is holy; that is, his very being defines what is right and what is wrong, and he cannot tolerate sin forever. God also is love, however, and the loving nature of God makes him very patient. God chooses to keep loving us despite our sins.

This understanding of God’s ongoing faithfulness takes us to the core of Christianity, to that John 3:16 truth of what God is doing. God loves his creation so much that he took on flesh and lived among us. Being in pain already because of our sin, God went ahead and made his pain real in our world, dying on the cross for our sins.

He loves us so much he made reunion with him easy. Just believe in the work he has done.

A lot of people struggle with the idea of God being so faithful toward us that he actually pursues us. In fact, the ease with which salvation is received may be one of the biggest hurdles some people have to overcome to be able to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior.

A relationship with God is something to be earned, a lot of people think, particularly if they have striven for success in other areas. Don’t we first have to clean up our act?

No, we don’t. It’s that simple. God is so faithful in the promises he has made through time—to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and the Israelites, to the Israelites again through the prophets, and ultimately to all of us through Jesus Christ—that he is just waiting on us to let him fulfill them.

Do you want a relationship with God? Just say yes. There’s no asterisk here, no fine print on a back page of a contract. Just say yes.

We don’t want to stop there, of course. God has also promised restoration, a driving out and destruction of sin. We can be the people God intended us to be. Don’t forget to say “yes” to that offer, too.

Sometimes, this process of spiritual growth does take time. It’s hard to lay down old habits and walk away from the comfortable mud holes where we’ve learned to wallow. We have to say yes to God’s offer of restoration on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

The offers of salvation and restoration are always before us. Why? Because God is faithful first. Our faith in him by comparison is a tiny, almost token response, but it is enough to gain us the eternal life we are continually offered.

 

Through the Wilderness: Provisions

Exodus 16:1-8

Last week, as part of our Lenten journey, we headed off into the wilderness with the Israelites to see how they would grow in their understanding of God. They first learned to orient themselves in the easiest of ways, by keeping their eyes on the highly visible sign God gave them, a pillar of cloud and fire.

They quickly received another powerful sign, a story most people know, the parting of the Red Sea. Through this miracle provided by God, they were able to escape the pursuing Egyptian army by crossing the sea bed on foot. They even watched that army drown when the walls of water came crashing down.

You would think they would follow that clear sign of power through the desert with a mixture of astonishment and deep trust. We’ll find, however, that the Israelites were much like us—they were a worried, very human bunch. Astonishment and trust faded as soon as they became concerned their needs would not be met. Specifically, they became hungry.

God responded with the promise of provision. They didn’t even need to carry food with them on their journey. Instead, God told them, it would rain down on them as quail and manna, described later as a substance sounding a little like Frosted Flakes.

The lesson was pretty simple: God will provide. In fact, God wanted the Israelites to go to bed every night trusting his provision would be there for them the next day—no long-term planning needed on this journey. There was work to be done, but they always had enough. (He provided them with water in a similar way.) The one exception was when God sent them enough food for two days when the Sabbath came. God also wanted them to rest!

God still seeks the same kind of trust from us today. Pray this prayer with me: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread … .” Stop right there just a second.

Hmmmm. At least weekly in worship, and maybe daily, we lift up this prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Do we mean it? Do we live it? What does it mean to live as if we trust our bread will come on a daily basis?

The idea certainly conflicts with our 401K/pension plan/Roth IRA world. We’re taught to plan for our own provisions 40 years or more into the future, with all of that planning affecting when we can retire. We’re sometimes even left with the strange concern that we might live too long, running out of money in the process. How do we reconcile these two very different world views?

First, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ parables. He begins telling it at Luke 12:16:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”

The big problem for the rich man, it seems, is not really hoarding, although he certainly is committing a serious sin when he hoards. He is deluding himself about how much control he has, in the process failing to understand his basic relationship to God. Preparation seems prudent, but we should never let go of this basic truth: We don’t control the future. And no amount of planning or stored provisions remove us from our need for God.

