Not As Bad As You Think

Numbers 21:4-5 “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’”

Is it hard for us to understand the Israelites’ reaction? Moses tells us they grew impatient. Put yourselves in their place. They had been wandering for almost forty years now. They were getting tired of it. I like camping, but a week or two is all I need. Imagine forty years in a tent, in all kinds of weather, in a campground with a population in the millions! Besides that, your neighbor didn’t just bring his dog along. He has a couple of dozen sheep. Now news came of another detour ahead. They faced another delay on the way to the Promised Land. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

So the people complained. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?” The nation faced no immediate threat of death. That was an exaggeration. But why had the Lord led them out of Egypt? That wasn’t hard to answer. After centuries of slavery, Israel had begged God to get them out. Then the Lord answered their prayers. For Israel, Egypt had hardly been the garden spot of the world. Pharaoh attempted to work them to death, literally. When they became stronger instead, he commanded that all their sons be murdered at birth. Life in the desert was a blessing by comparison.

Israel’s reaction shouldn’t strike us as strange. We still pray for things, then complain after we receive them. We see our children do it. Perhaps you know children who have begged to have a pet. “Not unless you take care of it,” mom and dad insisted. But after more pleas and promises, mom and dad finally give in. Not much later, Junior is complaining, “Why do I have to take care of this stupid dog?” Well, it was an answer to his prayers, of course.

Adults do it, too. Someone has trouble making ends meet, or doesn’t get along where they work. They pray and pray for a promotion or a new job. Soon, that’s exactly what happens. But along with the extra income come extra hours and more stress. “Why did this job have to happen to me?” the disgruntled employee moans. Wasn’t it simply an answer to prayers? Things weren’t perfect in the old situation, either.

Israel’s complaints continued: “There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” The Sinai Peninsula was very dry, and it provided very little water naturally, but these people had never actually had to do without. Rather, the situation led to their witnessing miracles as God provided water by his almighty power on more than one occasion.

And no bread? Again, the manna came by way of miracle. It’s not hard for us to understand how 40 years of boiled manna, baked manna, and fried manna; manna for breakfast, manna for lunch, manna for supper; got old. But they didn’t have to plow, or plant, or cultivate to get it. Harvesting was as easy as stepping out of your tent and picking it up off the ground. Did they really have a reason to complain?

Do we? So many of our problems exist mainly because of our point of view. So many of our problems are a failure to see or appreciate God’s providence. Is the house or apartment really too small? Is the car really too old? Are the children actually too rebellious, the friends too unsympathetic, the spouse too inattentive? Are our health problems as unbearable as we make them out to be? Do we have a right to be so impatient and irritable because of a year and a half of changes COVID 19 has made to our lifestyles?

Or, when we look at how our parents and grandparents lived, when we look at how people in most of the rest of the world live, has God really taken quite miraculous care of us living in 21st Century America? We still enjoy the highest standard of living in history, the least poverty, the best medicine, the fairest government, and a list of further advantages that could go on for pages.

On top of all this, our Lord has remained our loving Savior, our faithful deliverer all along. He forgives no less sins than he forgave a hundred or a thousand years ago. He has not changed the terms of our redemption. It still is his free gift. Our own Promised Land still waits at the end of our own earthly journey. God never said that the trip to the Promised Land would be easy, quick, or pleasant. He doesn’t want us to mistake the wilderness for home. But he also does much to make the journey bearable. Don’t miss the many examples of his grace along the way.

Death and Multiplication

John 12:23-24 “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’”

Jesus draws a beautiful illustration of his death and makes an emotionally charged prediction of his sufferings here. It may not impress us very deeply because we have become more or less comfortable with the idea of his suffering and dying. It’s our own suffering and dying with Jesus that troubles us.

We live in a world obsessed with ending all suffering. Doctors and scientists frantically struggle to hold death off as long as they can. Douglas Taylor Weiss once suggested that “Eliminate pain” and “Have a good day” and “Be entertained” belong in our culture’s new set of 10 commandments. Preachers of the prosperity gospel suggest that becoming a Christian means the end of putting up with life’s unpleasantries. But suffering, and even dying, are tools the heavenly Father uses to bring glory to his name.

The picture Jesus paints of the seed is not difficult to understand. When it is planted, it gives up all it has, its entire existence, to support the new plant. The seed itself “dies.” A new plant emerges. Eventually every trace of the seed disappears as the plant draws its life out of it. But the plant produces a whole crop of new seeds. Death leads to multiplication.