There also is the issue of how we use the resources we are given. Do we live as if this life is the only one that counts? Or do we live as people who believe something greater is happening—that God’s kingdom is truly arriving, and that the kingdom is where we store our true treasures and live out eternity!

John Wesley had a sermon, “The Danger of Riches,” that explained his idea of how to balance proper planning and trust in God. (He was working from 1 Timothy 6:9.)

In the sermon, Wesley said that God provides for the roof over our heads, food, and other basic needs, allowing us to ensure the well-being of our families and even our businesses, if we are people who operate them. Beyond those provisions, everything we are given counts as riches, and they have been given to us to use “to the glory of God.” Often, this means using our riches to help those who are less blessed materially, playing a role in God’s provision for people’s basic needs.

Even for a tither, this is a concept that requires thought. It forces a reassessment of every decision we make regarding how we handle our income and possessions, simply because we learn to say, “It’s not really ours, anyway.”

When we learn to make such decisions in the light of God’s dawning kingdom, we not only trust God daily, we begin to participate actively in the kingdom’s growth. We let God work through us so others see their daily bread arrive.

When all Christians adopt such an attitude, God’s presence will be as visible in this world as a pillar of cloud in the sky and Frosted Flakes on the ground.

Next week: The importance of perseverance.

Freedom from Death

Exodus 15:13-18

Last week, we heard how God overcame Pharaoh’s mighty army as he saved the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Once God’s chosen people had crossed through the parted waters and saw God close those waters back upon their oppressors, they had much to celebrate.

The Israelites had learned, at least for a short time, to fear not. They had learned that when God is for us, who can be against us? And their response was appropriate—they worshipped.

Our text today is part of a song sung in that worship, that glorification of God. The song re-tells the miracle of what has just happened; at the same time, it declares truths about God’s loving, redemptive nature. It also is in many ways prophetic, predicting so much of the story to come, the story where God defeats death and changes the way we should view life.

Those of you who have declared yourselves followers of Christ know how the story goes. God’s exercise of power does not end with the defeat of great kings who oppose him. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, God has redeemed us from sin through Jesus Christ. Just as God moved the Israelites toward his “abode,” the place where he reigns “forever and ever,” God moves us toward eternal life in his presence.

The truth that we are freed from death’s bonds should change us from the very moment we grasp it. We should view everything in the light of eternity, and that light should shine in every corner of our lives now.

Note the “shoulds.” Realistically, I understand how much we struggle with the concept of death. The possibility of our own deaths naturally unnerves us. The possibility of losing those we love can rattle us even more.

If you look at the story of the Israelites, you don’t have to go far at all beyond the song by the sea to see where they wavered in their trust of Moses and God. And every time they doubted, it was the fear of death controlling them, despite the incredible evidence of God they had seen.

At this point, it would be easy to give what we called in seminary a “musty lettuce” sermon. That’s where the preacher says, “We must, we must, let us, let us.”

Simply telling you to trust God and get past the fear of death wouldn’t be helpful, however. Death is a troubling reality we contend with on an all-too-regular basis, despite an intellectual understanding that death has been overcome. I have struggled and continue to struggle myself.

As I pondered this sermon, some images flashed through my mind:

My granny’s passing. She died a very difficult death from a very painful kind of cancer when I was 14. Death seemed to have great power then, and how she died troubled all of us, in particular my mother, who had been my granny’s primary caregiver.

More than two decades later, while I was in seminary, my mother asked some very specific, metaphysical questions about where Granny is now. I knew she wasn’t talking about locating her in heaven or hell; we had seen my granny put her faith in Jesus Christ. The questions simply had to do with what Granny was experiencing in the moment.

As we discussed the fact that we’re promised an immediate experience of God at death, along with an experience of full resurrection at the end of time, I realized what my mother and I were doing. We were letting Granny go, placing her in the story of redemption and eternal life we had embraced as believers.

Those who handle death particularly well. There is Jesus, of course. He seemed to model how to handle grief in Matthew 14, when he learned of the senseless death of his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus needed to withdraw to a quiet place, taking time to process and grieve. When he saw there was work to be done, however, he quickly leaped back into ministry. Death could not stop the work of the kingdom.

I’m also reminded of a man who died in our church recently. He knew death was coming; he made the decision on his own to end medical care and let death come, telling me, “That’s about enough.” There’s a word for what he exhibited: aplomb. His confidence in what was coming was incredible, an inspiration to me.

Those who don’t handle death particularly well. My mind also went to a woman at a previous church I served who panicked when she learned she had cancer. She told me she had been in church all of her life, but had just then realized she had never taken her relationship with God very seriously. As she faced a grave diagnosis, she wanted to know how she could make up for all that lost time and really understand what her faith was about.

I would like to say she was able to absorb it all quickly, but that wouldn’t be true. She became very sick in just a few weeks. It’s hard to be an intense disciple when you’re desperately ill. Before she died, she did accept that all she had to do was trust God’s grace. At the same time, I so wanted her to have the comfort a lifelong walk with Christ could have given her.

Those images lead me to a renewed understanding of the importance of discipleship, in particular the time we spend in worship, prayer and Bible study. When preachers talk about discipleship, it often starts to sound like they’re giving you a set of rules for salvation that would make any Pharisee proud. But I’m reminded of the real reasons we spend time in discipleship activities—they give us repeated encounters with God.

When we see or experience God, we free our minds from this temporary world still bound by sin and death, and we live into the promise Jesus has made us. Yes, death still hurts. Yes, we still miss those who go on ahead of us, knowing we are apart for a time.

What we have, however, is perspective. Death has no power; death has been defeated. Ultimately, the grace of God prevails.

Freedom from Bondage

July in the United States is a time when we think about the value of liberty. I’m going to spend the month in a sermon series where we look at the freedom God offers us.

Specifically, I’m going to use texts from Exodus, an Old Testament book where we hear the story of God’s special relationship with the Israelites and the miracles God performed to free them from oppression in Egypt.

Today’s text, Exodus 6:1-11, has a couple of key points I want to highlight. First, God is revealing himself to the people of Israel in a new way. Through Moses, God is offering a deeper relationship with his chosen people by telling them a more intimate name by which they can know their God. In English translations, we usually use the word “Lord.” One transliteration of the name in Hebrew is “Yahweh.”

I also take particular note of how God continues to plan and pursue the Israelites’ freedom from Pharaoh despite their unwillingness to listen to Moses, a disbelief brought on by prolonged bondage and abuse.

It’s a powerful story, one that has inspired people enslaved in one way or another for centuries. But what does it mean to us today?

Well, first of all, we see how God desires freedom for his creation, in particular the people made for a relationship with God. God’s actions in Exodus are a precursor to God’s efforts to free the world from the bondage of sin, returning us to a state of holiness so we can be in his presence. Working as Jesus Christ on the cross, God breaks the power of sin and death, freeing us for eternal life.

Secondly, even as people freed from sin, we sometimes continue to wrestle with bondage in different forms. We can fall back into sin and find it difficult to escape despite the power we’re given; we can suffer in other ways, too, as we await Christ’s return and the final destruction of the evil that remains.

I’ve experienced my own form of bondage in recent years, something I’ve kept to myself for too long. It’s a spiritually crushing problem that’s hard to talk about, especially if you’re a pastor trying to live out the stereotype of never looking weak.

I get depressed, sometimes to the point where it’s difficult for me to focus on Scripture, prayer or other activities that keep me connected to God. This depression hits me particularly hard in winter, making me think it’s probably a seasonal, light-related thing.

I thought I had it licked this winter, taking precautions that are supposed to help. In late winter and early spring, however, it hit hard, swallowing me up like a soggy blanket.

My wife, Connie, noted dryly I had mastered the art of Lent, that somber season when we share in Christ’s passion and the walk toward the cross. It’s an important season to pass through, but the joy of the resurrection is supposed to snap you out of it! It didn’t this year, at least not right away.

I bring this up because I am reminded in Exodus how God worked in community with the Israelites, just as God works in community through the Holy Spirit now. God willing, I’ll experience another winter late this year and early next year, but I pray that this time I’ll remember I’m surrounded by people I can trust, people who can pull me up when I find myself sinking low.