Jesus resembles that seed. Like the seed, Jesus gave up everything. He gave up the privileges of Godhood to live as a common man. He gave up the rights and freedoms of God’s Son to live in obedience under his parents, rabbis, and rulers. He gave up his time to teach, heal, and love the people of Judea and Galilee. He rarely took a day off. His students, his disciples, even lived with him.

Ultimately he gave up his Father’s love to know God’s anger at our sin. He suffered the hell we deserved. After tasting such spiritual death, he gave up his spirit. When they took his naked body down from the cross (for he had given up even his clothes to the Roman soldiers), they placed it in a borrowed tomb, because he had nothing left to give.

What if Jesus had never died? What if he had been spared all this pain, and suffering, and sacrifice? Then he would have remained only a single seed. God would have considered Jesus alone his child and Son. That would certainly have been easier for Jesus. But you and I would have no spiritual existence– at least not a positive one. Our sin made that impossible without him.

“But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” In God’s heavenly system of accounting, Jesus death cancels all the debt we owe for our sins. It sets us free from death itself. It may look weak and worthless, yet this great act of love has such power that the mere news of it miraculously takes hold of human hearts. It transforms rebellious sinners into believing children of God. In all this world, there is no greater power than Christ’s own self-sacrificing love.

You and I are the seeds Jesus’ loving sacrifice produced. We are the adopted sons and daughters of God, and we are only a small part of the family. It is so big, a harvest so fruitful, that when the Apostle John saw it in the book of Revelation, he described it as a great multitude no one could count.

This is the glory of our Savior’s death. It makes it possible to fear our own less as well.

True Story

2 Peter 1:16 “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

The Apostle Peter not only told the people to whom he wrote and preached how Jesus lived, died, and rose. He taught them Jesus was coming again, coming in power, coming as the almighty Son of God. Jesus was not like the mythological gods, an entertaining story from the distant past. The gospel isn’t a fantasy someone thought up while telling tales around the fire one night. Here was a God he had seen with his own eyes. This God promised to come again. Such a God truly has the power to help.

Peter knew this was true because he had been an eyewitness of Jesus’ majesty. He had seen just a glimpse of it at Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. “For (Jesus) received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1:17-18). Peter heard God’s voice with his own ears. He was not just making it up.

Do you see why it’s important that we still understand this today, that the story of Jesus wasn’t simply made up? We don’t follow Jesus just to learn to live a certain way. The main point of Christian faith isn’t discovering a certain set of principles by which to arrange our lives. If that were the case, it wouldn’t matter how real Jesus is. As long as we learned our lessons, as long as we got the moral of the story, it would not make a difference if Jesus were just a myth.

But the point of all the teaching we have received has been to introduce us to a living person. It gives us contact with a divine being. He cares for us with a real heart, claims us as friends, and involves himself in our lives with his actual presence and concern.

Sometimes, sitting in Bible class or worship, it may seem as though we are learning nothing but a set of religious facts. But each journey into God’s word intends to bring us closer to Christ. The goal doesn’t stop at knowing more information about him. Here is the opportunity to know him more personally and intimately. Here is how we grow closer to him as brother or sister, companion and friend.

He intends to make himself a living part of our lives. Centuries ago, he was a living and breathing man who took responsibility for our sins and gave his life for them. Today he is still the God-man who is here with us at every moment. Though we cannot see him, he personally speaks to us in sermons, classes, or on the written pages of the Bible.

Someday, we will see him with your own eyes. As the Son of God he is coming again with power. He comes to take us home. The Apostle Peter was not making this up, nor am I. Then we will see clearly how our story is intertwined with his, our real story, which never ends.  

Embrace the Basics

2 Peter 1:12 “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.”

Over the years the word “basic” has gotten a bad rap. If a car is “basic” transportation, it has no frills. It runs, and that is about it. There’s nothing very exciting about it.

When a person entering the army goes to “basic” training, he may dread the long, punishing days of hard, non-stop exercises. Almost everyone is glad when those weeks of basic training are over.

If you are trying to learn a new skill, and your coach or instructor is making you learn the “basics” first, then you might be slogging through monotonous musical scales or repetitious athletic drills. The goal is to be able to perform the required task in your sleep.

Basic is hardly ever exciting, or fun, or beautiful.

In the Christian faith, we also teach basics. We need to return to them, review them, and practice them regularly. In the case of God’s love for you in Christ, these basics are the loveliest and most precious part.

That’s why Christian preachers and teachers are not embarrassed to repeat them to us. In doing so, they are simply following the example of the Apostle Peter himself.

The people to whom Peter was writing had a solid understanding of the basic truths of sin and grace. They were “firmly established” in these things. They knew that God’s law was all about loving God and loving each other. They embraced the ten commandments as a general explanation of how this might be done. They realized they needed this summary of God’s will to see where they had stepped out of line and offended God.

Like you, they knew well the things that Jesus had done, especially how he had died and rose, and what that meant for their own forgiveness and eternal life.

But do you realize that, in having this, you have been given a key which opens up the whole Bible to you as well? On every page of Scripture God wants his word to reveal your sins more and more, so that more and more he can show you the depths of his forgiving grace. Then you will grow to know more fully how much he loves you.

I once had a key to the church that had become so worn over the years it barely turned in some of the locks. It almost stopped opening the door. Your pastor wants to remind you of the basics so that your ability to identify sin, and your grasp of God’s grace, doesn’t become dull and worn. It remains sharp and strong. That understanding will remain key which opens doors when you read and hear his word.

Love Your Enemies…Like Your Father

Luke 6:35 “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.  Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

Why return love for evil?  Isn’t that the way the Lord has been dealing with us since the dawn of time?  He has been returning love for evil.  God had warned our first parents nothing less than death was waiting if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  What Adam and Eve deserved was the same fate that Satan and his angels received for their rebellion.  That is exactly what each of us deserves for the sin that we commit, too. 

But the Lord does not treat us as our sins deserve.  In fact, he has just the opposite in mind.  Jesus reminds us that the one who made us his sons and daughters “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

As Christians, we know God’s love.  That love promises our “reward will be great.”  That reward, Jesus has told us, is worth more than all the wealth and power in this world.  It never rusts or wears out or fades.  It never goes out of style.  It won’t get monotonous or boring.  This great reward is something into which God has poured his very self.  He will surround us with his presence, and in his presence we will always feel his love and his power.

That reward includes our status as “sons of the Most High.”  He considers us his own family.  When you look at statistics about families today, it is painful to see how families are torn apart by child abuse, domestic violence, and even darker sins.  Even the most stable Christian homes can’t provide all the love and nurture we need. 

But as Christians, we know God’s love because he has made us “sons of the Most High.” He has made us members of his own family.  What we as parents can’t always provide for our children, what our parents couldn’t always provide for us, our heavenly Father can provide.  His care gives us a perfect haven to which we can escape, to which we can run from the pressure and betrayal and hatred our world throws at us.  Our heavenly Father’s guidance is always right on the mark.  As sons of the Most High we know that our Father will give us just the support, and sometimes just the discipline, we need.  As his sons, we are also heirs, heirs of the great reward he has promised.

Why return love for evil?  Because we know God’s love and mercy to us.  Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  He never demanded that we prove our love to him first.  We never offered him anything to suggest that we might be worth saving.  And yet he sympathized with our plight.  He showed compassion and mercy and sacrificed the only Son he had so that wicked and ungrateful people could be his children, too.  Our merciful Father doesn’t pay back our sins with vengeance of his own.  He paid for those sins with the blood of his one and only Son, the Son whom he loved.  He returned love for our evil.

As members of his family, let’s follow in our Father’s footsteps.

Too Good to Keep Quiet

Jeremiah 20:8-9 “Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

Have you ever milked cows before? In some ways it is not the most pleasant work in the world: the smells, the hours, the sweat make this a task worthy of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs.

In other ways, honest labor like this provides a good sense of job satisfaction. The dairyman enjoys a sense of progress as he works through the herd. Surprises are relatively few. He knows what to expect, more or less. Compared to people, the animals are relatively easy to work with. They all show up for feeding. They know which stall or stanchion is theirs.

I grew up in the city. For eight summers in high school and college I worked on my uncle’s dairy farm helping with chores and stacking bales of hay in the loft. I wasn’t that much use in the beginning. At the end of my last year, my uncle offered that, if I ever wanted to, he might consider having me as a partner.

There have been days in the ministry when I have thought about that offer. Jeremiah experienced those kinds of days as a prophet. At times those days flowed together into years.

The message the Lord gave his prophet consisted mostly of law and judgment. He wasn’t being mean. Due to their rebellion and stubbornness, this is what the people needed to hear.