Depression is just one form of bondage. There are so many others. Ongoing sins and various addictions come to mind. None of us should be afraid to admit we find ourselves bound from time to time. After all, church, that gathering of God’s people, is where we go to have the hateful knots untied.

Gimme Three Steps

However you’re tempted to sin, there’s a way out.

That’s Paul’s promise in the 10th chapter of his first letter to the early church in Corinth. He begins with a reminder of the early history of the Israelites, evoking images of them fleeing Egypt, escaping Pharaoh’s army, crossing the Red Sea, and wandering in the desert for 40 years.

He highlights particular sins they committed during that time: idolatry, sexual immorality and complaining. These are just three items on a very long list of sins potentially separating us from God, but Paul makes a point of connecting these three sins to death.

It’s not difficult to see how these ancient temptations remain relevant today. We don’t make little idols out of wood or metal too often, but we live in a culture that offers us many alternatives to God. I would define an idol as anything that becomes more important to us than our relationship with God. Some examples might be sports, celebrities, work, or the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Sexual immorality has become so rampant that we now live in a culture trying to redefine what God has clearly defined as sin. Many of your minds went to homosexuality when you read that previous sentence, but it’s important we keep that particular sin in context with other sexual sins. Frankly, within the church we have a more visible problem, if we’re just willing to see it. It is sex outside of marriage—premarital sex and adultery.

I’ve actually known people who railed against homosexuality while they were at the same time involved in adulterous or extramarital relationships. But in God’s eyes, they are all grievous sins. And the readily available, addictive nature of pornography only makes matters worse as people engage in behaviors that actually change the chemical structure of their brains, damaging their ability to participate in present and future holy relationships.

The sin of complaining also is not hard to find in modern times. It’s the sin of negativity, an unwillingness to trust that God is at work in the world. The early Israelites failed to trust God when he was visibly before them. We fail to trust God despite his full revelation to us through Jesus Christ and the promise he is changing the world now through the resurrection.

At a minimum, these sins can bring about the death of dreams and plans. At worst, they can separate us from God in ways that lead to eternal death.

So how do we escape? If we trust the Bible, we have to believe what Paul tells us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

As I was working on this sermon, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Gimme Three Steps” kept coming to mind. It tells the story of a man in a bar who has gotten a little too friendly with another man’s girlfriend, and he ends up “staring straight down a forty-four.”

When you’re looking down the barrel of a very large gun, you’re facing death. The frightened man asks for one thing, “three steps toward the door,” a way out.

When we’re facing sin and the death sin brings, we need three steps away from where we’ve found ourselves. Here are the three best steps I know to take:

Prayer. Yeah, I know, preachers are always telling you to pray. But I mean it. When you realize you’re about to cross a line, stop and reconnect with God. Temptation arises when the connection is broken. It doesn’t have to be a fancy prayer. A good start would be, “Lord, help me out of this situation where you and I both know I’m weak.”

Scripture. The Bible isn’t just any book. Believers understand there is life-changing power from God flowing through it as we study its words and absorb their meaning. Learn where the Bible talks about your temptation. Learn also where the Bible offers you words of comfort and grace in difficult times.

Accountability. Here’s the step most American Christians don’t like to consider. This involves a relationship with another strong Christian who can talk with you in confidence when you’re struggling. Maybe it’s a one-on-one accountability partner who has faced similar temptations. Maybe it’s a small group of people you can trust. This third step is so important—it is your accountability partner or partners who act as the presence of Christ. They allow the Holy Spirit to fill them so God is visibly with you as you struggle.

By the way, if you’re in the Kingsport, Tenn., area, there’s a new Friday night worship opportunity that should result in the formation of such accountability groups.

Finally, remember that we’re doing more than just avoiding death. We’re accepting the life God continually offers us. As Paul tells the story of the Israelites in the desert, he speaks of the water that sustained them, water flowing from a rock as needed. “And the rock was Christ,” he says.

It’s a startling reminder. The redemptive aspect of God has always been with us; Christ simply was most visible on the cross. He remains with us today, continuing to heal us from sin.