It comes as no surprise that Jeremiah’s listeners didn’t like what he was feeding them. They didn’t know which stall they belonged in. In their idolatry they had broken through God’s fence and scattered all over the place.

This made the prophet weary of his work. The constant opposition wore on him. He enjoyed little to no visible progress. Some of his rival “prophets” actually hatched plots against his life. Jeremiah began thinking about going on strike.

It probably takes less to get the modern pastor or church leader to the place where Jeremiah was. Ministry has given me sleepless nights. People have left the church in anger. I have had to wrestle with my own lack of visible progress at times. I can’t claim that anyone has ever hatched a plot on my life, thankfully.

Problems of ministry are real. The work and sweat can make it seem like a “dirty job.” But thoughts of giving up are often sinful self-pity. We serve no one, including ourselves, feeling sorry for ourselves.

Consider the good thing the Lord has given his gospel ministers. He has graciously called them to live and work, day in and day out, with the power of his word.

Jeremiah had the word working within him. Its message burned inside of him. He wasn’t able to hold it back. His experience was not merely moral outrage. He wasn’t overcome by such feelings of offense at the abusive or disgusting things others were doing that it compelled him to speak up. Even the world knows something of that kind passion flowing from a lack of self-control.

Jeremiah had another message to preach. At his call God told him: “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” To build and to plant. Jeremiah preached good news, too. The Lord hadn’t given up on these people. Their best day, his best gift, was still coming. “The Lord our Righteousness” would soon arrive with God’s salvation. He would establish a new covenant in which the Lord would forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.

The Lord has given us the same gospel to preach and to hear, to share and to believe. We have the promise fulfilled, complete. Superlatives don’t exist so extreme that they can fully communicate the enormity of what God has done. This good news is amazing, astounding, awesome, unbelievable, but still the terms limp.

Our Lord gave his own life in place of ours to pay the debt we owed him. History knows of people dying to save others, even dying for those who don’t deserve it. But dying for the very person whose life was owed to you? Would Shylock cut a pound of flesh out of his own heart to pay Antonio’s debt to him? Can you see bloodthirsty revolutionary Madame DeFarge going to the guillotine for Charles Darnay instead of Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities?

Can you believe the gospel yourself and not have it burning within you?  Can we understand what our Lord has done and hold it in? What a great message and great work we have been given!

An Acquired Taste?

Romans 6:23 “The Gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

When I was a little boy, certain kinds of Christmas or birthday gifts were generally let downs. I didn’t like to get clothes for gifts. Maybe if I had grown up in a third world country where clothing was rare I would have thought differently. But to open the box and find that it contained new pajamas, or even worse socks and underwear, was a big disappointment.

My problem was: I didn’t want what I needed. I wanted what I wanted. My parents generally provided clothing as I needed it. Through the year it trickled into my chest of drawers at various times as I grew or wore things out. Toys, on the other hand, were special. Toys were fun. Toys were generally reserved for Christmas or birthdays. But no child ever suffered a premature death for a lack of toys. They are a want, not a need.

As I’ve gotten older, my tastes have changed. Clothing is just fine for Christmas or birthdays—maybe even preferred. Gifts I need and gifts I want have sort of merged. To get to this point, the gifts I need were something of an “acquired taste.”

A similar phenomenon can happen in our Christian life of listening to God’s Word. We would like to hear something special, something I haven’t heard before, especially at holidays and special occasions. Give me a message with some fun in it, something I can take out of the box and play with on Monday morning. A lady once told me she stopped attending church because, “I’ve had enough theology.” She meant that she had heard enough about what God is like and what he has done for us. “Give me something new to play with! Tell me what to do!”

Like the gifts we need, the gospel is an acquired taste. But without it my soul, my faith cannot live. God’s rules and principles for living my life are true and important, too, but they don’t keep my faith alive like the gospel. Jesus so loves you and me that he gave up his own life to rescue us from sin. Jesus so conquered sin and death that he rose to life to assure us of life that never ends. Jesus so lives and rules over the universe that all we know or experience is working to support and strengthen our faith and see us safely home to heaven. This is the message that feed our trust in God and keeps it alive.

The gift of God is eternal life with him, not so much improved behavior or experiences in the short term. Open his gift often, and see a taste for it grow in your heart.

Too Rich to Be Afraid

Luke 12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

You have heard of it, but have you ever read the Guinness Book of World Records? I had my own copy as a kid. One record that made an impression on me was the record for most miserly. An elderly woman worth millions saved scraps of soap in a tin box.   

Maybe you have heard stories of people who didn’t know that they were sitting on top of great wealth. They stuffed valuable stocks and bonds into the chinks in their shack to keep the drafts out. They tore pages from a rare book to use as kindling to keep the house warm. You may know that one of the oldest manuscripts we have of the New Testament was rescued from a monastery where its pages were being used this way.

Sometimes we find ourselves in a similar position spiritually. I may be a Christian minister who handles God’s priceless promises every day. That doesn’t prevent me from harboring my own fears and anxieties. I may let worries about church finances distract me from my work. Friction between member of the congregation or declining membership can leave me feeling defeated and hopeless. Doubts lurk in the back of my mind about the survival of the institution I serve.

The people I serve come to me with their own concerns: strained relationships, insecurities about their employment, divisions that plague our politics and government, bad news from the doctor. God has never withdrawn his promises. They haven’t stopped being true. Still, we struggle to apply them properly to the cold and drafty episodes in the stories of our lives.

Take a moment to note the juxtaposition of these words in Jesus’ promise: “Do not be afraid…your Father has been pleased to give you a kingdom.” Are we spiritual millionaires worried about few scraps of soap? Are we living like beggars, unaware that we are sitting on top of a gold mine? Our Father has given us a whole kingdom! What reason do we have to be afraid?

Jesus isn’t scolding us so much as he is helping us find courage and confidence in his promises. He doesn’t want fear to paralyze us. Fear erodes faith. It changes our view of God. It shrinks him in our eyes, makes him less trustworthy. It leads us to see him as small-minded celestial bookkeeper, to borrow a picture from Brennan Manning. We think that he is more interested in tracking our deposits of love and service to him, as though we were paying on a debt, rather than recognizing him as our great and generous Father who richly provides us all things for free. We then work like we are trying to save the scraps instead of investing the treasures we have been freely given.

Jesus assures us of where we really stand. God’s gift of a kingdom is past tense, not future. It is already ours. As Luther’s battle hymn, A Mighty Fortress reminds us, the future only holds this confidence: “The kingdom ours remaineth.”

Jesus reinforces our certainty that the kingdom is a gift. Our Father doesn’t sell us the Kingdom. He gives it to us by grace. He paid the purchase price with his own blood.

Jesus reveals that this makes God happy. The kingdom is not a begrudging gift. It pleases him to give it away. We need not fear that he is about to take it back. God’s grace has made us wealthy beyond belief.

Don’t be afraid to live and serve as though you have a kingdom of treasures that can never be exhausted, because you do.

Wrestling With God

Genesis 32:24-28 “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

Are you a “thrill-seeker?”

We frequently find a sensation of pleasure in doing things dangerous. Some people like to jump out of airplanes with only a large sheet to break their fall. Others will jump off bridges or towers with only an oversized rubber-band to prevent them from hitting the ground.

Sometimes the danger is only apparent (or mostly so). Many of the thrill rides at the carnival let us experience the taste of danger and a rush of adrenalin without truly risking our lives.

Sometimes the danger is real. One Florida alligator wrestler wound up with his head stuck in the alligator’s mouth. The man survived, but the animal had to be destroyed to save his life.

Does prayer ever feel like a “thrill-seeking” activity to you? It might if you were the patriarch Jacob. His prayer landed him in a wrestling match with something more powerful and dangerous than an alligator between his hands. Jacob had a grip on God himself!

The Lord appeared to Jacob to wrestle with him here. Such a close encounter alone would fill most mortals with fear. Jacob not only wrestled with God, he also held on to him, and he refused to let him go, until the Lord gave him what he wanted.

How could Jacob pray so boldly? He got away with his daring demand because he asked for that which God himself wished to give him. The Lord had promised him blessings, as he had promised his forefathers.  Jacob was simply “holding” God to the promises he had already made.

We can make such bold requests when we pray for things our Lord has promised us, too. Sometimes our prayers might seem like a wrestling match as we wait for him to answer us. But when we base our prayers on his previous promises, we can be sure he will answer us. He is much more reliable than a parachute or a bungee cord.

In our case, the thrill lies not so much in approaching God with our requests as it does in the mysterious and marvelous ways he often chooses to answer. The Apostle Paul reminds us, “(He) is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

But let’s not be frightened by that.  Jesus has made it possible to call on God as our own Father. Since we have his forgiveness, we know that he works all things for our good. “Let us, then, approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).